The Parable of Grok

Chappy talks thinly veiled allegory, and the parable of Grok in his reread of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land


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Friends, readers, Martians, I come not to praise Stranger in a Strange Land, but to wish it were a better book.

Because the notion of Grok deserves a better book.

Briefly, in a plot Robert Heinlein borrowed from the Jungle Book, a boy is raised in a completely alien culture—in this case actual aliens from Mars are involved—and later returned to humanity. His life becomes a kind of mirror for Heinlein to hold up to our culture so that we readers can see our foibles. Later it becomes a thinly veiled Christ story that isn’t even thinly veiled.

And what a wonderful beginning. Sure he’s kind of sexist.  Okay, so he’s really sexist.  But his women are better-than-average for the male-author of the 1960s.  Or perhaps his woman is.  Because it’s increasingly difficult to tell his women characters apart in this book.  Later they even transmogrify into similar female archetypes.

But, it’s got a feel of adventure and the main character, Valentine Michael Smith, is endearing in the way that any fish out of water is.  And then the book bogs down in a didactic screed where Heinlein’s voice is projected through one of the main characters (a grumpy old white-dude with all the right answers—go figure) and Heinlein’s philosophy of life is preached at the reader over and over.

Any real semblance of a plot is basically on hold for the second half of the book (or last two thirds if you read the unabridged version), while the author breaks the fourth wall to preach about religion and science and physics and humanity.  As the book weakens as a story it grows as a philosophical argument.

In amongst this mess of a book, though, is this brilliant notion of Grok.
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The Parable of the Spear Carrier

Chappy talks empathy, and the parable of the Spear Carrier in his discussion of Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage


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Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage is a typical teen or late YA science fiction tale from the late 60s.  Rather like Heinlein’s juvenile fictions its basic plot is that of a coming of age story centered on a ceremonial transition between childhood and adulthood combined with an intro to ethics reader.  The rite serves a dual purpose of weeding out the weak leaving the remaining human stock stronger and also creating an artificial population pressure.  Reading it today reveals some tarnish of time and, as is typical of all science fiction, it doesn’t do a very good job of predicting the future.

Population and genetics form rather a large part of the conflict in the story, which won a Nebula award in 1968 and was nominated for a Hugo in 1969.  Some of those ideas as expressed in the novel are a bit quaint, like the tales of Old Earth with its over-crowded cities and total population of 8 billions.  A strange idea from our vantage point of 7 billion people and plenty of hiking space.  And one that could have been improved with a calculator and an atlas—divide the population by the square miles of land…

For all its shortcomings, the book is pretty good at balancing the ideas of a female (gasp) teenager (gasp) who is both intelligent and capable.  Who articulates and formulates her own philosophies and ideas—and then edits them and improves them as she matures.   Certainly in the late 60s that choice of protagonist would bear little resemblance to the average reader of science fiction.
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