Review: Between Planets

15 Jun

Review Between Planets

“I’m a citizen of the System,” [Don] said harshly.

“Mmmm,” said the headmaster. “That’s a fine phrase and perhaps someday it will mean something. In the meantime, speaking as a friend, I agree with your parents. Mars is likely to be neutral territory; you’ll be safe there. Again, speaking as your friend—things may get a little rough here for anyone whose loyalty is not perfectly clear.”

The key to writing a juvenile book that appeals to all ages, as I will discuss later in greater detail, is balancing relative simplicity with a plotline and characters that don’t insult adult intelligence. A juvenile does not want to try to figure out the complex metaphysics of Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, while an adult does not want to bore himself with the lacklustre simplicity of Rocket Ship Galileo. Juvenile books can and do have big ideas, as Heinlein proved time and time again, but they have to express those ideas in a way that, first and foremost, appeals to the target audience. Appealing to adults is a bonus.

Between Planets is quite successful in appealing to juveniles, and I enjoyed it a great deal when I was a child, but it isn’t quite so good in retrospect. Rereading the book reminded me of just how much Heinlein managed to cram into a relatively short story, yet it also pointed out plot-holes and other weaknesses that let the side down. Truthfully, I would say that Between Planets is one of the lesser juveniles.

Don Harvey, a teenage schoolboy at a boarding school on Earth, wants nothing to do with politics. He comes from a mixed family – his scientist father was an Earth citizen, his scientist mother a Venus citizen and he was born in interplanetary space – and he doesn’t have a side. Both worlds are quite strange to him. However, politics is about to take an interest in him. Earth, growing increasingly repressive under the Federation’s law, has been threatening Venus … and the colonials are on the verge of open revolt. Don is barely aware of how bad things have become until he gets a message from his parents, ordering him to travel to Mars at once. Oh, and he has to look up an old friend of his family along the way.

Dismissed from his school, Don meets the friend and is given a gift for his parents – a child’s plastic ring, wrapped in paper. He is still puzzling over this when he gets arrested and interrogated by the security services, who appear to believe that he was given a message for his parents. After much trouble, Don is released – with the ring. The security services keep the paper, apparently under the belief that there might be an invisible message on it, and tell Don to leave the planet. His family friend apparently died of heart failure (which is, as Don realises, true of every form of death).

Taking ship to an orbital station, where he was meant to board his ship to Mars, Don discovers that it was captured by a raiding party from Venus. Having nowhere else to go – and being vouched for by a Venus Dragon (one of the planet’s natives) – Matt is allowed to go with them to Venus, where he finds himself in a political limbo. He gets a job washing dishes to save money to send a message to Mars; eventually, he gets close enough to a girl – Isabel – to ask her to take the ring for safekeeping. This is only just in time. Venus is invaded, Don is captured … and, unsurprisingly, the invaders want the ring.

Don escapes and joins the resistance, eventually making contact with a group of interplanetary rebels. They tell him the truth: his parents are part of the society and the ring contains one half of the instructions for making a new kind of space drive (and various other things, including a forcefield). Don recovers the ring from Isabel, gives it to the good guys and – eventually – finds himself crewing the new spaceship. There is a brief and very one-sided battle with the bad guys …

… And the story just ends.

I think that Between Planets is a fun read – and I enjoyed it a lot when I was a kid – but there are too many plot holes for me to take it seriously these days. The greatest of them, perhaps, is the simple fact that too many things could have gone spectacularly wrong. Don didn’t know – didn’t even guess – the true importance of the ring. He could have lost it, or sold it, or simply given it away at any moment along his trip to Venus, never knowing what he’d managed to lose. On one hand, what Don didn’t know Don couldn’t tell; on the other, Don could easily have thrown the ring away at any moment. The whole plot, which was thrown together at the last minute, could have gone badly wrong. Someone might easily have taken the ring off Don too. The security services could have confiscated it just to be dicks.

Indeed, the oddly businessman-like attitude of the security goons is at variance with real secret policemen. The kind of people who drift into those jobs love wielding power over their fellow men. They cannot tolerate any challenge, any more than a religious man can tolerate a challenge to his faith. It’s odd to see such nasty bastards be so understanding of Don’s hatred, let alone let him go (with the ring) afterwards. But then, there are limits to how far Heinlein could go in a juvenile book. Sixth Column was far more detailed in showing how secret policemen keep a society under control.

The second major problem is that the story reaches a certain point – the final engagement in space – and then stops. Don is not reunited with his parents, nor does he ever get to Mars; there’s no hint of what the post-war system will look like, now the war is over. And it would have been nice to see what his parents made of their son, now a man.

Indeed, Don himself is the core of the story. The politically-neutral young man who didn’t care about politics is forced to realise, to borrow a line from Heinlein himself, that politics is sometimes interested in him. He’s oddly passive, compared to some of Heinlein’s other heroes, but he does a lot of growing along the way. By the time Venus is invaded, Don is prepared to fight for it. There are some odd moments – he doesn’t seem to grasp the symbolism of giving Isabel a ring – but he is a genuine hero.

And yet, from another perspective, it’s possible to see him as a little brat. Given what was at stake, it’s hard to blame some of the rebels for being irritated with him. But then, he also got pushed around a lot while he was on Earth.

On a wider scale, the book also touches on issues of nationalism. Man wants to be free, but man also wants to belong. People join groups because they want – they need – social contact and, in order to get it, they are prepared to suppress their individuality to some degree. Going against the group can be dangerous, particularly during times of trouble. A person who does not contribute, or is seen as The Load, will often find himself kicked out when times are hard and resources are limited. As Heinlein put it:

[Don] was beginning to feel the basic, gnawing tragedy of the wartime displaced person—the loss of roots. Man needs freedom, but few men are so strong as to be happy with complete freedom. A man needs to be part of a group, with accepted and respected relationships. Some men join foreign legions for adventure; still more swear on a bit of paper in order to acquire a framework of duties and obligations, customs and taboos, a time to work and a time to loaf, a comrade to dispute with and a sergeant to hate—in short, to belong.”

