Stranger in a Strange Land

On my copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace Book, 1987) the cover boldly announces the book as “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written.” OK, but what does it have to tell us about post-literacy?

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


About a human, Valentine Michael Smith, born and raised on Mars as a Martian and now brought to Earth possessing exceptional abilities and a rock star status, Stranger starts well and then drifts off into a thin gruel of libertarianism, spirituality, and social commentary. The characters are cartoons and the writing about women and about sexuality is especially juvenile. Having said that, if you really want to read a real turkey from Heinlein try Starship Troopers. Clearly I’m no fan.

But Stranger in a Strange Land, for all its faults, created one of the most powerful and enduring ideas relevant to my exploration of post-literacy: grokking. The intense connection and deep understanding enabled through grokking is an archetype for what a more profound human interaction could be:

“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 Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.” Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Part telepathy, part Vulcan mind-meld, part immersion, part collective conscious, part epiphany; this is powerful stuff indeed.

A very important aspect of Smith’s grokking is that he learned to do it. Smith is a human not a native Martian; this ability was acquired, presumably through education, training, and example. Other characters in the novel learn to grok, although with lesser success. Clearly, we too can learn to grok; this capability and capacity is within human reach.

While grokking and the word “grok” are used repeatedly throughout Stranger (and by repeatedly I mean ad nauseam) it’s surprising that the affect of grokking is poorly articulated. We get the idea of grokking and its intellectual implications, but the emotional, holistic impact is missing.

For a much more convincing rendering of grokking I recommend “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl”, a short story by Kathleen Ann Goonan (which I wrote about here).

The other literacy practice of interest in Stranger is the nature and affect of the Martian language. It is difficult to master and is described as completely antithetical to English. However it seems to inculcate a telepathic capability in the user. The language brings with it other capabilities (or releases other innate abilities).This isn’t explored much, and it seems light weight and even unnecessary given the more powerful ability to grok. Why use language if you can grok?

Because “grok” has entered mainstream usage (in particular in the coding community), it has lost some of its profound implications. It isn’t just a matter of knowing something; it is a deep and holistic understanding that touches the core of one’s being.

I just wish Heinlein had imagined a more appealing word to describe it. Grok. Yuck.


Robert A. Heinlein. Stranger in a Strange Land (New York: Ace Book, 1987). First published in 1961.

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1 Response to Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. Athol Gow says:

    What, no mention of Bokononism?
    I can’t agree more about Starship Trooper – a grumpy curmudgeon’s rant. I was misled by Yes…

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