Revised Review: Podkayne Of Mars

5 Jun

Tomorrow’s answer to the anti-missile-missile, Podkayne of Mars. An interplanetary bombshell who rocked the constellations when she invaded the Venus Hilton and attached the mighty mechanical men with a strange, overpowering blast of highly explosive Sex Appeal.

-The Back Cover Blurb for the Ace SF Edition

A person who picked up a book with the above blurb, probably the most misleading blurb in the history of science-fiction, might be forgiven for expecting a softcore porn novel with raunchy doings all over the solar system. I honestly have no idea why Heinlein signed off on this blurb, assuming he was given the chance to object (writers are not always allowed input into everything from cover design to publicity materials; anyone who’s actually read the novel will know that, save for a single chaste kiss, there is nothing particularly sexual in the novel. By today’s standards, Podkayne of Mars is astonishingly clean.

Heinlein himself wasn’t sure if Podkayne of Mars should be classed as a juvenile novel or not. It was written later than most of his juveniles, when Heinlein’s work had started to drift more towards literature and away from pulp; it also, uniquely amongst the juveniles, features a female protagonist. This experiment, if experiment it was, didn’t work out as well as Heinlein might have hoped. Poddy is a very limited character in a number of ways, while her brother Clark is probably the archetypical Jerk Sue. Her age – Poddy is fifteen by Earth years, while Clark is eleven – limits what she can do. But Clark doesn’t like that stand in his way. Worse, thanks to Heinlein’s editors, Podkayne of Mars has two endings. I believe that most readers agree that the original ending is better.

I must have read Podkayne Of Mars when I was a teenager myself, 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. He could not, for example, mention anything to do with ‘female troubles’ in his juveniles.

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. She is also given to being overdramatic, at one point remarking that the Angel of Death brushed Clark with his wings and, at another:

At first I thought that my brother Clark had managed one of his more charlatanous machinations of malevolent legerdemain. But fortunately (the only fortunate thing about the whole miserable mess) I soon perceived that it was impossible for him to be in fact guilty no matter what devious subversions roil his id.”

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.

I’m smart enough not unnecessarily to show that I am smart; I’ve got a long upper lip and a short nose, and when I wrinkle my nose and look baffled, a man is usually only too glad to help me, especially if he is about twice my age.”

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. This is not, of course, uncommon amongst teenagers, male and female alike, but at her age it’s an odd weakness. Poddy veers from wanting to be a spaceship captain to considering motherhood, then going back again. It would be interesting to see her grow up and realise her dreams, but – at the same time – Poddy is not presented to us as a person who can achieve her dreams.

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 of view, 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.

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.

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