Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Red Planet

Robert Heinlein's stories peaked in the 1960s with Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In the two prior decades much of his writing was dominated by his publisher's demand for "juvenile" fiction, SF still being mired in its early 20th century pulp planetary romance phase. While keeping things PG-rated understandably dulled the edge off his futuristic libertarianism and libertinism, his irrepressible style shone through. The "Heinlein juveniles" are more serious and thought provoking than most anything pop culture directs at ersatz mature audiences.

Take Red Planet. A young pioneer saves his pet Martian parrot-ball from a fate worse than death. The ensuing adventure manages to combine ice-skating, war-painted oxygen masks, righteous rebellion against authoritarian middle-school educators, bullet train rides and fending off aliengators all before even reaching the main event. Along the way its characters exemplify a gamut of personal freedom and responsibility from the childish to the posthuman, by both pedantic and implicit means. Despite all that heartpounding action-adventure, for fans of Stranger in a Strange Land it will inevitably read much like a marginally non-canon sequel expanding upon Martian biology and culture and Heinlein's idealized individual capable of both careful, patient consideration and decisive, merciless action.

It's a quaint reminder that Stranger was cooking for a dozen years before being published in abridged form no less. Both books were in fact begun around the same time. This likely amounted to a stroke of marketing genius, as youth who grew up loving Heinlein's mysterious Martians in Red Planet would've been perfectly primed when they hit their mid-twenties to have their world rocked by Stranger's iconoclasm, free love and benevolent cannibalism. No wonder students just finishing college started setting up their own Martian nests.

In keeping with its youth-oriented marketing, Red Planet's remarkably dynamic. By itself, the image of the two boys skating at low-gravity speeds along frozen Martian canals, masks painted in garish individually expressive patterns, would make a stunning central visual thread for a movie. That is, if any studio were willing to adapt the book honestly, keeping both Heinlein's outdated science vis-a-vis said red planet and his gun-toting cowboy political rhetoric. Setting aside, its monomythic plot would instantly grab audiences. The hero with his two sidekicks discovers a dire threat to his community, travels strange landscapes, gains a wizard's (read Martian's, but let's not split hairs) aid and guidance, rallies the good people against the bad and at last reinstates the status quo.

The devil's in the details, and classic Heinlein prods toward freewheeling but socially conscious rugged individualism pepper every other page. Damn, the bastard could spin a yarn.

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