Fri
Jun 17 2011 3:35pm

A Boy and His Martian: Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet

Sooner or later I’m going to write about all the juveniles—you can just resign yourselves to it. Red Planet (1949) is not the best of them, but it’s not the worst either. I first read it when I was reading all of SF in alphabetical order when I was thirteen, a process I recommend. By the time you get to Zelazny you will know what you like. I liked Red Planet, and I’ve re-read it about once a decade since, but it has never been one of my favourites. I re-read it now because I was thinking about child markers and I couldn’t remember it well enough to see how it did on that.

The reason it isn’t a favourite is because Jim, the hero, is very generic. He’s a standard Heinlein boy-hero, with nothing to make him stand out from the pack. The most interesting character here is Willis, a Martian, and even Willis isn’t really much of a character. And the plot—a revolution on Mars—is oddly paced and doesn’t entirely work. So I suppose it is really a book with rushed plot and a bland hero. What makes it worth reading then?

Well, obviously, the setting.

Heinlein has really thought about the Mars he gives us here, and I’m sure he used the best science available in 1947. It’s regrettably obsolete now, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to read about.

We have here a Mars with canals, with flora and fauna adapted to the thin air and extreme temperatures. The canals freeze and thaw on a seasonal rhythm. The human settlements are either equatorial, or migrate from north to south to avoid the winter. People wear suits with air filters when out of doors—and with a lovely Heinlein touch, they paint the suits for individual recognition, and making them stop this is one of the first signs of repression. And we also have intelligent Martians—I think Heinlein has intelligent Martians in every book he possibly can. (And really, who can blame him? Intelligent Martians are about the niftiest thing ever, and I was very reluctant to give up on the possibility myself.) The Martians here are especially cool, with a young form that resembles a bowling ball with retractable legs which Jim adopts as a pet, and with an “old one” form that is actually a ghost. Interestingly enough, this could well be the same Mars as in Stranger In A Strange Land (post). As well as the “old ones” there are water-sharing rituals, Martians making people disappear into non-existence, and several instances of solving problems with Martians ex machina.

Jim and Willis are genuinely attached to each other, and Jim’s refusal to leave Willis behind or accept his confiscation largely drives the plot, attracting the interest of Martians and of the evil headmaster. The attachment is much like that of boys and dogs in classic children’s literature, with the twist of Willis’s developing intelligence. Heinlein did it better in The Star Beast.

The plot has its moments, but it doesn’t really work. Jim is sent away for advanced education at the equator and takes with him his Martian “pet.” This coincides with a move from the company running Mars to become repressive. Jim escapes with his pal Frank, and Willis of course, and makes it home. There’s a terrific bit where the boys skate down a canal and spend the night inside a Martian cabbage. They get help from the Martians and make it home, whereupon Jim’s father leads a revolution. Jim, who never had much personality, fades into the background from them on. Heinlein has clearly thought about the difficulty of revolution in a place where heat and air can not be taken for granted and everyone is utterly dependant on their suits for survival. There’s a shape you expect to a plot like this, and it isn’t what we get. Jim retreats into the background, and the revolution succeeds because of the ordinary people refusing to go along with the idiots in charge once they understand the situation—and the Martians, of course. And was Willis turning out to be a juvenile Martian supposed to be a surprise? It seemed telegraphed from the beginning to me when I was thirteen.

It’s not one of Heinlein’s best, but it’s short, and it has Martians. I’ll keep reading it every ten years or so.

My edition (Pan, 1967) has a horrible cover. It has two figures seen from behind who appear at first glance to be in armour—though on examnation you can tell they’re kind of spacesuits. One of them is firing a tiny gun at a giant monster which has pincers and a huge head that resembles one of those horned cow skulls you see in generic deserts. The worst thing about this cover is that I can, in fact, tell which scene of the book it is intended to illustrate, and yet it does it so badly that it completely misrepresents everything about it. They should have gone with a generic planet and spaceship. But really, if you have a book about a three legged alien and you want people to buy it, for goodness sake put it on the cover!


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

25 comments
mordicai
1. mordicai
I have very fond memories of this book-- it was the first Heinlein I read, & I read it long before anything else, so it sort of set the standard, weird as that may be.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
I simply can't judge this one objectively. It was my very first science fiction. My father gave it to me when I was 10 or so and it will always be special to me.

I don't know if I picked up on Willis the first time, but then I also didn't have your advantage of having read everything from A-He. Still, I remember it being somewhat less obvious than Lummox, largely because Heinlein is busily distracting the reader with all the human goings on and encouraging you to look at something other than the funny talking furball. (I wonder where flat cats fit in the Martian biology. Are they an even earlier stage?)
mordicai
3. Zvazda
What does all of SF in alphabetical order mean?

