Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Book Review - Red Planet

I still haven't read much by Heinlein and consistently hearing that he's the "master" or "father" of science fiction, I keep feeling like I need to seek him out more often. I happened to find a copy of Red Planet at our local used book store so I decided to give it a try.

The edition I read included an introduction that informed me that this was one of Heinlein's "juvenile" novels or "boy books." The introduction also included a description of the "censorship" that happened by way of severe editing of this book in its initial release (as well as commentary on the heavy editing of Heinlein's other books). The intro made it clear that the edition I was reading had been restored to Heinlein's original edition, reverting the edits that Heinlein had objected to. The intro alluded to a couple of the edits (such as removing/minimizing references to weapon use by the boys and information as to the biological nature of Willis, the Martian "pet" of our protagonist). It's interesting to think of these types of content as potentially controversial or threatening to readers of the 1940s and 1950s. I suppose part of the reaction was due to this being aimed at child readers but my 21st century sensibilities found no objection to the content called out by the intro. Still, I'm not sure what else may have been trimmed or modified so I can't wholly condemn either the editor or the author.

The story is a fairly simple one but with a couple of interesting twists to keep the adventure intriguing and to help propel the plot. The book takes place on Mars in the distant future. Mankind has begun colonizing Mars and is currently just a couple of generations into the process. They have numerous colonies on the planet and have a system of migration from north-to-south and back in order to try and stay in the more "temperate" zones of the Martian seasons. Colonists live under the rule of a combination of government and corporate oversight while also reporting to absentee leaders back on Earth.

This is a Mars populated with various forms of Martian life ranging from annoying insects and beasts up to higher life forms capable of scientific advancements that outpace the understanding of humanity. From a scientific standpoint, we have to suspend belief the same as we do with most sci-fi books before advanced space science. Things like the Martian atmosphere and the existence of water (mostly as ice) in the Martian canals have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The first bit of the book moves a little slowly and involves a fair amount of set up. Heinlein outlines the setting from a scientific standpoint telling us about the atmosphere, the temperature, the geology and other features of Mars. He lays out the nature of leadership and social organization of humanity on the planet. He gives detailed descriptions of how they build their buildings and their transportation.

Once the boys get to school, the plot begins to develop and the book moves from a sci-fi narrative about life and social relations to become a standard adventure story. Our main characters, Jim and Frank (along with Jim's "pet" Willis), are outraged at the rules and regulations of the new headmaster. The power struggle takes a turn for the worse and Jim sets out to regain his rights. In the middle of his own vendetta, he and Frank make a discovery that has implications for all of the colonists. Rather than trying to expose the truth at the school (which would have been a fruitless struggle) they set off across the Martian landscape for home. In a struggle for survival they make allies with the Martian people and begin to learn more about the Martians and about Willis.

The adventure progresses with Jim and the colonists in a fight for their survival and their rights. The conclusion of their struggle merges with more narrative about Martian culture. The Martian interactions with the humans takes a surprising turn and then results in a unique contract being formed between Martians, colonists and the people back on Earth. This also includes some strange revelations about Willis which are presented more as speculation than fact.

Overall I found the adventure portion of this book to be fun and the sci-fi world building to be interesting. The writing was very simple and easily accessible to young readers but could still be fun for an adult reader. Much of the political and social commentary would go over the heads of younger readers or would be something they would just gloss over. The concepts weren't especially revolutionary...mostly ideas of standing up for "common sense" rights of respect, survival and decency towards one another regardless of race or species. The characters and their roles were a little too simplified and stereotypical for my tastes. I would have preferred a little more complexity or intelligence in the "villains." The heroes were a little flat and short sighted as well. For any wondering about gender roles, the role of women is virtually non-existent as they are shoved in the background as the house tending mother or the trivialized younger other words, they felt like the simple female characters from 1950s TV series. The main morale/message of the story is to stand up for what's right and to be brave in hard times...not a bad message but a simple message simply presented.

I found this to be an alright read. Nothing terribly extraordinary or objectionable. I don't feel like I was missing out by not having read it but I don't feel like it was a waste of time. If a younger reader is looking for a fun and simple sci-fi adventure, it's worth picking up. At the same time, I feel like there are plenty of other books that would be a more fulfilling read and provide more lasting messages.

3 out of 5 stars

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