Red Planet

[Amazon Link]

As I've mentioned once before (oops, make that twice before) (well, actually, thrice before), Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein, was the first "big boy" book I read, checked out from the Oakland, Iowa public library at some point in the late 1950s, when I was seven or eight years old. It hooked me on science fiction generally, and Heinlein specifically. It could have easily appeared on my Ten Influential Books list back in 2010, but it already had two other Heinlein books on it, and I didn't want to look like a total fanboy. (I left that until now, I guess.)

So why reread it now, nearly sixty years later? Second childhood? Well, maybe, but my official reason was an intriguing factoid from the Heinlein biography written by William H. Patterson. The version of Red Planet that made it into my grubby little hands back in Iowa was the product of a contentious dispute between Heinlein and Alice Dalgliesh, the editor at Scribners for his "juvenile" novels. Among other things Ms. Dalgliesh was adamant about the plot's reliance on some of the characters carrying handy weapons at all times. Aieee, what do you think this is, Robert? America?

So, yes, this is Heinlein's restored, uncensored version of Red Planet. Cool!

The story has teenage hero Jim Marlowe, a Mars colonist from Earth. He has (sort of) adopted a native Martian pet, a "bouncer" he's named "Willis". Willis is usually a featureless beachball, but occasionally eyes pop out, and protuberances he uses for locomotion as necessary. Willis also has an uncanny ability to listen to sounds—conversations, music, what have you—and play them back flawlessly. This becomes an important plot point.

Jim is sent off to school, accompanied by his close buddy Frank. Things rapidly take a turn for the disastrous when the easygoing head of the school is replaced with a petty martinet, fond of imposing arbitrary rules on his charges. When he discovers Willis, dollar signs appear in his eyes, and the bouncer is confiscated for nefarious purposes.

But it tuns out that this school tyranny is only a shadow of worse things in store for the entire Martian colony. Jim and Frank set out to make things right, only to become wanted fugitives on the run, over hostile Martian wilderness.

So, yes, it's a lot of fun. There are the usual Heinlein character types that show up in a lot of his work: the cynical, wise-cracking mentor/sage, the officious, snooty, older female (think Margaret Dumont, except nastier, and no Groucho in sight).

I didn't notice any major differences in the "uncensored" version. But I probably wouldn't after (see above) nearly sixty intervening years. What I do fondly remember from the original was the Clifford Geary illustrations. You can find some of them with some Googling, but it would have been neat to have them here. Maybe some diligent publisher will put it all together someday. If that happens, I'll open my wallet one more time.