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James and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Heinlein Juvenile

Podkayne of Mars

By Robert A. Heinlein 

14 Nov, 2014

The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) Reread


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1963’s Podkayne of Mars was, if Heinlein’s comments in Grumbles from the Grave can be believed, not intended as a juvenile:

March 10, 1962: Robert A. Heinlein to Lurton Blassingame

Is Poddy a juvenile? I didn’t think of it as such and I suggest that it violates numerous taboos for the juvenile market. It seems to me that it is what the Swedes call a cadet” book — upper teenage, plus such adults and juveniles as may enjoy it — and the American trade book market does not recognize such a category.

Despite that, some people, including me, lump it in with his juveniles because the lead is a fifteen-year-old girl, with her eleven-year-old brother in an important supporting role. 

Remember how in my review for Have Space Suit — Will Travel, I said: 

As I closed the cover of the last true Heinlein juvenile, I really wonder what this book would have looked like if in 1958 Heinlein had been able to envision and publish a juvenile with a female lead.


We will never know the answer to that. We do have the answer to the question what would such a novel look like if Heinlein wrote it five years later and the answer is horrible”.

When we meet her in the first of the series of diary entries that make up this novel, Podkayne Fries is a young teen.

I’m eight plus a few months, at a point in my development described by my Uncle Tom as frying size and just short of husband high” …

Those are Mars-years, so in our terms Podkayne is just about fifteen. Although she is the stupider of the two Fries siblings and only a girl, she has come to terms with this unfortunate turn of events:

Up till a couple of years ago I used to regret not being male (in view of my ambitions), but I at last realized how silly I was being; one might as well wish for wings. As Mother says: One works with available materials” … and I found that the materials available were adequate. In fact I found that I like being female; my hormone balance is okay and I’m quite well adjusted to the world and vice versa. I’m smart enough not unnecessarily to show that I am smart; I’ve got a long upper lip and a short nose, and when I wrinkle my nose and look baffled, a man is usually only too glad to help me, especially if he is about twice my age. There are more ways of computing a ballistic than by counting it on your fingers.

She even dreams of becoming a deep-space exploration commander and given that her mother overcame being a woman to establish herself as a top engineer, that dream isn’t as unreasonable as it seems. In the shorter run, Podkayne is looking forward to the more mundane treat of a promised trip to Earth. 

Podkayne very soon has to deal with bitter disappointment. Being superior sorts of people, her parents were licensed to have five babies and while three of those children are supposed to be on ice-down at the community freeze-o-matic baby-fridge until the Fries feel that they are ready to raise the babies, a clerical error dumps three six month-old infants on the Fries1. With pseudo-triplets for mom to deal with, there is no way the family can take the time to for their trip.

Podkayne and her brother Clarke have what seems to be a stroke of luck when their uncle Tom, a personage of note on Mars and someone who is willing to throw his weight around, bullies the cryonics people into paying for an expensive all-expenses-paid trip to Earth. Since Podkayne and Clarke’s parents cannot go, Tom will act as chaperone. As we discover, this is not out of the goodness of his heart.

While the space-ship Tricorn is one of those high-acceleration jobbies SF writers use when they don’t want to have to pull out their slide rule and reams of butcher paper, even it is constrained by planetary positions, so Podkayne and Clarke get another apparent bonus tossed in: Tricorn will be visiting Venus before Earth and so the two kids will get to visit two worlds for the price of one.

The kids do get to enjoy their trip for a time, experiencing all the joys of life on a space cruise ship, from vicious classism and racism to the eventual revelation that the one friend they do make is destined for a new life prostituting herself on Venus2. Eventually the penny drops and the two siblings come face to face with an unpleasant truth: Tom is using the trip with his niece and nephew to get to Earth without tipping off his political opponents,

Unfortunately for Clark and even more unfortunately for Podkayne, Tom’s little ruse failed before the trio ever set out from Mars. Matters come to an explosive head on Venus, and it’s Podkayne who faces the steepest price. 

I am amazed at how every time I reread this, some new unpleasant subtext leaps out at me. Not only does Tom spend more time talking about his niece’s impending love life than I personally find appropriate, but people speculate about whether or not fifteen-year-old Podkayne is Tom’s mistress.

But it is obvious that no one could love your brother… not even his own mother, I venture to say. But the Senator does love you-rather more than he wants anyone to suspect.

