Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet was the first Robert A. Heinlein novel I discovered back in 1964, and with the first reading of that book I turned into a life-long fan of Heinlein’s work.  From 1964 through 1966 I read Heinlein’s backlog of books, some several times, so after a four year dry spell of no new books I was mentally demolished when in 1970 I read I Will Fear No Evil and hated it.  Somehow my literary hero wrote a clinker, at least in my eyes.  After The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein (1966), Heinlein never wrote another book I liked.

I still love rereading Heinlein, and usually reread a few of his novels every year.  In the last decade I’ve been listening to audio book editions of his books.  Red Planet just came out on unabridged audio from Full Cast Audio, a company that publishes audio books for young people.  Full cast audio means each character gets their own actor performing the lines.  This works extremely well for young adult novels, and Red Planet comes off wonderful in this format, making each character dramatically stand out.  I’m not sure what authors think about this technique, because the actors get to emotively interpret their character.  In this edition I think they all stay well within the cues Heinlein gave his readers.

This edition of Red Planet from Full Cast Audio uses the restored unedited edition from Del Rey published after Heinlein’s death.  For more information on that, read “Red Planet – Blue Pencil.”


Over the years I’ve struggled with why I don’t like the Heinlein books that came out after 1969.  Why was that such a turning point?  As I got older, I also discovered that his novels after 1959 were different, and they had many elements I didn’t like too.  Before 1969, most of the novels I read were science fiction, but after that my reading tastes broaden.  I was constantly changing from 1969 through 2008, so it’s understandable that my reaction to the books would change too.

Listening to Red Planet gave me an interesting new insight.  Up till now I thought Heinlein became a different person sometime in the 1960s, but in his 1949 story, Red Planet, I found all the elements of later Heinlein hidden away.  The reality is, no matter how much we all feel like we’ve changed and matured, we’re still the same person all our lives.  I’ve long figured that editors influenced what Heinlein wrote, especially before his move to Putnam in 1959 with Starship Troopers.


There’s a strong dichotomy of opinion about Heinlein.  Most of his fans are extremely loyal, if not rabid. There are many people who try to read Heinlein and can’t stand him.  I’m in this middle zone, both loving his work, and despising it, and it’s a very weird position to hold.  I often piss-off other Heinlein fans when I express my doubts, but I seldom meet people who read, reread and study his work like I do.  If I had the time, I’d love to write an analysis of his writing, which I think might end up being a psychological study of myself.

But back to Red Planet.  I’m quite confident that this time was at least my fourth time through the book, and I was amazed by parts I didn’t remember.  It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I discovered I had listened to the revised edition.  Memory is such a fascinating subject.  At one level, I only remembered the book vaguely.  If I had tried to write down what the book was about before I listened to it, I would have given a skimpy plot outline, and then a general impression of several cherished scenes.  When I started listening to the book much of it came back to me, so I could predict just before it happened what would happen.  I call that movie déjà vu because I often feel that when seeing a movie I had watched decades earlier and forgotten.   It’s the weird feeling of knowing what will happen just before the event unfolds.

The revealing part on listening to Red Planet this time, was all the stuff I had completely forgotten since my last reading in 1989.  You’d think after four reading there would be very little I wouldn’t remember at some level.  That wasn’t true.  What’s even more revealing, and I imagine astute readers of this essay will guess, the unfamiliar parts were more like the Heinlein I disliked.  But I hadn’t forgotten.  I was tricked by the new restored edition.

Heinlein had even written Alice Dalgleish, his 1949 Scribner’s editor, “I have made great effort to remove my viewpoint from the book and to incorporate yours, convincingly – but in so doing I have been writing from reasons of economic necessity something that I do not believe.”  I have long theorized that Heinlein’s personal opinions ruined his later stories, and that the reason why I liked the earlier books better were due to editorial censorship.

Story elements that Heinlein would later fixate on are now here in Red Planet, but in shorter, and still restrained form.  Listening to Red Planet showed me I could probably build a list of Heinlein themes that probably exist to some degree in all of his books, either subtly hidden away by editors, revealed by restored editions, or just blaring in later books.

