Robert Heinlein Essay - Heinlein, Robert (Vol. 8)

Heinlein, Robert (Vol. 8)

Heinlein, Robert 1907–

American science fiction novelist and short story writer, Heinlein established his reputation writing stories for Astounding in the forties. Today he is, along with Isaac Asimov, the dean of American science fiction writers. His Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult novel among the college youth of the mid-sixties, drawing attention to science fiction as a literary genre warranting more serious consideration than had previously been granted it. Heinlein has also written under the pseudonyms of Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, and Caleb Saunders. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Stranger in a Strange Land] is the story, told in detail with sardonic humor, of Valentine Michael Smith, a Mars-born earth child. Raised by Martians after the death of his parents and all other members of the first Martian expedition, Smith is returned to earth by crewmen of the second expedition twenty-five years later. Having been nurtured by the Martians, who are so non-earthly as to confound earthly analysis, Mike Smith is a Martian in an earth body. He thinks in Martian.

The rest of the novel is well-written—perhaps "slick" is the best adjective to describe Heinlein's style—as a variation on the noble savage theme, coupled with some intriguing variations of the Whorf-Sapir theory of linguistic relativity. You can't really appreciate Mike Smith or the Martians until you learn to think in Martian, and you begin to think in Martian when you begin to grok. As one character put it, "I grok it. Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas." Grok is the only Martian word used in the novel, but it is so basic to the Martian character, according to Heinlein, that an understanding of grok comes before an understanding of every other word in the Martian tongue.

As Heinlein handles the concept, the notion of grokking is crucial to the enlightened pantheism which is the religious construct of Stranger in a Strange Land. Grok means drink in basic Martian, and on a desert planet the sharing of water, or drinking together, becomes almost the highest, the only, religious sacrament. Those who share water become "water brothers," a unity so elevated that mistrust is impossible to one so internally baptized….

By a process of extension of meaning drawn from its earthly context, Heinlein adds a number of Terran modifications to the wildly alien Martian concept of grok. Grok seems first to mean know, understand, appreciate, comprehend. It resembles the hipster "dig." Gradually it comes to include love, cherish, create. [The] unsexual Martian grok becomes modified in the minds of the living Terrans: it broadens to include the fullest and most intimate communication humanly possible, the very essence of life itself, sexual intercourse. Thus transmuted, grok becomes a quasi-assonantal surrogate for its common Anglo-Saxon equivalent, and it revitalizes the archaic meaning of the Biblical know as well as emphasizes the ambiguity of the Terran word intercourse.

There are several further extrapolations of the term as Heinlein handles it. Grok also means life, as a logical extension of its meaning drink. In a most logical Martian way, all that groks is God. This concept leads Heinlein to build a quasipantheistic religious system with Mike Smith, man by ancestry but Martian by environment and thought processes, as its major prophet. The water ceremony is the sole sacrament: "Share water, drink deep, never thirst." In basic Martian this translates, approximately, into "Grok, grok, grok." (p. 4)

[The] central message of the novel [is] …, "All that groks is God." Alternately, God groks, in every sense of the word thus defined: God loves, drinks, creates, cherishes, infuses every being.

Heinlein carries the religious message of the novel even further by advancing the thoroughly Martian concept of ritual cannibalism…. The custom on Mars is formalized and deeply religious. The survivors would, by eating the discorporated one, thereby acquire some of his characteristics, attributes, or even eccentricities…. Of course, Heinlein does not evaluate any qualitative or quantitative differences between the symbolic cannibalism of most Terran religious sects and the actual cannibalism of the Martians. He leaves those discussions to his readers. (pp. 4-5)

Heinlein has apparently read his [Benjamin Whorf] well, because this concept of temporal discontinuity is another of the major theses of Stranger in a Strange Land….

[This is] the Whorfian conclusion inevitable in the novel: the realities of time, space, and matter are almost totally dependent upon the verbal system one uses to speak of time, space, and matter. When we learn to think in another language, our entire perception of reality changes. What is more important, reality itself changes. Grok?

