1962, the Hoffman Electronics
Corporation ran a series of six science fiction stories as advertisements
and other magazines: two by Isaac Asimov
and one each by A.E. van Vogt, Fritz Leiber, Frank Riley, and Robert
Heinlein's story, "Searchlight" (August, 1962), is about a blind girl lost
on the Moon. The story is very brief. The idea is interesting,
but the story is overly condensed for the emotional impact it is meant
next three novels,
Podkayne of Mars, Glory Road,
are not at all successful and, unlike
Stranger in a Strange Land,
very little in the way of respect. It almost seems that Heinlein,
in the attempt to plead special cases, has forgotten most of the things
he once knew of story construction and has come full circle to the point
he once started from.
Rocket Ship Galileo,
the least of Heinlein's juveniles.
In some ways, it is a return to Heinlein's first novels for Scribner's.
Like them, and unlike his more recent books, his lead is only fifteen years
old, a dependent child. This immediately limits the scope of the
main character of
the story is a young girl. Anthony Boucher in his round-up review
of 1963 science fiction books in
The 9th Annual of the Year's Best SF
hailed the story in these terms:
The first 1963 Heinlein, and one of his best in many years, was
Podkayne of Mars,
and successful effort to widen the s-f audience by a teen-age heroine.
Poddy's first-person narrative reveals her as a genuinely charming girl
(perhaps the most delightful young female in s-f since Isaac Asimov's Arkady
Darell), and her creator as the master absolute of detailed indirect exposition
of a future civilization.
I couldn't agree less.
do agree that there
is a place for young girls in science fiction (as well as old men, middle-aged
women and any other advance over young men aged 20-30), but I don't think
Heinlein has filled it. I find Poddy no more charming than I found
Arkady Darell, the central character in
novel. In fact I can think of only two truly delightful young female
characters in modern science fiction and those are Pauline Ashwell's Lizzy
Lee from a very good story,
"Unwillingly to School,"*
and Heinlein's own Peewee Reisfeld from
Have Space Suit--Will Travel.
is not really a first-person
narrative. It is a journal kept by Poddy with occasional marginal
notes by her younger brother Clark. I can think of two faults in
this. One is that journals kept by fifteen-year-old girls are likely
to be filled with gush and irrelevance. This means that any resulting
book is likely to be a poor story, or an unconvincing journal. Heinlein
has chosen to write a convincing journal. The other fault is that
the journal is kept while the action is going on, not written afterward
in one piece, and the result is that we are jerked from one actionless
moment that provides the peace needed for writing to another, fed corrections
of things we have been told before, and in general exposed to a helter-skelter
narrative. Fine again as a journal.
Poddy's lack of charm for me is the product of a
kind of handling that no previous Heinlein juvenile protagonist has ever
had. I suspect simply that Heinlein does not feel comfortable writing
in the person of a female character. Poddy is given to setting down sentences
At first I thought that
my brother Clark had managed one of his more charlatanous machinations
of malevolent legerdemain.
I got kissed by boys who had never even
to, in the past -- and I assure you that it
is not utterly impossible to kiss me, if the project is approached with
confidence and finesse, as I believe that one's instincts should be allowed
to develop as well as one's overt cortical behavior.
Her expressions of vituperation are "dandruff," "dirty
and "snel-frockey." Above all, she is incredibly
coy. She refers to one character throughout as "Miss Girdle FitzSnugglie,"
generally shortened to "Girdie."
less appealing, and
less likely, is Poddy's eleven-year-old brother, Clark, who, like an earlier
Heinlein-described child -- little Ricky in
The Door Into Summer
who at six could not bear to be touched -- is thoroughly sick. Clark
is totally asocial and has an insatiable desire for masses of money, an
obvious love substitute. In the earlier case, Heinlein apparently
didn't realize the sickness of his character, but here he makes mention
of it at the end of the story. It is, in fact, the only claim to
a point that the story has.
The unlikelihood of Clark, who is the novel's true
central character, is not in his sickness but in his catalog of abilities.
