Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein

As readers of my thrilling Twitter feed will already be aware, I recently purchased an Avon paperback of Robert Heinlein's 1963 novel, Podkayne of Mars.  This is the fifth printing of this paperback, from 1968, and the cover contains some pretty hilarious blurbification, declaring Heinlein "The Now Generation's favorite author" and so forth.  Theodore Sturgeon of "Killdozer" fame says Podkayne of Mars is a slam-bang of believable adventure and the publisher's gush tells us the book embodies "Heinlein's challenging new concepts of morality and social organization."  Sounds pretty good!  Let's hope the boys in the PR department and good ol' Ted Sturgeon are not lying to us!

Podkayne of Mars is the journal of Podkayne Fries, a teenage human girl growing up on Mars.  It is some centuries in the future, and Mars and Venus have been colonized by the Earth and are currently independent states.  Podkayne is from a pretty successful family; her Uncle Tom is a senator, her mother is an engineer who designs and manages colossal public works projects (like turning Deimos into a space port) and her father is an historian.

Of course it is risky for a man to write in first person as a woman, and Heinlein pulls some things which I guess some women might find offensive.  Poddy manipulates men with her feminine wiles, takes male sexism into account instead of challenging it ("...it is a mistake for a girl to beat a male at any contest of strength..." - page 50), and spends quite a bit of time talking about babies and changing diapers.  At the start of the book Poddy aspires to be a space pilot and space ship captain and is saying the kinds of things feminists say all the time, like "It's not easy for a girl to get accepted for pilot training; she has to be about four times as good as a male candidate..." (page 53) but later on (page 114) her views evolve, and she is enthusiastically endorsing marriage and thinking maybe she would rather run the nursery on a space ship than sit in the captain's chair.  And of course readers hoping for a strong female hero might be disappointed that in the end it is not Poddy who saves the day but her little brother.  And then there is that speech on the last page about how women's most important work is in raising children.

The plot:  Poddy, her brother Clark, a sort of 11-year-old anti-social genius, and Uncle Tom, senator of the Republic of Mars, go on a trip to Venus.

There is a lot of description of space travel - on page 27 Poddy leaves Mars and she doesn't set foot on Venus until page 85.  The ship endures a radiation storm.  We learn all about social life on the ship, how the ship smells, what sort of people travel on such ships, etc.  I'm always interested in speculations about space travel, and enjoy this sort of thing.    

Venus is controlled by a corporation and its wealth and decadence are contrasted with the stolid republican virtues of Mars: women on Venus wear lots more cosmetics than do Mars women, the 3D TV on Venus has lots of sex, and while on Mars everybody supports free enterprise, on Venus capitalism is taken to extremes which shock Poddy, with loud, garish, 3D advertising assailing you everywhere you go.  The characters spend lots of time in a casino; I guess we are supposed to think of the Venus colony as being like Las Vegas.  Poddy doesn't drink booze or gamble, though Clark, a math whiz, turns out to be a skilled gambler.  Heinlein's attitude about the Venus colonial culture he has devised is ambiguous; Poddy thinks it horrible, but wise Uncle Tom expresses equivocal praise, and one character Heinlein intends us to admire opts to live on Venus instead of Mars, arguing there is more opportunity there.     

The novel touches on immigration policy when it talks about Mars history.  When Earth was run by a bunch of commies the commissars sent criminals to Mars; most of these were apparently decent people, political opponents of the regime.  Later, I guess when the the commies lost power over Earth, only the finest human specimens were sent to Mars.  Finally, after Mars won independence in a revolutionary war against Earth, its immigration policies were liberalized - but immigrants still have to pass health and IQ tests and pay big fees to move to Mars.     

While Heinlein did not consider it one, in many ways Podkayne of Mars is like one of his famous juveniles; a young person goes on a trip and has adventures, and this gives Heinlein a chance to describe space travel and the different cultures he has developed, and to give little lessons and lectures that express his points of view.  The lessons in this one cover some topics we've seen in other Heinlein books; racism is bad, and the captain of a ship is like a benevolent dictator, for example.  Uncle Tom lectures that "politics" isn't so bad (page 30) because it is better than naked violence, and a woman lectures that women should be understanding of male lust and flattered when men try to seduce them (page 113.)  Poddy advises us to say "thank you" to service staff when we travel.  A few of them may raise an eyebrow, but I didn't find these lessons and lectures offensively preachy or distractingly long-winded; Heinlein doesn't over do it here as he did in the lamentable Number of the Beast some seventeen years later.

The "slam-bang of adventure" Ted Sturgeon enthuses over on the back cover doesn't get going until the last 50 pages or so of this 159 page book.  Adolescent card sharp Clark is kidnapped - is his disappearance linked to the fact that he outwitted some terrorists who hired him to bring a time bomb aboard the Mars-to-Venus ship?  Or to the fact that Uncle Tom is on a secret diplomatic mission, trying to build a Venus Corporation - Mars Republic alliance against Earth imperialism?  When they try to find the little mastermind Uncle Tom and Poddy are captured by a criminal and her native Venerian henchmen - the criminal has been hired to convince Uncle Tom to betray Mars by torturing Poddy and Clark! 

Clark figures out how to escape, then fights and kills the criminal human and the two native creeps.  Clark has saved Mars!  Then Poddy almost gets killed saving the life of an alien baby! (Wikipedia tells us that Heinlein killed Poddy off in his original version, but the publisher made him change it.  Having Poddy die is obviously far better drama.  Curse you, publishers!)

I think Podkayne of Mars is a pretty good book.  I like Heinlein's writing style, and I like all the space travel stuff.  And I think Heinlein does a good job tackling the two big philosophical themes of the book: the nature of liberty, and gender roles.  I have already mentioned the way Heinlein contrasts Martian republicanism and Venerian freewheeling license; this is a good way to talk about the tension between freedom and responsibility.  In addition, in the last few pages of the book Clark, the 11-year-old genius, utters some pithy libertarian philosophy: "Anything that is moral for a group to do is moral for one person to do."  Here we have a thought-provoking statement which does much to undermine conventional views of government.

In this post feminist age, Heinlein's contention that it is more important for women to raise children than to build bridges and space stations is probably more shocking than his anti-government rhetoric, but whereas in attacking the very basis of government Heinlein is a radical, in supporting traditional gender roles we have to see Heinlein as acting the conservative or reactionary.  Whether or not Heinlein's case for traditional gender roles is convincing, I think Podkayne as a character, and her evolution, are very believable; we shouldn't be surprised that Poddy sacrifices herself to save an alien baby, because all through the novel we have been seeing her care for babies and opposing racism and class snobbery.  We expect the title character of a book to be the hero, and after so many years of Buffy and Xena style movies and TV shows and video games we expect to see women shooting and stabbing the bad guys, so maybe it is surprising to us when Poddy cracks under the pressure and it is her little brother who kills all the villains.  But if we abandon those preconceptions and just consider the characters of Poddy and Clarke which Heinlein developed over the 130 odd pages before they get captured we see that how they behave after being captured makes perfect sense.  

So, does Podkayne of Mars live up to the overheated blurbs on its front and back covers?  That women should focus on being mothers instead of engineers doesn't sound like a "challenging new concept of morality and social organization," though the stark libertarianism of "anything that is moral for a group to do is moral for one person to do" perhaps does.  Does a single two-page fight scene render the novel "a slam-bang of adventure"?  Looks like a borderline case; maybe we can let the blurb writers off with a stern warning this time.


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