Friday, July 8, 2011

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet
Red Planet is one of those young adult novels that I remember quite fondly. Upon re-reading, I was not disappointed. The only downside to this novel is that what Heinlein knew about Mars and what we know now have changed things, but as long as one understands the differences, you can relax and enjoy the story.

What's up with Heinlein and boarding schools? Jim Marlowe is a young man on Mars who, as the story begins, finds himself bound for a boarding school where he and other young colonists are educated courtesy of the Company responsible for Mars' development. Jim has adopted a Martian pet whom he named Willis, a basketball-shaped creature that extrudes stubby legs when it needs to walk, eyestalks when it wants to see, and that seems to understand little of the humans' language beyond simple commands and statements, but who has the capability to "record" and "playback" conversations verbatim, often at inappropriate times.

Jim and his buddy, Francis, set off for boarding school together, with a side trip adventure into one of the ruined Martian cities where Willis "introduces" them to a Martian named "Gecko", who befriends them and shares water with them. Here we see the first signs of a very important part of Heinlein's later novel, Stranger in a Strange Land - the water ceremoney.

Shortly after the boys arrive at the school, the likeable headmaster is replaced with a crony of the Colonial Agent (his son, actually), and all sorts of new rules and regulations go into effect. One of the regulations that catches Jim by surprise is the "No Pets" rule, and Willis is confiscated and locked away in the headmaster's office. Jim has finally had enough, and he mounts a late-night expedition to rescue Willis. Willis actually does most of the work in his own rescue, displaying a previously unknown talent to extrude cutting appendages which let him out of his confinement. He also has "recorded" a conversation between the headmaster and the Resident Agent General which describes the Agency's plan to curtail the annual migration of the colonists out of the polar zones to the equatorial region, where they can avoid the severe cold temperatures of Martian winters.

Jim and Francis realize that they need to get this information back to their parents and the rest of the colonists right away, and themselves escape from the school to make the long trek home. For much of their journey, they ice skate on the Martian canals (which we now know don't exist as water-filled features), take refuge in a huge Martian cabbage, and are aided by the Martians, finally, to return home, where their news is the match that sets a revolution ablaze. Along the way, we discover some things about Martians and their culture that come in handy in a few decades when Heinlein recycles the information in Stranger in a Strange Land.

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