Red Planet by Heinlein, Robert, 1949

Red Planet by Heinlein, Robert - Book cover from

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Heinlein's early work up until the late 1950's was not entirely dominated by his eight or so "juvenile" adventures, but they were pretty much the most noteworthy works he published until 1959's shocking Starship Troopers. Before Starship Troopers came out Heinlein put out yearly, around the holidays, a new young adult ("YA") adventure book that tackled mature issues, but usually had a youth as a protagonist, and generally had a clear line between good and evil. Red Planet was published in 1949, and was the third book in the "series" of juvenile adventures.

I am pretty sure that the defining characteristic of this novel, at least to a modern reader, it how dated the prose is. Not that archaic language and out-dated slang destroys the impact of a story. But for some reason books seem to suffer more from this sort of stigma. I cannot think of one book written in an archaic voice that does not suffer for it. Movies however, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide and Forbidden Planet still rank at the tops of lots of critics and popular lists even though they suffer from the identical problem. Heinlein was considered "cool" back in the day, and definitely slid into a young voice, especially in the juvenile books. But to me, Red Planet reads a little innocently. The story is pretty solid though. Its the tale of a young man named Jim, his friend Frank and a Martian being named Willis, which is a striped fuzzy orb with eyes on retractable stalks who was a virtually perfect mimic, but who had some intelligence too. Frank and Jim are Martian colonists and grew up on Mars. After reaching the appropriate age the two boys go off from their colony to the world's capitol for schooling. While there Willis (the mimic, who also has perfect recall) records a conversation between two employees of the corporation that ran the colony and terraforming program that the colonists were there to manage. The recording revealed a risk to the colony's health and in fact put at serious risk the lives of citizens of the boy's colony. The trio decided to flee school and make their way home across an extremely harsh landscape so that they could warn their families. They must go on foot to avoid the searchers from the company. The boys get home after a dangerous journey and convince the adults that they are at serious risk from their employer/governors, and a rebellion ensues.

Heinlein's well known and odd blend of conservative politics, later to become libertarian, and apparently free-willed and leftist inspired lifestyle (including an open marriage and nudism) never really show up in any of the juvenile novels, but they definately do have a practical conservative slant to them. Heinlein is rumored to have kept as low a profile as possible during the ten or so years he wrote the juveniles so as to minimize the possibility of inflammatory press over his lifestyle. The rumor is that the crimped lifestyle and Heinlein's weary attitude towards writing more YA stories pushed him to submit Starship Troopers for publication by Scrivner's, his publisher in those days, only to be promptly rejected for its bellicose tone and open support for atomic weapons and hostile open war.

There really is not too much more to say about this book. Most simply put it is a proto-libertarian story set on a future Mars. The society on this Mars is a mix of a Wild West frontier mentality mixed with the American colonial period, where a sympathetic and simple (but educated) population is pitted against an evil company that happens also to be the government. At the same time Jim and to a lesser degree Frank, become endeared to the Martians who at first are very stoic and aloof, but later become animated and provocative. Its a good adventure that has not necessarily stood the test of time the way other Heinlein books have. This is a pretty well done coming-of-age story and it has some pretty well thought out colonization aspects to it. For those of you who are fans of Heinlein's more seminal work, he does provide early development of Martian race that turned up later in Podkayne of Mars and Stranger in a Strange Land, and even gives some of the social and biological background that is missing in those later works.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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