Podkayne Of Mars

12 May

-Robert A. Heinlein

Fifteen years or so ago, I went through a Heinlein craze and read a vast number of his books in quick succession. Some offered new insights – Starship Troopers, in particular – while others seemed to have aged poorly or rarely lived up to their promise. Heinlein was both a storyteller and a teacher and the two didn’t always mix.

I must have read Podkayne Of Mars during that time, as I have a copy dating back to then in my Baen collection. It didn’t really stick in my mind, for reasons that have also failed to stick in my mind. It wasn’t until I read a harshly negative set of Heinlein reviews that I dug my copy out of storage and read it again. It was, in many ways, an interesting read, even though it has not aged well. Heinlein had far less creative freedom, in many ways, than his modern-day successors.

Podkayne Of Mars is a journal, written in first person by Podkayne – Poddy, for short – a fifteen-year-old girl who was born on Mars. Additional information is provided by her nine-year-old brother Clark, who writes his own commentary between chapters.Whatever else can be said of the book, the journal format works remarkably well. Poddy comes across as a living person, a teenager at the point where one is aware of one’s own potential, but less aware of one’s own limitations.

That said, Poddy can fairly be described as ‘all heart, no head.’ She is depressingly naive in many ways, always willing to see the best in people … something that eventually gets her killed. Clark, by contrast, is practically the exact opposite – a budding sociopath whose first question is pretty much ‘what’s in it for me?’ The Baen cover captures the difference between the two viewpoint characters very well – Poddy is bright and earnest, while Clark looks sinister and evil.


The story starts when a planned family cruise – an interplanetary cruise, naturally – is cancelled by a bureaucratic error which dumps three unplanned babies on the parents without a moment’s notice. Poddy’s Uncle Tom – of whom more below – steps in to arrange for Poddy and Clark to travel with him to Venus, then to Earth. Unknown to Poddy (although perhaps not to Clark) aged Uncle Tom is not doing this out of the goodness of his own heart. He is a diplomat on a secret mission who needs to speak to governments on both Venus and Earth. The children are there to provide him cover.

Two-thirds of the book covers the journey from Mars to Venus. Poddy discovers that sexism and classism still holds sway, even though she has a first-class berth on the ship. She meets a number of people who think that all of Mars’s inhabitants are criminals or worse. She occupies her time trying to coax the crew to tell her more about the ship – she has dreams of becoming the first female spacecraft captain – and trying to supervise her brother.

On Venus, Poddy and Clark are kidnapped by rogue factions who intend to use them to pressure Uncle Tom into changing his vote. Knowing that Tom will not cooperate, the two attempt an escape. Heinlein’s original version ends with Poddy dying in the escape, the impact of her death shocking Clark and changing him for the better. His editors rebelled against the ending and insisted that he save the poor girl. The Baen edition holds both endings and, realistically, I think the first one is better.

It’s easy to see why some readers – looking back from 2017 – don’t think too much of Podkayne Of Mars. Heinlein predicted some things with great accuracy, but other things were flat-out wrong. The idea that women can’t be spacecraft crew – and captains – looks bad to us now. That leaves us seeing Poddy as a strange mixture of innocent and coyly manipulative, using her feminine wiles to get what she wants. If nothing else, this behaviour is not calculated to make anyone actually respect her. Poddy is both charming- she writes in a florid teenage manner – and stupid. She has ambitions, but she never bothers to do what it takes to achieve them. Indeed, she isn’t sure what her ambitions are.

And Clark is largely an irredeemable figure. He may, in some ways, be the archetypical Jerk Sue. He is a genius, with a long list of genuinely remarkable achievements. Heinlein may have gone too far in making him heady, as it can be argued he’s too clever. On the other hand, it’s also possible to argue that Clark is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is – beating the gambling system might have been the result of a system, or sheer luck, or a deliberate decision by the house to let him win. Heinlein doesn’t tell us for sure.

On second reading, Uncle Tom – too – comes across as a darker figure. Some reviewers have claimed to spot an incestuous subtext in the book. I don’t see it. Instead, I see a wily old manipulator hiding behind a facade. It isn’t a coincidence, I think, that our true introduction to Tom comes when he applies a merciless dose of blackmail to get what he wants, then uses a naked threat to cover it. His apparent willingness to call out someone for accusing him of blackmail – as in challenging them to a duel – hides quite neatly the simple fact that he is a blackmailer. Throughout the voyage, he uses the children as meat-shields … and, when the chips are down, appears to be willing to sacrifice them to uphold his principles. From a cold point of view, this may be valid; from an emotional point, this is monstrous.

Indeed, in many ways, Uncle Tom reminds me of Albus Dumbledore. A decent old man-facade hiding a willingness to do whatever it takes (including sacrificing his own life) to win the war. Uncle Tom’s lecture to Poddy and Clark’s parents comes across about as well as Dumbledore’s little speech at the end of Order of the Phoenix­ – an attempt to escape blame for something that is, to a very great extent, his fault. (He blames the whole disaster on bad parenting, but that was not the main cause.)

