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Red Planet ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Red Planet ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Missouri-born author Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) was the premiere American science-fiction writer of the twentieth century. He wrote many novels and short stories that, no matter how fantastic, were always believable and grounded in scientific fact. His 1949 novel, Red Planet, is about people from Earth living on Mars and the problems they face with the inhospitable climate (200 degrees below zero in winter), with Martian natives, but most of all with others of their own kind. (Yes, people from Earth are devious, self-serving and corrupt, no matter what planet they’re on.)   

The main character in Red Planet is a young lad named Jim Marlowe. We are never told his age, so let us assume he is about sixteen. He is one of the colonists on Mars, living with his mother and father, his younger sister and brother in “South Colony.” Jim’s best friend is a boy named Frank Sutton but, more importantly, his best Martian friend is a “roundhead” that he has named Willis. Willis is a lovable ball of fur with “eyepods” for seeing and little “footpods” for mobility; he talks, but, more importantly, he can mimic and record any voice or any conversation he has overheard, sort of a living tape recorder.

When Jim and Frank go away to Lowell Academy, Jim must take Willis along with him because they are inseparable. The authoritarian headmaster of the school, Mr. Howe, confiscates Willis and locks him up, making Willis and Frank both extremely unhappy. Mr. Howe claims the school doesn’t allow “pets,” but the truth is he is going to sell Willis to a zoo because—don’t you know?—Martian roundheads are rare and valuable.

Jim and Frank break into Mr. Howe’s office to free Willis late at night when no one is around. It seems that Willis, during his captivity, has overheard (and recorded) a conversation between Mr. Howe and Mr. Beecher, the unscrupulous colonial administrator of Mars. These two villainous dogs have a secret plan, to save money, to prevent the annual migration of the colonists, which is necessary for them to avoid twelve months of killing winter weather. The boys must leave school and travel the thousand miles home to warn their parents and the rest of the colony. No transportation is available to them, so they skate on the frozen Martian canals, encountering unimagined perils, including being pursued by the villains and spending a freezing night inside a giant Martian cabbage (where they run the risk of being smothered as the cabbage closes up for the night).

Red Planet is an imaginative science fiction adventure, set in some future time when people from Earth find the courage and the technical know-how to go live on an unknown planet that still holds a lot of surprises for the uninitiated. Unless mankind destroys itself (which seems a distinct possibility), people will undoubtedly venture to Mars and even farther, at which time science fiction becomes reality.  

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

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