Dialogue like

Uncle Tom? I wish you would spank me.”

doesn’t help, not if the reader has any awareness of the role of spanking in Heinleinian courtships. 

While I did notice previously that Podkayne foreshadows The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by having the first settlers on Mars be convicts, I seem to have completely missed the nature of the officials in charge of that little project or what sort of prisoners got sent to Mars:

Admittedly there was that period in the early history of Mars when the commissars were running things on Earth, and Mars was used as a penal colony; everybody knows that and we don’t try to hide it.

But the vast majority of the transportees were political prisoners — counter revolutionists,” enemies of the people.” Is this bad?

Yeah. That does make one wonder what sort of government the Earth has in the book’s present. Whatever it is, Tom is pretty adamant he does not want Mars and Venus to be part of it because


I think it would be the end of Mars as an independent country and a free society.

What we see of Earth people presents them as classist and racist, again foreshadowing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

MRS. GARCIA: You were wise to drop her. Blood will tell-bad blood or good blood-blood will always tell. And mixed blood is the Very Worst Sort. Criminals to start with … and then that Shameless Mixing of Races. You can see it right in that family.” 

I do find the Mean Matrons a little hard to reconcile with the Commiefication of Earth but presumably this is what the New Class looks like a century down the road. It does seem at least a little odd that despite the fact this book is set in the future, the two mean old ladies on the Tricorn sounded like the sort of mean old lady one might encounter on a world tour in the 1950s.

At least Earth, Mars and Venus can bond over egregious sexism.

Speaking of politics, there is this interesting passage:

Think about it. Politics is just a name for the way we get things done … without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he has received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics. The only other way to settle a dispute is by bashing a few heads in … and that is what happens when one or both sides is no longer willing to dicker. That’s why I say politics is good even when it is bad because the only alternative is force-and somebody gets hurt.”

Much of the book shows what you get when people decide to move on from jaw-jaw to blackmail and DIY atom-bombing. What you get is not good. 

One of Niven’s collections — I think it was Tales of Known Space—has Niven comment that if it seems to the reader that Mars changes from story to story, that is because Mars was changing from story to story as space probes transformed what we knew about the Solar System. Podkayne got stuck with the same extreme of Science Marches On as Niven’s The Coldest Place.” Podkayne of Mars was originally serialized in the November 1962, January, and March 1963 issues of Worlds of If. Mariner 2 totally, absolutely, irredeemably rendered the Venusian jungle model of Venus (on which Podkayne depends) obsolete on December 14, 1962. Niven offered to return the money for his story but if Heinlein offered to do the same for Podkayne, I am unaware of it.

The older Heinlein got, the more rigid he got about what the One True Purpose of Women was, which was Having Babies and Raising Them. Oh, they could play at being engineers or lesser occupations but when the birthing years come upon them, it’s a bad, bad woman who clings to her career:

Nonsense, sir! I am not dodging my own load of guilt; it will be with me always. Nor can I wait here until you arrive and you know it and you know why — and both children will be safer in Mr. Cunha’s hands and not close to me … and you know that, too! But I have a message for you, sir, one that you should pass on to your wife. Just this: people who will not take the trouble to raise children should not have them. You with your nose always in a book, your wife gallivanting off God knows where-between you, your daughter was almost killed. No credit to either of you that she wasn’t. Just blind luck. You should tell your wife, sir, that building bridges and space stations and such gadgets is all very well … but that a woman has more important work to do. I tried to suggest this to you years ago … and was told to mind my own business. Now I am saying it. Your daughter will get well, no thanks to either of you. But I have my doubts about Clark. With him it may be too late. God may give you a second chance if you hurry. Ending transmission!”

This is somewhat undermined by the fact that Podkayne is badly injured/dies (depending on the edition) because her misplaced mothering instinct sends her back to save an infant animal and her simple girlish brain makes her lose her inertial tracker so she wanders in circles around the epicenter of a nuclear blast (and also because her little brother sets off an atomic bomb but you have to expect that sort of wacky hijink from boys3).

Now Tom could just be trying to deflect some of the responsibility of using his niece and nephew as meat-shields in a game of Australian-rules interplanetary politics. Given that the reason Podkayne and Clark were available to serve as Tom’s living ablative shielding was because Mom was busy with three new babies, his angry rant seems pretty off-base here. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything especially irresponsible about sending a teen and her brother off on a luxury cruise4, although maybe they should not be allowed to wander around unprotected on Venus (because nobody should wander around unprotected on Venus).

