Consideration of Works Past: Red Planet

Over the past few years I’ve been performing an interesting personal experiments. I’ve been rereading the books that were meaningful to me when I was young. This has included things like Cordwainer Smith’s Norstriliathe works of Clifford Simak, John Brunner’s The Whole Man, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Paul Tabori’s The Green Rain, John Dos Passos Chosen Country and others.

Mars figures hugely in science fiction and since Curiosity and her sisters are blithely laying waste to any shred of support for those old stories I thought I’d look at one: Red Planet by Robert Heinlein.

Red Planet takes place on Heinlein’s take on Percival Lowell’s Mars. There are canals. There is an ancient and dying race. Unlike the martians of Burroughs and others these martians are completely unhuman.

In an aside, my interpretation of Red Planet is that these are the same martians found in Stranger in a Strange Land rather than the martians in Double Star. This is interesting in that Red Planet was written in 1949, Double Star in 1956 and Stranger in 1961. Heinlein scholars may be able to contort the different descriptions and culture of the Double Star martians to fit Red Planet and Stranger. I couldn’t do it.

Red Planet is one of those early books by Heinlein maligned by the word juvenile. To me it’s analogous to labeling Huckleberry Finn as a Young Adult because the main character is young. While Heinlein may have determined that he was speaking to a young audience and needed young characters, I believe that the underlying decision was artistic rather than marketing. Heinlein was born in Missouri and no one from that state (me, included) is unaware of the contribution Mark Twain made to American literature. More specifically, no one is blind to Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn is a limited narrator in the Twain’s work. He’s an unsophisticated boy. Consequently, his realizations, emotional journey and character cannot be aligned with the author. I think this limited narrator approach attracted Heinlein to attempt it in several novels. I think these are his most successful novels and they are the ones where Good Heinlein is ascendant and Evil Heinlein is held at bay. More on that in a moment.

The plot in Red Planet is fairly simple. On Mars the human immigrants must migrate from north to south and return according to the seasons. The planet is in the process of being terraformed and is survivable with relatively simple equiment– living below the summit of Everest but above the last base camp. Oxygen equipment, insulated clothing, etc., are enough to manage. There still exists a number of native flora and fauna, most of which the colonists have made their peace with. (The future fate of the native life in the terraforming world is never addressed.)

Two boys, Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton are sent from the current established colony to the capital boarding school– one of the contractual benefits to the colonists along with the cost of moving the colony north and south with the seasons. The colony is administered by the local arm of a corporation– analogous to the East India Company control of India. As would be expected, the foreign administration of a local colony invites corruption. Bad things happen at which Jim Marlowe is the center due to his friendship with Willis, a local animal called a “bouncer”– a round alien creature that bounces like a ball and has other interesting alien traits. Willis is about chimp level intelligence though Jim doesn’t really figure that out fairly late in the book. The bouncer can speak in simple sentences and the two have a deep affection for each other. This friendship sustains them through the inevitable revolution and ultimately is extremely important to the future of the human colony.

A more detailed version of the plot is here.

I blew through the early Heinlein books starting when I was about ten about <cough>-ty years ago. Red Planet was one I particularly enjoyed. How did it stack up to Steve of present day?

Actually, fairly well.

There is, of course, a lot of technology predictions and appliances that a modern reader just has to jettison. There is some libertarian crap with weapons and independence, etc. But these are relatively minor. Yes, the technology is dated. But it’s a primitive society that is no longer completely cocooned by technology and there are beasts that require sidearms. Weapon mythology follows weapons wherever they are so the whole sidearm subtext was understandable.

Best of all, Evil Heinlein was not given much room to squirm.

Heinlein’s bibliography is here. Evil Heinlein doesn’t really show up initially. But there are hints. As long as Heinlein is dealing with boys, girls and men there’s not a problem. In this section, they’re talking about the terraforming of Mars. There has just been a not terribly objectionable boy/girl argument between Jim and his sister about the roles of girls with guns. Nothing any brother and sister haven’t been through in modern times though perhaps a bit dated. Then comes this bit.