Is there a list you recommend?

-Z
mordicai
4. Raskos
Interesting that the matter of human beings colonizing a planet with its own indigenous intelligent species is just accepted, never questioned.

This bothered me when I read the book as a kid.
Beth Friedman
5. carbonel
It seems clear to me that Heinlein used the same Mars for Red Planet, The Rolling Stones (and thus, by implication, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), and Stranger in a Strange Land.
mordicai
6. Doug M.
In Grumbles from the Grave, it's made clear that there was a tempest-in-a-teapot over the first version of this book. Apparently Heinlein wrote it to include a gun subtheme -- everyone on Mars is armed, for some reason. IMS (and someone who has Grumbles can check this), the editor found this annoying and/or politically objectionable, and wanted it cut. Heinlein eventually walked it partly back, but only after a fair bit of howling and thrashing.

Neither party comes out of it looking good. Heinlein gives the impression of having tried to graft one of his political hobbyhorses onto a juvenile (AN ARMED SOCIETY IS A POLITE SOCIETY!), while the editor gives the impression of having stomped on a writer for his political opinions while using age-appropriateness as an excuse.

(I say neither comes out looking good -- but I'm basing this on Grumbles, which is Heinlein's side of the story as edited by Virginia. It'd be very interesting to read the other side. Perhaps the Patterson bio will cover it, but likely not.)

(Also, nobody seems to have asked the obvious question, viz., why would colonists on Mars need weapons? The Martians aren't hostile, the colonists seem pretty peaceful amongst each other, and I don't recall them needing to hunt for game. IMS there is one nasty predator, but that wouldn't seem to justify everyone from high school age upwards carrying a gun. )

Anyway: the interesting takeaway here is not the gun thing as such, but the light it shines on Heinlein's career. This was only his second juvenile, and he hadn't really taken off yet. So an editor could make a change like this, and make it stick.


Doug M.
mordicai
7. Doug M.
The colony planet rebelling against Earth's control was a theme Heinlein would return to, in Between Planets and then again in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In fact, despite the 20-year gap between them, in some respects Red Planet looks like a finger exercise for Moon.


Doug M.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Doug M: Let's not talk about guns and say we did.

Zvazda: I read all the SF in the library, in alphabetical order. Far from recommending a reading list, I'm suggesting reading indiscriminately until you develop tastes. If you have tastes already, of course, then this is unnecessary.

Raskos: They are colonizing but they are being respectful to the Martians. You get the same thing in a couple of Venuses in the juveniles. I suppose it fits the American Revolution theme.

The weird thing here seems to be that they are terraforming Mars. From the tech we see the Martians could presumably do that if they wanted to, but they clearly don't -- so why are they letting the humans do it?
Nancy Lebovitz
9. NancyLebovitz
Heinlein was very good at portraying aliens who were equal to humans, and sometimes as having superior power without simply being menaces.

I'd forgotten about terraforming in Red Planet. Is it possible that the Martians didn't know about it?
David Levinson
10. DemetriosX
Re the terraforming, Heinlein's Martians in whatever form were always rather inscrutable. If they were allowing terraforming, they had their reasons beyond any of our understanding.

I had meant to ask before, I had noticed the "uncut novel" notice on the cover at the top of the post. I guess there was a new release with the stuff that he was made to leave out the first time at some point.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
DemetriosX: I don't know. I read my old British edition and I haven't read any variants -- generally I feel that edited Heinlein is better anyway.
mordicai
12. James Davis Nicoll
Doug M: Let's not talk about guns and say we did.

Ah, people make too much of a fuss about guns. My family had them when I was a kid and our fatalities were held to a quite reasonable 20%.

Heinlein has really thought about the Mars he gives us here, and I’m sure he used the best science available in 1947.

Yeah, not so much. The Golden Age SF Mars worked very hard to ignore results from at least as early as the 1930s that the real Mars was a very hostile place, much more hostile than the version Heinlein used. The Lysenkoist tendency in SF - when actual, tested science contradicts some detail in an SF story, attack (or ignore) the science - was established early on.