Heinlein explored a wide range of science fictional frontiers, but in the end he often repeated himself thematically.  There is a quality in art that I call the “Beatles Effect.”  I believe a large part of the Beatles success in the 1960s was due to the Fab Four working hard to make every song different.  Mediocre artists tend to create work that has a sameness to it.  Heinlein’s most distinctive individualistic work was all done before 1969, and in particular, before 1959.  During the 1950s, Robert A. Heinlein was The Beatles of science fiction.  Those books are still in print half a century later.  Red Planet has its 60th anniversary next year.

1949 was the year that Red Planet and “Gulf” came out, two stories that anticipated Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s breakout novel from 1961, that first revealed the true Heinlein, even though Putnam forced him to cut out 60,000 words of that novel.   (Those words were later restored in an uncut edition decades later.)  Listening to the uncut version of Red Planet made it very clear that Heinlein hadn’t changed at different points in his career, but merely, more of his personality had been revealed.

There are two Heinlein aspects that we’re dealing with here.  The first, is a fascinating man that was very opinionated.  The second is a story teller.  As a kid, I imprinted on the storytelling aspect.  As an adult I rebelled against the author’s personality poking through the illusion of the storytelling.

Even in the restored edition, Red Planet is a very slight novel.  It’s overwhelming charm is due to the mysterious Martians and Willis, an engaging talking Martian animal.  What captured me as a 12-year-old was the sense of wonder of humans colonizing Mars, something that would fuel my personal fantasies for decades.  I was also charmed and amused by the antics of Willis.  Heinlein’s juvenile novels often had wondrous alien creatures in them.  And the book was fast paced, and full of adventure for boys.

Red Planet is a good book, but it doesn’t compare well with the dazzling creativity of Heinlein’s later juveniles, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and Tunnel in the Sky.  The ancient culture of the Martians, used in both Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, is an impressive creative achievement on first encounter, but doesn’t hold up to long term scrutiny.  The old Martians are like Australian aborigines.  Their culture is exotic, mysterious and mystic, but after the initial wow, few people would want to follow their lifestyle.   We’re a high-tech species, a species that likes to build and expand.

The super-wise Martians that Heinlein created do not wear clothes or even appear to use tools and they do wonders with thoughts alone.  This appears to conflict with Heinlein’s blaster-toting, rocket-riding humans out to colonize every piece of rock in the universe.  And this is further complicated by Heinlein’s constant promotion of revolution, where bold exploring characters sneer at the corruption of law and order stay-put stick-in-the-mud characters.

Now that the revised version of Red Planet is fresh in my mind, I can easily see how its author will come to write Stranger in a Strange Land in the following decade, and eventually evolve into the man who writes The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  The disturbing thing is to contemplate which themes will come to dominate.  From 1949 to 1985 Heinlein seems mostly concerned with who deserves to die, and nudity.  This is grossly unfair to the stories, but I think it’s true.

In the restored edition of Red Planet, 1949 Heinlein portrays his colonists of Mars as wearing little clothes when not needing their pressure suits for outside excursions.  In 1961, one focus of Stranger in Strange Land is shedding of clothes.  And in 1985, Heinlein has all his former favorite characters getting naked together.

Even more disturbing is the theme of who deserves to die.  Heinlein’s characters are often preoccupied with who to kill.  Sometimes, it’s individuals, sometimes it’s groups of people, and sometimes it’s whole planets.  As a kid, this motive for story action was no different from the westerns I loved to watch on TV, but now as a person in late middle age, I find very disturbing.

The hated headmaster Howe is “disappeared” by the Martians, but his only real offense was being a strict school administrator and taking a strange pet away from a student.  Heinlein revered his time at the Navy academy, an institution known for strict rules and administrators, so why make such a straw man of boy’s school principal?  Beecher, a colonial administrator is also a man executed by the Martians whose crime was trying to force the colonists to winter in a harsh climate to save the company money.  Not exactly a capital crime in our capitalistic society.  For being known as a conservative, Heinlein seems to love mob rule when it appears to be revolutionary and led by a pseudo-Patrick Henry.  But not every rebellious horde of unhappy armed men equal the American revolution.

