Thursday, October 1, 2009

From the Spike S. Collection: Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein (1949)

Inspired by a recent conversation with my father, this new feature will focus on books Dad suggests I review. Dad is of a libertarian bent – and believes that the quality of science fiction largely took a nosedive sometime in the 1970’s. As such, most of the books reviewed under the “Spike S. Collection” heading will pre-date 1976. :)

Plot Synopsis:

As Jim Marlowe prepares to ship off to school at Syrtis Minor, Mars, there’s one thing he knows for sure: he wants to take Willis along. Willis is a Martian Jim has adopted – a furry, basketball shaped creature that displays rudimentary sentience and can perfectly mimic every sound in its environment. But at Lowell Academy, Jim and his friend Frank are dismayed when the school’s benign headmaster is replaced midterm by the dictatorial Marquis Howe, who immediately draws up a list of arbitrary rules to bring the “unruly” colonial boys in line. Howe dissolves the student council, demands that the boys paint over the individual designs on their respirator helmets, orders that all personal weapons – which teenagers on Mars are permitted to carry – be kept in the armory, and, most important for Jim, forbids pets. Jim hides Willis (and his gun), but when Willis disturbs the dormitory by playing back Latin music in the middle of the night, Howe confiscates the creature.

Jim and Frank attempt to break into Howe’s office to free Willis and are rather astonished when the Martian cuts itself out with a previously unseen appendage. They are further surprised – and then outraged – when Willis begins to play back the conversations it has heard in the headmaster’s office. Not only do they learn that Howe and Resident Agent General Beecher are scheming to send Willis to the London Zoo, but they also discover that the Company - the group in charge of the settlements on Mars - has decided not to allow the annual winter migration of South Colony, Jim’s home settlement, to save money and open Mars to increased colonization. Jim and Frank run away from the school and trek the hundreds of miles home with the Company’s police in hot pursuit. On the way, they are assisted by the native Martians, with whom they develop a friendly relationship.

Once in South Colony, Jim informs his father of the Company’s plans, and the residents of the colony, who absolutely refuse to suffer through the lethal Martian winter, immediately organize - over the resistance of the Company men - to discuss their options. Ultimately, they decide to commence with their migration whether the Company wants them to or not. The colonists make it as far as Syrtis Minor before they are forced to hole up in Lowell Academy. Fire-fights ensue. Ultimately, the Martians intervene, killing Howe and Beecher and demanding that all humans depart from Mars immediately; as it turns out, Willis is a Martian child of sorts, and the elder Martians, as you might expect, are gravely insulted that one among the humans would plot to ship off their child to an Earthling zoo. Dr. MacRae, a colonist fluent in Martian and a friend of Jim’s family, negotiates a new peace with the Martians, while the colonists, led by Jim’s father, finally declare their independence from Earth.

The Ratings:

Overall: 7.7 – A serviceable adventure story with some nice red meat for libertarians.

Characterization: 6

There is little in Heinlein’s characterization here that truly stands out. The teenaged protagonists are refreshingly free of modern adolescent angst, but that also leaves them rather indistinct. Dr. MacRae’s primary function, meanwhile, seems to be to stand in as the mouthpiece for an opinionated author – and one detects a strong hint of mustache twirling in the characterization of Howe and Beecher. Even the “loyalist” colonists – the Pottles - are painted with a bit too broad a brush.

On the other hand, the characterization of Jim Marlowe, Sr., Jim’s father, who assumes a position of leadership over the rebelling colonists and tries to act with prudence and probity, is quite good. And the native Martians are interestingly ambiguous; at first, they come across as alien hippies, but when they swiftly dispatch Howe and Beecher – leaving nary a trace – suddenly they take on a slight air of menace, reminding us, chillingly, that they shouldn’t be underestimated.

Plot/Pacing: 9

This juvenile is not inclined to linger on the unimportant; thus, the story moves at a pleasingly rapid clip. The sense of peril during both the flight from Syrtis Minor and the final battles is deftly maintained. In short, like most Golden Age adventures, Red Planet is a “page-turner.” I found I had trouble putting it down to go to work!

Concepts/Themes: 8

A libertarian surely will have trouble resisting a story that features speeches such as the following (found on pages 141-142 in Dad’s 1976 edition):

“If you want a contract enforced, you have to enforce it yourself. You know what lies behind this. It showed up last season when the Company cut down on the household allowance and started charging excess baggage. I warned you then – but the board was a hundred million miles away and you paid rather than fight. The Company hates the expense of moving us, but more important, they are very anxious to move more immigrants in here faster than we can take them; they think they see a cheap way out by keeping both North Colony and South Colony filled up all the time, instead of building more buildings. As Sister Gibbs put it, they don’t realize the conditions here and they don’t know we can’t do effective work in the winter.

“The question is not whether or not we can last out a polar winter; the Eskimo caretakers do that every season. It isn’t just a matter of contract; it’s a matter of whether we are going to be free men, or are we going to let our decisions be made for us on another planet, by men who have never set foot on Mars!” (emphasis mine)
This book is also sprinkled with defenses of the right to assembly and the right to bear arms – and, gratifyingly, at one point, a character even openly rejects materialism. Only Heinlein’s heavy hand on the characterization prevents this American Revolution analogy from receiving a perfect ten.

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