Revisiting the Classics: Podkayne of Mars

by wjw on March 21, 2017

51J0c85Im7LI’m not sure how many people would actually consider Podkayne of Mars a classic, but it is Heinlein, after all . . . and besides, nobody would read a blog series titled Revisiting the Flops.

I’d read Podkayne when I was a teenager, didn’t care for it, and never picked it up again until the other week, when I stumbled across the audio book in the library.  How bad could it be? I thought innocently.

Well, my friends, I found out.

One of the features of audio books is that you have to listen to every single word.  If you’re reading a text and encounter a boring patch, you can skim or skip ahead, but if it’s an audio book, you’ve pretty well condemned yourself to listening to the whole thing, or maybe blindly skipping ahead and taking the chance of missing something important.

My eyes began to roll up in my head about the middle of the second CD, and by the end I was hanging in there just to see how bad it could be.   Which was very.

It reads very much like later Heinlein, from around the time of Number of the Beast, which is to say it’s very episodic, doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular, and spends a lot of time monologuing about one thing or another.  Quite a few people turn up in the story who seem to exist to take up pages, not to advance the plot.  In fact there is no plot whatever for the first 80% of the narrative— up till then it’s a travelogue, where we find out about a spaceship which then disappears from the narrative and has nothing to do with the resolution of the plot.  Shortly after the spaceship disappears, the plot appears more or less out of nowhere and carries on till the end, except for interruptions in which the narrator’s younger brother explains how stupid she is.  So what we have is a novel-length narrative with a novelette’s worth of story grafted onto the end.

(Actually there’s a plot going on all the time, except the narrator’s unaware of it, and spends the story in blissful ignorance until the story rears up to bite her at the end.)

Podkayne, the narrator, is an early science fiction and YA heroine, being a fifteen-year-old Martian colonist.  Which could be interesting, except that Poddy is:

1.  Completely goopy, and;

2.  Very thick.

She is described as having an IQ of 145, which is not apparent to the reader.  Much of her dialogue consists of her saying “Huh?” and “What?” and having to have her own story explained to her by someone more perceptive, usually her younger brother, a genius but a budding sociopath and, later, a killer.  He’s the actual hero of the story, the one who foils the villains, except he’s fairly evil himself and we are disposed to hate him.

Podkayne wishes to be the captain of a spaceship, a profession dominated entirely by men.  She quite deliberately suppresses any display of her intelligence and cultivates her “puzzled kitten look,” so that the men will let her hang around with them.  (This is probably a viable strategy for a certain type of female interacting with a certain type of man, but I’m guessing it won’t work for the captain of a ship.)

But Podkayne is irresolute when it comes to her ambitions, and becomes a sort of “Math Class is Tough Barbie,” and considers that maybe she’d be just as happy looking after babies.  (Babies, as it turns out, are her downfall.)

These sorts of internal debates are legitimate, I suppose, but it would serve the narrative if they took place in the head of a more interesting character.  But Podkayne simpers and practices her kitten face, and is quite passive in her own story, and never really makes up her mind about anything, one way or another.  Which is not untypical of fifteen-year-olds, but it doesn’t make them heroines either.

Most Heinlein stories have a naive character who exists to be a straw man and to say the stupid, conventional things, so that smarter characters can correct them in a lengthy monologue.  After all, a real Heinlein hero disdains convention, and reasons everything out from first principles without recourse to illogic, sentiment, or emotion.  Podkayne is illogical, sentimental, and emotional (and prone to tears), and other characters, usually her brother, are forever pointing this out.  Podkayne is never actually right about anything.  She always makes the wrong choice.  I think it is safe to say that she is alone in this among all Heinlein heroes.

(Heinlein’s next female narrator, Friday, has a good deal more going for her, but the book is equally a mess.)

Often Heinlein’s younger heroes start out naive, but during the course of the narrative listen to their wise pontificating elders and learn better by the end, by which time they become a proper Heinlein hero, self-reliant and a good citizen.  But Podkayne never manages that leap, remains illogical and sentimental to the end, and ends up being destroyed in an atomic blast (which she knew was going to happen) when she returns to Ground Zero in order to rescue a cute baby alien flying monkey-thing.  (Babies are her downfall.)  She also loses the proto-GPS that will allow her to escape to safety, I guess because she’s illogical and emotional or something.  We’re not given an answer to that one.

