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Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by John Picacio

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

It's said that the past is another country, and reading classic science fiction can often feel like a journey to a very strange land. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember just how much our scientific knowledge about the Solar System has grown in the past few decades -- until we read what was considered cutting-edge scientific extrapolation fifty or sixty years ago and realize just how different a future earlier generations of science fiction writers imagined.

When Heinlein was writing juvenile science fiction novels for Scribners' in the 1950's, it was still just barely possible to imagine Mars as an abode of life. There was spectroscopic evidence that the Martian atmosphere consisted almost entirely of carbon dioxide and was far thinner than previously thought, but it wasn't incontrovertable, and Mars as the home of an ancient and wise species of intelligent Martians whose civilization has fallen into decay just makes for a better story. Especially if you're going to be writing a story of action and adventure for young readers who want protagonists their age, with problems they can understand and relate to, even if those problems are a little different in their details as a result of living on another world.

And that's exactly what we get -- the story of Jim and Frank, teenage colonists on the high frontier. As befits a society far from the cozy comforts of long-settled cities, they're self-reliant far beyond what most of us would expect for young people of their age. When we first meet Jim, he's just dispatched a predatory native lifeform known as a water-seeker, using some kind of energy weapon. He was injured trying to take a trophy, so he's coming to get his hand treated by the colony doctor.

He also wants Doc to take a look at his little friend Willis. A native creature, its formal common name is Martian roundhead, but everybody calls them bouncers on account of how they move on their three stubby legs. Its speaking diaphram can produce an astonishing replication of human speech, operating on principles similar to the cone of a loudspeaker. Most people view them as being nothing more than extraordinary mimics, a sort of super-parrot, but Jim is sure that Willis is using language to communicate too. But lately Willis has been acting sluggish, and Jim's worried he may be sick.

However, the doctor's pretty sure that the sluggishness is just a natural response to the approaching Martian winter. Many Martian organisms hibernate, and Willis may well be having trouble responding normally to those environmental cues as a result of living with Jim in the colony so much of the time. Doc gives him a strong suggestion that it might be best to return the bouncer to its natural habitat when the colony makes its annual migration to the other hemisphere.

Willis insists he will stay with his friend, and the matter is settled. So they head home, where we see a family not that different from a 1950's family. Not just the presupposition that contemporary gender roles would carry unchanged into the future, but other than those technologies specifically necessary for survival in the Martian environment, there is no significant technological changes in their homes. But one could also argue that attempting to extrapolate the entire gamut of social and technological change would but distract from the story Heinlein sought to tell -- not to mention the question of whether he could've gotten it past the censorious editor, Alice Dagliesh. His epic battles with her about such picayune matters as the mention of a bathroom in the school or the alien reproductive biology of Martian bouncers was revealed in his collected letters, Grumbles from the Grave. Even with such a tight editorial rein, Heinlein was still able to slip through some of his favorite hobby-horses, in particular his fondness for nudism and his ferocious opposition to gun control.

We also get to meet Jim's friend Frank, who knows a bit of the language of the intelligent Martians, as the two young men get an invitation to the nearby Martian city. In this scene we get a glimpse of the mysterious powers the Martians wield, and the consequent peril to humans, who can give offense without even realizing it for the simple reason that they may not see the potential for offense in a given situation. But Jim and Frank safely navigate through Martian culture, partly through their fragmentary knowledge of Martian culture, and partly the result of Martian good-will flowing from Jim's relationship with Willis.

However, this idyll cannot last for long, for Jim and Frank must go to school, which means a residential school at one of the equatorial settlements. In their fathers' days it wasn't a bad place, but a new administrator has taken over, and he proves to be a petty tyrant, fond of making rules for their own sake and utterly impatient with local custom, which he regards as barbaric.

At first his tyranny seems something to be endured, until he confiscates Willis as a contraband pet and traps Jim in his own words of protestation. But Willis is not without his own resources, and he soon escapes with a complete memory of a very disturbing conversation. It seems that the top brass intend to halt the annual migration by a ruse, and they want to sell poor Willis to the London Zoo.

So off Jim and Frank head on a desperate flight back home to warn the colony of this nefarious scheme. Without mechanized transportation, they will skate as far as possible on the ice of the canals built by earlier generations of the now-declining Martian civilization to bring water from the polar ice caps to the equatorial deserts. The description is so compelling that we never quite question the feasibility of open aqueducts through a desert so intense that the native Martians have made elaborate rituals of water-friendship central to their society. Not to mention that in Primary World science the canals would soon be proven to be nothing more than optical illusions produced by straining to see faint details of surface features beyond the resolving power of one's telescope, leaving behind the whole concept of a network of mega-architecture as evidence of advanced technological civilization on Mars.

This vividly imagined trek nearly ends with disaster, but our intrepid young heroes find shelter in a weed known as a Martian cabbage for its ability to roll up into a form that resembles the terrestrial plant. Just as Frank's developing a serious illness, they're rescued by Martians and taken home by a mysterious Martian subway, yet another remnant technology of a much earlier and more advanced period of Martian civilization.

Thus begins the endgame, in which the colonists confront the colonial government about their intentions when the confrontation turns ugly, Jim sends Willis off to the Martians with a plea for help -- and in the process nearly brings disaster down upon the heads of every human on Mars. Remember those terrible powers we glimpsed in Jim and Frank's initial visit to the Martian city? The Martians were angered just enough that they were almost ready to extirpate every human settlement -- and only their respect for Jim's relationship with Willis stayed their hand.

The novel ends with the colonists asserting their independence, with a suggestion that they will become closer to the native Martians than to the Earth they've left behind. Certainly the Martians have the power to enforce that separation if Earth forces should come calling and make themselves difficult.

One of the most interesting questions is how this novel fits with the larger corpus of Heinlein's work, since he did write multiple works in a single self-consistent fictional universe, viz his Future History short stories in The Saturday Evening Post. It's pretty clear that his later Scribner juvenile The Rolling Stones is set in the same universe, although the Martians are only glimpsed in that book and allusions to the events of Red Planet are ambiguous. And there are elements in that novel which tie it to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, particularly Grandma Stone's references to her role in the Lunar Revolution, although the only tie in the other direction is in Manny passing over Mars in his discussion of restless people finding Luna too crowded, too civilized, and seeking a new frontier to explore and settle.

However, the really interesting question is whether Stranger in a Strange Land belongs in the same continuity with these three novels (and with his problematic late novel The Cat Who Walks Through Walls). There's no doubt that Heinlein reused the biology he'd established for his intelligent Martians in Red Planet, now making explicit the role of the bouncers as their juvenile and female form and their adults' transition into a state humans would call a ghost after the death of their corporeal form. However, there are issues in the chronology that resist being explained away, issues that suggest they represent two parallel and closely related continuities rather than a single fictional universe. By that time, Heinlein seems to have come to an attitude similar to that of Marion Zimmer Bradley on the matter of consistency between stories, namely that it would be jettisoned without a tear if it got in the way of the story at hand.

Review posted July 24, 2012

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