Sunday, 27 January 2019

Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein

I can’t tell you how much I love this book. 

I first read it when I was a little kid, voraciously devouring all the science fiction in my local library. Heinlein, a master of the genre, was a firm favourite. 

I must admit that my nine year old self was a little scandalised when I found out that the Podkayne of the title was a girl...

But I kept on reading and I was soon in love with her. 

Heinlein has written a lot of outstanding books (from Starship Troopers to Stranger in a Strange Land) but I’m starting to suspect this may be his best. 

Breezy, engaging, fascinating, it has a thrilling plot beneath its deceptive surface. But what really distinguishes this book are the wonderful protagonists — the beguiling teenage Podkayne...

And her bratty, prodigiously intelligent, but utterly unscrupulous little brother Clark, who is lovingly described as having "the simple rapacity of a sand gator. He'll go far — if somebody doesn't poison him."

I'm glad nobody poisons Clark... I'm beginning to regard him as one of the great characters in modern fiction. A magnificent creation.

And Heinlein is so damned funny. Such as in this throwaway moment evoking an annoying hologram trying to sell Podkayne a beverage: "Everybody drinks Hi-Ho! Soothing, Habit-Forming, Dee-lishus!"
But the humour in the book arises  chiefly from Podkayne herself and her observations, most often perhaps in connection with Clark...

Here she is describing her brother in her diary: "anyone who handed Clark a bribe would find that Clark had not only taken the bribe but the hand as well... Clark is not hard of hearing but he can be very hard of listening... Clark would not bother to interfere with Armageddon unless there was ten percent in it for him."

Meanwhile Clark himself purveys such aphorisms as that you "Never know when you might need a bomb."

The story is told through Podkayne's diary, with some interjections by Clark who is also writing in it, without her knowledge, in invisible ink: "I find your girlish viewpoints entertaining," he notes insultingly at one point.

Quite apart from the gorgeous humour and characterisation, Heinlein has an admirable gift for description — "I swarmed up those four decks like a frightened cat." And when Podkayne momentarily believes her brother and uncle are dead she says "I felt sudden sick sorrow."

On a lighter note she observes "quizzing Clark when he doesn't want to answer is as futile as slicing water." What a great simile.

In fact, I think Heinlein was a great writer, a genius. And he was well ahead of his time in terms of enlightened attitudes to women. While Podkayne's father is a placid academic, her mother is an engineer who was responsible for building the settlement on the Martian moon of Deimos.

Podkayne herself is also a fairly shining example of feminism — by 1960s science fiction standards. 

She wants to pilot a spaceship like the one she and Clark are on as passengers — although she does pump the Captain for information about navigation in space by "listening with my best astonished-kitten look to his anecdotes."

And then, perhaps fatally, she does announce "A baby is a lot more fun than differential equations." But at least differential equations are in the running!

And, in fairness, the scene with the babies on the space ship is pretty darned terrific, as is the whole sequence of the solar storm. (You're going to have to read the book to see what I mean — and I really do urge to read it.)

Heinlein is ahead of the curve on racial issues, too. Podkayne may be a blonde, a manifestation of the Swedish half of her ancestry, but the other half is Maori

So when her beloved uncle is described by some benighted harridans as a "big black savage" it not only springs a great surprise on the reader, it also causes Podkayne to seethe with rage, and sets her off in search of some satisfying payback.

In pursuit of which she enlists the help of Clark. He's definitely the guy you want on your team when you're plotting revenge.

But there is far more to Podkayne of Mars than that, including political intrigue, abduction and torture, and some rather heartbreaking tragedy...

I just finished reading this book again, after many years, and I’m delighted to say it stands up superbly. How marvellous that something I’ve adored ever since childhood still does not disappoint. 

(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads — the Italian ones are particularly nice! The NEL edition with her standing in a blue jumpsuit, a rocket behind her, is from Ceredigion Bookshop via ABE. The Berkley edition with the white cover and the Paul Lehr cover art is from my own collection.)

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