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The STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND TV Series Will Live or Die by How Much It Groks

The STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND TV Series Will Live or Die by How Much It Groks

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who grok, and those who do not. Okay, no, let me back up. There are people who have read the 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land and as such know and love the invented term “grok,” and then there are the people who have no idea what I’m talking about right now.

That all might change soon, though, if the power of television has anything to say about it. As announced today, Robert Heinlein’s classic tale of a human raised by Martians is being adapted into a television series, which means that it’s entirely possible the term will enter the mainstream lexicon just like “Whitewalkers” from Game of Thrones. And it deserves to, of course. More than any other aspect of the book (although I’m sure all the sex and religion in the text certainly had strong effect on many readers, too), it’s “grok” that’s withstood the test of time. But “grok” also has a lot of meanings, and how this series chooses to interpret the word will speak volumes about what kind of show it wants to be.

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First, the basics: Stranger in a Strange Land is about Valentine Michael Smith (or just Mike for short), the first person born on Mars to doomed colonists and the first one to encounter existing life there. Once the rest of humankind finds out about him, he returns to Earth and tries to explore everything it has to offer. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the recent YA romance The Space Between Us had almost the same set-up. But trust me when I tell you that “Young Man Living on Mars” is precisely where the similarities begin and end. Unlike Asa Butterfield’s character in that movie, Mike gets super into a futuristic hedonist cult and uses it as the basis for his own religion where everyone learns Martian and practices Free Love. So, you know, a normal Saturday night.

“Grok” is the first Martian word that Valentine brings to Earth with him, and it carries with it a very complex set of meanings. At its very simplest, it translates to “drink,” but because water is such a scarce commodity on Mars and is held so by its inhabitants, even that is symbolically much more powerful than it would seem. Semanticist Dr. “Stinky” Mahmoud, a character in the book, attempts to explain to a colleague:

“It means ‘fear,’ it means ‘love,’ it means ‘hate’ — […] ‘Grok’ means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed — to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science, and it means as little to us as color does to a blind man.”

As you might expect, this is a pretty difficult concept for the average human to grasp, so it’s understandable that most dictionary definitions of the word are a little bit lacking in comparison. Merriam-Webster, for example, states that grokking is “to understand profoundly and intuitively,” which doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch. It’s one thing to profoundly understand, say, Star Wars, but if you say that you grok the Star Wars franchise, then according to Heinlein you’re suggesting that your identity is completely entangled in and dependent on Star Wars, and that it is dependent on you, and that together you are the same. Or, to put it more simply—and more blasphemously—God groks, and to grok is God. Which makes us all God, in Mike’s eyes. No wonder so many Earthlings are more than a little freaked out by his teachings.

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So how do you create a television series that’s more or less based, at its deepest roots, on a concept that’s so unbelievably intense? That’s the challenge in store for the new project, and how well the series works is entirely dependent on how they manage to accomplish this one thing. But don’t worry, there’s at least some precedent for success; the movie Arrival explores very similar ideas of reaching across disparate cultures to create shared meaning. In fact, both Arrival and Stranger in a Strange Land feature characters who develop superhuman skills as a result of learning how to speak Alien—in the case of Martian, a deeper understanding of the language manifests as powerful psychic abilities. Let’s just hope that the show doesn’t get so excited about telekinetic special effects that it does a disservice to the truly complex message at the heart of Heinlein’s novel.

Is “grok” a word you ever use in your everyday life? Tell us all about what you think the term mean, and what you most want to see in this new Stranger In A Strange Land series, in the comments below.

Image: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Giphy, Paramount Pictures

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