Unfortunately, we do have an idea of what Heinlein had in mind when he penned Podkayne’s doleful fate, thanks to Grumbles from the Grave:

But it took the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to show the families Montague and Capulet what damned fools they were being. Poddy’s death (it seems to me) is similarly indispensable to this story. The true tragedy in this story lies in the character of the mother, the highly successful career woman who wouldn’t take time to raise her own kids — and thereby let her son grow up an infantile monster, no real part of the human race and indifferent to the well being of others … until the death of his sister, under circumstances which lay on him a guilt he can never shake off, gives some prospect that he is now going to grow up.

Interjecting here:

Contrary to what Tom and Heinlein claim, Clark’s moment of clarity regarding Podkayne does not come after his atom bomb and her misplaced sentimentality injure/kill her. He does his damnedest to get both of them to safety, which he has to because Podkayne sure isn’t going to save them and neither is Tom. Clark only set the bomb up because he thought there was a good chance the escape would fail and both Clark and Podkayne would be murdered by Team Evil; the atom bomb was intended as a Screw you!” from beyond the grave.

I will grant accepting the atom bomb in the first place and then not telling anyone about the assassination attempt was a bit misguided in retrospect but he’s eleven! Eleven-year-olds sometimes make bad decisions. 

I could state that the theme of the story is that death is the only destination for all of us and that the only long-range hope for any adult lies in the young-and that this double realization constitutes growing up, ceasing to be a child and putting away childish things. But I can’t say it that baldly, not in fiction, and it seemed to me that I needed Poddy’s death to say it at all. If Poddy gets to have her cake and eat it too (both marriage and star-roving), if that little monster, her brother, gets off unscathed to continue his clever but asocial career, if their mother gets away with neglecting her children’s rearing without having it backfire on her — then the story is just a series of mildly adventurous incidents, strung together. 

Unlike Elsie, Jackie, or Peewee, poor Podkayne is cut off at the knees before her adventure begins. Podkayne can dream of commanding a space ship but she can never see that dream realized because her narrative purpose is to serve as a doleful lesson to readers. This is where misplaced female ambition can lead! Well, if not Podkayne’s misplaced ambition, then her mother’s. Where the classic Heinlein juveniles are about boys reaching for the stars, Podkayne of Mars is a hectoring lecture, telling women to stay in their place. 

Podkayne of Mars is available in the Virginia Edition. I am not sure about cheaper editions.

1: For the first six months of their life, babies are raised by non-familial minders:

These are age six-month withdrawal contracts,” she told me. All these babies will be going home in a few days,” She put the baby, quiet now, back into its private room, adjusted a nursing nipple for it, made some other sort of adjustments on the outside of the cubicle so that the padding inside sort of humped up and held the baby steady against the milk supply, then closed the top, moved on a few meters and picked up another baby. Personally,” she added, I think the age six month contract is the best one. A child twelve months old is old enough to notice the transition. But these aren’t. They don’t care who comes along and pets them when they cry … but nevertheless six months is long enough to get a baby well started and take the worst of the load off the mother.”

Any comments on how that fits into modern baby-raising theory? 

2: Am I being too harsh?

Girdie works as a change girl and while we don’t get a lot of information about what that entails, Podkayne is a little shocked.

Change girl? Girdie — would you dress that way?”


Those change girls practically don’t wear anything but the trays they carry money on

and we do know Girdie does not want an eleven-year-old with a crush on her to see her at work:

She has indeed been a change girl, for two whole nights-and asked me please to see to it that Clark did not go to Dom Pedro Casino those nights.

Girdie does become a dealer and her long-term ambition is to eventually go for the big bucks as a croupier. Since she’s not fated to serve as an object lesson, who knows? Maybe she succeeds. 

3: Clark makes a deadly slingshot out of his shoes and I don’t fault Team Evil for missing that possibility but how badly does someone have to suck at searching a prisoner that they manage to miss the kid’s atomic bomb? 

4: My parents certainly didn’t see any issue sending me off to California on my own at 5½ despite the fact I had previously failed to successfully navigate my way home from school over a distance four thousand times smaller than the distance between Waterloo and Sausalito. I will admit I was pretty worried about how to get from the airport in San Francisco to my grandparents’ place in Sausalito but it all worked out.

(I did get lost when I tried it again in my 30s.)