The restored political parts of Red Planet make the story more offensive to me, at least as an adult.  As a kid, I would have just skimmed over the boring bits, and all the exotic Mars life and adventure of skating down Martian canals would made me forget them.  So which is the better edition?  I think Heinlein’s original unedited story is better because of the way he handles what happens to Willis.  Ditto for Podkayne of Mars.  Heinlein’s harsher more realistic endings are better, even for kids.  And I have to accept Heinlein as a whole person, even though I don’t like parts of that whole.

It would be interesting if I could read Red Planet at 56 and not be influenced by over forty years of nostalgia.  If I could, I would savage it.  And not just because we know there’s no life on Mars now, but because so much of the story isn’t logical at all.  Jim and Frank wear plastic pressure suits with only jockey shorts underneath and then skate all day on the canals.  Logic tells me the legs of their suits would have pooled up with sweat, and their skin would have been rubbed raw.  And there was no mention of oxygen bottles, or any kind of consumables to power their suits.

Furthermore, there is no, and I mean none, discussion of adapting to living on Mars.  It’s really like living on Earth, but with less oxygen and air pressure.  They have to kill the Mars equivalent of rattle snakes with blasters instead of six-guns.   The boys attend a boarding school, and the only difference is they wear minimal clothes while inside the pressurized areas.  That isn’t about Mars so much as it’s about Heinlein picturing a future where people don’t wear clothes.

What we need is a boys book as exciting as Heinlein’s juvenile novels about what realistic life would be like for future colonists on Mars.  Heinlein was enchanted with the concept but didn’t want to explore the details.  I can’t blame him for wanting to create exotic intelligent life on Mars back in 1949.  That’s what I admired when I first read the story just about the time the first Mariner space missions flew past Mars and showed that Mars was a dead world like the Moon.  Red Planet remains a simple story about a boy and his pet Martian, and it is charming and entertaining.  Time has hurt the speculation, but not the story.

I tend to think twelve year-olds today discovering this story might still be well entertained, but I hope they would be savvy enough about our knowledge of Mars to know that it’s all a fantasy.  I’d bet that they would ignore the silly trumped-up revolutionary politics, and not even think about whether the rest of the story is realistic.  Only the kids who love to read about real space exploration would have an inkling about how complex a pressure suit would have to be, and silly it would be to live on cold Mars and only wear shorts while inside.  Or how silly it would be to have a revolution with Earth that supplies and pays for all the necessities of life.

Like I said, reading Heinlein for me, is more about studying myself.  As a kid I wanted to run away and live on Mars.  It was my Never-Never Land.  What us fans of classic science fiction must ask ourselves is:  Was science fiction just the fairy tales for 20th century children, or was science fiction meant to be more than that?  Heinlein always said he wrote to pay the mortgage.  Were his Scribner’s books just entertaining stories for mid-century boys that helped him pay his liquor bill?

I took his stories as inspiration about exploring space.  So did a lot of other people.  The red planet is still up there, waiting for us.  There are ancient alien life forms waiting for us to discover them.  To me, the real critical question is:  Will humans ever live on Mars.  Heinlein returned to Mars in story after story.  I study what NASA finds with its robots on Mars, but I keep rereading Heinlein.  Why?

JWH – 11/1/8

11 thoughts on “Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein”

  1. Ironically, I just received in the mail FOUR FRONTIERS, by the SFBC, containing the first 4 Heinlein juveniles, including RED PLANET. Since I have only ever read very few of his juveniles, I decided to start at the beginning and read the others, since enough people whose opinions I value recommend them.

    Eventually I’ll let you know what I thought of it.


  2. Very fine article about a book that’s stuck with me for a long time. Having re-read it again recently I agree with your point, and let me add another charming inconsistancy: the “Atmosphere Project” mentioned in the tale. Surely Martians who object to interference with their young would object to artificial global warming? (I think this is Heinlein perserving an element of “Old Mars”, a la Burroughs.)

