Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Grokking Stranger

57. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

I've been squeezing my "pleasure reading" book in between class books for the past two months, and I finally finished it-by turning it into a class book. We got to choose our own text in Advanced Writing, so I decided to try my rudimentary critical hand at Stranger.

My interest in this book originated in a number of places. I was aware of it as a foundational work of science fiction, it was discussed in The Jane Austen Book Club (oddly enough), and the title is a famous quote from Moses of Exodus fame (which I know because of Fiddler on the Roof).

So Stranger in a Strange Land is about Valentine Michael Smith, the child of human astronauts who was raised by Martians. Smith speaks and thinks in Martian, and has absorbed Martian values and culture. He cannot understand humans and in his attempt to 'grok' humanity, tries to bring Martian culture to a select Nest of "water brothers" (i.e. disciples).

I found the concept of grokking very interesting, used in context, it seems to mean 'to understand, ' but as described in the book, to grok is to become one with a concept or person or object. A similar message perpetuated in the book is the phrase "Thou art God," the idea that human beings are, collectively, God. It seemed very realistic to me how Mike first uses the word, and other characters pick it up from him.

Free love is another idea that the book, published in 1961, helped propel into momentum. In the second half of the book, sex becomes very important, and orgies and nudity are frequent occurrences, though all seen through a sort of higher purpose. I don't know if I can agree with this extreme elevation of sex, and I don't know how seriously it is meant to be taken. I guess I can see why Mike might think it is the "greatest good," since Martians don't have a similar sexual experience, but is Heinlein really suggesting that people can only 'grok' each other fully through sexual activity? Another way of grokking, of course, is cannibalism, but I won't get into that...

There is a lot to work with in this text, the treatment and representation of women jumped out at me. On the one hand, the women are intelligent, powerful characters, on the other hand, they're treated as cooks and secondhand citizens at points. There could also be an argument that the women are reduced to sex objects, but due to the elevation of sex, that could be a compliment? I'll be working with these ideas and more to form my argument.

I recommend this book to science fiction fans, and those interested in cults and especially the 1960s in the U.S.

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