In a way, I was participating in Vintage SF Month before it became an Internet sensation a couple of years ago. I attended a local book club devoted to sci-fi and fantasy and one of the founders insisted that we kick off the new year with a work from Robert A. Heinlein.
So, this year as January approached, I decided that one of the books I’d read Vintage SF Month would be a new (to me) novel by Heinlein. And so, I picked this one…and I’m not sure it really worked out all that well.
A decade or so ago, I participated in a local real-world sci-fi and fantasy book discussion group and each January, we’d kick-off the new year by reading an offering from Robert K. Heinlein. I first “discovered” Heinlein in high school when I attempted to read To Sail Beyond the Sunset simply because the cover featured a naked woman with her long, flowing red hair strategically covering up the “naughty” bits. (This was in the days before the Internet and nudity was harder to come by).
I never quite finished Sunset, though it sat on my shelves for years. Thankfully, the Internet came along and, in addition to making it easier to find nudity, it helped me understand a bit of the order that one can and should read Heinlein novels in order to fully understand and possibly enjoy them. I’ve gravitated toward the big names from Heinlein in my attempts to read his stories and slowly found that I prefer his “juvenile” offerings to some of his doorstop-sized tomes.
So, for this year’s Vintage SF Month, I decided I’d revive the tradition of starting the calendar year with Heinlein and give Podkayne of Mars a try. Judging the book by its cover and page count, I assumed that Podkayne was a juvenile work. Turns out it’s not — Heinlein said as much in his memoir Grumbles Beyond the Grave.
Honestly, I didn’t necessarily need Heinlein to tell me this. I kind of got the idea about twenty-five or so pages into the story.
Fifteen-year-old Podkayne has grown up on Mars and has dreams of visiting Earth and possibly becoming a starship captain. Her family’s visit to Earth is put on hold when her three siblings are “thawed” at the same time and brought home. Not wanting to disappoint her, her Uncle Tom arranges for her and her brother to accompany him on a galactic cruise to Earth.
It all sounds like a great starting point for some space-opera type of adventures. And while part of this is Tom’s intention (the kids are a ruse since he’s a spy), it never quite gels.
There’s a lot to get frustrated about when it comes to Podkayne. The first is that the novel seems to lack any real focus. Since Podkayne narrates the story, the action is limited to her sphere of influence, which isn’t necessarily a drawback (heck, Starship Troopers pulls it off). But every time that Heinlein starts to build up some steam toward something interesting happened to Podkayne and her brother, Clarke, it gets completely derailed, almost as if Heinlein has become Doug the Dog from Up and keeps getting distracted. I realize this one was published around the same time as Stranger in a Strange Land so maybe his editors didn’t want to risk annoying him by asking him for another edit or pass before publishing the story.
But the real issue I have with this one is Podkayne herself. She continually puts herself done, calling herself the “dumber” one of the family at multiple points. For some reason, I kept hoping and expecting her to rise above this self-image and become something more.
Alas, this is Heinlein and while he’s a great ideas guy (I’d argue the best parts of this one are the various conversations by characters on the nature and necessity of politics), he’s not necessarily strong at creating female characters. And while it’s not quite as awful or head-shaking as Friday, you just can’t help but feel that he’s not doing his teenage protagonist any great favors. Once Podkayne finds and starts helping out on the part of the ship where the babies are nannied, her fate is pretty much sealed. Yep, it awakens a maternal urge in Podkyane that becomes her defining trait for the rest of the book and leads to her eventual (SPOILER alert) death in the final pages.
In the end, the novel ends up feeling a lot longer than it actually is — and not in a good way. I found myself becoming frustrated, annoyed, and angry at Heinlein and Podkayne the longer I spent with the story. And while it’s not quite to the level of Glory Road, I still can’t help but walk away from this one feeling like there is a lot of potential left unrealized — both in Podkayne herself and in this novel.