Written in 1949 by science fiction master Robert Heinlein, Red Planet is a novel for teenage boys, concerning events during the early years of a Mars colony. The protagonist, Jim Marlowe is about fourteen years old when he is packed off to a Mars boarding school and into a conflict with the tyrannical headmaster that swiftly escalates into nothing less than a full-scale rebellion by the Colonists against the ruling Company.
Structure-wise, it starts off introducing the characters and their world for the first couple of chapters before the boys set off to school, where they get one hell of a bastard for a headmaster. Then it becomes an escape story, with a detour to make friends with the Martians, before a violent finale where the whole Colony is trying to break the siege of the school by the Company troops.
Sometimes 1949 seems as far away as another planet. The dialogue and some of the descriptions have dated, often laughably so, but I actually find it hugely endearing. Mainly the idea that in the far future, on the planet Mars, kids will be speaking like a 1950s toothpaste commercial.
It's fast paced but still packs a lot into its 172 pages. It is meant for kids, though, and as an adult I do generally want more detail. But the language is as sophisticated as any adult book from a similar period and it is a joy to read.
The planet Mars in this book is one that was perhaps still just about possible in 1949 but seems incredibly naïve to us now. The infamous Martian Canals are a central plot feature, with the colonists using them for transportation while they are frozen in Martian winter, with vehicles skating along them at the then-mind-boggling speed of 250mph (admittedly, that is still well fast, even if the TGVs do it daily). Not only are the canals there, so are the Martian race that built them - tripedal, twelve-feet tall, and psychic -their surface cities now ruins while the native society exists deep underground. There are other flora and fauna, most notably the fifty-foot wide desert cabbages, the deadly monsters known as water-seekers, and, most importantly, the basketball-like wonder that is a Bouncer.
Jim Marlowe has a Bouncer that he calls Willis. Willis is a ball covered with thick, close cropped fur, and three protuberances for waddling about on and three eye-stalks on top. In between the eye-stalks is an opening that Willis speaks out of and Willis has the ability to record the human speech he hears and to then play it back perfectly. A skill that - wouldn't you just know it - has a crucial influence on the plot.
Now, we know there aint anything like that on Mars, don't we but, look, it's a 1940's sci-fi for American boys so we'll just have to ignore it and move on.
Not too quickly though. The Martian society is mysterious to the humans of the novel, and, this being a short book, the reader doesn't get too much more of an insight, and yet Heinlein has created a very credible alien world here. He is at pains to highlight the otherness of the Martians, the incredible difficulty that two alien species would have in communicating and the potentially disastrous consequences that might have. He also creates a sense of faded glory with the ruins of the surface cities, of space flight learned and given up and a drastic population decline, that make this feel like a fully realised world.
I have to also report that the Martian society he describes in this novel was to have a reappearance, of sorts, in Heinlein's famous 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where the central character was a human raised entirely by Martians. And they are absolutely the Martians of Red Planet. We never see Mars itself in Stranger in a Strange Land so it is very interesting to get more information about the society that taught Mike about peace and love and all those handy skills like disappearing annoying people.
Thematically, though, Red Planet has more in common with yet another Heinlein masterpiece, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which also concerns an uprising of colonists against the absentee landlords of Earth. This book actually reads to me like a precursor to that 1966 story. It even has a proto-Professor de la Paz in Doctor McRae, an advocate of anarchism and unapologetic verbal abuse toward idiots. Like the later novel, the bad guys in this book are those in authority. Not the authority of parents or wise pals like Doc McRae, but the uncaring authority of, well, the Authorities. The Company that rules the planet sees the Colonists as nothing more than an annoyance and the headmaster of the school has the audacity to impose harsh rules on his students. In Heinlein's world, these people must be stopped, by violence if necessary, so that personal freedom can rule.
I'm surprised, actually, by how adult this book is. For all its 1940's "gee, whiz, pa!" dialogue, the boys carry guns (having properly earned their firearms licence for protection in a hostile world) and it's Heinlein's view that if someone has the ability to bear arms responsibly then he is to all intents a functioning adult and should be treated as such. The boys don't do as they're told by adults, they make reasoned decisions and become outlaws, all the while knowing they are in the right. There is also a bit of violence and I love how Heinlein has the gossips and toadies get themselves killed when they foolishly try to surrender to government forces. This is a morality tale where personal freedom from repression is first and foremost. Just like in Enid Blyton, only there's no golliwogs.
Heinlein wrote twelve novels for juveniles between 1947 and 1958. Frustrated by being known as a children's writer, he just knocked out Starship Troopers and never looked back. But Red Planet is also typically brilliant and should not be overlooked by Heinlein fans, even though, hampered by his target audience, it's nowhere near the genius of his later stuff. I would think that many kids nowadays will find the style far too old fashioned, although in my opinion they should still be forced to read it.