Robert A. Heinlein: Can You Grok This Playlist?

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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.

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."

The Flying Lizards, "Money": Here we have a reversal, in that a pop song was mentioned in a Heinlein work rather than the other way around. In Starship Troopers a teacher is quoted as saying...

There is an old song which asserts that "the best things in life are free". Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

That old song was "Money (That's What I Want)," which was a hit for Barrett Strong in 1959, the same year that Starship Troopers was published. Many artists have covered it since then, and we picked the Flying Lizards' version for the offbeat video and Empire Records connection.

David Bowie, "The Man Who Sold the World": Though "Man Who Sold the World" isn't a direct reference to Heinlein, it's very clear that Bowie was heavily into the author. The title is just one word off from a famous Heinlein novella, The Man Who Sold the Moon. The two works have nothing in common besides the similar titles.

That being said, at one point Bowie claimed that he had purchased the film rights to Stranger and was planning to both score and star in the movie. He has since admitted that he never bought the rights, but he did star in what could be called a more dystopic view of the famous novel, Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on the book by Walter Tevis.

Judy Collins, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress": Yet another song that has little to do with the novel that inspired it, Jimmy Webb's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" has become a standard that surprisingly has never charted despite being covered by almost as many artists as "Money." Judy Collins is our favorite of them.

Heinlein's story involves a revolt by the farmer class on Earth's moon who feel unfairly enslaved by the decadent and greedy interests of Earth, while Webb's tune is more of a rumination on the transitory nature of love, with the moon serving as a metaphorical stand-in for someone special.

Interestingly enough, Heinlein is unlikely to be the true originator of the title either. He probably adapted it from a famous Bible verse, "The Law is a harsh master," from Romans.

"The Green Hills of Earth": Here we have something of a composition by the master himself. The song title is shared with a short story about a space-faring singer who wishes to return to Earth to be buried in his homeland. After entering an irradiated part of the ship to make critical repairs, he dies of radiation poisoning and requests that someone record his song.

Heinlein dropped fragments of the tune throughout various stories, and it's been more or less reconstructed by fans over the years. Interestingly enough, because of the song's meter and rhyme scheme, it can be easily sung to many popular tunes such as "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and even the theme to Gilligan's Island.

We have no idea who recorded this haunting rendition of "Green Hills." The video is public, but the channel appears to have been deleted. No information as to the singer is available, and somehow, we think Heinlein would've liked that.

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