Why read an old science fiction novel? Maybe a friend recommended it. Or maybe you discovered an author you like and you’re reading all of their books. Or it was on a list of great science fiction novels. Or a YouTuber reviewed it. Maybe even, it was assigned in a class. In my case, and I think it’s true of most people my age, we’re rereading old SF novels we loved in our youth.
A better question to ask: Which old science fiction novels should we read? The obvious answer is the true classics. But what makes a book classic? I once calculated there were less than one hundred famous books from the 19th century that are regularly read today. Scholars and fans of 19th-century lit are familiar with more titles but I’m talking about the average bookworm. I’m going to assume as the 21st century progresses, we’ll collectively forget about most of the science fiction published in the 20th century.
I’m reading and rereading old science fiction because of nostalgia and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about 20th-century science fiction. But as I do this I’m thinking about which books might survive long term. Doing that requires analyzing books for their various qualities. One way to do that is to recall what made me love a book then and try to figure out why it might be loved or hated today.
If I was thirteen years old today and read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein which was first published in 1949, would I love it like I did when I read it at thirteen in 1964? I’m not sure I can answer that at 70 because my mind is clouded with nostalgia. Probably any 13-year-old today would laugh at Heinlein’s attitude toward women. But would kids today, especially those science-savvy kids, dismiss the book because Heinlein has Mars populated with life, even with beings more intelligent than humans? Or would they forgive him in the same way we forgive 19th-century writers like Jules Verne, and assume Heinlein was from some pre-scientific dark age and just didn’t know better?
Would the core story in this 1949 science fiction novel still be entertaining to any reader in 2022? People still find Journey to the Center of the Earth immensely entertaining even though they know Verne was full of lala regarding his science.
Red Planet was immensely appealing to me in 1964. It was about a boy, Jim Marlowe, and his friend Frank Sutton, living in a colony on Mars. Jim also had a pet Martian “rounder” that is somewhat intelligent and could speak some English. Because Mars is so cold the colonists must migrate between the south and north to avoid Martian winters. The plot involves Jim and Frank going away to boarding school and learning the corporation that owns the colony secretly wants to end the practice of migration to save money. Jim and Frank sneak away and travel across the Martian landscape to warn their parents, which eventually causes the colonists to revolt against the corporation. The plot also deals with the Martians and the conflict of intelligent species, so it’s very exciting.
In 1965 with the Mariner IV flyby probe we learned that Mars was much closer to being like the Moon than Earth and there would be no advanced life forms found there. Ever since then science fiction writers have been writing quite differently about Mars. Some readers felt NASA invalidated all the older science fiction about Mars, and some readers didn’t mind at all. I wonder what young readers growing up in the 21st century think when reading such stories. I know they are often quick to reject stories for woke reasons, and that’s understandable. I sometimes wonder if they ignore the less evolved attitudes of our ancestors, and the science we know about Mars, could older stories gain fans just because of their storytelling virtues?
I can overlook bad science and some lack of wokeness. I even wrote an essay – “I Miss Martians” because I get a kick out of stories where the solar system is full of life and intelligence. But I remember a time before NASA’s probes when many people hoped that would be true. Will readers growing up after that time feel the same way? Is The War of the Worlds still a popular book with young readers?
Books are like people, they survive death in the memories of folks who loved them. But as those people die, who will keep the memories going? History keeps the memory of significant people alive. For a book to keep being read requires a similar kind of historical significance.
Red Planet was the first Heinlein story I read. That was back in the autumn of 1964 just before I turned thirteen, and before Mariner IV. My eighth-grade English teacher required us to read three books for each six-weeks grading period. Red Planet was on her approved list, and maybe the only science fiction title. I wished I remembered her name because I’ve always been thankful to her for introducing me to Heinlein. By the end of 1965, I believe I had read all of Heinlein that had been published in paperback and hardback up to that time.
The Heinlein juveniles won library awards and were recommended for young adults. In the late 1940s when few science fiction writers got published in hardback, Heinlein sold his young adult novels to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. After WWII Heinlein also broke into slick magazines with several SF stories published in Saturday Evening Post, and he even had a Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, made in 1950. And I have met countless people on the web testifying how much they loved the Heinlein juveniles growing up. I think they are why those twelve books stay in print. But after they die, do those twelve books have any literary or historical significance to keep them in print?
Heinlein’s words had a certain amount of respect around the time I was born in 1951 but I’m not sure his same words would be respected today. While liberals shame-censor books with woke concerns and conservatives seek to actually have books banned from school and public libraries I’m not sure how the books I loved as a kid would be judged today.
Red Planet made a great impact on me as a kid. Conservatives today would probably completely approve of Red Planet — the only fault they might find in it is I grew up to be a liberal. I’m afraid my liberal friends would not approve of this novel because Heinlein had a completely 1940s attitude towards the role of women in society. But his attitudes didn’t rub off on me because I completely embraced feminism in the 1960s. I did wince at all of Heinlein’s patriarchal sentiments when I reread Red Planet this weekend. What’s strange is just a few years later, in the 1950s Heinlein changed his attitude completely toward what jobs women could hold. Wonder what made him change? And should we retroactively forgive him for his 1940s attitudes?