That said, Heinlein was very brave for his time. Poddy is a mixed-race child and her parents are considered prime breeding stock, not a very popular attitude. It’s easy for me to portray a mixed-race starship captain or a black girl attending a magic school, but Heinlein didn’t have so much freedom. And – unlike in The Rolling Stones – it’s clear that the mother has a successful career of her own. Poddy’s failure to actually master the tools she needs to get ahead, therefore, looks more like a personal failing than anything inherent to her society.

(And, by modern standards, the book is astonishingly clean.)

Podkayne Of Mars is, in short, an extended character study of two very different children and their manipulative uncle, rather than a straight story. The story is about how they cope with moving from one society to two very different societies and, in the end, how their personal failings lead to disaster.

It is not as entertaining as some of Heinlein’s other works. But it does make you think.

20 Responses to “Podkayne Of Mars”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 12, 2017 at 3:41 pm #

    Interestingly, I’ve heard that this book marked the end of the relationship between Heinlein and Campbell.

    Apparently Heinlein has talking about this idea to Campbell and Campbell made a “snide” remark about “what do you know about writing a fifteen-year old girl”.

    Heinlein never tried to sell a story to Campbell after that.

  2. Bob Imus May 12, 2017 at 3:46 pm #

    Being quite young when I first read this book I was shocked by the ending. All of my stories up to that date had happy endings. I remember going to the library and checking the Sci-Fi section for Heinlein first, hoping to find a new one, being really disappointed when there weren’t. 🙂

  3. Jacqueline Harris May 12, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

    Spoliers for Harry Potter plots.
    I would love to read your review on harry potter sometime. The series and not necessarily individual books. I have noticed the opinions of Dumbledore have changed overtime. After the reveal in book 7 about Dumbledore’s plan its easy to just see just the calculating side of Dumbledore, similarly after learning about James and Severus’s past it’s easy to say that Snape might have been right about James and that Snape was a good guy after all completely forgetting his horrible treatment of Harry, and James’s is age at the time.
    For me in Harry Potter more so then the magical adventure, the mysteries of Harry Potter always hooked me in. Often what you didn’t know about the past of a character or event, is more important then what you initially know. All of the characters have deeper motivations to their actions.
    As for Dumbledore… I always felt that even though he knew Harry would have to sacrifice himself for the greater good, that he believed Harry would survive if he kept him in the dark about the sacrifice. I felt that he still cared for Harry and wanted him to survive. I always felt he felt remorse for his actions and what he had to do. Similarly Snape is neither good nor bad. He is grey. Alan Rickmans marvelous performance can’t make him a “good guy”. He willingly became a death eater and he was emotionally and verbally abusive not just to Harry but to Nevillie, Despite that he gave his life to help Harry defeat Voldemort and to protect the students after Dumbledore was gone.
    Even despite going through a jerk off phase as a teenager James always rejected the dark arts and spent his adult life fighting Voldemort. The layers of characterization for even minor characters has always impressed me.

    • chrishanger May 14, 2017 at 9:03 pm #

      I’ve always thought of James Potter as being someone akin to Gaston of Beauty and the Beast – handsome and fun-loving on the outside, rotten to the core on the inside. The kind of guy someone can easily make excuses for, the kind of guy who is so popular that he can get away with just about anything. James was a brutal bully, serial harasser and probably a sexual harasser too – I can easily see why Snape hated him so much. And I lost a lot of respect for Lily when she actually married James. I don’t think there was much suggestion that James really matured.

      People like that leave a lot of debris in their wake. Snape’s life, Pettigrew’s treachery, even Sirius being jailed for umpteen years.

      I’m not saying he isn’t realistic. I’m just saying that I’ve met people like that in real life and I loathed them.


      • kell May 17, 2017 at 9:44 pm #

        That boarding school must have sucked.

      • chrishanger May 22, 2017 at 11:32 am #

        Mine? Oh, yes.


  4. randallberger May 13, 2017 at 8:19 am #

    I began my relationship with Heinlein probably 50 years ago as a tweenager … my US high school had quite a good collection of scifi in the library. My all time favourite is the cobbled together ORPHANS OF THE SKY … would love to turn that into a screenplay one lifetime …

  5. georgephillies May 13, 2017 at 10:18 pm #

    It took me a while to realize. Heinlein was so far-sighted that he invented *Valley Girls*, of which Podkayne was the epitome.

