Podkayne of Mars, by Robert A. Heinlein

podkayne-of-mars-by-robert-a-heinleinGenre: YA Science Fiction
Publisher: Baen
Published: 1963
Reviewer Rating: twostars
Book Review by Aaron M. Renn

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I guess it is a sort of crime against humanity to speak ill of Heinlein, but in the case of Podkayne of Mars, I can’t resist. The old master has a few of the bad habits of far too many of his more modern cousins. In this case, I’d like to particularly point out his recycling of characters and themes from many of his other books. (Or maybe they were recycled from this one?) We’ve got the worldly-wise old codger who’s always ready to step in and take charge, the naive young protagonist along for the ride, the pseudo-strange culture extrapolated from a couple premises and described matter of factly by said young naive character who simply can’t imagine that anyone lives differently.

Podkayne is a nine year old Marswoman (18 earth years) who’s making her first journey off planet to visit Earth by way of Venus along with Jubal Harshaw, I mean her Uncle Tom and her mischievous brother Clark. Adventures ensue.

This book is somewhat notable because the publisher forced Heinlein to change the ending. This edition contains both the published ending and Heinlein’s original, along with essays from various readers commenting on why they liked one ending or another. Not surprisingly, the vast majority favored Heinlein’s original ending, and that is what is presented here. In a culture that seems to worship the paramount importance of artistic vision–witness the proliferation of “Director’s Cut”‘s in film – and glories in artists triumphing over the evils of capitalistic management, it is not surprising to me that almost all of the essayists missed the obvious: both endings sucked.

If forced to choose between Heinlein’s original downbeat ending and the happier one he was forced to write, sure, one can draw the conclusion that the original was better. But is that really what the original ending should be compared against? I think it likely that Heinlein, an old codger himself, might have deliberately sabotaged the ending when forced to change the original. You want happy and moralistic? I’ll give it to you all right. But when compared against what what could have been or should have been, I think the originally written ending falls short.

What Podkayne ends up being is a morality play that is supposed to make that point that parents should be ready to take on the responsibility of parenting when they decide to have a child. This is by no means obvious from the originally written story and it is only because Heinlein bashes us over the head with it with a 2×4 in the modified ending that we can even figure this out. Indeed, both endings almost seem non-sequitur because what we are expecting–and what this novel should have been–is a coming of age story. Instead, it feels like the start of a coming of age story that is abruptly cut off after the main character shows disappointingly little personal growth. Had Heinlein seen that there was a good coming of age story in here trying to get out, he could have written a decent novel. Instead, he wrote a book that looks like he pulled the old, dusty start of something else out of his drawer and grafted on a moralistic ending. Or else woke up one morning half-way through his planned novel and realized it was due to the publisher by the end of the week. This was not one of Heinlein’s stronger efforts. Too bad….

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