I’ve wondered if Heinlein’s third wife, Ginny, changed Heinlein’s mind about women. Or did his science fictional instincts make him ask: What if women had the freedom to be who they wanted? In the 1950s Heinlein made women rocket scientists, spaceship pilots, and combat soldiers. He put them in leadership positions. Did he think of that himself? Or were there feminists in the 1950s who changed his mind? Is a feminist change in SF significant enough historically to keep Heinlein’s 1950s books in print?
My favorite part of Red Planet is the Martians. They appear to be the same Martians Heinlein uses in his 1961 novel Strange in a Strange Land. However, they don’t seem to be the same Martians in his 1956 novel, Double Star. And there’s even a recursive SF joke in Red Planet. Willis turns out might be a princess of sorts, bringing in an Edgar Rice Burroughs allusion. In Red Planet, the Martians have a ceremony with water and call Jim their “water friend” but in Strange in a Strange Land, Mike undergoes the same water ceremony and is called a “water brother.”
In other words, I don’t care if the real Mars is lifeless, but it’s amusing to see how Heinlein gave Mars an intelligent species for his books. Alan Brown in his review of the novel said he thought Stranger was actually a prequel to Red Planet. If Stranger in a Strange Land stays in print, will it help Red Planet be remembered by science fiction scholars as a footnote?
Actually, many themes that Heinlein covered in other books are touched upon in Red Planet. Heinlein was a nudist, and the men in this novel only wear jockey shorts on the inside and describe women wearing what Earth women would wear to the beach. A lot of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies pictured such skimpy attire for the future. Will some science fiction books be remembered for their bad visions of fashion of the future? I doubt Red Planet has enough of those.
The revolution in Red Planet has a lot of similarities to the revolution in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Many of Heinlein’s stories involve revolutions or overthrowing some kind of tyranny. And they often have a big committee meeting where everyone argues and abuse Robert’s Rules of Order. And all these stories involve innocents being killed to ramp up the emotions and justify the revolutionaries using deadly force. Heinlein loved replaying the American revolution. I’m pretty sure MAGA people, and even preppers would find Red Planet appealing for its politics.
What’s funny is Jim Marlowe throws fits over minor school rules claiming it violates his freedom. Heinlein loved the Navy Academy and Jim would have been considered a whiner there. The way freedom is defined in Red Planet is the same kind as people who didn’t want to wear masks during the pandemic defined it. Heinlein also spends a fair amount of time promoting gun ownership in this book. He also promotes a kind of frontier justice that many conservatives today would love.
I was disappointed with this rereading of Red Planet because Heinlein failed to make his Martian colony realistic, or even spend much time on how a colony would be built. Heinlein saw Mars as a solution to Earth’s overpopulation and a place for people wanting to be free to be pioneers. Both are absolutely ridiculous assumptions.
The Martians in Red Planet have the same ability to make people disappear as Valentine Michael Smith did in Stranger in a Strange Land. I find that concept extremely unethical in the way Heinlein uses it. It gives his characters a god-like power which Heinlein assumes his characters know what’s right and wrong and can make god-like judgments. In more than one novel Heinlein has stated that bad manners should be a capital offense. Again, this will probably appeal to the MAGA crowd.
In recent decades I’ve developed a theory that Heinlein wanted to be another Ayn Rand, especially after the success of Atlas Shrugged. He switched from writing short YA novels to long preachy adult novels after Ayn Rand became famous. And Heinlein promoted a similar kind of political philosophy. Before he died, Heinlein said in many places he wanted to be remembered for three novels: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I see those as his Ayn Rand novels, but the same political sentiments exist in Red Planet. I believe Heinlein knew most of his novels would be forgotten in the 21st century, and he intended to winnow out the ones he wanted and why. I never liked Heinlein’s politics, so as I’ve gotten older, I jettison his 1960s and later novels too. I love a lot of his 1940s work, but I know they have woke problems. And from 1960 on, they have had political and literary problems. That leaves me with his 1950s work. And as I reread it, I might revise my opinions on those stories too.
Heinlein also likes writing stories about advanced aliens judging humanity. Red Planet parallels Have Space Suit-Will Travel in this regard. I’m not sure this theme is strong enough in Red Planet to ensure its long-term survival.
I still enjoyed reading Red Planet this weekend. I’ve read it several times over my lifetime. It’s a nostalgic favorite, but not a top favorite. It’s too quaint for modern readers, but I don’t think it offers enough historical or literary value to last. And I can see why it would offend many readers.
When I was young I loved Heinlein’s books so much that I thought they would become classics, but I doubt that now. I wanted Heinlein to be the H. G. Wells of 20th-century science fiction. I’m starting to think he might be remembered like Edward Page Mitchell.
James Wallace Harris, 8/23/22