Heinlein is on record as saying that the book is about parenting, and that Podkayne dies, and her brother becomes a sociopath, because their parents prioritized their careers over raising children— or maybe not children exactly, but self-reliant Heinlein heroes.  If this is indeed Heinlein’s argument, he fails to make it convincing.  Podkayne’s family seems fairly ordinary save in having produced an evil twelve-year-old genius, and Clark’s sociopathy seems age-appropriate, twelve-year-olds not being renowned for their compassion and generosity.

The society depicted in the novel never ventures far from the 1950s America in which most of it was written, which is true of most of Heinlein’s juveniles— no doubt a modern YA reader would find them pretty quaint.  I don’t know whether this is a result of the conventions of 1950s YA publishing, or a failure of Heinlein’s imagination.  I’m inclined to suspect the latter, since Heinlein was never able to depict a convincing future society radically changed from his own. He idealized America’s past, and perhaps he thought that 1900 was as good as it would ever get.

The social issues confronted in the novel involve racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry– all timely enough in 2017 America as in the 1950s.  Bigots in the novel exist to be mocked and pranked, but not taken very seriously.  Native Martians (bisexual and highly civilized) and “Venerians” (savages prone to drug addiction) are viewed more or less as colonial subjects, and otherwise not given a lot of thought.  Heinlein manages to sneak in a bit of sexual subversion in his references to Martian sexuality and in his Venus settlement, where any form of sex is available (and probably monetarized).  Podkayne is intrigued by the possibilities on offer, but chooses to remain virtuous, there being no choice in the matter for 1950s YA heroines.  (In another scene she yearns for her uncle to spank her, but fortunately we don’t go there.)

The book demonstrates a surprising lack of confidence by its author.  Heinlein touches on issues– bigotry, sexuality, sexism, colonialism, parenting— but then never really comes to grips with any of them.  Podkayne can’t seem to make up her mind about anything, but neither can her creator.  Trying to view the future through the mind of a 15-year-old female pretty well short-circuited all Heinlein’s writerly reflexes.  It’s a swing and a miss, but he should get credit at least for swinging.

It also must be said that if he intended to write a novel about failures in parenting, he should have had parenting center stage, and not spaceship engineering.  But he was good at the one thing, and never tried the other, and perhaps he knew his own limitations.

TRX March 21, 2017 at 11:14 pm

I read it when I was about 15, and only re-read it last year. We’re about the same age.

It didn’t take long before I remembered why I hadn’t bothered to read it again. Ditto to all your comments.

Mostly, what it felt like was a partially-filled outline. The book starts off reasonably well, but the rest reads like a bunch of story parts without much spackling over the joints.

By 1963 Heinlein certainly knew how to write… but then, that’s a year after he declared he was going to a new style and delivered “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Podkayne might have been “old work” that he wasn’t interested in finishing.

The annoying part is that it *could* have been one of his better juveniles… if he’d delivered an entire book instead of just the framework for one.

wjw March 21, 2017 at 11:36 pm

According to biographer Patterson, Heinlein had several false starts on Podkayne, and finally stitched it together out of various fragments. Which is what also happened with Stranger.

Around the same time he put together Methuselah’s Children and Orphans of the Sky, which were both fixups of earlier material, and Farnham’s Freehold, another catastrophe. His very next book was Glory Road, which I remember held together pretty well, though maybe I should be frightened of revisiting it.

And then Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is pretty darn good.

Mark Hughes March 22, 2017 at 3:01 am

I thought about Podkayne a lot when reading John Barnes’ The Sky So Big and Black. There, Terry’s a standard-issue Heinleinian genius self-reliant kid on (modern science) Mars, who wastes half the book mooning over a guy who is clearly garbage from scene 1, but then gets her shit together and saves lives in the typical Barnes apocalypse/horror ending.

Podkayne has no less plot, lots of picaresque and arguably better characters, but Heinlein pushed the apocalypse to the end and couldn’t write Poddy as coping, for whatever excuse.

The space fantasy habitable Venus & Mars I can barely excuse because it’s consistent with his earlier books, but it also makes me glare a little every time it happens.

-dsr- March 22, 2017 at 5:14 am

I can also recommend Carrie Vaughn’s recent Martians Abroad, which is clearly the result of re-reading Podkayne and throwing it down in disgust, shouting “I can do much better than that!”

