Podkayne of Mars: Heinlein gives us a smart feministic mixed-race heroine

Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein science fiction book reviewsPodkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein

Podkayne (“Poddy”) Fries is a pretty, mixed-race teenager who lives with her parents and her younger brother (Clark) on Mars. We learn about her family and her adventures via the diary entries she writes. Poddy tell us that her family was planning to take a vacation to visit Old Earth, but when there is a mix-up with some frozen embryos, they had to cancel the trip so Poddy’s mother can take care of the unexpected new babies. Poddy is devastated until her Uncle Tom, a man who is a respected politician on Mars, arranges to escort Poddy and Clark to earth on a luxury spaceship.

On the spaceship Poddy and Clark make a friend and get to enjoy extravagant dinners and dances. Poddy learns a lot about how to fly a spaceship and, along the way, readers will learn quite a bit about space travel, including the dangers of solar radiation and how the position of the sun and the planets in their orbits affects space travel. Poddy also sees people from different cultures and learns that the way she was brought up is not the only way to live.

But all is not perfect because they also experience prejudiced attitudes from some of the other travelers, and Poddy suspects that Clark, who happens to be an evil genius, is up to something sinister. When the spaceship makes a stop at Venus, a fascinating commercial enterprise where there are no laws and everyone strives to get a share of the corporation that runs the planet, Podkayne learns that her suspicions were correct and that her pleasure trip to Earth with her uncle is not exactly what it seems. A frightening adventure ensues.

Even though it has a teenage protagonist, Podkayne of Mars isn’t always considered one of Robert A. Heinlein’s “juveniles.” It’s meant for a slightly older audience, probably 16 and up. Poddy is a likeable heroine and I appreciated that Heinlein chose to create a female protagonist (rare for him), make her smart, mention that she loves math, and give her a mother who’s an engineer. On the other hand, I wish she didn’t have to chatter about her bra size, act dumb so she could “snag” men, lament that she probably can’t be a pilot because she’s a girl, and let her younger brother solve all the logistical problems at the end.

Many readers have claimed that Podkayne of Mars is terribly sexist. I am usually quick to point out this problem in Heinlein’s books (especially those for adults), but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. First, let’s remember that this was written in 1962 and Heinlein is a product of his culture, as we all are. It’s true that most girls at that time would not have the nerve to dream of being a space pilot.

But this story takes place in the far future. Did Heinlein believe that by the time humans have inhabited Venus and Mars women will still be struggling to obtain jobs in male-dominated fields? This is what he seems to anticipate. (Poddy’s mom is a civil engineer, but he makes a big deal out of that, as if it’s unusual and unexpected.) I think the reason so many men writing SFF in the mid-19th century didn’t foresee the rise of feminism, and therefore created fictional future societies that were still sexist, is that they didn’t think anything was wrong with this aspect of their society. It wasn’t something they thought needed changing. Maybe they didn’t realize that many women weren’t happy with it and were on the brink of revolt because women had learned to work the society in their favor, which primarily included being pretty, not threatening men by displaying their intelligence, and not being a loud-mouthed feminist. Poddy recognizes that she isn’t likely to become a pilot so, if she wants to live in comfort, she must be cute and kittenish so she can snag a man who can support her. Poddy was a feminist, but she knew that acting like one was likely to ruin her future and so, like so many capable women before and after her, she gives in to society’s pressure.

In Podkayne of Mars, Heinlein gives us a heroine who dares to dream, even when she thought she had little chance. I like that Heinlein admits that his world was a man’s world, that women had few opportunities for personal advancement outside of marriage and motherhood, that they made personal sacrifices to ensure their future security, and that some of them didn’t like this. Though Poddy seems to give up on her dream of being a pilot, and even resorts to acting like a bimbo to “snag” her man, she is completely aware of the absurdity of it. Thank you, Mr. Heinlein, for giving us a smart feministic mixed-race heroine who recognizes and regrets her need to submit.

