Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land: Part 1- Grokking in Fullness

"He was not in a hurry, "hurry" being one human concept he had failed to grok at all. He was sensitively aware of the key importance of correct timing in all acts — but with the Martian approach: correct timing was accomplished by waiting. He had noticed, of course, that his human brothers lacked his own fine discrimination of time and often were forced to wait a little faster than a Martian would — but he did not hold their innocent awkwardness against them; he simply learned to wait faster himself to cover their lack."
-Stranger in a Strange Land

[Cover art (by James Warhola) for Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein]

I have recently finished reading Robert Heinlein's cult classic Stranger in a Strange Land and I hope the rest of his work is as good as this. Stranger in a Strange Land is one man's journey from the nest of his birth to the nest of his origins and the fire this young Prometheus brings to humanity. He is man yet he thinks in Martian. He is what we can become if we follow this 20th century Moses to the Promise Land. Only time will tell if humanity will be able to grok Valentine Michael Smith as fully Martian and fully man.

::Possible Spoilers Ahead::

Part 2: Water Brothers
Part 3: Thou Art God

Stranger in a Strange Land follows the life of Valentine Michael Smith back at home to live among his own kind after being raised on Mars since his parents, on a manned expedition, crashed on Mars. If being raised by Martians is not enough to gain the world's attention he is also the sole heir of the expedition team's fortunes and their inventions making him the wealthiest man on the planet. The world government wants full control over his fortune and Michael's ownership rights of Mars. Of course there plans were disrupted when he met the first woman he has ever laid eyes on, Jill Boardman, his first human Water Brother.

But what does it mean to be Martian? Michael groks, speaks, and reacts as a Martian, but he is still human. And as Jill teaches him to become "human" those he grows closer with learn what it is to be Martian. Language is an important gate to understanding each other and is vital to understanding what Mike is trying to teach humanity. This causes enormous difficulty for Mike at first but soon he is able to communicate how it is to think in Martian.
"Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man (Stranger in a Strange Land).
To Grok something, or someone, is to move beyond basic sensory information to the point where the object grokked becomes a part of you. Once you are able to "grok in fullness" just about anything is possible. Michael is able to perform tasks which to us seem almost supernatural. By grokking his own body he can repair injuries, control the length of his hair, change his appearance, and even age slower than us. The potential of the human mind is a common theme in science fiction which also appears in Frank Herbert's Dune series and in the TV sci-fi drama, Kyle XY. But Michael is also able to manipulate the world around him. He is able to wink objects and people out of existence, levitate objects, and even communicate telepathically. This, Michael says, is not hard to do once you learn the language and the basics taught to him as an egg (child), and so he begins teaching this way of life to people in the guise of a church.

The Church of All Words that he starts is not a new religion but merely a method to deliver his teaching to humanity how to rise above worldly pain and suffering. The only reason why he started a church was because humans are familiar with religion and humans would only accept his message in this form. The "church" teaches its members the Martian language first as this is the foundation to the Martian Way. Eventually members move up through several levels before becoming full water brothers, those who participate in the Water Sharing ritual. At this level many things in a normal person's life become unnecessary and are shed which also removes the pain and suffering associated with them: clothing, money, and even monogamous marriages. Greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, envy, lust and every other negative attribute that comes with being "human" all melt away when you become a full water brother. The superhuman abilities that comes with this way of life are also at your disposal but they are not used for acts of wrongness (even though at this point the term evil, acts of wrongness, is almost alien compared to what we may call evil). Though you have the ability to kill someone with a mere thought you don't because you realize and understand the unity of all life, all that groks is God.

Can we evolve to the point where we are no longer jealous, greedy, angry, lustful, and full of hatred? Is it possible to overcome these human characteristics just by grokking our fellow man?

I believe humanity thirsts for this progress but is trapped in its own collective ego to leap forward so we're bound to crawl on our hands and knees. Each religion/philosophy states that their packaged truth will lead humanity to the next level while every other belief will lead only to failure. Humanity has made progress and will continue to do so but first we must be able to grok each other fully. By understanding our fellow man we may be able to collectively pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. This can not be done by force but only with the collective love we should have for each other. We now have to ability to destroy life at the push of a button but hopefully soon we will progress past the urge to push it. Do you grok?


Don Rogers said...

I want to, I plan on it, I desire to......

Anonymous said...

I have definitely sensed that concept physically......but it's so overpowering when I do. Maybe someday.

Ian said...

I reread this in an 80's edition and the concepts are still amazing. Heinlein's mind is way out ahead of the rest of us.

But, I didn't enjoy the writing as much after a 20 year gap in reading it (I was reading lots of sci fi in the 70s). It's got a 40's movie dialogue style that isn't easy to believe, and the events don't flow like I'd hoped they would. But that's applying today's standards to a brilliant work of 1/2 a century ago. And SF was meant to convey ideas and thoughts about the future, not be poetry (don't tell Ray Bradbury, he did both).
I also recall the concept of a professional witness, who silently records everything around him/her until it's needed. And when asked, only tells what is heard or seen, with no assumptions. Example: "what color is that house. Answer - White on this side".

So thanks for this reminder of the beauty of these ideas.


Sam Morales said...

Ian, thanks for commenting. I'm currently rereading the uncut version now. It's still a great read.

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