Since ScienceFiction.com’s column Throwback Thursday is typically dedicated to science fiction classics, instead of writing about awesomely mediocre movies that I consider classics, I figured why not write about a novel that’s touted as “the most famous science fiction novel ever written”? I’m taking about the first edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ which was published in 1961. Winning the Hugo Award for best novel, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ made an immense impact in many areas from programming to counterculture to the English language and even inspired a religion.
In the future where the World Federation of Free Nations as well as a plethora of organized religions govern the Earth, a second expedition to Mars brings home the unknown offspring of two deceased crewmembers from the previous voyage. Valentine Michael Smith is the only human not born on Earth. The Martians that raised him order him to go to Earth. Smith’s presence on Earth ignites a political frenzy, and he’s trapped at Bethesda Hospital. A nurse, Gillian, helps him escape after she participates in a Martian water ceremony (sharing a glass of water) and becomes his “water brother.” Water is a very important symbol in Martian culture.
Smith finds safety at the house of lawyer/doctor/writer Jubal Harshaw. We learn that Smith has incredible psychic abilities, intelligence and a divine immanence that can only be comprehended in Martian. Smith uses the Martian term “grok,” which cannot be completely translated into English. In Martian, the literal meaning is “to drink.” However, you can possibly attempt to interpret it as “to be one with” on an empathetic level. Given some of the bacchanal activities that happen in the book, I kind of interpret it as God-like intellectual copulation and the sanctified offspring it produces, but that’s just me.
Smith ends up exploring more of Earth, particularly religions, and ends up creating the Church of All Worlds to persuade humans to adopt Martian culture and ideology. (The Church of All Worlds actually became a real religion in 1968. Heinlein was supportive but not a member.)
The book is funny, crazy and obviously thought provoking. Read it if you haven’t. If you have, perhaps I wasn’t the only one who saw similarities between Heinlein’s religion-based future and some of the details featured in ‘Going Clear.’ Let us know what you think.