While this book is considered science fiction it is not what I really expected from science fiction because it seems to explore the idea of religion in a universe in which there is intelligent life on other planets. The main reason that I read this book was probably more to do with a song by Iron Maiden (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the book) rather than it being, as is written on the cover of my edition, 'the most famous science fiction novel of all time'. I am glad that they put 'the most famous' as opposed to 'the greatest' because I would be very hesitant to call it 'great' in the sense of a great novel. It is a good book, and a challenging one at that, but I would hardly call it the greatest.
The story is about a man named Mike Smith. He was born on Mars after the ship that his parents were in crash landed. It should be noted that this was the first ever voyage to Mars. However the crash meant that he was orphaned, so he grew up under the influence of the inhabitants, but when a second ship arrived and left colonists, they decided to take Mike back to Earth. However, while Mike looked human in all respects, his mind and his culture was not.
Now, before I go into detail on the ideas behind this novel, I should outline the nature of the Martians. While we don’t meet the Martians in this novel, we do hear a lot about them, mostly from Mike, but also from those on the second ship that. It is very clear that the Martians are a highly advanced and civilised culture, and are clearly not human. When I mention that they are civilised, this is in comparison with that of Earth, who are considered to be barbaric in the eyes of the omniscient story teller. So, the title of the book refers namely to Mike Smith, a human who was not raised by humans but by a race that is far more advanced than humanity is, returning to Earth and attempting to learn about human society.
In many ways this book is a criticism of human society. I have already indicated that the omniscient author considers that humans are basically barbarians. This is demonstrated throughout the book in that they are ruled by jealousy, greed, and a misguided sense of morality. Humans, in many cases, are isolationist. They only come together in groups when the mutual interests of everybody in the group are directed towards the same goal, however when the goal is achieved, the group then dissipates into the atypical infighting that defines humanity. This is contrasted with the people of Mars, who for the most part, are not only patient, but have no concept of property or money, and desire to be in communion with each other. However, the Martians are not human, particularly in the sense that there is no concept of gender amongst the Martians.
This is translated differently when it comes to humanity. While the Martian biology enables them to come together as one, the only way that humans can do this is through sex. Now sex plays an incredibly important role in this novel, and I must admit that Heinlein's concept of sex here is very similar to my own. The barbaric nature of humanity defines sex in one of two ways, for the pursuit of pleasure, and to procreate. This outlines the two sides of humanity, as Heinlein describes, being the Apollonian (that is the 'moral' and 'righteous') and the Dionysiac (that is the sensual and debaucherous). However, in the book, sex is a way to get to know a person better (Heinlein uses a word that he created, called 'grok' however, I will get to that a little later). The difference between my Christian upbringing and his outline is that with me, apart from our relationship with God, we only are supposed to (in a perfect world that is) know one other person to that intimate level, however Heinlein suggests that this kind of knowing should be shared throughout the human race. Before I continue, though, I wish to make a quick comment on homosexuality in the book. It is not mentioned, it is implied, but not mentioned, and I suspect that this is because that when the book was written, it was still very much a taboo subject. Remember that this book was written before the sexual revolution went into full swing, and as such many of the concepts were still quite controversial.
Now, the idea of his religion, if one is to call it that because Mike Smith constantly denies that his idea is either a religion or even a faith, it is more of a knowledge and an understanding. The two ideas are that we are all gods, and it is when we come to that understanding we can then move forward, and that is to evolve. The second concept is that of the community. It is not the ideal of a Christian community, that is unique individuals living together in a community of love, but rather a collection of individuals coming together as a whole. While there is uniqueness, it is suggested that the community comes together so that all of this individuals become a whole. Granted, that is suggestive of Christianity, but I felt that is concept was much more pantheistic (as Christianity has a concept of God that is separate from us and from the world).
I note that Heinlein borrowed a lot from other religions in developing this book. We have the concept of love and community from Christianity, the idea that it is only by learning Martian that one can truly understand his religion (which is taken from Islam), and the concept that we are all god (from Buddhism). Now, I know that Heinlein emphasises in his book that this is not a religion, but I beg to differ. It is a belief system that tells us where we come from, where we are going, and our purpose for existence. I know others might disagree, but in my mind, this is a religion, and there is no escaping from it. However, it should also be noted that Heinlein did not write this book so as to start a new religion. Somebody did, and Heinlein did keep tabs on it, but he was not, and is not, involved in it.
I will finish by outlining the concept of grok. Now grok is a word that Heinlein created for the purpose of this book. I guess he used it to demonstrate the inefficiencies of the English language (and there are many). Grok is to know something in its fullness, that is to drink of it. It is not simply to know, but to know, to understand, and to be able to experience (that is drink of) it. The whole book seems to evolve around this concept of grok, as Mike comes to Earth to grok Earth and its inhabitants, but it is much more than to learn and to know, it is to become apart of and to dwell within. In a sense we could easily say that God desires to grok us.
I wanted to finish there, but I feel that there is another aspect of this book that needs to be brought out, and that is evolution. Now, first of all, Heinlein was not the first to write of Mars as having a highly advanced and civilised race, C.S. Lewis did the same thing in Out of the Silent Planet. Secondly, the question of religion and science fiction was also explored by C.S. Lewis in 'Religion and Rocketships'. However, it is clear that Heinlein is not a Christian, so therefore is unlikely to hold the same views as did Lewis. Now, the idea of evolution among many of us involves physical changes, but as Lewis indicated in his book Mere Christianity that this is a rather narrow view of evolution. It is Lewis' proposition that when Christ came to Earth and founded Christianity, the human race evolved, and it was not a slow movement, but a sudden jump. So to here, Mike Smith comes to Earth (as a Messiah, and dies as a Messiah) and through his interaction with humanity, enables them to once again evolve, not as a slow movement, but as a sudden spurt. This is indicated very clearly at the end where it is said that the Martians decided to be patient with humanity, but in being patient, humanity moves forward to a point where the Martians discovered that they were too late to do anything about it. They may have been advanced and civilised, but they did not hold all wisdom.