Review: Red Planet

9 Jun

“See here, Frank, do you really want to live a life bound around with rules and regulations and discipline?”

“Mmmm … I want to be a pilot. I know that.”

“On your own head be it. Me, I left Earth to get away from all that nonsense. Earth has gotten so muscle-bound with laws that a man can’t breathe. So far, there’s still a certain amount of freedom on Mars. When that changes—”

The third of Heinlein’s juveniles, Red Planet starts the development of themes that Heinlein would explore for the remainder of his career. Freedom, personal responsibility and the importance of being prepared to fight, at a moment’s notice, for both. It reads a little more cumbersome than Space Cadet – in some ways, Red Planet is a regression – but it very definitely has its moments. I enjoyed reading it when I was a child.

The plot is focused around Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, two teenage boys from Mars, and Jim’s pet, a native creature called Willis the Bouncer. (Heinlein did not know, at this point, that Mars would be effectively lifeless.) They both grew up in the colony, but are heading to the Lowell Academy (a boarding school) for the academic year. Despite opposition from his parents, Jim takes Willis along, something that leads to an encounter with the enigmatic Martians that ends with them being invited to become ‘water friends.’

When they reach the school, they clash with the new headmaster, Mr. Howe. Howe confiscates Willis, something that comes back to bite him when Willie remembers and repeats a conversation between Howe and Beecher, the colonial administrator. Beecher has unpleasant plans for the colony, starting with blocking the annual migration from the north to the south so that both sets of buildings can be populated at the same time. This would be lethal to the colonists, old and new, as the reason behind the migration is to avoid severe winter weather.

Jim and Frank set out to warn their parents and the rest of the colony, skating along the frozen canals. They nearly die, but because of their friendship with another Martian they are helped to reach their home by the natives. The colonists, running out of time, start the migration anyway, which nearly leads to disaster when they are confronted by Beecher and the corporation’s troops. There is a brief skirmish, which ends with Beecher’s defeat and the colonists proclaiming their independence from Earth.

Unfortunately, the native Martians have also decided to take a hand. After killing Howe (for his abuse of Willis, now revealed to be a Martian child) they order the remainder of the colonists to leave Mars. Fortunately, because of Jim’s friendship with Willis, the Martians reluctantly relent. Jim is forced to give up his friend so he can make the transition into adulthood.

On a micro scale, Red Planet has many nice moments. The core of the story is the friendship between Jim, Frank and Willis, with all three of them risking their lives for the others. Jim, the viewpoint character, is very understandable, even though his society is quite different from ours. Heinlein also gives him a mentor, of sorts, in the old and erratic Dr. MacRae, who is stubborn, defiant and, when the colonists falter, gives them a pep talk that keeps them going.

A juvenile character is always restricted by his age – a common problem in such novels – but Heinlein neatly sidesteps the issue here. He makes it sound logical that Jim would be in a position to realise what is actually going on and do something about it. Later, he also captures the unwillingness of some people to rock the boat, even when disaster is breathing down their necks.

But, on a macro scale, Red Planet has many lessons for teenage boys.

The core conflict, between the colonists and the corporation, is precisely what you tend to get when the people in charge are divorced from the realities on the ground. Beecher and his superiors simply don’t understand why the migration is important, nor does Howe grasp the dangers of venturing outside the domes (and thus trying to confiscate guns). Heinlein neatly demonstrates how people get trapped by a steady stream of new rules, an early display of the ‘cook a frog by slowly turning up the heat’ principle. Each of the new rules, building on the one before, strips more freedom and independence from the boys until it is too late. There is a lesson here for those who wonder why the bureaucratic state is feared.

Part of the problem, of course, is that each of the new rules allows newer and better opportunities for cheating and corruption. The people with the right mindset find ways to exploit it, while others are forced to suffer. However, it is impossible to convince the rule-makers – and the grafters – that perhaps the rules should be cut down sharply. The people who benefit from such stupidity have no interest in making life harder for themselves.

Indeed, the corporation is not evil (although Beecher very definitely is). It’s just ignorant and stupid. And it is that ignorance that threatens to get everyone killed.

A further problem is the sheer time it can take to convince policy-makers to change their minds, if they can be convinced. By the time the colonists can manage to get a protest back to Earth, it will already be too late to stave off disaster. They have to take matters into their own hands or die in the winter.

Red Planet is also the first of Heinlein’s books to focus on the frontier life, something that Heinlein would idealise in later years. He works hard to show us that there is no room for petty rules and regulations – and even social conventions – on the frontier, pointing out that children have to grow up fast:

Now as I see it, this is a frontier society and any man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is an adult, too. Whether you folks know it yet or not, you are headed into a period when you’ll have to fight for your rights. The youngsters will do most of the fighting; it behooves you to treat them accordingly. Twenty-five may be the right age for citizenship in a moribund, age-ridden society like that back on Earth, but we aren’t bound to follow customs that aren’t appropriate to our needs here.”

Indeed, Heinlein seems to have worked out how a habitable Mars might look like – it’s clear that elements from Red Planet were later worked into Stranger in a Strange Land – and how it might shape its population. Mars of Red Planet is both strikingly familiar and alien enough to be different. It’s the sort of place an adventurous young man might want to grow up.

And yet, the book also shows signs of its era. There is surprisingly little female presence, save for an annoying little sister … but then, the book also makes a case for the female right to keep and bear arms. (Useful, in a dangerous environment.) The bad guys also pick up the idiot ball from time to time: Howe confiscates Willis because he hears the Martian repeat a series of unflattering remarks about him, but he doesn’t realise that Willis will also hear and repeat his discussion with Beecher, which sets off the chain of events that lead to their defeat.

Overall, Red Planet is a good read – and very appealing to teenage boys, its intended audience. And its core message has not aged at all.

2 Responses to “Review: Red Planet”

  1. William Porter June 10, 2018 at 5:42 am #

    One of my favourite Heinlein juveniles, pretty much for the reasons you give.

  2. Lumion June 10, 2018 at 10:11 pm #

    Qick question: Any idea when the new ark royal book will get to audible? Love AR and SIM. For SIM I would love to see a more settled book without invasions, courts and big wars. Maybe she starts buildung up her school or studies with void or does research. It has been so very intense lately. I also head a idea how she could hide her magic from others: She could cast, for example the nuke spell, into a pocket dimension and rig the time so it blows when she wants to. Could even attach it to an arrow or a bullet. Others would not see the spell but only the result.

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