The novel takes place sometime in the future, on the planet Mars. Humans have colonized the planet, but have not yet conquered its environment. As a result, the colonists must constantly protect themselves against external dangers—the harsh Martian winters, the oxygen-poor atmosphere, and the occasionally hostile Martian animals and plants. Heinlein frequently parallels the Martian environment with that of the American frontier, and the colonists with the pioneers who settled the American West.
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Red Planet is an adventure novel that explores such issues as friendship, intercultural relationships, and the importance of historical patterns. Heinlein's predominant literary technique is the creation of parallels between actual human society and the fictional world of Mars. Rather than create a totally fantastic world in Red Planet, Heinlein fills his novel with familiar characters, incidents, and relationships, all operating in an unusual, futuristic environment.
The friendship theme, as played out in the relationship between Jim and Willis, will find almost universal appeal. The book presents a fantasy come true: a pet who is actually a sentient being, able to communicate with its owner. More important, though, the story of Jim and Willis forces readers to consider the obligations humans hold toward those creatures they consider pets. The relationship between Jim and Willis also parallels that between colonists and Martians. By the end of the book, evidence has accumulated to suggest that, in both cases, the two parties may never really know enough about each other to exist under any but the most risky and potentially explosive circumstances.
Heinlein adds complexity to his work by developing his parallels from more than one perspective. On one occasion the Martians allow Jim to see himself as they see him: "loved but not respected . . . a great bumbling servant . . . like a poorly trained dog." The reversal of points of...
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Red Planet stresses the danger of allowing initial impressions to control one's opinions of others. Heinlein relates the colonists' attitudes and situation to those of past pioneers and revolutionaries, and refers to historical episodes in which the inability or unwillingness to understand other cultures proved harmful.
There is violence in this book, much of it performed by two young boys. Throughout, however, Heinlein is careful to examine the motives that spark dramatic action. Jim rebels because the headmaster does not treat Willis as an intelligent being; the colonists rebel because the Company does not treat them as intelligent beings. There are clearcut moral standards, upheld by characters such as Doc MacRae; those who resort to prejudice as a result of greed and self-interest are shown to suffer in the end.
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Topics for Discussion
1. During the discussion of whether or not Jim can take Willis to school, Doc MacRae says, "Trouble is the normal condition for the human race. We were raised on it. We thrive on it." What events later in the book support Doc's opinion?
2. Red Planet begins as an adventure story but changes into something more complex. When do the concerns of the story start to change? What are these new concerns?
3. Early in the book, Jim's father says that "Marlowes pay their debts." Jim repeats the line toward the end of the story. Why is this idea important to both Jim and his father?
4. After one colonist decides not to join the revolution, Doc MacRae says, "Most people never grow up. They expect Papa to get 'em the pretty moon." What does Doc mean by the statement? Does it apply to any of the main characters in the book?
5. What attracts Jim and Frank to Doc MacRae? Can you point to instances when they trust Doc more than they do other adults?
6. Analyze the relationship between Willis and Jim. Who do you think is the pet, and who the master, or are these labels totally inapplicable?
7. Why do Jim and Francis disagree so much about Willis? Who is proven correct by the end of the story?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. More than once, Doc MacRae compares Mars to the "Old West" in America. Why? Are the comparisons valid? What do they add to the story?
2. Compare the colonization effort on Mars with other colonization efforts in history. How does the colonists' treatment of the Martians differ from other colonists' treatment of native populations?
3. One character points out that it took white civilization a long time to understand Native American civilization. Focus on one Native American tribe and its struggles with the U.S. government, and compare this situation to the lack of understanding between races described in Red Planet.
4. What does Red Planet have to say about the necessity of leaving good friends as one grows older? Compare this theme in Red Planet to the same theme in another book you have read.
5. Write a short story or description of what you think Willis's life will be like after the end of the novel.
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Red Planet has an interesting connection to Heinlein's most famous work, Stranger in a Strange Land: the Martians in both stories are the same. The books do not, however, tell related stories, and Stranger in a Strange Land is a work aimed at older readers.
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For Further Reference
Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis. Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1968. An overview of Heinlein's works. An accessible critique for young readers.
Patrouch, Joseph. "Robert A. Heinlein." In Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers, edited by David Cowart and Thomas L. Wymer. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. A good introduction to the range and scope of Heinlein's work.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1977. A good source that analyzes some of Heinlein's most enduring themes. Particularly applicable to Red Planet.
Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1976. A slightly scholarly, but thorough assessment of Heinlein's work.
Williamson, Jack. "Youth Against Space: Heinlein's Juveniles Revisited." In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. New York: Taplinger, 1978. A good summary of most of Heinlein's books for young adults.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Aldiss, Brian. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Gifford, J. Daniel. Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion. Sacramento, Calif.: Nitrosyncretic Press, 2000.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “Heinlein’s Inhabited Solar System, 1940-1952.” Science-Fiction Studies 23 (July, 1996): 245-252.
Nicholls, Peter. “Robert A. Heinlein.” In Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982.
Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Taplinger, 1978.
Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension. 1968. Reprint. Chicago: Advent, 1974.
Patterson, William H., Jr., and Andrew Thronton. The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Citrus Heights, Calif.: Nitrosyncretic Press, 2001.
Stephens, Christopher P., comp. A Checklist of Robert A. Heinlein. Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.:...
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