Category Archives: Books

Rereading: RED PLANET by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover and interior illustrations by Clifford Geary.

In the past I’ve written about some fictional versions of Mars, including those by Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis and John Keir Cross. This is my favorite by far.

The alien creature pictured on the dust jacket (which I’ve never owned) is actually Earth colonist Jim Marlowe wearing a protective suit. In his arms is a Martian pet he calls Willis, who plays a major part in the story. Jim and his friend Frank, their families, and many other colonists are living a nomadic life, with half the year spent in the southern colony of Charax, the other half in the northern colony of Copais. Earth government on Mars, and the Earth company that supports the colonies are at Syrtis Minor on the Martian equator. Jim and Frank are about to head there for college. Willis is a most interesting and amusing creature, full of curiosity, intelligent, able to speak English, and also able to record and play back anything he hears, which can cause problems for Jim, but he’s determined to bring the “bouncer,” as the colonists call them, with him, and does so.

On the way to school, Jim and Frank have a layover at Cynia Station, and they go exploring in the nearby Martian city. There we learn much more about real Martians, who are highly intelligent, mysterious, and sometimes dangerous, but Willis makes new Martian friends right away, and the boys are taken deep into the underground Martian dwellings where they ceremonially “share water” with Gekko and other Martians, making them water brothers, a rare honor. Gekko and his tribe are very impressed with the friendship between Jim and Willis, and want Willis to stay with them, but he insists on leaving with Jim and Frank.

When the boys get to school they find a very hostile atmosphere created by the new head of the school, Mr. Howe, just brought in from Earth. He rules with an iron hand, imposing all kinds of new restrictions, and soon has Jim and Frank ready to mutiny. The last straw is when Howe takes Willis from Jim and locks him in his office. When the boys make a successful midnight raid to get Willis back, the bouncer’s recording ability reveals a plot by the company that will endanger their entire colony. Jim and Frank decide they have to sneak out and return home to tell their parents and everyone in Charax what’s happening, but they are soon on the run from the company’s police and in danger of dying in the frigid Martian night.

One of Heinlein’s best books for younger readers, this is full of great ideas, clever plotting, action and thrills, and like most of Heinlein’s books, memorable characters. The Martians in this book are the same as the ones in his adult novel “Stranger In A Strange Land,” and this book makes a good prelude to that one.

Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS by Sylvia Louise Engdahl

Cover and illustrations by Leo & Diane Dillon

This book was first published in 1970, I somehow managed to miss reading it until now.

Elana’s father and a young man and woman in his crew have been sent on a mission by the Federation’s Anthropological Corps to the primitive planet Andrecia, where the inhabitants, who are at the civilization level of medieval Earth, are threatened by a more advanced high-tech civilization, the Imperials, who have space travel and plan to colonize Andrecia and put the local inhabitants, any who survive their takeover, in a small reserve. The Imperials don’t consider the Andrecians human because they are primitive. Elana is still studying to become a member of the Corps, but she stows away aboard the landing craft with her father and his crew. Once on the ground, Elana finds herself drawn into the plans to save the Andrecians from the Imperials. To do that she must play the “Enchantress from the Stars,” and convince a local man, Georyn, to be come a hero and save his people using the “magic” she can teach him. This plan will be perilous to Georyn, but it’s the only way Elana and the others can save the Andrecians without revealing themselves to the Imperials. That group is carving out a base in the Andrecian forest with a massive earth-mover the Andrecians see as a dragon.

As the story unfolds, mostly narrated by Elana, but also by one of the Imperials, we follow Georyn and his brother through their trials and quests to become heroes, and we see Elana and Georyn becoming more than just teacher and pupil. What began as a fun adventure for Elana becomes a difficult test for her as well, and a dangerous one.

At first I didn’t care for the way the different levels and viewpoints of this story were handled, but over time I was drawn into it and in the end found it a rewarding read. The Federation of the story is a bit like that of Star Trek, but they must keep themselves hidden from more primitive peoples to avoid interfering with their normal evolution. Science posing as magic is not a new idea, but it’s handled well here, and gives the fantasy aspects a fresh feel.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE RED JOURNEY BACK by John Keir Cross

Cover and interior illustrations by Robin Jacques.

Sometimes an old book is fun to read even when it’s not written all that well, and this is one of those. It’s the sequel to “The Angry Planet,” which I reread and reviewed here last week, and it was new to me.