In fact, from some kid named John Campbell's Red Death A Study of the Solar System Article No. 6 (pages 43-47 of November 1936's Astounding Stories)

His breath is very shallow now, and his body cool. He has an atmosphere; there is no doubt of that. But by various means we have found that there is less oxygen over 1,000 squares miles of Mars than over one square mile of Earth. One thousandth the atmosphere Earth possesses! For the purposes of fiction, that atmosphere has been enormously exaggerated. It is no "mountaintop air, thin but sharp and refreshingly cool."
Here on Earth we have a different name for that condition; we call it a fairly good vacuum. It's thin, all right but what kind of mountaintop would have that kind of air here on earth? No man has yet climbed to the peak of Mt. Everest, 29,000 feet, even with the aid of oxygen bottles. In balloons, where men had only to sit and the most violent effort was opening a stop cock on an oxygen bottle, or pulling a valve rope, over 40,000 feet was attained.
When stratostats were built, in their protected, inclosed gondolas, elevations of ten, then twelve miles were reached. Into the stratosphere! The air there, unbearably attenuated, at an elevation three Mt. Everests piled atop each other would not reach, was approximately one hundred times as dense as Mars' surface atmosphere.
The mountaintop referred to above must be the top of a mountain approximately as high as twenty unscalable Mt. Everests superimposed. Otherwise that statement is fairly descriptive, with the understanding that the one "refreshed" has a remarkably stubborn constitution.
mordicai
13. James Davis Nicoll
The weird thing here seems to be that they are terraforming Mars. From
the tech we see the Martians could presumably do that if they wanted to,
but they clearly don't -- so why are they letting the humans do it?

Maybe letting the humans do it is the Martian version of importing Chinese labourers to construct the railway?
mordicai
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo at 8: They are colonizing but they are being respectful to the Martians. You get the same thing in a couple of Venuses in the juveniles. I suppose it fits the American Revolution theme.

I am very uncertain that this fits an American Revolutionary theme. There is a reason why Joseph Brant is a Canadian hero. Most likely Heinlein preferred a positive background of settlement without colonialism for these settings -- a worthwhile ideal, but it's striking how many writers who otherwise closely followed Heinlein subverted it: Panshin, Haldeman, Barnes. (And of course, Heinlein wrote "Logic of Empire" circa 1940.)
mordicai
15. James Davis Nicoll
Most likely Heinlein preferred a positive background of settlement without colonialism for these settings

I wonder why? Not in the general 'why is taking other people's land bad' sense but how is it an American of his time and place would have those beliefs? The last remnants of the American Indian Wars were still ongoing when he was a kid.
mordicai
16. CarlosSkullsplitter
15: the Indian wars weren't viewed as colonial wars. Neither was the Mexican-American war. And strictly speaking, they weren't: they were about the expansion of American settlement and not the exploitation of local societies (relocated at best in the former, demographically swamped in the latter). This might explain why Heinlein's analysis about the underlying causes of war in Starship Troopers is so inept.

There was a strong anti-colonial streak running through most American political movements before World War Two. The Philippine "insurrection" left a very bad taste in American political memory. On the right, it tended to be isolationist (but not always); on the left, it tended to be internationalist (but not always). You can see bits and pieces of both in Heinlein.
john mullen
17. johntheirishmongol
I thought the book was a little disjointed. It felt like it was serialized and that was a part of the issue. But I am very fond of Jim and Willis.

On the whole gun thing, I started shooting when I was 11 or 12, took courses, practised, took it all quite seriously. On a frontier, kids have more responsibilities and seem to manage it quite fine. It makes a lot sense that they carry weapons against dangerous critters.
mordicai
18. James Davis Nicoll
The continued presence of the dangerous critters after millions of years of Martian civilization seems to me to imply that the Martians may have for some reason found the presence of those critters desirable. I wonder how the Martian equivilent of the Sierra Club negotiates with immigrants slaughtering the local wildlife?

1: Of course we don't know that they are all that dangerous to adult Martians and they're not as protective of their young as humans are.
Nancy Lebovitz
19. NancyLebovitz
The Martians didn't know that humans needed water vapor in their air.

The Martians are powerful, but that isn't the same thing as omniscient-- it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't notice the terraforming project unless they either get more involved with humans or find that their atmosphere is shifting, either of which would make for quite an interesting story.

James, thanks for the Campbell quote.

And as for why Heinlein had a benevolant model of expansion (and limited expansion at that, if you consider Space Cadet), it's not as though Americans at any time all had the same opinion.
Andrew Love
20. AndyLove
Heinlein was very good at portraying aliens who were equal to humans, and sometimes as having superior power without simply being menaces.


I'd go further than that - Heinlein's works are full of aliens that are clearly superior to humans, sprinkled with a few examples of equal aliens.

For example, in "Methusaleh's Children," the Howards' encounter three alien races - two are far superior to the humans, and the species that is equal to humans is a "pet" species to one of the others.

In "Have Spacesuit," the aliens judging humanity are quite clear that if humans are determined to be capable of ever being a threat to the aliens, the humans will be destroyed - and of course, the human race is spared.