Indeed, people who see themselves as global citizens – ‘citizens of the system,’ as Don puts it – are cutting themselves off from their homes. Why should someone who shows no loyalty to their country be defended by their country? It’s quite hard, now, to have any emotional attachment to an ideal – the European Union or the United Nations – and people who claim to be global citizens are only ducking the question of nationality. In the meantime, those who are nationalists regard them as potential traitors. Nationalism has led to many evils, throughout history, but so too has an absence of nationalism. It’s a question of perspective.

Don is not the only person – or organisation – in the book that can be seen from more than one perspective. Heinlein neatly points out that one person’s view of the situation may not be identical to another person’s view and what the first person might consider irrational behaviour might, to the second, be perfectly rational:

The [invasion of Venus] should not have happened, of course. The rice farmer sergeant had been perfectly right; the Federation could not afford to risk its own great cities to punish the villagers of Venus. He was right – from his viewpoint.

“A rice farmer has one logic; men who live by and for power have another and entirely different logic. Their lives are built on tenuous assumptions, fragile as reputation; they cannot afford to ignore a challenge to their power – the Federation could not afford not to punish the insolent colonists.”

It’s a valid point. And one that is too often forgotten these days. Indeed, along those lines, Heinlein provides an explanation of why we don’t trust experts. They get too many things wrong:

Everything is theoretically impossible, until it’s done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.”

Heinlein, as always, paints a fine universe. It’s clear, right from the start, that Earth is a repressive state on the brink of a war scare. His interplanetary travel descriptions are as excellent as always, although nowhere near as detailed as Farmer in the Sky or Starman Jones. And Venus, while bearing no resemblance to the real Venus, is a convincing colonial society, mingled with alien life forms that seem mildly amused with humanity. It’s the sort of place I might like to live, if there wasn’t the threat of an invasion. There are also some moments where Heinlein predicts the future, including Don carrying and using something akin to a mobile phone.

But, in other places, the book is tissue-thin. Don develops a relationship with Isabel, and at the end of the book seems to think he will be marrying her, but the relationship is so thin as to be unconvincing. (Heinlein himself pointed out that there were difficulties in including romance in juvenile books, running the risk of annoying either male readers or their parents.) The logic of using Don as an unwitting courier makes no sense, and putting him on the spacecraft is a dubious decision, while the end of the war isn’t explored at all. It’s nice to see Don finding a place, of sorts, but the story just ends.

Truthfully, Between Planets is a fun little read, but I think it is perhaps the least of Heinlein’s juveniles.

4 Responses to “Review: Between Planets”

  1. PhilippeO June 15, 2018 at 1:10 pm #

    Uh, Nationalism itself is attachment to an ideal. USA didn’t exist before 1790s and still ideal until 1840s. UK didn’t exist before Act of Union and didn’t truly united until Cromwell.

    Absence of Nationalism never exist, people can be loyal to smaller things : Virginia, Scotland. or loyal to greater things : EU, US, UK, UN. All such community is always “idealized”, never truly ” real”. whether or not Nationalism to such an entity is viable can only be proven through wars. without wars there are no “prove” that EU is less real than UK.

  2. Matt Harris June 15, 2018 at 4:09 pm #

    I think Between Planets was one of the first Heinlein novels I read. As a gateway drug, it worked – I was hooked. I like it better than most of his other juveniles, including Rocket Ship Galileo, the Rolling Stones,, Podkayne of Mars or Starman Jones.

    I believe Heinlein had some real constraints by his editor at Scribner regarding how much sexuality his characters could have.

  3. dichroic June 15, 2018 at 5:36 pm #

    I like what John Myers Myers says about being part of a group, in Silverlock (he’s talking about rowing): “A need of men, generally denied them, is to feel a part of something which works smoothly and well. In a mated crew the ideal is reached, the feeling of perfection passing smoothly back and forth from the individual to the team like an electric current. Until exhaustion breaks the spell, there is no more to be desired.” (The only problem with this description is that exhaustion, or at least lactic acid buildup, generally “breaks the spell” only about 200 meters after the start of a race! But then, Silverlock and his crew weren’t doing racing starts.)

    Anyone who has been part of a good choir may recognize that same feeling. But I find it interesting that Silverlock takes it up a notch from Heinlein – not just needing to feel part of something, but to be part of something that works well. Do you think they’re talking about the same thing?

    (I could analogize this to some aspects of current politics – but I’m not gonna. I’d rather talk about Heinlein and Myers Myers instead.)

  4. William Ameling June 17, 2018 at 6:14 pm #

    My own experience in groups is mostly from (really good) Band and Orchestra in High School, and to some extent in the US Air Force. Many people get it from sports while growing up. The trick is getting them involved in larger and larger groups.

    That was what was so different about the English middle classes in the 1600s (Puritans and others) they were literate and formed lots of small groups to read and support issues, this lead to the English Civil War (1640s) and played a major influence on/in the American Colonies. Supposedly, many important Puritan figures of the 1640s in England almost emigrated to New England in the 1630s, to join those who did emigrate. In most of Europe of the 1600s, 1700s and even early 1800s, most of the common class peoples were not literate and not politically active (with the exception of the French Revolution).

    A really good book to read is “The Cousins’ Wars” which discusses what caused the English Civil War and how this lead to the American Revolution and then the American Civil War.

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