Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet by Robert Heinlein

Originally Published by Scribners, 1949.

(Virginia Edition, December 2008.)

ISBN:  978 1 897350 17 1

 172 pages

Review by Mark Yon

This is one of an ongoing series of rereads, as I work through the Virginia Editions of Heinlein’s novels.

Red Planet was Heinlein’s third published novel, after Space Cadet (reviewed here). It is seen as the third in Heinlein’s ‘juvenile novels’ that were written for a teenage and predominantly (though not exclusively) male readership.

If I remember right, it was possibly my second or third Heinlein read, after Tunnel in the Sky, which I found, rather lost and forgotten, at the back of my school library. It was one of my early favourites.

After events in space and on the swampy planet Venus in Space Cadet, this one’s all about Mars.

Jim Marlowe is a teenage colonist at boarding school on Mars. Whilst there, Jim and his friend Frank Sutton, as well as Jim’s Martian pet, Willis the Bouncer have many adventures, often running up against the authoritarian head teacher, Mr. Howe and eventually, Mr. Beecher, the Earth’s administrational representative for the Mars company. Willis overhears the two discuss a devious plan to stop the traditional human migration to warmer climes during the harsh Martian winter, Jim and Frank run off from school and skate along the canals, back to their home colony to tell Jim’s father.

The result is a fight between the adults for the independence of Mars and a showdown between the original Martian inhabitants and the human colonists, the result of which seems to depend upon Jim and Willis.

In many ways the format of Red Planet is similar to Space Cadet, in that we have alien/human conflict and a hero figure in a rite of passage Bildungsroman, but instead of being in space and on Venus (as we were in Space Cadet) here we are firmly on frontier Mars.

What surprises me most on re-reading is how complex this book really is behind the obvious plot narrative. We have ancient Martian races, social revolution and rather manipulative humans on a Bonestellian style planet. Our hero is, as was rather traditional for these books, a teenage human male, whose growing up (see: rite-of-passage) was rather frontier-like. On the cutting edge of space colonisation, Jim Marlowe is a pioneer. It’s not by accident the original edition was subtitled on the cover, ‘A colonial boy on Mars’.

Owning a gun, or, as often referred to here, ‘a heater’, is a sign of maturity and adulthood in this frontier world. Heinlein points out in this novel the relationship between freedom and weapons, and the right to bear arms, as fundamentals of Martian society, with the American frontier (and Heinlein’s own personal beliefs) as a template. This nearly comes unstuck at one point when Jim seems rather determined to shoot his dictatorial headteacher, but is only stopped by being talked down (or rather, wrestled down) by his friend Frank.

What is more surprising on this reread is what Heinlein does here with the back-story of the Martian race, which in this edition is more complex than I remembered it. They are an old and complex race, who can do (when the situation requires it), near impossible things. What is more noticeable, reading this now as an adult, is the connection between Willis and the elder Martian race, more Ray Bradbury (Martian Chronicles) than Burroughs (John Carter). Of course, Heinlein’s adult Martians also reappear in a Stranger in a Strange Land, albeit only briefly (and how disappointed I was all those years ago when I found that out!) 

Although Jim is a likeable enough sort of chap, I’m sure that, like many other readers, he is not what I remember most about this book. For me, Willis the bouncing Martian is still a memorable favourite.

Reading this again with older eyes, I was concerned that Willis’ broken-English speak would be rather irritating. However, it’s not as exasperating as I thought it might be, even though, Willis’s pidgin-English  made me think a little of Jar-Jar Binks, though not enough to spoil my 40 year old memories completely.  

Rather surprisingly, Willis still reads as an engagingly depicted character that would gladden the heart of any young reader, although he/she/it is basically a canine substitute (and is something that Heinlein will use again in later books such as Star Beast and The Rolling Stones/Space Family Stone, for example.) It’s not by coincidence that Tor Books once referred to the novel as ‘One Boy and his Martian.’ Supremely loyal and endearingly enthusiastic, these days I can see the similarities between Willis and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Woola more clearly.

Reading from William H. Patterson’s introduction to this Virginia edition (best done afterwards), it is interesting to discover that Heinlein had a bit of a tussle with publishers Scribners over this one and was forced to make changes to his original manuscript so that the finished book was more palatable to their target readership.

One addition to this edition that was edited out in my original copy was a discussion between Jim’s dad and his young sister, Phyllis, about the right for women to carry a gun. Because Jim is going away to school, Phyllis argues that she should be allowed to own a gun to look after her younger baby brother.   This replaces a scene in my original version where Jim is berated by his father because he leaves his weapon out where his younger brother wanders. This was a scene added by Heinlein’s editors and one which he very reluctantly agreed to, whilst clearly very unhappy about it.

The ending was also changed, from one fairly open and ambiguous to one with an adult discussion of Willis’s future and the symbolic handing over from Jim of his pet to the next stage of him/her/it’s life with the Martians. This version is the 2009 edition, and uses the less open-ended conclusion, Heinlein’s preferred one.

Further changes are relatively minor. This includes returning all the dialogue about alien sex and biology, removed in my earlier edition, and similarly putting back ‘tougher’ language (though still no swearing) especially on the part of Doctor MacRae, an elder member of the colony and occasional mentor to Jim.

 (Additional note, later: Many of these changes are mentioned in an article published in 2001 by the Heinlein Society, HERE.)

Reading this again, I now see early versions of what will become Heinlein tropes. The strong-willed hero, determined to do what is right (and often against the corporate machine) is one, as represented by both  Jim and his father who is that typical adult who does the right thing when forced to and here ends up leading the revolt against the corporation.

Another very noticeable difference between Red Planet and Space Cadet, reading the two fairly close together, is that we have here, more than before, the use of strong, opinionated female characters. Having talked before in my review of Space Cadet about how little females were represented in the book, here, through the character of Phyllis, Jim’s younger sister, Heinlein readdresses that issue a little. She’s not a major character by any means, but it’s clear that the gender imbalance must have been on Heinlein’s mind too – Red Planet is dedicated to ‘Tish’, who is Heinlein’s niece. How much of this is an influence of the newly remarried Heinlein’s wife, herself by many accounts a strong, intelligent and opinionated lady, is unclear. However, the character type will reappear in Heinlein’s work for the rest of his writing career.

Of the adults, Jim’s dad is also an archetype, as already mentioned. Doctor MacRae, in this new revised version, is more like the grumpy, cantankerous oldsters of Heinlein’s less restrained later writing: Jubal Harshaw and so on. Although Heinlein’s novels have always had knowledgeable people passing on their perceived wisdoms, perhaps it is here that the templates for Heinlein’s future writing are evolved – or would have been, had the original manuscript been accepted.

This book shows a real leap forward in Heinlein’s character development and plotting, and the start of what I think of as typical RAH. It’s hard to believe that this was only his third published novel, although admittedly he was writing short stories with great regularity simultaneously. This is a less predictable, more complicated novel than Space Cadet, using even stranger ideas, yet still being extremely entertaining.

It’s also not the last time Heinlein looks at a planet/satellite determined to gain independence.

Gratifyingly, the simplistic and naive book I was rather expecting is, for the most part, much less unsophisticated and more entertaining than I had hoped. Whilst this is not the Martian environment as we know it today, it still has an attractive allure that makes the reader want to be there. It’s the Mars that I, and I suspect many others, would like it to be, a world of unlimited opportunities, with its Martians, vegetation and canals. If only.

Mark Yon, February 2013

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