Happy New Year everybody,
Let’s kick off 2018 with a book review. I recently finished Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, the 14th book on my list, which took me a lot longer to read than I expected. I didn’t really enjoy it that much as it seemed to drag on at parts. Anyways, let’s get into it.
Red Planet tells the story of Jim Marlowe and his little Martian friend, Willis. Jim and his family are part of a group of colonists on Mars settled there by the Company. The story starts with Jim heading off to boarding school with Willis in tow. Thanks to Willis’ perfect memory, Jim and his friend Frank discover a sinister secret by the Company and resolve to make it right.
The story is essentially a YA adventure, with young Jim and Frank integral to pushing the plot forward. Unfortunately, they don’t undergo too much character development and the exposition really drags the story out.
The main themes found in Red Planet are colonialism, independence/government, and life on Mars.
In the book, several human colonies exist on Mars, all of which seem to be run by the Company. At the same time, native Martians, wonderfully described by Heinlein, also live on Mars. The narrator alludes to disastrous attempts by early colonists to interact with Martians, who have a very difficult language. These early attempts resulted in the hard and fast rule that no human may interfere with or harm a Martian in any way. They must be respected at all times.
What’s nice about this book is that the characters really do seem to respect this rule, and in fact the rule comes into play in an important way later on.
We don’t really get a sense of why there are colonists on Mars in the first place (unless I missed it?), which would have been nice for some context. But from some quips by various characters here and there we know that the colonists chose to go to Mars and that it has a Wild West feeling that they enjoy. Indeed, there is something attractive in the idea of being the first to settle in a new land and to experience the adventure of it all.
We also don’t find out what exactly happened between the early colonists and the Martians, but I think we can assume that history repeated itself there.
Without giving anything away, government and Company control play a big role in the story. Similar to the taxation without representation issue when America wanted independence from Britain, the characters in Red Planet complain about being controlled by executives who don’t even live on Mars. In addition, many of the characters believe strongly in the right to bear arms, especially for young boys, furthering the very Wild West feeling of the colonies.
“Me, I left Earth to get away from all that nonsense. Earth has gotten so musclebound with laws that a man can’t breathe. So far, there’s still a certain amount of freedom on Mars.”
Life on Mars
This is where Red Planet really shines. The plot is quite slow and there is absolutely no character development to speak of, but Heinlein’s depiction of the red planet is really nice. The landscape experiences different seasons with various interesting flora, and Heinlein describes the various aspects of buildings on Mars, such as their double air locks, as well as the suits and masks the colonists must wear outside at all times.
“A thing like a coxcomb jutted out above the skull, the eye lenses were wide and staring, and the front of the face stuck out in a snout. The unearthly appearance was increased by a pattern of black and yellow tiger stripes covering the entire head.”
Strengths & Weaknesses
As mentioned above, the main strength of Red Planet is its depiction of the Martian landscape and the Martian natives, who are an intelligent and spiritual race. The weakness is, well, everything else. The story itself really drags on.
It’s hard to judge a story when I can’t ask the author what his intentions were with it. I’m a believer in judging a work by the creator’s goals. For example, if I set out to write a comedy and it’s not funny at all, then you can say that I did not succeed. But if my goal was to write a drama, then you can’t complain that it wasn’t funny. I’m sure others will feel differently about this, and I do agree that once an artwork is out there in the world it is for the reader/audience/viewer to judge, but still, we must keep the original intent in mind.
So if Heinlein’s goal was to write an adventure story with a focus on Mars, then he succeeded. If his goal was to write a story in which the heroes undergo a change, then he failed. However, just based on the story, I doubt that was his goal.
I’m not sure I recommend Red Planet. It’s certainly interesting for its depiction of Mars, but storywise it’s not that great. I found I had to force myself to keep reading it and that’s never a good thing for a novel. Further, as I read through my list of the best sci-fi novels of all time, I’m starting to gain an appreciation for character development a lot more than sci-fi themes.
Of course, the science is part of what sets the genre apart, but many of the stories I’ve read so far have sacrificed character development for prose and exposition. And I gotta be honest, that’s simply to their detriment. (More on this in another post.)
Anyhoo, up next is Heinlein’s Space Cadet!
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Quotations: Heinlein, Robert A. Red Planet. New York: Del Rey Books, 2006. Kindle Edition