Accomplished literary craftsman that he is, Heinlein skillfully utilizes almost every technique to communicate his ideas. One specific device is Mike Smith's constant use of the participle or progressive verb form to indicate the eternal present of the Martian now. "I am been saying so." "We are growing closer." "I am savoring and cherishing." Further examples could be multiplied, but only one more need be cited. It is used so often in the novel that it becomes almost a ritualistic theme song: "Waiting is." Not "Waiting is necessary," or "Waiting is important," or "Waiting is inevitable." Simply, "Waiting is." The phrase, a curious juxtaposition of tense forms, implies that one will wait, until eternity if necessary, before grokking in fullness.

In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Mike comes to understand that merely speaking about love is meaningless. If all that groks is God, Mike must demonstrate this truth, not simply repeat it….

[This] is not the place to note the number of Christian parallels in Stranger in a Strange Land, nor to evaluate if they are wholly successful. From a standpoint of linguistic relativity, however, similarities of Martian grokking and English thought find a union in Mike's last benediction as he is being stoned to death. He says in a striking parallelism with the Crucifixion, "I'm ready to show them now—I grok the fullness. Waiting is ended"….

Implicit in this Martian-Terran-Christian-Buddhist-Hindu benediction is the ultimate concept that "Love," however extrapolated from whatever widely divergent culture, will find an identity of expression. Many anthropological linguists will find this thesis highly debatable. In fact, the identity of expression seems to contradict the thrust of the novel: that a language "map" will alter reality—any reality, including that of love.

The appeal of Stranger in a Strange Land is not limited to its intriguing development of Martian thought, or even to its more than adequate descriptions of the "growing closer" ceremony. The sugar-coated, over-simplistic romanticism of the story has become almost a cult in certain areas of the country….

There is no doubt that the sense of alienation or anomie which troubles the flower children has caused many of them to turn to Stranger, as the cult calls it, with the same emotion that causes them to wear buttons reading "Frodo Lives" or "Go, Go, Gandalf!" Heinlein is almost Swiftian in his attack on some of the same American folkways that the hippies reject. His analysis of the hypocrisies of religion, politics, economics, and, explicitly, the Protestant ethic, seems to supplement the strictures which the flower children themselves maintain against our society. Whether grokking is an adequate substitute for involvement or commitment is conjectural, but a certain vociferous element in our society has seized upon it as a way of life. Fiction has become reality.

Stranger in a Strange Land may not be a great novel. Perhaps science fiction has yet to produce one. Yet when a writer skillfully combines the varied themes of any work as well as Heinlein has done, science fiction has at least come of age. (p. 5)

Willis E. McNelly, "Linguistic Relativity in Middle High Martian," in The CEA Critic (copyright © 1968 by The College English Association, Inc.), March, 1968, pp. 4-5.

Heinlein assumes that technology will continue to develop and thereby change society. The cosmos is infinite. With increased scientific knowledge man may roam the universe and even the fourth dimension. Unlike many science fiction writers who express an uncritical faith in technology or, like C. S. Lewis, who express a distrust of materialism and science, Heinlein's view shows more balance. He recognizes that technology may threaten the existence of independence and individual integrity, but … he expresses a belief in the individual's ability to cope with strange conditions and to act in an independent, non-deterministic fashion. The portrayal of modern man's ability to shape his own destiny accounts in large part for Heinlein's continued popularity since this view is expressed concretely through fast-moving action and appealing situations. (p. 33)

Diane Parkin Speer, "Heinlein's 'The Door into Summer' and 'Roderick Random'," in Extrapolation, December, 1970, pp. 30-3.

Although circumstance made him temporarily a sort of guru, Heinlein is best as a teller of fairly straightforward adventure stories. He has a gift for believable, concrete detail and he knows how to stretch suspense to its proper length, two gifts that do not quite add up to a blinding glimpse of hidden realities but can be parlayed into enjoyable reading. Starman Jones is good, average Heinlein adventure; The Past Through Tomorrow is both better and worse: a massive collection of short stories, novelettes and one novel Methuselah's Children mostly written in the '40s and each adding its mosaic bit to the fragmentary but consistent "history of the future" which has been a framework for much of his work. (p. 4)

Joseph McLellan, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 11, 1975.