Once again the story is told by multiple authors recounting events, at least until the last third of the book. We learn that The Albatross, the rocket designed and built by Dr. McGillivray has returned to Mars with him and his friend Stephen MacFarlane. No stowaways this time. Another scientist begins receiving messages from the pair on Mars, and they seem to be in a lot of trouble. Their final message is to send a rescue mission and to bring back “the children,” in other words, the three stowaways on the first flight, Paul, Jacqueline and Mike. A new expedition is prepared on a larger ship built in America by Dr. Kalkenbrenner, and this time more people will be going. There’s even another stowaway.

The author has made a bit more of an effort with the science of space flight this time, but it’s still wildly inaccurate. The real story begins when the new ship, The Comet, lands on the Red Planet. The new expedition finds McGillivray and MacFarlane, but they are acting strangely, and their ship is surrounded by a wall of plants that are controlled by an ancient being who means the Earthlings no good. This time the new Martians are much more dangerous than the ones in the first book, and the story of rescue and escape from them is a harrowing and thrilling one.

I have to also say that the illustrations by Robin Jacques are a major addition to these books. All his work is excellent, and here they are a great help to the storytelling.

A good read for fans of old-time space adventure books for young readers, and worth a try if you can find it.

And Then I Read: THE WINTER OF THE WITCH by Katherine Arden

The third book of the Winternight Trilogy is a satisfying finale to what came before and also an engrossing exploration of Russian medieval history, religion and folklore. Vasya, the witch of the title, has saved Moscow once, and must do so again in this book, now from the threat of war with the tatars, the one-time invaders from the Far East who hold power among the divided fiefdoms known as The Rus. They are marching on Moscow, and only the combined efforts of its human warriors and the magical beings all around them can possibly save Moscow from destruction. But after centuries of neglect and dismissal, can Vasya possibly get those arcane forces on her side? Only a quest deep into the Midnight lands and bargaining with the immortal beings who live there can provide an answer. And somehow she must gain the help of both the Winter King and his equally powerful brother, mortal enemies. Plus she must deal with her first tormenter, Brother Konstantin, a holy man seduced by evil. It all comes together on the battlefield in a grand finale that is exciting and terrifying, and the conclusion is well worth the journey. What I liked best about this series is the things I learned about the magic and history of a part of the world I knew so little about before, but the characters, ideas, and storyline are all excellent.

Recommended.

Rereading: THE ANGRY PLANET by John Keir Cross

Cover and interior illustrations by Robin Jacques.

Published in 1946, this adventure story about a trip to Mars has more of the feel of Jules Verne than post World War Two fiction. It was one of only a few science fiction books in my grade school library, though, and I liked it a lot then. In rereading it now, I see that the science aspect is greatly lacking, and author Cross does much worse than Verne in his space voyage books despite this one being written many decades later, but as an adventure story for children it’s not bad. The excellent illustrations by Robin Jacques help.

Professor Andrew McGillivray in Scotland has been building rockets, and has finally made one big enough to travel through space. His neighbor and friend, writer Stephen MacFarlane, helps when he can, and the two men plan a voyage to Mars. Things get complicated when Stephen is forced to take charge of his nephew Mike Mallone and Mike’s cousins Paul and Jacqueline Adam for a few weeks. Unknown to the Professor and Stephen, the children stow away on their rocket just before it leaves for Mars, and the five travelers arrive there unharmed. What they find is superficially like other versions of Mars:—the dry, red, sandy landscape for instance—but the Martians that greet them and bring them to their city are quite different, as seen in the cover illustration above. These Martians, who call themselves The Beautiful People, communicate through telepathy, and are friendly once they realize the travelers mean them no harm, and the group enjoys exploring their city and their way of life.

Not long after they arrive, though, the space ship Albatross is attacked by a different, malevolent type of Martians who succeed in capturing young Mike. Soon the two Martian races are preparing for war, with the travelers caught in the middle. When that war begins, even more danger comes from a volcanic eruption. Will they be able to escape in their ship and return to Earth? Of course the reader knows they will, as the book is told in a series of chapters and reports by the five travelers after they’re home, but it’s an exciting adventure all the same, and I liked the characters. This is not as interesting a Mars as those written by Edgar Rice Burroughs or C.S. Lewis, but it has its moments. Looking online I found there was a sequel, which I’ve never seen. I’ve ordered it.

Mildly recommended.