“No doubt. But this was good news. The pilot plant in Libya is in operation, successful operation. The first day’s run restored nearly four million tons mass of oxygen to the air and no breakdowns.”

Mrs. Marlowe looked startled. “Four million tons? That seems a tremendous lot.”

Her husband grinned. “Any idea how long it would take that one plant at that rate to do the job, that is, increase the oxygen pressure by five mass-pounds per square inch?”

“Of course I haven’t. But not very long 1should think.”

“Let me see-” His lips moved soundlessly. “Uh, around two hundred thousand years-Mars years, of course.”

“James, you’re teasing me!”

“No, I’m not. Don’t let big figures frighten you, my dear…”

This is Evil Heinlein at work. In this little segment not only have women been shown to be inferior to men, childlike and incapable of personal independence, the man goes out of his way to put down the woman.

I was reading this book to my son when he was ten. We were enjoying this at the time. I hit this and bogged down as I heard it in my head as heard by him. Ben’s mother is a PhD biochemist. It’s no secret in the house she’s smarter than me. In retrospect I should have just skipped this in the reading but instead we talked about it and the result is he hasn’t ready any Heinlein at all since.

This is pretty much the only Evil Heinlein in Red Planet. But that is, I think, because there just aren’t that many adult female characters in the book. In Tunnel in the Sky, there’s a segment in the very beginning that has a lot of Evil Heinlein in it and a segment at the end. In the middle a group of young men and women are marooned on a planet without any real hope of return. In this section there isn’t much Evil Heinlein. There are segmented roles across the sexes but it grows organically out of the fact that pregnant women and mothers have special dispensation in a hunter-gatherer society. Someday I’ll go over Tunnel in detail. But that is not this day.

Heinlein had a problem with adult women, pure and simple. But he didn’t always have this problem. If you read The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag the relationship between the man and woman detective is pure gold. There’s a shade once or twice but it can easily be dismissed as just a product of the times. It’s not really Evil Heinlein.

What is the net effect of Red Planet on a modern reader?

The good parts are still very good. There’s a sequence where Jim and Willis make friends with the martians and Willis is taken away from Jim for what are to the martians are very good reasons. Jim demands to see him so the martians show him a room full of bouncers and say he should find Willis. The bouncers, of course, all look alike so Jim can’t tell them from sight. But he doesn’t have to: he calls for Willis and Willis comes to him and refuses to part with him. This bond is the core of the book and it still resonates for me <cought>-ty years later. The colony attempting to grapple with its new destiny is still as attractive as ever. Revolutions are fun.

But the eerie landscape of Lowell’s Mars is still just as compelling and powerful as it was, for all that we know it cannot be. Whether it is Barsoom, The Martian ChroniclesRed Planet or War of the Worlds, that vision is still just as strong as ever even though Lowell’s Mars is gone forever.

Maybe that gives Red Planet a heft to me now it didn’t have back <cough>-ty years ago




Consideration of Works Past: Red Planet — 3 Comments

  1. The more I hear from people trying to re-read SF that is supposed to be our future, the more I fear delving into my old favorites. Do you think that kids will read Heinlein YA for much longer?

  2. What is the net effect of Red Planet on a modern reader?

    I cannot answer that, but I can tell you what I felt as a preteen female reading Moon is a harsh mistress. I wasn’t upset by the weapons and DIY justice system, nor by the poly marriage and mention of sex.

    What remained with me is a courageous, intelligent woman being described as “believeing that an electron was like a small pea”. It’s the one line I remember of the book. Luckily for me, anger motivated me to overachievement. I still do not know very much about electrons, but I definitely know more physics than Heinlein ever did (even if one discounts physics developed after, say, 1930).

    Hidden misogyny is everywhere, both in literature and real life. I’m thankful to Heinlein for helping me see it by providing it in such pure, concentrated form.

  3. Well, her husband did work at the oxygen plant, so he should know. The question is if he would have said the same to how brother in law, son, or any other male character who had a different kind of job. What impress me more, is how characters in books like this are always able to perform often extremely complex equations and huge numbers in their heads in no time, only moving their lips a bit while thinking.