His IQ is given by Heinlein as 160, which is fairly high, but not all that
rare. However, at the age of eleven he can: (1) tumble, (2) operate
a slide rule, (3) read lips expertly, (4) win piles of cash from "unbeatable"
gambling houses any time he cares to, (5) do expert photography, (6) unhoax
a time bomb, (7) be a successful smuggler, (8) read English (a foreign
language) that is written in Martian Oldscript (a script known only to
experts), (9) break into secret diaries and leave messages written first
in ink visible only under ultraviolet light, and then in ink that becomes
visible only after two days, (10) break into a sealed delivery robot, rewire
it to do what he wants it to, leave no traces, and completely baffle the
manufacturer of the robot in the bargain, (11) separate dyes from film,
given as a thing ordinarily possible only to a master chemist working in
a special laboratory, and (12) kill a large adult woman with his bare hands.
There is no real story for two-thirds of the book.
Poddy and Clark set out from Mars to Earth, stopping on Venus on the way,
in company with their Uncle Tom, who is to represent Mars at an important
triplanetary conference. Shortly after they all arrive on Venus,
Poddy and Clark are kidnapped by some people who wish Uncle Tom to follow
their particular line at the conference. Knowing their Uncle Tom
will not change his vote under pressure and that they will be killed by
their captors, the kids escape. Period.
is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, a second cousin of Jack Vance's excellent
The Dying Earth,
of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and of Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories
of Mars. In fact, it is dedicated to the readers of
an amateur magazine that is devoted to a celebration of sword-and-sorcery
unfortunately, doesn't share the color,
atmosphere, action and good fun of its models. Instead it spends
the bulk of its energy on conversation about the relativity of customs,
the second-rate nature of sex as practiced on this planet (Earthmen are
Lousy Lovers), Earth as the
place in Twenty Universes where
prostitution is practiced, the primitive nature of democracy and its
as a system of government, and similar topics. The sword-and-sorcery
fantasy merely comes as an interlude in the conversation, as though clowns
were to pummel each other with bladders as an entr'acte on
Meet the Press.
The narrator of the story is Evelyn Cyril "Oscar"
Gordon, ex-college football star, newly-discharged veteran of the fighting
in Southeast Asia, hero in the making. He is recruited by an ad in
the Paris edition of the
for a job as hero -- not
realizing that Professional Heroes are silly asses at best and at worst
causes of more destruction than they ever know. But Gordon shows
himself throughout to be an unbright malcontent and the point escapes him.
The job he takes promises high pay, glorious adventure and great danger.
His recruiters are a handsome young woman (whom Oscar soon marries) and
a runty old geezer (who turns out to be the young woman's grandson).
The three of them pop through to an alternate universe
where Gordon is handed, in between conversations, a number of cardboard
monsters to dispose of. This is his training for a final swordfight
that wins "the Egg of the Phoenix," the lost property of the girl.
It is then revealed that the girl is top dog of the aforementioned Twenty
Universes. Oscar mopes around with nothing to do for sixty pages
and then goes back home. At the end, he is prepared to go out looking
for more adventure.
A minimum of one-third of this 288-page book, exclusive
of conversations, has no reason for existence, since it does not affect
the main goal of the story, the winning of the Egg. It establishes
merely that Oscar doesn't like our present world, that sitting around after
he has won the Egg doesn't suit him, either, and that after coming home
again, he is still unhappy.
Beyond that, of course, the interminable conversations
do nothing but demonstrate Heinlein's pet notions, again given protection
from attack by being called "facts." They have nothing to do with
the adventure, and hence don't belong in the book.
Finally, the procession of adventures does not build
to a climax. Monsters simply appear every so often to be disposed
of by Oscar. Even the fight for the Egg of the Phoenix lacks the
bounding appeal it ought to have, because we only learn afterward what
it is and why it is worth fighting for. At the time it is won, it
is simply a name, a meaningless bibble-bibble.
Enough doubt eventually penetrates Oscar's mind
after the adventures are over that he goes to visit the old grandson who
was his companion in adversity to ask him if what he went through was really
necessary. The old fellow assures him that it was, and this is enough
for Oscar. It seems to me that more compelling evidence is demanded,
however, and it isn't in the story.
is Hugh Farnham, a well-to-do, self-educated contractor and
all-around-competent-man. The other central characters are his wife
Grace, their son Duke and daughter Karen, Karen's sorority sister Barbara
(a divorcee), and their houseboy Joe, a Negro accounting student.