The aliens in "Star Beast," "Goldfish Bowl," "By His Bootstraps" are superior to humanity (in "Star Beast" the human is a pet) - and while we may catch up to the Venusians in "Space Cadet," they're ahead of us now, and many other examples exist.

Someday I must write a full essay about this issue
mordicai
21. Doug M.
Jo, I've got less interest in talking about guns than you (if that's possible). But you'll notice the sticker on the cover up there, "complete and uncut"? That's the story behind it. (It's a bit of a tease, mind, since IMS the "cut" bits amounted to just a few hundred words of text.)

Heinlein was not actually all that scientifically rigorous about most things. (Orbital calculations excepted! He loved those, and would happily take the time to work them out by hand.) We can't really hold the Mars thing against him, though, because everyone was doing it. Planetary scientists were pretty sure that Mars was dead by the mid-1930s; spectrography had established the correct model of the planet's atmosphere (carbon dioxide, and very thin) a decade before Heinlein set finger to keyboard, and this information was available to anyone who cared to walk into a library. But for thirty years, right up until the first Mariner probes reached Mars in the middle 1960s, SF writers continued putting stories on a Mars with a thin-but-breathable atmosphere and life. Shrug.


Doug M.
mordicai
22. glaurung-quena
Regarding the "uncut" blurb on this book -- there were two sets of editorial changes to this book that Heinlen fought bitterly. The first was the demand to make Jim's owning a gun be a privledge he had to earn by passing tests and the like. Heinlein took it out under protests, but put in a speech by one of Jim's adult relatives ranting against the whole system of making kids pass exams before they were allowed to carry guns. The rationale for taking it out was that librarians were a conservative lot and they might not buy a book that showed a young child carrying around a deadly weapon.

The second was much more bizzare and no commenters have mentioned it to date - his editor wanted him to cut out the small handful of paragraphs that talked about the Martian reproductive system (ie, that Willis was female, that the adult martians were male, and that Willis laid a clutch of eggs while she and the boys were in the martian city). The rationale was that these passages were somehow inappropriate for a children's book, which makes no sense to me and I hope the second volume of the Patterson bio gives quotes from the editor's letters that put this in a clearer context than was provided by Grumbles from the Grave.

So in this one case, the "uncut" label on a Heinlein novel does not mean "longer and more wordy" (which I don't mind but I can see why some would prefer the shorter versions of Stranger and Puppet Masters), but rather "uncensored."
mordicai
23. CarlosSkullsplitter
22: Apparently Heinlein's editor Alice Dalgliesh found the Martian life-cycle too Freudian in its implications. (Dalgliesh was not a bad children's author in her own right, and several of her books are still in print.) Heinlein scoffed privately, talking about phallic imagery etc.

But the childlike female playmate growing into the male adult phase, the implied need for fertilization so that Willis could lay her clutch of eggs, paired with Jim having to give up Willis so that "she" could mature into a "he", probably set off alarm bells ringing in Dalgliesh's head. The vocabulary didn't quite yet exist to explain why this might be a poor artistic choice other than in Freudian terms -- but this was before second-wave feminism. Dalgliesh, I should note, rose nearly as far as a professional woman who was born in 1893 could. The "mansplaining" in Heinlein's letters is more than a little repugnant.

(In one of the letters regarding Red Planet, Heinlein claims "boys are not psychoanalysts." What an annoyingly universal statement.)

Heinlein also crows to his agent about the close attention to scientific detail he paid in the writing of Red Planet. Mm.
Pamela Adams
24. Pam Adams
Willis as we see him/her isn't bright- I wonder how much of that is an artifact of the language barrier?

I think that the best bit is the ice-skating in the canals.

Re the gun- doesn't Jim shoot some sort of animal in the first scene- a water-seeker?
Per Jorgensen
25. percj
23: I must admit that I saw the sexual dimorphism of the Martians as a way of making aliens that are, well, alien (I concede that this might, of course, be a simple or naive reading in literary study terms, since science fiction also reflects upon its authors--and readers). After all, there are Earth creatures that change sex during their life cycle. Perhaps it might be seen as a problem that the juvenile or adolescent stage of a sentient species is a female stage, but then again, human males aren't ghost-like.

As others have referred to above, this also served the narrative need for a plot twist by making the seemingly trivial "possession" all-important later on.

It's been a while since I read Grumbles from the Grave, but I saw Heinlein's objection to what Dalgliesh had written more as stemming from an unwillingness to be criticised on the basis of classical Freudianism. It could even be that Heinlein had some of the same objections as, say, Popper to Freudianism, that is, as a non-falsifiable or "all-explaining" theory.

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