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Grok and the World Groks With You : STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND By Robert Heinlein (Ace/Putnam: $24.95; 525 pp.)

December 23, 1990|Rudy Rucker | Rucker's cyberpunk novels, "Software" and "Wetware," each won the Philip K. Dick Award. His historical science-fiction novel "The Hollow Earth" was published by William Morrow this summer. and

In 1961, Robert Heinlein published a science-fiction novel, "Stranger in a Strange Land," that became a '60s campus favorite and a perennial big-seller. Now the book has been reissued in an "uncut" version that is a third again as long.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" tells of the adventures of telepathic Martian-born cult leader Valentine Michael (Mike) Smith, beautiful nurse Jill Boardman and grandfatherly Jubal Harshaw: "bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo-pessimist philosopher."

Born into a failing human Mars colony, Mike was raised by Martians--highly evolved beings who look like ice boats and survive death as puissant ghosts. The Martians pass the centuries pondering such pretty problems as the question of whether or not they should use psychokinesis(PK) to explode the planet Earth. Interestingly enough, any human who learns the Martian language acquires Martian ESP and PK abilities.

One of the most frequently used Martian words has found a permanent place in American English: the word is grok, which means "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the process being observed--to merge, to blend, to intermarry, to lose personal identity in group experience." Mike's Martian philosophy is a mystical monism: "Thou art God, I am God, all that groks is God."

Mike kills anyone who challenges the cult by moving them into the fourth dimension, even though it is "a waste of food." It's more correctly Martian to eat the corpses. "If I chopped you up and made a stew of you, you and the stew, whatever else was in it, would grok--and when I ate you, we would go together and nothing would be lost and it would not matter which one of us did the chopping up and eating."

Oo-ee-oo. One of "Stranger in a Strange Land's" many hippie fans was none other than Charles Manson. According to Ed Sanders' cool "The Family," one of Manson's sons was christened Valentine Michael Manson, and the family's nickname for Charlie's parole officer was Jubal. When Manson was captured in Death Valley, his backpack held 64 movie magazines and a copy of "Stranger in a Strange Land." The book has a history.

In science-fiction circles it is a truism that the early Heinlein was a much better writer than the late Heinlein. Each of his classic novels of the 1950s has a way of making the future seem wonderfully real, and they're laced with wonderful bits of fantastic technological speculation. This reader's first introduction to the curved space of General Relativity was a star-patterned scarf that a character wads up in "Starman Jones." "The Door Into Summer" does a terrific job on time-travel; "The Puppet Masters" is a truly great UFO alien-invasion novel, and so on.

The main characters in the early books are competent, ambitious young men with hearts of gold. They like women and women like them--often sexually. That the early books had sex at all was unusual for their time, and endearing. I can remember a 1959 summer at Boy Scout camp in Kentucky when my Louisville Free Public Library copy of "Revolt in 2100" was considered highly exotic.

The great falling off in the quality of Heinlein's work came during the period that brought "Stranger in a Strange Land." Jubal Harshaw--who says things like "What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation"--is the first of a series of pompous libertarian windbags whose oral methane makes all of Heinlein's later tomes into rapidly emptying locker rooms.

Most of the material added to this new edition seems to consist of speeches by Jubal, and the rest of the new material includes nominally "shocking" sections that, aired in 1990, are glaringly sexist. For instance, lovable Jill volunteers the opinion that "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault."

I'd always remembered "Stranger in a Strange Land" as a reasonably good science-fiction book that coined grok. Ace/Putnam and Virginia Heinlein should have let the book be.

In the process of researching this essay, I ended up reading all of Ed Sanders' "The Family," originally published in 1971 and republished in an updated paperback edition in 1990.

I have a long-standing admiration for Ed and his rock group, the Fugs, but I never read "The Family" until this year because when the book first came out, I didn't actually want to hear what it said. Why was Sanders selling out, only to be massively outsold by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter" anyway?

In the new edition, Ed explains: "I think I became involved chiefly because of my instant perception that this group helped wreck the dream of the 1960s. . . . Could it be that this one group would put a grotesque and hideous capstone upon a decade that had such a powerful and beautiful promise?"

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