A pleasant interplanetary ride

Podkayne of MarsPodkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Podkayne, known as Poddy, is the titular character in this book. She’s an opinionated teenage girl who was raised on Mars. Her opinions range across several subjects, mainly the superiority of women, the superiority of Martians, and her own ambitions to be a career space pilots. And she shares her opinions. A lot.

Her musings on femininity are pointed and interesting. She explains many different ways that women should use their feminine advantages and disadvantages to get what they want. Some reviewers say that she is a proto-feminist, while others say that she is a mouthpiece for the author’s misogyny. To me, much of her advice seems very hardheaded and grounded in the real world. She doesn’t deal in idealism or wishful thinking, but tells it how it is. For the kind of comments she makes, see the other reviews. Personally, I’m not so sure that she is simply Heinlein’s mouthpiece. The author has created a fictional world here, and her views about Martians, Venerians, and Earth people could also be seen to be very prejudicial in the same way. But the character of Podkayne isn’t meant to be so much a product of our time and place as of her time and place. If you expect an idealised version of future extra terrestrial colonisation from Mr Heinlein, you’ll be disappointed. One observation of the book is that human nature doesn’t change — not today, not tomorrow, not in a few hundred years. He seems to be telling us that we can expect the same kinds of racism, nationalism, sexism, and all the other isms in the future, which is a point of view I agree with.

So Poddy is an opinionated girl. As the story progresses she is brought down to size a little bit. She finds that not all of her opinions were actually strictly correct, and she has to do some things that she didn’t think she would like, such as look after babies, and finds that they’re not so bad after all. In the end she also has to allow her little brother to become her protector, where until that time it had been the other way round. So she has a character arc, but it isn’t one that leaves her bigger, better, and tougher, but rather one that brings her down-to-earth, so to speak.

Poddy’s brother Clark enters the book as a minor character, but his importance grows until, by the end, he is driving the story. It’s unexpected, and I wasn’t sure I liked it since the book is titled Podkayne of Mars (not Clark of Mars). You begin it thinking it’s Poddy’s story, but maybe it isn’t. In any case, Clark is an enigma. It’s never particularly clear why he does what he does, until the end when he is driven to necessity.

Poddy’s uncle is also a bit of an enigma. Through at least half of the book he appears to be just your basic nice old man, until later on he proves to be much more. In fact, it is because of him that Poddy and Clark find themselves in a life-threatening situation at the end of the book (which results in the famous double ending).

The story has to do with Poddy and Clark being taken by their uncle on a trip across the solar system, from their native Mars to Venus. Along the way they meet people, have adventures, and eventually find themselves in said life-threatening situation. It’s a good story, and it’s basically derived from a lot of other stories. The main attractions of this book are the characters and situations rather than plot. The background of Martian society to which Poddy is so loyal is fascinating, as well as Poddy’s acceptance of the status quo and her determination to use it to her advantage. Clark and uncle are gradually revealed throughout the book, and bring a lot of surprises with them.

This book came at the end of Heinlein’s career as a “safe “author. Here he ventures a little bit into controversial territory. Later on his books will delve into serious controversy, making his books as much about the speculation of future technology and science as about future morality. Many of his conclusions in those later books I find absolutely repugnant, but this book is reasonably safe reading.

I enjoyed this book. The plot didn’t blow me away, but the characters, the observations, and the historical background were all enough to keep me interested not there

Just a couple more comments on this sexism employed in this book.

The observations on femininity (not necessarily recommendations) aren’t even products of his time. Who knows if some of those attitudes will return in future? But the “sexist” language in Poddy’s mouth often seems more a dig at men and our limitations than sexism. Poddy understands them and clinically looks for ways to work around them. I don’t like to comment on the other reviews, but I’ve been reading a lot of them that take a feminist point of view towards this book. If the whole idea that an empowered woman might at some point in life want to step back from that and enjoy the pleasures of raising children in a traditional way offends the modern feminist, then they’re not living in the real world. The same thing happens to real women frequently. The maternal instincts are roused by something or other, and they pack in careers for a life as mothers. Podkayne of Mars seems to be a story about such a person. It doesn’t detract from her at all as a modern female that she backpedals on her ideas of wanting a career in favour of looking after children. It took sampling the joys of raising a child for her to see that it was a good option. Haven’t you ever known women who did exactly that?

Reviewed by the author of Copout.

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