    However, perhaps what we both return to again and again is Heinlein’s sharply realized Martian environment . Red Planet seems to sum up and crystallize the “Old Mars” of 1880-1950 with its purple-black sky, stone canals, feathery towers of alien architecture and “hieroglyphs an Earth archaeologist would have given an arm and leg to read.”

  3. For me it was Rocket Ship Galileo in 1978. After reading your article on The Red Planet I think I don’t have to tell you how I felt about my first exposure to Heinlein’s works. My high school library had Tunnel in the Sky, Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones and from there I haunted libraries, bookstores and friends book collections for my next fix. Unfortunately I had the bad luck to read I Will Fear No Evil so I know what you are talking about when you express dissatisfaction with his later works. Nevertheless it is good to find a kindred soul.

    Sincerely yours
    The Rational Anarchist

  4. Hi Jim,

    I’m going trhough RP with my 8-year-old son (we’re halfway) and I’m giving Heinlein pretty good marks up to this point. I agree that the macro issues (non-migration, terraforming, etc.) are ignored by my son. Another wrinkle is the use of outmoded language, which all books are susceptible to. What makes up for it all is the fast pace of the plot and the concentration of ‘boyish’ interests. The proof for me comes when my son interrupts my reading, saying ‘how are they going to get out of that problem?’ and RP’s next paragraph packs a terrific answer to the dilemma, as if by magic.

    It takes a pretty good writer to get inside the frenetic mind of an 8 year old.

  5. I guess when you’re eight years old you don’t know about all the scientific discoveries about Mars that’s happened since Heinlein wrote Red Planet. It’s just a story, like Harry Potter.

    I was much older than your son is when I discovered Red Planet, maybe 12 or 13. But I loved Willis and the old Martians. It is a great boy’s book, full of adventure.

    Glenn, your son is lucky to have you read to him. I wished my father had read to me. I grew up in an era where kids were supposed to be seen and not heard, so my dad and I never had many conversations about books. He died when I was 19. I was surprised one time at breakfast when the Today Show was on and they were talking about J. R. R. Tolkien and my dad knew about The Hobbitt. He never talked about what he liked to read as a boy, but I guess that was one book.

  6. Sir, I find your review to be quite interesting because that it reflects a similar boyhood fondness for Heinlein that my father managed to rub off onto me. I guess a major difference between him, myself, and you is our literary appreciation of his repeated themes. Though some of his ideas may be a bit screwy and sometimes downright intrusive to the story, I find it invigorating to adventure with the author through his various tales as he continually attempts to explore his various ideas and ethics within futuristic contexts.

    I’m currently undertaking the rather absurd project of reading through as much of Heinlein as I can, and would appreciate any input you may have. Here’s the link:

  7. Great review, James.

    I’m reading Red Planet now, for the first time (I am 47 years old). I am really enjoying it despite the fact is it obviously pure fantasy in light of current scientific knowledge. A lot of modern sci-fi is very enjoyable but there is still something special about all the “golden age” fiction in the pre-space flight era when anything was still possible.

    I also enjoy Heinlein’s militant libertarian viewpoint. I don’t agree with all of it, but the strength of his perspective is part of what separates this book from its many imitators, such as Robert Silverberg’s Lost Race of Mars (which was admittedly aimed at a younger audience.)

    1. The other day I was telling a friend about how much I loved THE HOPKINS MANUSCRIPT by R. F. Sherriff. He asked me what it was about. I said it was a post-apocalyptic novel about the Moon crashing into the Earth. He replied he didn’t want to read that because it wasn’t believable. I was going to point out he liked Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH but I didn’t say anything. To me, most science fiction isn’t believable. It’s the story that doesn’t count. Here’s my review.

  8. Also (last comment): It was stated in the book that not every colonist could survive a Mars winter, so Bleecher was committing attempted murder by depriving the colonists of their contractually negotiated right to migrate. I’m not sure his fate is undeserved.

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