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


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.

For all its problems, Stranger in a Strange Land (SiaSL), is one of those mysterious books that captures the imagination of a generation or a time and place and people.  People who normally wouldn’t have picked up a science fiction book found themselves reading SiaSL and discussing the themes of free love and universalism and grokking.

Grok is the key to understanding the long-lasting success of the book.  The author uses the term dozens of times before he even tries to give it a meaning—yet facets of the meaning are clear.  It first means to understand, yet that doesn’t describe the fullness of meaning.  It means to empathize, but that too falls short. It contains elements of understanding of beginnings and ends.  It holds within it perspicacity and depth.

Grok is the only Martian word in the entire book.  The literal Martian meaning is to drink.  And for the Martian culture that symbolism is more significant than it would be to a planet covered in water.  Luckily we have had that idea beat into our heads about 90 times in the first 260 pages. Sharing water is an act of deep significance for the protagonist and for the other characters though we aren’t really sure why that should be.

Heinlein used a word that sounds like it was stolen from a joke about cavemen which may be because he views the notion as fundamental to understanding.  Grok is something basic to our nature–even if we’ve forgotten it in all the rush.

So what is to Grok?  To Grok something is to have such a deep understanding of it as to know it all at once.  That’s as good a definition as any I can come up with.  In parallel with one of the other themes of the book, it is to have an almost god-like knowledge of something down to its essential essence.

Some things need a deep grokking, others need only a little.  In a scene early in the book, and one that stands out to me from when I read the book in the 1980s, Smith is upset about the idea of walking on grass until he groks that it is the purpose of the grass to be walked upon.  It only takes a little grokking for Smith to determine this.  That the grass, though living, isn’t hurt by his bare feet.  That it is part of a symbiotic relationship with the humans.  That the grass’s purpose is to be walked upon.



Other Groks need more grokking.  Like the fate of humanity.   And those ideas can’t be discussed well enough for grokking in this venue.  You have to read the book yourself and grok.


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