Between Planets

Robert A. Heinlein

76808 600

1951’s Between Planets continues the evolution in Heinlein’s fiction of Earth’s government away from the optimistic portrayal in Rocket Ship Galileo. This Federation is overtly oppressive, and while the atomic bombs of Circum Terra keep any terrestrial nation from rising up, there is no such brake on the colonists of Venus.

Naïve Don Harvey, citizen by birth of both Venus and Earth, considers such matters largely irrelevant to him, at least until the crisis inspires his parents to withdraw him from school on Earth so he can join them on comparatively peaceful Mars. While Don may not be paying close attention to the Federation, the reverse is not true; the I.B.I., somewhere between the FBI, the KGB and the Gestapo, has reason to think Don may be of great interest to them and while Don is allowed to escape from their clutches largely unbroken, family friend Dr. Jefferson is not so lucky.

The plot takes another twist as Don’s arrival on Circum Terra, the way station through which the Earth’s interplanetary voyagers pass, coincides with a raid from the terrorists freedom fighters of Venus. Given the choice between staying in a Circum Terra scheduled to be atom-bombed into space-dust, heading back down to an Earth whose government considers him a person of interest or heading off to revolutionary Venus, Don opts for the third1.

Marooned on a world he never planned on visiting, Don has to adapt to circumstances he never envisioned: his parents are on the other side of a communications embargo, his money is no good on Venus and as the sudden annihilation of the young republic’s space navy signals, the Federation is in no way convinced to let Venus pursue an independent course. Worse from Don’s point of view, the army of occupation makes it clear the IBI still has a keen interest in Don.

I’ve never particularly noticed it before but there are parallels between the plot of this and the plot of Lord of Rings; Don is stuck with a ring of great importance and what he needs to do to save the day is get rid of it under the right circumstances.

Heinlein tries to make it clear the IBI are not nice guys by having them (probably) murder Jefferson and threaten to torture a horse to get Don to talk2, but I wonder if we took a close look at the behavior of analogous organizations in Heinlein’s United States how dramatic the differences would be? If one of Hoover or Hillenkoetter’s boys had their hands on some possible commie-simp or even just a fellow traveller, where would they have drawn the line?

I don’t think Heinlein was a Lost Causer, so it’s a little unfortunate he compares the raid on Circum Terra to the Slavers’ attack on Fort Sumter; it’s best if one avoid linking the glorious freedom fighters of one’s novel with the degenerate faux aristocrats of the Old South. On the plus side, that completely made me not think about what parallels there might be to a revolutionary nation whose initial attempts at a lightning war fail horribly, leaving them dependent on a timely development of wonder weapons.

In contrast to Farmer in the Sky, while the treatment of the Chinese is dated, it’s clear the Chinese settlers are as much a part of the new republic as the other human settlers; old Charlie’s dialogue is kind of unfortunate but he dies for Venus. On a related matter, this is yet another early Heinlein that drives home the lesson that humans should respect the natives of other worlds; one of the factors working against the Federation is its agents cannot get their minds around the concept of the dragons being people.

The Federation is also fighting Venus: having destroyed the major cities of the planet, the Federation is faced with a population scattered across a vast untamed world:

Esprit de corps was high among his men; they seemed to expect months, perhaps years of bush warfare, harrying and raiding the Federation forces, but eventual victory at the end.

As one of them put it to Don, “They can’t catch us. We know these swamps; they don’t. They won’t be able to go ten miles from the city, even with boat radar and dead-reckoning bugs. We’ll sneak in at night and cut their throats -and sneak out again for breakfast. We won’t let them lift a ton of radioactive off this planet, nor an ounce of drugs. We’ll make it so expensive in money and men that they’ll get sick of it and go home.”

Of course, the rebels also thought the nations of Earth would rise up in revolutionary solidarity once Circum Terra was gone. In a way, it’s a shame the book plays out as it does because an SF novel that ends up looking like “the Indochina Wars IN SPACE”, told from the Indochinese side, could have been interesting. As it is, those sections made me wonder if when he signed the pro-Vietnam War side of the famous ad in Galaxy Heinlein had any concrete suggestions for winning the war.

While the main female character Isobel is shuffled off-stage fairly quickly, she’s a great improvement over previous female characters in this series. Rather than being a daffy ninny or a brat, she’s considerably more on the ball than Don is, which is probably why she doesn’t feature in most of his misadventures; if she was around to give him advice, he wouldn’t have as interesting a life.

Rather uncommonly for a book of this sort, Don is aware that the Federation’s armies aren’t just faceless goons but people like his old school chums, people who think they are doing the right thing.

The ending of the book is pretty perfunctory and I think a case could be made that while readers are likely intended to see it as the final victory for the good guys, it is perfectly reasonable to read it another way. The rebels also thought their strike on Circum Terra sufficient to win the struggle and while the rebels have a technological advantage for the moment, the IBI has cracked the Organization that provided Venus with the vital breakthrough. As Joseph T. Major pointed out

The common ground; that rediscovered science, begins in Between Planets with the Underground’s study of the “Horst-Milne” equations, and their implementation by physicist Roger Conrad. Evidently he kept up the work, as Starman Jones flies to the stars in a ship powered by “Horst-Conrad” drive, along with a dazzlingly intuitive prediction of the later-postulated “wormhole” theory.

Just how long can the counter-Federation forces maintain their monopoly? And what happens when the richer, more populous Earth manages to acquire First Empire technology? Is there any hint in Starman Jones that Venus is independent? Did Don and his parents only manage to extend Earth’s reach to the stars?

Between Planets is available in a variety of editions, from the troubled Virginia edition to less expensive versions.


  1. Wiser than he knows, because the paranoid Federation blasts the rocket returning from Circum Terra out of the sky.
  2. Which works, although as it turns out Don knows nothing useful. Interestingly, as I recall “Gulf”, its steely jawed protagonist allows an innocent woman to be tortured to death in front of him rather than crack but in his defense she’s clearly of an inferior breed. I bet he’d have cracked if she had been a kitten.

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