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Red Planet    by Robert A. Heinlein Amazon.com order for
Red Planet
by Robert A. Heinlein
Order:  USA  Can
Del Rey, 2006 (1949)
Softcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Robert A. Heinlein, brilliant author of Red Planet and so many other canonical SF books, would - if he were still alive - tell you a fascinating story about Red Planet's publishing history, including especially disturbing details involving the book's editor.

More about Heinlein and the book's history in a moment, but here now are a few words about Red Planet.

When we join the action in Red Planet, young Jim Marlowe and his friend Frank Sutton are leaving their homes and families in one of the colonized outposts in the southern hemisphere of Mars, and they are heading off to the Lowell Academy, a prestigious residential school at equatorial Syrtis Minor. Soon after their arrival at school, however, Jim and Frank find themselves increasingly annoyed and restricted by the numerous rules and regulations with which they must now conform; they had, after all, enjoyed the freedom of their lives as colonial pioneers in the remote sectors of Mars, and they are more than a little uncomfortable with what they see as the workings of an oppressive bureaucracy at Lowell.

Jim and Frank soon realize, though, that their new problems at Lowell are relatively insignificant. Something more sinister and dangerous is happening on Mars. Unscrupulous colonial administrators are eager to cut costs in the southern and northern hemispheric outposts, and they have devised a draconian plan (in a brutal alliance with Lowell's headmaster) that could mean death for many of the colonists. So, to warn their parents about the impending crisis, Jim and Frank run away from Lowell and make the long, harrowing trek back to their homes (during which they have significant encounters with Martians). When Jim and Frank are safely at home again, Jim's father wastes no time in organizing the colonists into a rebel alliance that will move against the evil colonial administrators (and Lowell's headmaster).

As the fast-paced action moves toward a final confrontation, and after several people are killed and the lives of many others are endangered, other factors suddenly complicate the colonists' strategic goals: the indigenous Martians - previously tolerant of the people from Earth - have had enough. Now the Martians present every colonist with an ominous warning: Leave Mars or die!

Only one thing will change the Martian's attitude and save the colonists: Jim long ago befriended a Martian creature named Willis - 'a ball of fur with extraordinary powers' - and now Willis's metamorphic heritage and destiny (and, more importantly, his friendship with Jim) means that the Martians will relent and the colonists will be able to stay on Mars.

Well, that in a nutshell, is the plot summary for Red Planet, an adventure story written specifically for boys (and I think for other readers as well) in 1949. As a cautionary SF tale in which utopian pioneers (a.k.a. libertarian conservatives) are locked in a battle against cold-hearted bureaucrats (a.k.a. a corrupt and oppressive alliance of big government and big corporations) while both factions are at the same time imposing upon the hospitality of an increasingly uncomfortable and unforgiving host (i.e., Martians), Red Planet is a fun-filled coming-of-age story, but it is also overflowing with darker political and moral lessons.

Yes, some of what you read in Red Planet may seem a bit anachronistic and na´ve (given what we perceive as our more sophisticated perspectives in 2006), and the book certainly has a simplicity to it that a good deal of SF has eschewed (but the book was, after all, intended for young readers). Nevertheless, Red Planet - because of its important place in the history and development of SF - certainly deserves to be read by everyone interested in speculative fiction, and it deserves a permanent placement on everyone's bookshelf. To add any more well-deserved praise would be like carrying coals to Newcastle - an act that is redundant and unnecessary.

Now, as for the story about the book's history as promised at the outset, I could simply repeat the story here, or I could point you to even better sources (which are, of course, the better alternatives): First, there is William H. Patterson's marvelous introduction to this beautiful, new 2006 Del Rey edition, which you absolutely must read. Second, for even more eye-popping details, go to Jane Davitt's excellent essay (presented by the Heinlein Society).

You will be amazed when you find out what actually happened to Red Planet (and Heinlein) when the book was first published in 1949. If you think the pernicious spirit of censorship and political-correctness could not possibly interfere with a story as innocent and straight-forward as Heinlein's Red Planet, both Patterson and Davitt will surprise you!

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