Forgotten? Heinlein: Red Planet

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein.  Scribner’s 1949, hardcover and paperback. Juvenile novel # 3

Colonists on Mars: ever a popular science fiction storyline. This time it’s a good guys vs. bad guys with the Martians caught in the middle. It represents the first appearance of Heinlein’s idealized Martian elder race, which will reappear in Stranger in a Strange Land.

The Plot
The novel is set in the future when Mars has been colonized by humans, but is administered by a governor appointed by the Earth government and the colonists have no political power. On Mars, colonial teenagers Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton travel to the Lowell Academy boarding school for the start of the academic year. Jim takes along his native Martian pet, Willis, who is a Bouncer, a round fur covered ball the size of a vollyball, who is about as intelligent as a human child and has a photographic memory for sounds, which he can also reproduce perfectly.

The trip is along the frozen Martian canals (it’s Winter) in a skate boat. At a rest stop, Willis wanders off and encounters one of the adult sentient Martians. The three-legged alien takes the two boys and Willis to join a ritual called “growing together” with a group of its fellows. They also share water, making Jim and Frank “water friends” with the Martian, who is named Gekko.

At school, the well-liked and respected headmaster is retiring, and Mr. Howe is sent from Earth to replace him. Howe used to run a military academy, and believes in strict adherence to rules, and there are lots of them.

Jim gets into trouble when the authoritarian Howe, who confiscates Willis, claiming that it is against the new rules to have pets. After Jim and Frank rescue Willis, the bouncer repeats two overheard conversations between Howe and Beecher, the unscrupulous colonial administrator of Mars, detailing Beecher’s plans for Willis and the colony. When Beecher learns Howe has a bouncer, he is ecstatic, since the London Zoo is willing to pay a hefty price for a specimen. Worse, Beecher is secretly planning to prevent the annual migration of the colonists (to avoid the most severe months of winter weather) in order to save money. The boys run away from school to warn their parents and the colony.

The boys decide to return home to warn their parents. During the trip, Frank gets sick. On the third night, they are forced to take shelter inside a giant Martian cabbage plant (nearly suffocating when it folds up at night). The next day, they meet some native Martians, who accept Jim because of his relationship to Willis and water-friendship with Gekko. The Martians treat Frank’s illness and send the two boys home by a formerly unknown to the colony subway.

Once warned, Jim’s father quickly organizes the migration, hoping to catch Beecher off guard. The colonists take over the boarding school, and they turn it into a temporary shelter. Howe locks himself in his office, while Beecher sets up automatic, photosensor-controlled weapons outside to stop the malcontents (as he calls them) from leaving. After two colonists are killed trying to surrender, and the power to the building is cut, the colonists decide they have no choice but to fight back. The colonists organize a raiding party, with the boys taking part, capture Beecher’s office and proclaim the colony’s independence from Earth.

Several Martians enter the town and shortly afterward both Howe and Beecher disappear. The Martians had been content to allow humans to share their planet, but Beecher’s threat to Willis has made them reconsider. They present the colonists with an ultimatum to leave the planet. Dr. MacRae negotiates with the Martians, and is able to persuade them to let the colonists stay, mainly because of Jim’s strong friendship with Willis.

My Take
Red Planet is better than the first two in this “series”, by quite a lot.  The edition I read had the original ending restored. Compared to the first two juvenile (YA) novels, the plot in this one has more elements and depth, but the interactions between the boys is still very YA indeed. This is often considered as the first truly successful of the Heinlein juveniles.  Next time: Farmer In the Sky.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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22 Responses to Forgotten? Heinlein: Red Planet

  1. Jeff Meyerson says:

    It just shows how many things I missed by not reading SF when I was a kid. I know I would have read all the Heinlein books, whereas now I’m just catching up with the ones that appeal to me. Probably not this one.

    • Thanks, Jeff. I thought this one was better than the first two, and better then the next of them as well. I’m nearing the end of the dozen he wrote, and finding them kind of a mixed bag. I’ll decide where to place it in my wrap-up post, after one (two?) more.

  2. Jerry House says:

    I enjoyed this one, Rick. There was a 1994 animated mini-series that I enjoyed far less.

  3. Now I’m tempted to read the “restored” version of RED PLANET! I have vague positive memories of RED PLANET…but I read it about 60 years ago!

  4. Mark McSherry says:

    This is one of my Heinlein favorites. The middle part, where the two boys skate south on the iced-over canals in a desperate attempt to reach home, was immensely appealing to me when I read it for the first time. And Heinlein, in real life, took ice skating lessons mid-1946. It is interesting that Heinlein took the Jim Marlowe/Willis setup in Red Planet and re-jiggered that to John Stuart/Lummox in The Star Beast. In each book, those deep friendships help resolve the dire issues between alien races.

  5. Mark McSherry says:

    Years before William Patterson published his first volume of his Heinlein biography, he edited The Heinlein Journal. It was published twice yearly and contained articles of RAH research and literary criticism. One such article was RED PLANET—BLUE PENCIL by Jane Davitt which appeared in the January 2001 issue. It compares the original 1949 published text of RED PLANET to the restored version.

  6. Mark McSherry says:

    Thanks to Rafeeq McGiveron, his site lists most of the artwork associated with Heinlein’s writing. This page concerns the artwork (covers and interiors) of RAH’s Scribners/YA books—

    FARMER IN THE SKY was the first Heinlein juvenile to be serialized. Mr. McGiveron has posted all the artwork created for those too—

    All the images are clickable, to expand and even save. Allowing you to further magnify and study.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    It is pretty remarkable how much of your precis here presages not only STAR LUMMOX/THE STAR BEAST but also aspects of STRANGER and HARSH MISTRESS…giving a few potent, for RAH, ideas a preliminary workout.

  8. tracybham says:

    I remember that I enjoyed reading this book a few years ago. I enjoyed your review, and am looking forward to posts on the remaining Heinlein juveniles. I would be interested in finding a copy of the restored version sometime.

  9. Redhead says:

    All I remember of Red Planet is Jim, Willis, and that I enjoyed reading it.

    but wait. . ” The edition I read had the original ending restored. ”

    original ending restored? What are the two endings? and what is it with RAH endings being changed for mass consumption?

    • The publisher changed the ending, not the author. The original ending made it clear Willis would need to “hibernate” for 40 years or so in his transformation to an adult stage. That was changed when it was published in book form, so it was not clear how long it would be.

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  13. Tony Willis says:

    Well, my last name is Willis, so of course, I liked this novel. 🙂
    I was a kid back in the 50s so I was always glad when a new ‘Heinline Juvenile’ showed up. I think I’d personally rank it as the novel in 2nd place.

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