Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The third of Heinlein’s juvenile novels, Red Planet was his first story to describe the Martian culture to which he would return in Stranger in a Strange Land. The main Martian character, however, is not the adult biped described in that book but a bouncy, spherical nymph named Willis. Willis is kept as a pet by a human colonist named Jim Marlowe, who is unaware that Willis belongs to the same race as the tall, silent, dominant species who built the ancient Martian cities.
As the story begins, Jim and his friend Frank Sutton enter college at Lowell Academy (Heinlein’s tribute to the nineteenth century astronomer Percival Lowell). Jim goes against the wishes of his parents—and, as it turns out, the rules of the college—by bringing his “pet,” Willis, to school. Willis is a Martian roundhead, a hairy sphere about the size of a billiard ball, who can imitate any sound and has learned enough English to converse with Jim and his friends. More important, Willis’s familiarity with the adult Martians makes him an intercessor on behalf of the Earth colonists.
When the college authorities confiscate Willis, Jim faces a dilemma. He was raised to respect authority, yet in this case he believes that the authority is wrong. Furthermore, Willis’s abilities as a sort of Martian tape recorder reveal to Jim a plot by the Earth company that runs the colony to cancel the migration, thereby forcing the colonists to face the deadly...
(The entire section is 926 words.)
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Red Planet is the story of a group's struggle to survive on a newly colonized planet. Two boys, Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, together with Jim's Martian "pet," Willis, learn of a plot that endangers the entire colony on Mars. The adults of the colony gradually begin to organize themselves in response to the threat, but they continue to rely on the enthusiasm and skill of the youngsters.
Just as the adults admit that they have lessons to learn from the children, so too does the human community eventually open itself to lessons from the native Martian community. The colonists discover that many of their initial assumptions about the Martians—particularly those concerning intelligence—have been faulty. The humans realize that they must strive to understand civilizations that differ from their own, and to appreciate the value of others' insights.
(The entire section is 140 words.)