She does.

TRX March 22, 2017 at 11:13 am

> Glory Road

I re-read that one last year, too. It’s okay, except for the wife-swapping sequence in the middle which makes no sense. (The Doral was supposedly used to dealing with other cultures and would presumably have had some reaction other than mortal offense…)

Double Star still held up well, and The Puppet Masters was even better than I remembered, though even the expanded/restored version still had the puzzle of why “Mary”, who had no past and no memories before early adulthood, had a top security clearance and was assigned to a Presidential guard detail.

I had read Friday when it came out and was massively underwhelmed. I re-read that one too, and it was even worse than I remembered. It reminded me of one of those interminable Dan Brown thrillers, except instead of run – puzzle – run – puzzle it was run – sex – run – sex. I *like* sex, and even decently-written porn, but it was just stuck in there like filler between story vignettes. The nonstop action doesn’t manage to hide the fact that there’s no real plot. Plus Friday is, if anything, even dumber than Podkayne, as well as inexplicably ignorant of cultural norms considering her supposed profession. The only reason I can come up with for the book’s otherwise-inexplicable popularity was the picture of a waif with giant bazongas on the cover.

Come to think of it, all the books he wrote after the early ’60s really could have done with an editor with a cup full of red pencils. And maybe a chainsaw. But I’ve noticed the same thing with other writers who got star status; I don’t know if the editors don’t bother to read what the writers send in, or if they just don’t want to lock horns with a giant and cranky ego.

pixlaw March 22, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Honestly, I find it almost impossible these days to re-read Heinlein. Partly that’s because I worshiped a couple of his books in the 70’s (Glory Road and Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and I find them thin gruel now. And those were his good books back then. The other ones, well.

I’m positively embarrassed by just how many times I read Time Enough For Love trying to figure out why everyone seemed to like it, and why it just kind of creeped me out. And Stranger in a Strange Land just confused me. I remember thinking “what exactly is this thing about?” Is he Christ? Who’s Jubal? Why the hell do the women seem to act like no-one I could ever possibly imagine? Are they human?

More than anything else, his authorial voice alternately entranced and then repelled me. He knew everything! And would never stop telling you about it. Even at the age of 16 I thought the Notebooks of Lazarus Long were reductive (although I didn’t even know that word then) and pretentious. I acknowledge that in my teens I was a sucker for God-like omniscient authors who could explain everything (I’m looking at you, John D. MacDonald and Spider Robinson), but still even then Heinlein was too far.

It could be that it’s as simple as when we age, we become embarrassed by our teenage enthusiasms. That would explain my feelings now about Blue Oyster Cult and Heinlein, but as counters there’s also Roger Zelazny, and the Rolling Stones, and Robert Johnson. Not to mention the Beatles. Hmmm.

pixlaw March 22, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Actually, I’m amazed to discover that Lord of Light was published in 1967, and Time Enough for Love was published in 1973. I find it hard to conceive of a world where the latter was published AFTER the former. Maybe this is one of those ‘worlds splitting into different time streams’ things you SFF types keep going on about.

TRX March 22, 2017 at 2:58 pm

I liked most of Heinlein’s stuff when I was ten to fifteen years old. It suited me at the time, but I grew more selective and more critical.

I liked Norton, Simak, and Laumer just as much. Oddly, they’ve held up much better over the years than Heinlein did. I think a lot of what Heinlein had to say resonates with teenagers more than with adults. Which doesn’t necessarily make it all bad, but I don’t read Hardy Boys and Doc Savage any more, either.

As for Zelazny… he knocked some impressive home runs, balanced by a nearly equal amount of incomprehensible drivel. I think he got a bad case of “New Wave”, a style I never cared for at all. And his later works… I find it hard to believe someone who wrote “And Call Me Conrad” and “Nine Princes in Amber” sunk to the likes of “Coils” or “Eye of Cat.” They have none of Zelazny’s “voice”, which comes through even in his misses; they read like McBooks that have been through too many writers’ workshops until they’re generic text. And they have the feel of something written for the juvenile/YA market; simple plots, simple characters, short declarative sentences, limited vocabulary, even though they weren’t marketed that way.

Steinar Bang March 22, 2017 at 4:36 pm

FWIW I still thinks Citizen of the Galaxy is pretty good (even though lot of his other stuff doesn’t hold up).

