STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND — HEINLEIN’S HIPPIE JOKE

Literary Rage

The seminal sixties novel that ironically was taken up as a bible for group sex communes was probably written as a total joke by Robert Heinlein, who was not to my knowledge known for being a freakin’ hippie, and probably regarded it as a fitting reward for his cynicism that hippies would pay him to lampoon them. It was perhaps a case of the Devil not content with quoting scripture, setting out to write it himself. The scripture then took on a life of its own.

I am of course speaking of Stranger In A Strange Land, the life story of Valentine Michael Smith, whose exploits on planet earth began when he was repatriated to his parents’ home planet, after a growing up on Mars among the Martians. As the story begins, family values are uppermost in mind – the eight-human crew is composed of four married heterosexual couples. Haha, try writing that story today. It will be banned in San Francisco.

Heinlein’s Mars-voyagers lose radio contact right after they park in Mars orbit, and like the ancient Roanoke settlement, disappear. When the followup mission arrives on Mars, an eighteen-man expedition whose return was delayed for twenty five years by earthside wars, they find only young Valentine, the sole survivor, living among Martians on the planet’s surface under circumstances that Heinlein leaves to the broadest strokes of the imagination. As the Captain of the rescue mission says, the boy is more Martian than human, although of human ancestry.

Valentine knows things in a special way he learned from the Martians – he groks things. Heinlein simply substituted the kooky term “grok,” which sounds like a beer burp to me, for the meaning of another transitive verb with which we are all familiar – “dig.” So, saying “I grok what you are saying” became a hi-fi way of saying “I can dig that,” which became so passe it ultimately passed into common parlance.

Valentine, we realized as hippies, was a guru, a dispeller of darkness. He came to earth to teach, and forms an alliance with the avuncular Jubal Harshaw, a lawyer with a Quixotic agenda whose Machiavellian flair for coming out on top causes him to get in a little too deep in defense of Valentine’s interests.

Prophetic in mixing astrology and politics, and utterly eyes-open regarding the spin-control agenda that would become the hallmark of modern media, Heinlein’s work laid the paving-stones of a Yellow Brick Road leading to a hedonic paradise where money and sex were subordinate to the deeper unity of humanity expressed through the ritual of “sharing water.” The novel echoed through popular culture during the sixties and seventies. Graham Nash’s song, “Triad,” transforms the term “water brother,” drawn from the novel, into a scalding taunt in a song that elicits a woman’s assent to a ménage a trios: “Sister lovers, water brothers, and in time maybe others …” Yeah, maybe others, someone who can do the dishes!

Unfortunately, unless you organize a religious cult like Bubba Free John or David Brandt Berg, promiscuous sex doesn’t get the dishes done any better than monogamous sex, maybe even worse, but dishes are never mentioned in a Heinlein novel.

To read this book in the proper setting, take your sailboat into international waters, get some Panama Red marijuana, roll it in some kooky strawberry-flavored rolling papers, hang an India print on your bulkhead and a poster of Grace Slick over it, and have a cold glass of beer or Doctor Pepper handy to quench your thirst. Then imagine Jane Fonda is still young, and start reading.

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