Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926
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 Martian winter—and making room for more immigrants (and greater profit for the company). The colonists, warned by Jim and backed by the Martian elders whom Jim and Frank befriend through the mischievous Willis, storm the company offices and force the bureaucrats to reinstate the migration.
The “revolution” of the colonists is a larger version of the coming-of-age theme in Jim’s character. Just as Jim learns in the course of the novel to make mature decisions for himself, away from his parents, so the colony must become independent from its earthly “parent.” There is even a further variation on the theme in the character of Willis: Willis is a “nymph,” an earlier stage in development from the mysterious Martian elders whom Jim and Frank meet. Willis will metamorphose into an adult Martian; Jim will become an independent, mature man; the colony will become an independent political entity.
The science in Red Planet is outdated, yet the novel illustrates Heinlein’s contention that science fiction is not ruined when science catches up with it. “Updating can’t save a poor story,” he said in Expanded Universe, “and it isn’t necessary for a good one. All of H. G. Wells’ [science-fiction] stories are hopelessly dated . . . and they remain the best, the most gripping science fiction stories to be found anywhere.” For example, Heinlein’s premise of a southern-hemisphere Martian colony farming by the water melted from the ice cap each spring (a seasonal phenomenon observed by telescope) fell apart when satellite analysis revealed the poles to be frozen carbon dioxide, not frozen water. Nevertheless, the basic picture of a colony dependent on Earth remains valid.
Another bit of science in Red Planet illustrates Heinlein’s confidence in technology’s ability to help humans survive in hostile environments. Many science-fiction writers have been reluctant to base future colonies on Mars because of the scarcity of oxygen in its atmosphere. Yet Heinlein points out that there almost certainly is oxygen on Mars—not in the atmosphere but in oxide compounds in the soil. Jim’s father in Red Planet is involved in a massive project to release the oxygen locked in the Martian soil and pump it into the air, making Mars more habitable to humankind. Human beings will survive in space, Heinlein insists, not only by adapting to harsh environments but also by adapting the environments themselves.
The minor conflict that opens the story—Jim’s reluctance to give up Willis—returns at the end as a difficult reality Jim must face in coming of age. In negotiations with the Martians, it becomes necessary for Jim to return Willis to his own people so that he can metamorphose into an adult Martian. The novel ends at that turning point, but Willis’s projected physical transformation is a reflection of Jim’s less tangible passage into manhood, which is, in turn, a reflection of the colony’s coming-of-age.
Doc MacRae, the colony’s physician and Jim’s friend and mentor, comments on Jim’s loss of Willis in the closing lines of the book: “He’ll get over it. Probably he’ll find another bouncer and teach him English and call him Willis, too. Then he’ll grow up and not make pets of bouncers.” MacRae is one of many mentor types in Heinlein’s juveniles, though the type appears in the adult fiction also. He is an adult who represents the values of the adult society yet sympathizes with the boys. Jim and Frank talk with Doc more freely than with their parents.
Red Planet is a classic initiation or coming-of-age story. Jack Williamson, Heinlein’s friend and fellow writer, considered it the first artistic success of the Scribner’s juvenile series. Teenagers can readily identify with the protagonist, Jim Marlowe, but the most memorable character is the scene-stealing Martian nymph Willis, who is one of the most enjoyable and fully realized alien characters in science fiction. “Here, for the first time,” says Williamson, “Heinlein is making the most of his aliens.” Willis makes the book worth reading.
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