Robert A. Heinlein: Can You Grok This Playlist?
It was on this day in 1988 that science fiction lost one of its most brilliant and influential voices to emphysema and heart failure. Robert A. Heinlein was the man who wrote legendary novels like Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers and the Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. All in all, more than 100 written works bear his authorship, and he remains a controversial and innovative figure.
Source Robert and Virginia Heinlein at their Colorado home.
His works explored a huge range of social issues as easily as they explored the stars. Heinlein wrote thought-provoking tales dealing with religion, racism, feminism and sexual liberation that even today are still cutting-edge in their relevancy. Oh, and he predicted the screensaver in 1961. Seriously, it even used the fish animation that most of us have had at one time or another.
Today Heinlein's legacy is handled right here in Houston. The Heinlein Prize Trust publishes a remarkable complete collection of the author's work, and offers research grants and awards to individuals that make contribution to commercial space travel. His influence has also been felt in many songs, and in honor of one of the true masters, we dedicate this week's playlist to him.
The Magnetic Fields, "Swinging London": First off, you may not be immediately familiar with the word "grok" that we used in the headline. The word is of Heinlein's invention, and in Martian its literal meaning is "to drink." However, there is a deeper meaning to the term, and a more accurate translation is "to fully understand, embrace and become a part of something."
The Magnetic Fields dropped the line in this track off of 1996's Holiday, as singer Stephin Merritt croons, "You can't grok my race car."
The Police, "Friends": Grok also has what might be considered a more sinister meaning, depending on how you feel about ritual cannibalism. In Heinlein's Martian society it is common for Martians to eat their dead, even committing suicide if food is scarce. Don't worry, Martians evolve to an enlightened spectral state upon death, so it's not as gruesome as it sounds.
This is all another layer of grokking. Paraphrasing a conversation from Stranger in a Strange Land, the Martian viewpoint is that when you chop up someone and make a stew of them, the ensuing melding of two people is so profound that it doesn't really matter who is the stew and who is the eater.
Andy Summers of the Police was inspired by the ideas in Stranger enough to compose "Friends" as the B-side of the band's 1980 single "Don't Stand So Close to Me."