Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein. Scribner’s & Sons, 1951. Juvenile novel # 5 Originally serialized in Blue Book magazine in 1951 as “Planets in Combat”. It was published in hardcover that year by Scribner’s as part of the Heinlein juveniles.
The scientist parents of Don Harvey withdraw him from his high school in New Mexico in the middle of the term so that he can travel to their home on Mars. It is hinted that his parents want him “out of a potential war zone”, where he would be viewed suspiciously because of doubts about where his loyalties lie. At his parents’ behest, he visits an old family friend who asks him to deliver a ring to his father. But both Don and the family friend are arrested by Earth security forces. Harvey is released and given his cheap plastic ring back, after it has been examined; he is told that his friend has died of “heart failure.” It is only later that he realizes that all deaths can be described that way.
Harvey boards a shuttle to a space station orbiting the Earth. The station doubles as a transshipment terminus and a military base, armed with missiles to keep restive nations in check. On the trip up, he befriends one of his fellow passengers, a Venerian “dragon” named Sir Isaac Newton. Sir Isaac is a renowned physicist who can speak English using a portable device.
Harvey gets caught up in the Venerian war of independence when the station is captured by the colonials in a surprise raid. Most of the other travelers are sent back to Earth, while a few decide to join the rebels. Harvey is in a quandary. The spaceship to Mars has been confiscated, but he remains determined to get there, by way of Venus if necessary. Because he was born in space, with one parent from Venus and the other from Earth, he claims Venerian citizenship; more importantly, Sir Isaac vouches for him. He is allowed to tag along, which turns out to be very fortunate for Harvey. The rebels blow up the station to stir up trouble for the Earth government. When the shuttle returns to Earth with its radios disabled, the military assumes it has been booby-trapped and destroys it, killing all aboard.
On his arrival on Venus, Harvey finds that his Earth-backed money is now worthless. He gets a job washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant run by Charlie, a kind Chinese immigrant.
He tries to send a message to his parents, only to find all communication with Mars has been cut due to the hostilities. Harvey settles in to wait out the war, but the war comes to him when Earth sends a force to put down the rebellion. The Venerian ships are destroyed in orbit and the ground forces are routed. Charlie is killed resisting the occupying soldiers. Harvey is rounded up and questioned by a senior security officer, who is very eager to get his hands on Harvey’s ring. Luckily, Harvey had given it to a friend for safekeeping and he does not know where the friend is or whether she is even alive. Before he can be interrogated with drugs, he escapes and joins the Venusian guerrilla forces.
In time, he is tracked down by the leaders of the resistance, who turn out to also be looking for the ring. Isobel and her father (who is an important member of the rebels) are safe at the very base where Harvey is taken.
The seemingly valueless ring turns out to be carrying the secret of scientific breakthroughs resulting from archaeological studies of an extinct alien civilization on Mars. With Sir Isaac’s assistance, it is used to build an advanced spaceship that is much faster than any other vessel in existence, with revolutionary weapons and defenses also derived from the new technology. As the only combat veteran, Harvey is recruited for the maiden voyage of Little David, manning a dead man’s switch, with strict orders to blow up the ship if it is in danger of being captured. Little David intercepts and defeats a task force of warships on their way to Mars to crush the revolt there.
Despite it’s rather abrupt ending, Between Planets was well received by science fiction reviewers upon it’s release, and compared favorably to all SF released in the year, adult and juvenile. Once again, Heinlein loves to show off his hard science fiction chops. That both Venus and Mars are depicted as habitable, now known to be untrue, in 1951 when this was written it was an acceptable idea. This book really moves the series along toward adult science fiction, and that trend will continue in the following books. In that respect I see it as a turning point. Once again, I liked this one quite a bit.
We now have just four more of Heinlein’s juveniles to go before I do a wrap-up. Next time: Tunnel In the Sky.