Other People: Growing Closer and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land

Valentine Michael Smith arrives to Earth a blank slate. He is the picture of innocence, untainted by individualism or the antincipation of suffering. In order to survive in a new world, he must “grok” every concept and detail of his surroundings. The people around him initially identify this word as a Martian translation of the verb, “to understand.” Indeed, curiosity motivates Smith to understand the world around him, but grokking requires much more. To grok, one must become the idea, intertwining oneself with it until one cannot exist without the other. This is the philosophy that underscores Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

Humans define the world by its boundaries. All matter, everything that we perceive, is broken down into individual units. We think of the world in terms of identifiers, archetypes and exemplars. We think of a dog as a furry animal with four legs and a tail. We think of love as two people embracing or a mother gently rocking her baby. As Smith teaches the people around him, to truly grok something is to assume its properties so that it becomes an extension of your own body. If you can do this, you can control the object the same way you can control your own hands. Using this skill, Smith can levitate objects, cause perceived threats to vanish, and even disassociate himself, being in two places at once in order to the share the experience of someone with whom he’s “grown closer,” through the simple, but sacred sharing of a drink of water.

Smith is presented as a Christ-like figure. Though human, he arrives on Earth fully physically developed and completely untarnished by self-striving or competition. It is his mission to grok fully everything he encounters and to grow closer with everyone he meets. We may expect him to be corrupted by an exceedingly corrupt world. An American led, UN-like government supersedes sovereign nations and is after the Martian because, through a legal loophole, he has inherited ownership of Mars as well as several valuable patents on technology developed by his scientist mother. At no point does Smith acknowledge his financial or political position, although he later uses the money to finance his spiritual movement.

Smith gravitates to religion. He is told about God, but understands God as “one who groks,” rather than a paternalistic and all-knowing figure who presides over man from above. If God is simply one who groks, Smith reasons, than we are all God. He uses the expression “thou art God,” which later becomes the mantra of his Church of All Worlds.

Smith possess a sexual eminence which stems from his ability to deeply combine his body and essence with a partner. This is initially threatening to the men around him but it becomes clear that it is not some innate blessing, but the product of viewing sex as a growing-closer. Sexual mores first alienate, then wane and everyone eventually comes around. Sex becomes, in addition to the Church of All Worlds’ advertisement, the most visible symbol of the church’s mission. Smith reiterates that all religious beliefs are welcomed because all religions stress the importance of transcending the self in order to grow closer to each other and to God.

Rodin's "Falllen Caryatid Carrying A Stone" from the cover of an old edition of Stranger in a Strange land

Rodin’s “Falllen Caryatid Carrying A Stone” from the cover of an early edition of Stranger in a Strange Land

Like Christ, Smith is destined for a brutal death. In creating the Church, he poses a threat to the powerful Fosterite Church whose high-clergy hold tremendous political power. He is ultimately martyred, but for Martians, there is no death, only “discorporation.” If there is no ownership, than even the body is not one’s property; growing closer and grokking cannot exist if one clings to the boundaries of the self which dictates that the self dies with the body. His intimates eat his remains, a sacred Martian ritual which completes the growing-closer process. Smith leaves Earth, having planted the seed of truth, which will eventually save humans from a rapture in the form of a Martian attack on those who do not grok.

Love, hatred, jealously, pride and shame serve no purpose for Martians. Each of these abstractions places the self in an isolated position which draws a distinction between the ego and the world at large. Humans see the world and even other people as a backdrop for their own existence rather than an equal part of it. The free-market is completely based on the idea of fragmenting the world—carving out a niche, growing it, differentiating it from the others and creating dependence that translates to profit. Basic human needs have been divided and sub-divided infinitely into individual products for sale, shattering the once singular world into billions of pieces. The system may have its winners and losers, but more importantly, it creates hardened divisions between customer and supplier and competitor and partner. In every relationship in every part of our society you are either one or the other. One country starves while another provides aid creating a legacy of dependence. One church’s beliefs contradict another’s creating a legacy of competition and hatred. Marriages are strained by a constant tug-of-war between the spouse who contributes more, who withholds more emotions, who is more needy. Where there should be fraternity and equality, there is only patriarchy and the struggle for dominance.

We are mired in perpetual adolescence, unable to grow. There is a constant labeling, a desperate search for self-definition which leads us to make lists of what we are based on what we’re not and we find ourselves revising these lists so thoroughly that every other person seems completely alien. We are living the anti-Martian way—not growing-closer, but drifting ever farther apart. Still, I do not think it is Heinlein’s intention to moralize, nor to suggest, in the troubling Christian tradition, that humans need to be “saved.” Moreover, I don’t think it productive to moralize myself by making some banal statement that we need to put our differences aside and love one another.

The brilliance of this novel is that it combines two very simple recipes for happiness. One is that we can search within to discover the truth of our existence, but we should avoid viewing ourselves as vessels we must master and control since our bodies and personalities are so influenced by external factors. The other is that in discovering this truth, we realize that “external factors,” are not merely the forces that influence us from the outside, but the very same forces that created us in the first place. Furthermore, other people are products of the same forces, so the distinction between the ego, other people and environment are imagined constructions. I find this truth supremely liberating. No longer is it necessary to force myself to walk in someone else’s shoes or to define the meaning of God or life itself.

All we have to do is share a glass of water and all that work is done.

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