An early “juvie” adventure in liberty on Wild West Mars: Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, the 1996 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

As part of the Libertarian Futurist Society Appreciation series of past award-winners, here is our Appreciation for Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, the 1996 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner:

By Anders Monsen

Many of Robert Heinlein’s novels featuring children have been lumped together and called “juvies” (or juveniles), as if they are children’s books. But, just like many Disney or Pixar animated movies, there are aspects of these works that go over the heads of a younger audience, whether those teens read the books as they first were published in the 1940s or 1950s, or whether they’re read today.

Red Planet, first published in 1949, is significant in terms of Heinlein’s bibliography, both as being one of the earliest juvies, and also because it introduces elements of Martian mythology that later appeared in Stranger in a Strange Land .

Ostensibly an adventure story centered around two boys on the run from an oppressive schoolmaster and conniving colony governor on Mars, Red Planet has two other themes or threads that elevate the novel beyond an adventure story. And make no mistake, this is written as an adventure story, with trials and tribulations that propel the action, for both the young and adult characters.

First, a few words about the setting: The novel takes place on Mars. Some time in the future, the planet has been settled by a few hardy workers and families.

Written in the late 1940s, when spacecraft had not yet reached the Moon, yet alone our sister planet, Heinlein envisions a Mars with enigmatic Martian locals, as well as canals filled with frozen water. Heinlein looked into the past, where hardy European settlers first arrived in America, then headed west. He transports the same sort of people to Mars, where they repeat similar actions and similar family roles.

The novel is a product of its times in terms of gender roles, with only the barest hints of the individualism Heinlein would later imbue in his female characters; women are usually subservient to men (unless they are shrill and opinionated, in which case weak men follow their wives), young boys are raised as shooters, ready to defend themselves against hostile wildlife (bears, wolves, cougars, snakes in the American West; water-seekers on Mars), and real men are men of action.

However, while kids were usually sent to small local schoolhouses in the nineteenth century American West (viz. The Little House on the Prairie), on Mars they are sent to a distant boarding school.

Due to seasonal temperature fluctuations, all the settlers migrate during the Martian winters toward the equatorial area, a key element of the novel’s plot, and the plot at the center of the novel’s antagonists.

Red Planet’s main protagonists are two young boys, Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, as well as a peculiar Martian pet/companion of Jim’s, known as Willis. This Martian, like a basketball with three small legs and the ability to mimic anything he hears, had been rescued by Jim from a water-seeker, a predatory Martian beast, perhaps similar to the cougar or bear for American readers.

Although Jim denies to everyone that Willis is a pet, he certainly treats Willis like one. When Jim and Frank head to boarding school, they take Willis with them, thousands of miles from where he found the young Martian.

Shortly after they arrive at school, however, the pleasant headmaster leaves, and a male version of J. K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter saga arrives and starts issuing rules and proclamations. One of these orders leads to him confiscating Willis, leading to harsher and harsher punishments for Jim, who objects to the rules and loss of his friend. Jim resolves to steal back Willis and then return home, an act that uncovers a plot by the governor of Mars that will set him in direct conflict with the settlers and workers, such as Jim and Frank’s parents.

Here the novel picks up one of the adult threads, one which Heinlein would later explore in more detail in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, based on American history, with colonists objecting to harsh rule by distant and tone-deaf rulers, eventually leading to rebellion. This sentiment is expressed multiple times by Doctor MacRae, an older and cantankerous gentleman, one with distinctly libertarian sentiments.

Unfortunately, the most libertarian character in the novel isn’t always the most pleasant one, even though he has some good quotes:

“He’s an individual, you know. He’s not property.” [About Willis]

“These ridiculous regulations offend me. That a free citizen should have to go before a committee, hat in hand, and pray for permission to bear arms — fantastic! Arm your daughter, sir, and pay not attention to petty bureaucrats.”

“Never listen to newscasts. Saves wear and tear on the nervous system.”

The other thread running through the novel deals with the Martians. Initially, although Willis is native to Mars, he’s contrasted with the main inhabitants, sentient beings who remain distant from humans, at least until threatened.

The Martians, unlike the rotund Willis, are tall, silent creatures, rarely seen. As Jim and Frank embark on their voyages (to school and away from it), they encounter and befriend several Martians, who live underground with their own means of travel, communication, and culture.

These enigmatic Martians play a major role later in the novel, when the settlers take their concerns directly to the governor. Here they get involved in a shooting war, with the adults taking center stage and Jim, Frank, and Willis virtually sidelined. Not until the Martians realize the full extent of the governor’s involvement and intent toward Willis, who apparently is not what he seems, do they reveal darker aspects of themselves, something that threatens the very existence of humans on their planet.

As an example of early Heinlein, Red Planet is a rough and uncut gem. Heinlein’s treatment of women certainly changed over time, and stands as possibly the worst aspect of this book. His portrayal of the red planet as one that humans could live on and settle was rooted in fantasy, rather than scientific knowledge.

Yet the adventure tale of Jim and Frank as they traverse the planet makes for great reading, as does their conflict with the pompous and petty tyrant headmaster who assumes control of their lives and propels the plot into new dimensions.

Although Heinlein wrote many better novels as he found his footing as a writer and thinker, Red Planet held a well of ideas, one that he would return to again and again, improving upon them as he developed more complex plots and characters.

Finally, Red Planet suffered many editorial cuts and changes, imposed upon the book and against Heinlein’s wishes by one of the editors at Scribner, Alice Dalgliesh. These cuts and changes watered down some of the social commentary, removed or reduced references to guns (especially associated with young boys owning and using them), and removed anything that might be seen as sexual.

William H. Paterson, in the second volume of his Heinlein biography, devotes several pages to this issue. The cuts were later restored when the book was re-printed by Del Ray after Heinlein’s death. Bill Ritch, while then editor of Prometheus, wrote an essay comparing the original text to the Dalgliesh edits in Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990. The restored text isn’t just Heinlein’s preferred text (he objected strenuously to each change), but significantly better and vehemently pro-liberty.

Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons license)

Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his classic bestselling novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1983) and Stranger in a Strange Land (in 1987), the novel Time Enough for Love(in 1995), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the story Requiem (in 2003) and the story Coventry (in 2017.)


* See related  introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. This page includes convenient links to each published Appreciation.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join   the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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