I’ve mentioned several times how much I loved Robert A. Heinlein’s “Juveniles” when I was a kid. I found them on my dad’s bookshelves (I don’t think he’s ever gotten rid of a book) and I read some of them several times. If you had asked me last week which was my favorite, I would have said “Red Planet.” I remember loving this book, though all I could recall about it was a cute fuzzy round alien named Willis who bounces around like a basketball, and a couple of boys crossing the desolate landscape of Mars.
Last week, with much anticipation, I downloaded Red Planet (1949) from Audible so that I could listen to it with my 12 year old daughter, Tali. I was so excited to share this story with her. In the opening scene we met Willis, and Tali loved him as much as I did. He’s adorable — just the kind of character that a little girl would fondly remember. Unfortunately, that’s all that Tali liked about Red Planet and she soon gave up on it, leaving me to finish it by myself.
The story is about Jim Marlow, a boy who goes to school in a domed city on Mars. Jim found and befriended Willis, a rare creature of Mars who is not only cute, but who mimics the conversations he hears. While at school, Jim has to deal with an authoritative schoolmaster. Then he discovers (via Willis) a plot that endangers his family and the citizens who live in his hometown. Jim and his friend Frank, another schoolboy from the same hometown, are determined to escape school so they can get to their parents to warn them in time.
The domed cities, Willis’s antics, and Jim and Frank’s dangerous flight across Mars are what I remember from reading Red Planet when I was a kid. This part of the story is adventurous and exciting. I loved the idea of terraforming Mars and it’s likely that when I read the book (I’m guessing I was about 10), it was the first time I’d ever thought about the possibility of living on other planets, the kinds of creatures that might live there, how they might be different from us, and how they might feel about us invading their world. There are several scenes in which Jim and Frank interact with aliens and there’s a great scene where the boys have to take shelter inside a huge cabbage.
What I seem to have blocked out, perhaps repressed, was all of the usual Heinlein libertarian soapboxing which is here dumbed down a bit for the young audience. (Actually, it’s possible that I really liked this part and just don’t remember. As I’ve mentioned, I do have a rebellious libertarian streak. It’s weird to think that maybe Heinlein contributed to that.) This propaganda actually makes up quite a lot of the plot. When Jim is at school, he rebels against the schoolmaster’s rules… rules that seem a little obvious and reasonable to most readers but that really chuff off those NRA types like Heinlein. Did Heinlein honestly think it’s a good idea for young boys to be carrying guns at school?? According to Red Planet, YES!
Other characters express similar libertarian views. The curmudgeonly doctor, a friend of Jim’s family, came to Mars to get away from Earth’s laws. I’m pretty sure the lecturing doctor is a Heinlein surrogate. A few other Heinlein quirks are noticeable such as people’s tendency to walk around half naked (inside) even though it’s freezing outside. I doubt I noticed that when I was a kid. As many of Heinlein’s novels do, Red Planet feels a little dated, especially in how it portrays sex roles. Mars is a frontier society where men rule while women cook, have babies, and gossip.
The audiobook version of Red Planet was produced by Full Cast Audio and is 7 hours long. William Dufris is the third person narrator while other actors provide some of the character voices. It’s well done and recommended for anyone who wants to read Red Planet.
So, in the end, Red Planet wasn’t as awesome as I remembered, but it’s still an exciting adventure that will appeal to many children. It’s not my favorite Heinlein Juvenile anymore, but it will always have a special place in my heart.