Excellent audio version. Poddy is not White.

Another thing I’ll take away from Podkayne of Mars is Uncle Tom’s description of politics, which seems so appropriate and comforting as I’m writing this review during the crazy election season of 2016:

Politics is not evil; politics is the human race’s most magnificent achievement. When politics is good, it’s wonderful… and when politics is bad — well, it’s still pretty good… Politics is just a name for the way we get things done… without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he has received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics… the only alternative is force.

Podkayne of Mars has an interesting publishing history. The story was serialized in Worlds of If in 1962 and 1963 before being published in novel form in 1963. The publisher didn’t like the sad ending. After an argument, Heinlein was asked to change the ending, which he did. Later publishers sometimes included the original, or both, endings.

The version I listened to, which was Blackstone Audio’s 2015 audio edition, has the original sad ending only. I loved the narration by Soneela Nankani. She did a great job with Poddy’s personality, making her sound both smart and reluctantly resigned to the odious possibility of having to give up her dreams because she’s a girl. Blackstone Audio’s 2015 version of Podkayne of Mars is 7 hours long. They also have a 2008 version read by Emily Janice Card which I have not read.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I just read a story in the January 2016 Clarkesworld (and the story is not an historical reprint from the 1960s; it’s current) set about 100 years in our future. The main character is a woman who helped develop the global AIs that ultimately meet all the physical needs of humans. She married a rich older man rather than using her intelligence to enrich herself because “nobody offered a faster route to success.” (Exact quote.) Also, her wealthy old husband would listen to the men around and the “few bright girls.” (Again, exact quote.)

    I sort of resent Heinlein’s narrative, where the woman can see the absurdity of her situation but does nothing about it at the end; but he was writing in the 1960s. Compared to some people in 2016 he looks downright visionary.

    Sorry for the rant.

  2. It sure would be nice if the book covers reflected what Poddy actually looks like.

  3. It’s pretty disappointing that Heinlein recognized the sexism of the times, created a smart and motivated young heroine, and then allowed her to give up her dream of being a pilot. He always claimed to respect and admire women, but his later stories really twisted this in a creepy direction. Too bad.

    And it’s hilarious how inept the cover artwork is, Kat! The old cover tells absolutely NOTHING about the story, and the later ones just can’t get her race accurate. Showing a character with a darker skin color should not be such a big deal these days – or is it?

    • There is an awful lot of discussion about it, and apparently books, like movies (Gods of Egypt, anyone?) do tend to “whitewash” their models. I’m amused at how consistently these covers made her white and blond.

      • Books with POC characters tend to have abstract images or whitewashed cover art rather than featuring the character in an honest way. That’s starting to change, but it’s definitely a slow and uphill battle.

  4. In the book she says she looks mainly Swedish. Did you read it?

    • Hi Derek,

      It’s been a while since I read this, but my recollection is that while on the ship, Podkayne mentions a woman who denigrates her for being from Mars and also being of “mongrel” ancestry. I recall Polynesian being mentioned. I did not remember that she says she looks mainly Swedish, but I believe you. The thing that stuck with me was her encounter with the woman who judged her based on the fact that she was of mixed races. I suppose Swedish is part of her ethnicity.

  5. J Seiff /

    This book is definitely not feminist, the plot line as a whole is about how boys will be boys, but women who risk it shall be punished. As Heinlein wrote, “…it took the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to show the families Montague and Capulet what damned fools they were being. Poddy’s death (it seems to me) is similarly indispensable to this story. The true tragedy in this story lies in the character of the mother, the highly successful career woman who wouldn’t take time to raise her own kids — and thereby let her son grow up an infantile monster, no real part of the human race and indifferent to the well being of others … until the death of his sister, under circumstances which lay on him a guilt he can never shake off, gives some prospect that he is now going to grow up.”

    The death/blinding of the main character serves as an object lesson for her narcissistic brother. I mean, yuck.

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