    • chrishanger May 14, 2017 at 9:05 pm #

      She certainly wasn’t that smart


  6. randallberger May 14, 2017 at 12:31 am #

    I think in those pimply years I also read every scrap of Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula Le Guin … And watched the first airing of Star Trek … I’ve had a long Sci Fi life … Most things haven’t come true … Only 1984 …

  7. William Ameling May 14, 2017 at 5:18 am #

    It has been a long time since I read Podkayne of Mars, but Heinlein was at least willing to consider women in combat roles long before most Americans, most particularly in “Starship Troopers” where most of the pilots of warships and many of the ship commanders, as former or current pilots, were women. We were not told about what other roles they might be serving in aboard those warships, but I am sure they were there. But there were limits on how far Heinlein could push things in writing and still get published, or have his books/stories (i.e. in SF Magazines) bought after they were published. Compare his writings in the 1950s to the later 1960s and 1970s. Much of his 1950s writings were aimed at a older juvenile or young male audience. Back then (1950s and early 1960s) a lot of science fiction was still first published in the magazines and then published, sometimes, in book form. Or take a look at “Tunnels in the Sky” that had an Amazon Corps and both (young) men and women being trained in and going on the survival missions on a undeveloped world, somewhat like our present day Survivor TV shows, but without the media being present, and having a real chance of injury or death. Some of them were only at what we would consider at the High School senior level the rest were at the college level.

    What I found most interesting about Starship Troopers was his idea that full citizenship, in the sense of voting rights, serving in political office or the civil service of all levels of government, was only earned by government service such as the military, or other things along what were later called Peace Corps in the USA. Other people still had normal legal (i.e. judicial) rights and protections, it was voting rights and office holding that required that government service. It was required that anyone (of any gender, ethnic, class, etc. status) who wanted to serve could find a useful way to serve and earn those rights, i.e. no one was forbidden the chance to earn those rights.

    Heinlein was undoubtably inspired by Earth’s history where quite often, before 2 or 3 centuries ago, where voting rights and military service where directly tied together.

  8. William Ameling May 14, 2017 at 5:26 am #

    I thought Podkayne survived the explosion of the atomic bomb at the site of the base for the kidnappers using the bomb that her younger brother left behind to go off after their escape . But that she was almost killed because she went back to rescue something, and then ended up in the hospital where she wrote her story (after it was all over).

    • georgephillies May 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

      The novel had two endings, one in which she survived (the original published) and one in which she did not ( the author;s original version, which eventually appeared in a version of the book)..

      • William Ameling May 14, 2017 at 3:45 pm #

        Thanks, for clearing up my confusion. Although, if she died how did she write her story?

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 14, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

        Her story was told from her diary. In the version that she died, her brother wrote in her diary about her death.

      • chrishanger May 14, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

        The baen edition has both.


  9. William Ameling May 16, 2017 at 7:19 am #

    Like I was saying above, as well as you, Heinlein was limited by editors and market. Much more so in the 1950s when he was trying to write for the juvenile market. Some of the later books of that period are interesting, particularly Star Ship Troopers and Citizen of the Galaxy. It was in the 1960s as the social revolutions started in the Vietnam War Period along with the early Baby Boom babies starting to enter college, that he became a lot more inventive and interesting from a social or society point of view. Particularly, early books of that time period like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land are considerably different than his earlier period. Heinlein predicted things like women carrying other women’s babies in their own wombs for pay and using linear accelerators to throw payloads from the Moon to Earth. Unfortunately, the Moon does not have enough water to support large scale colonization, much less shipping food from the Moon to Earth. His vision of a large computer being used to support a revolution is particularly interesting, as well as the considerably different society that developed on the Moon. Stranger in a Strange Land is an interesting commentary on the changes he saw happening and coming to American (particularly) and World culture. He could see a lot of trends looking back on his writings, but we did not end up exactly where he thought we would. But he realized that as well.

  10. Podkayne H. July 19, 2017 at 7:08 am #

    My step father named me after this young lady in the book . Yes they call me Poddy as well. I’m 49 yes old and for a very long time I despised both of my parents for naming me Podkayne. But after awhile I started to realize no one else had my name. I always wanted to know were it derived from. Now I’m glad I have it .its Rare. Its unique and its different. My mother has 16 brothers and sisters after all these years some of them still can’t pronounce my name correctly. Others say my parent s must have been on drugs. But nope my dad was in the Veitnaum War when he stumbled across the book Podkayne of mars. I was born in 1968 the year Martin Luther King died. I the smart Podkayne. and I’m of a mix descendent … Black Indian and Porto Rican. I dad gave me the book when I turned 13 yes old and I lost in . But twice I was told to check out the libarury. Never did . I was told the book was boreing. But you seem to have explained it wonderfully. Thank You!!!
    Podkayne H.


  1. Podkayne of Mars | Notes - May 15, 2017

    […] Nuttall reviews Robert A. Heinlein’s Podkayne Of Mars. He goes into the story behind the story, where the original publisher required that Heinlein […]

  2. Retro Review: Starship Troopers - Amazing Stories - December 20, 2017

    […] preconceptions of the time – he mischievously told the readers of Podkayne Of Mars (reviewed here) that Poddy’s parents were considered superior sorts, despite being mixed-race – but there […]

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