I wonder if Have Space Suit Will travel would hold if I were to do a reread…?

wjw March 23, 2017 at 12:43 am

Heinlein put up with editing in the 40s and 50s, but afterwards declared he was going to want what he wanted and how he wanted. I think Stranger was the last book of his that was edited— I think something like 60,000 words were cut, which still left 50,000 words too many.

Of course editors had reasons for going along with this arrangement, since the sooner the book was in the stores, the sooner they could start making pots of money.

wjw March 23, 2017 at 12:46 am

I found that “Have Space Suit” holds up well, as does “Double Star,” “Star Beast,” and “Puppet Masters.” I liked “Harsh Mistress” when I re-read it some years ago.

I stopped reading Heinlein after “I Will Fear No Evil,” though I was talked into reading “Friday” by a fan. “Friday” seemed to start all over every 100 pages or so, as if Heinlein was reduced to a 100-page attention span. Plus, of course, it was awful for other reasons.

Royce Day March 23, 2017 at 10:45 am

While they don’t *always* make the wrong choice, I think Castor and Pollux from “The Rolling Stones” share some of Podkayne’s flaws in that they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are (outside of astrogation and engineering) which their father cheerfully points out at every opportunity.

Of course Roger Stone has his own man-child problems which he was willfully blind to, but I’m still fond of the book anyway, along with “Space Cadet” and parts of “Have Space Suit”.

PhilRM March 23, 2017 at 6:02 pm

“I Will Fear No Evil” was the last-written Heinlein novel that I read, although it wasn’t the last; that was “Farnham’s Freehold”, which I read a few months later. Which I tore in half and threw into the trash can immediately upon finishing, followed moments later by my copy of IWFNE.

I was given copies of “Glory Road”, “Podkayne of Mars”, and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” along with ten other books for my thirteenth birthday. (Best childhood birthday EVAH. I’m also sure my parents had no idea as to the contents of “Glory Road”.) Even with your review, I remember almost nothing about Podkayne, and plan on keeping it that way. I still have fond memories of “Glory Road” (which I suspect might not survive a rereading) and especially TMIAHM.

Ken Burnside March 23, 2017 at 9:06 pm

Heinlein was really at his best in short fiction.

He was also a comsummate pro, and wrote what people would pay him for. Which was novels. Novels were also easier for him, because, eh, he didn’t have to make every word count.

Nothing he wrote in the 15 years after his stroke (which happened in the midst of I Will Fear No Evil) seemed to have a plot worth mentioning. He still had the Heinlein Rants and the Heinlein Stock Characters, and it still had the Heinlein Voice…which is, for readers of a certain age, utterly transparent and a vivid contrast to the overburdened prose of the quarter-penny-per-word pulp writers who preceded him. It’s like the part of his brain that told stories got strangled by that stroke, but the part that processed text still worked.

And, oy, Heinlein’s attitudes towards gender equality have aged…poorly.

Privateiron March 24, 2017 at 9:11 am

I second the Heinlein is better in shorter form, like “If This Goes On” or “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”

The one thing I can say about Friday is that gave us “Saturn’s Children” by Stross, which I actually liked.

I read Heinlein at age 11 and that was a good age for the material. As long as it doesn’t warp your ensuing pubescent mind (well, anymore than it is already going to be warped.)

Charles Stross March 26, 2017 at 12:23 pm

“Glory Road”: holds up reasonably well, and if you read it as a take-down of the classic fairy tale ending and what it means (lots of adventures, until ” … then they all lived happily ever after. THE END.”) it works *extremely* well. Could have used a bit more editing, is all.

“Podkayne”: … I am SO not going there.

“Friday”: a turd studded with rough-cut gemstones. I re-read it and had such a loud argument with the author inside my own head that I rolled my own rework novel (“Saturn’s Children”). Then I discovered they didn’t sell brain bleach strong enough to get the protagonist out of my head (and I BADLY wanted her gone). Exorcism and strong beer helped.

Mischievous impulse: I would really like to see Nnedi Okorafor, or at a pinch Kameron Hurley, tackle “Farnham’s Freehold”. (Heinlein was trying to deal with racism and sexism, but making it up as he went along in the pre-visible-to-white-men civil rights era: after tying his shoelaces together and loading the shotgun he tripped and hit both his own feet. I can see what he was trying to do, but OUCH, that’s not how it should be done!)

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