Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Part 2, Chapters 19–21 : His Preposterous Heritage | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 19

The "Martian Diplomatic Delegation" goes to Douglas's Executive Palace. On the way, Smith sees the sea for the first time and is overwhelmed.

Before the conference begins, Smith manages to field a few questions from the press. He chats (in Martian) with Dr. Mahmoud—the Champion's semiotician (one who studies signs and symbols as a means of communication) and another of Smith's water brothers—and introduces Mahmoud to his friends. These introductions are shortly followed by a "water ceremony" in which each of the water brothers drinks water from the same cup. In the general confusion following some adjustments to seating, a senator invites Smith to a Fosterite service. Jubal agrees to accompany him. Once everyone is seated, Douglas arrives.

Part 2, Chapter 20

After some ceremony, the meeting begins. The outcome of the meeting is resolved by a letter sent from Jubal to Douglas personally, and Douglas's affirmative reply. Douglas is given the power to handle all Smith's business affairs and allowed to pay himself a generous salary for handling these affairs. Jubal also calls the Larkin Decision a "legal fiction" since Mars is already inhabited. Jubal characterizes Smith as an ambassador from Mars, not its sovereign.

Part 2, Chapter 21

After the meeting adjourns, the various politicians jockey for position near Smith to enhance their own reputations. Jubal and his "flock" finally escape to their nearby hotel suite accompanied by officers from the Champion—Dr. Sven Nelson, Dr. Mahmoud, and Captain van Tromp. After a few pleasantries and a toast to the women, Jubal asks Dr. Mahmoud to explain what "grok" means. Dr. Mahmoud says it is "the most important word in the language" and you "need to think in Martian to grok the word 'grok.'" Smith adds as if summing up: "Thou are God ... God groks."

They continue to discuss how and why Jubal arranged for Smith's money to remain his but without needing to manage it. Jubal admits that some was shameless bluffing, but he got what he wanted. Douglas has the headache of taking care of the business affairs of the Man from Mars, while Smith has his freedom and plenty of money.

Captain van Tromp suggests Smith is less of an ambassador than an "invasion force" or a "scout, reconnoitering for his Martian masters." Nelson relates some new information about Smith. When the crew took Smith with them, the "Martians told him to go with us ... and he behaved like a soldier carrying out orders that scared him silly." Captain van Tromp notes that once, on Mars, one of his men—known for hating Martians—went out armed even after having been warned. He tells them the man was seen going into a passage. Shortly a Martian entered the same way, and the man was never seen again. Jubal decides not to mention what happened at the swimming pool.

Legal documents arrive and are signed, cementing the agreement with Douglas.


The themes of language and culture and morals are developed in these chapters. Jubal discuses language and religious morality with Dr. Mahmoud, the Champion's linguist and an observant Muslim. They discuss the word "grok," and Dr. Mahmoud points out it literally means "to drink." By extension, it means "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed." In other words, the word grok means something akin to "drinking" deeply of something so you understand it perfectly, so the knowledge of it becomes part of you and you become part of it.

Grokking, drinking, and water are significant and integral concepts in the novel. Mike is astonished at the sight of the sea because Mars is practically bereft of water while Earth has a plentiful store of it. Although the ocean overwhelms him, it also gives him a sense of hope that humanity in its abundance may learn to understand him.

Just as humanity has no word for grok, Martians have no word for war. When Captain van Tromp remarks that Smith is an "invasion force," Jubal can't believe Smith comes from a warlike culture. Dr. Mahmoud notes there is no word for "war" in Martian. Yet the situation van Tromp describes in which a man disappeared suspiciously is uncanny, if not overtly warlike or violent. Martian has no abstract concept of war, and therefore no word for it. Yet Martians can still act in ways others would perceive as warlike. Captain van Tromp's characterization of Martians in military terms is perhaps realistic, based on actual acts. Dr. Mahmoud's concept of Martians as unwarlike is informed by his interpretation of language. Like Smith's killing of Berquist and others, Martians might "invade" Earth and still not have a word for "invasion."

In this way, a moral person may innocently commit what is, in the view of others, an immoral act. This is in contrast to Dr. Mahmoud's drinking alcohol, which is prohibited by Muslim teaching. He feels regret, knowing his act is sinful. The act is sinful for him because he knows it to be sinful to others and believes it to be sinful for himself.

Another ongoing development in the language theme is the use of a religious language that has its own symbolism and ritual phrases. When Jubal's people meet Dr. Mahmoud, they perform a "water ritual." They pass a cup of water around and each takes a drink. There are ritual invitations and responses that accompany this ceremony. These include "Our nest is yours," "Who shares water shares all," and "With water of life we grow closer." Like all groups, this emerging group of water brothers has its own insider language that outsiders may find strange or nonsensical. Later, the novel will describe another religious group, the Fosterites, who also have their own lingo.

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