The time of the story is the near future.
We are at the height of an international crisis that turns into a nuclear
war while the family is sitting around after dinner playing bridge.
Mountain Springs, the scene of the story and clear analogue of Colorado
Springs, Heinlein's home town at the time of writing, is a prime military
target. Consequently the bridge game is adjourned to Famham's
sub-basement bomb shelter where Barbara plays out and wins the most incredible
fictional bridge hand of all time: seven no-trump, doubled, redoubled
and vulnerable, a side bet riding.
Three bombs are dropped on them, the third while
Farnham and Barbara, who have just met, are making love in the back room.
The third bomb kicks them into what they believe is an alternate universe
(it turns out to be the far future). The location of the house is
exactly what it always was, but the climate is now subtropical and the
country wild. They make a life for themselves, though Karen dies
in childbirth, something Grace, who is an alcoholic, blames her husband
for, although it can hardly be called his fault.
At this point, they are discovered by the local
rulers, who are Negroes. Whites are slaves and table-meat, and so
they are made slaves. Farnham makes a nice place for himself by
books and turning present-day games into marketable items for his new
Barbara bears Farnham twins as a result of that one night in the back room,
and does what Farnham tells her to do. The rest of the original group
have each gone to hell in their own particular way: Joe, the Negro
accounting student, has become a part of the local power structure and
is perfectly content; Grace is the master's fat little pussycat; and Duke
has been castrated and turned into a household pet.
Farnham eventually decides to run for the hills
with Barbara and the twins, but they are caught before they get out of
the palace. Their master decides to be generous with them and send
them back where they came from in a genuine time machine that his scientists
have whipped up.
They land back in Mountain Springs the night that
the bombs fell and scoot out of town, headed for an abandoned mine that
Farnham owns. When the bombs stop falling, they set up a store in
a little enclave bounded from the world by mine fields and protected by
rifles. And since this world varies slightly from their original
world, they have the hope that the future need not be finally determined
to be the one they have just come from.
The minor characters -- everybody but Farnham --
are just defined enough to seem odd. Karen cheers when her father
and her friend come out of the back room, and then dies in childbirth.
Barbara mindlessly does what Farnham tells her to do. Grace is a
fat, fatuous, useless lush. Duke is tied to his mother by a silver
umbilical cord, takes up a narcotic drink at first opportunity, and doesn't
mind being castrated because it puts him in a more secure position.
Farnham himself is one great big inconsistency.
He is a libertarian who orders people around at gunpoint. He threatens
quite seriously to kill his son when Duke won't obey him, and then becomes
hysterical when Duke willingly lets himself be castrated. Most important,
for all that he is the archetype of the competent man, he has done not
one thing to avert the global war he has seen coming. In fact, he
is a very odd candidate for the title of competent man: he botches
everything from his familial relations to the escape attempt.
These familial relations are very odd, too.
Barbara first becomes attracted to him for the way he handles his family,
but look at the family: a lush, a momma's boy and a daughter home
pregnant from college. (Barbara later assures him that the family
is not his fault.) If Heinlein is aware of any inconsistency, he
doesn't show it.
It is interesting that for all the concern with
liberty and competence that Heinlein demonstrates in this story, his characters
do not actually determine anything that happens. They suffer
attack, are blown into the future, are found, are sent home again. They
remain passive, suffering and impotent throughout. The story is almost
a study in the varieties of impotence. The nasty future regime is
not caused by the characters, affected by the characters, or disturbed
by their leaving. The final situation, in fact, seems like nothing
so much as an attempt to keep from being the subject of further manipulation
by an implacable universe, an attempt on Farnham's part to be for once
the cause of events: "World stay out or be blasted in two! In Farnham's
Freehold, Farnham rules."
Only one story purpose emerges in the end that makes
any sense: Heinlein's characters survive. Survival at all costs
is a theme that is very important to Heinlein, but it fails to carry this
book because the survival they achieve is not the triumph Heinlein thinks
it is. Heinlein thinks he is talking of liberty when he is really
talking only of life; liberty becomes redefined as "living to suit myself";
that is all that Farnham achieves, but it is enough to content him.
*Astounding Science Fiction,
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee