Robert A. Heinlein, |
(Ballantine, 1949; Del Rey, 1986)
Red Planet is one of Robert Heinlein's most enjoyable, best-selling and important juvenile novels. It's hard to think of it as juvenile fiction, though, because it is a fantastically fun read that introduces thought-provoking ideas on sociological and otherwise adult subjects.
Of course, this was not always the case. Alice Dalgliesh, Heinlein's editor at Scribner's, objected to several themes and ideas in the original manuscript, much to Heinlein's justified consternation. He eventually gave in and removed several sections, including a couple of pages about the legal use of guns by the young boys in his Martian world and a section centering on the production of eggs by the fuzzy little bouncer Willis -- she eliminated every mention of sex in the book, despite the fact that each such mention was beyond innocuous. Heinlein floated the idea of listing her as the co-author, wanting her to take some of the blame for a novel that he himself felt no pride in, fearing that Dalgliesh's hatchet job had produced a story that would harm his reputation. It actually became a fan favorite, and now we can read it complete and unedited, the way Heinlein originally intended it to be read.
Jim Marlowe is a youngster living on Mars, and he has a "pet"-friend named Willis. Willis is a "bouncer," a furry little guy of some intelligence whose most amazing quality is an innate capability to reproduce exactly anything he hears. Jim takes Willis with him when he and his friend Frank go off to school. The new headmaster makes life miserable for all the boys with his military discipline, and he has the audacity to take Willis away from Jim and lock him away in his office. A bold rescue attempt by the brave lads manages to recover Willis before the headmaster sells him off to the London Zoo, but the friends' joy soon turns to surprise when Willis plays back a conversation he overheard about the Company putting an end to the seasonal migrations on Mars. This means that Jim's family in the South will be forced to remain where they are all winter, where the temperature easily falls below 100 degrees freezing.
Now it is up to the boys to escape from the school and somehow find their way back home (hundreds of miles away) and inform their families of the Company's intentions. Only their bravery and a little help from Mars' unique native inhabitants give them a chance to save the day. The Martians are fascinating in and of themselves; needless to say, they are something entirely different from little green men.
This is speculative fiction. It doesn't really matter that we now know that Mars is totally unlike the Mars of Heinlein's story. This is just a riveting adventure of two brave boys and their unusual friend. The story could work in any number of settings. The science is there to build the framework, but Heinlein never indulges in any significant scientific pontifications. I have no problem enjoying Heinlein's juvenile fiction, largely because the pace of the narrative rarely slows down from start to finish. This is certainly the type of story I loved as a boy, and I still love it. Despite Dalgliesh's misgivings, the unexpurgated text of Red Planet is a wonderful story of loyalty, honor, duty, family, adventure, mutual respect between cultures, scientific knowledge, freedom and liberty -- the very best type of tale for youngsters to read and enjoy then, now and forever. I can hardly even guess at how many youngsters became life-long science fiction fans as a direct result of having read this incredible novel.