Review of Between Planets (1951)

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Robert A. Heinlein (writer).

Read in 2021.

Teenager Don Harvey, one of the first people born on a space ship, is prevented from returning to Mars by the outbreak of war between Earth and Venusian colonists. Though reluctant to accept his status as a refugee in limbo, he washes dishes until he is fully caught up in the war by love, a sense of justice, and a military-intelligence plot to use ancient Martian technology in battle.

A novel for younger readers, it’s substantially softer than The Sands of Mars (1951). Both Mars and Venus are habitable and inhabited by native megafauna. There are even Venerian “dragons”, huge and intelligent, but played partly for laughs. I think Heinlein did a good job showing the counter-intuitive economic and social effects of a war seen from below, instead of focusing on the spectacle of it seen from above or through a gun sight. The quick pace is fun too. However, beyond the naïve astronomy and astrobiology of 1951, there are significant problems of the retrofuture variety.

In the era of the Western genre’s dominance on early television, Heinlein starts the story at a sort of high school for cowboys on Earth, despite the fact that the protagonist who goes to this school has never seen a horse before arriving there, and cannot possibly expect to need one in the high-tech interstellar economy. The protagonist acknowledges that there are indeed no cow ponies in space, prompting the reader to ask why Heinlein made such a silly choice to stay on trend. Similarly, a man reading a printed news bulletin through a window on a street on Venus in the far future claims that landing troops is “as obsolete as a baynet charge”, as if he was alluding to the bad retrofuture of The Last Man (1826) where the bayonet charge is still current in the 21st century. The biblical epigraphs round out a goofy, mostly trivial novel; a typical Heinlein juvenile.

References here: Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction, Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958).

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