Why I Read This Book
I have several friends who think it’s admirable to read informative books, or possibly the classics, but think it’s an absolute waste of time to read trashy fantasy novels.
And on an intellectual level, I’m inclined to agree with this. And in my more sober and serious moods, I do my best to steer myself towards serious history books or the classical canon.
And yet, I must confess, the genre does hold some appeal to me, for reasons I can’t really rationally explain. (I suppose the very definition of a “guilty pleasure” is something you can’t rationally explain.) I have been, and always will be, a geek at heart, and every now and then I just get this urge to find some sort of trashy fantasy novel and lose myself in the world of imagination.
After recently following some of the trashy fantasy/sci-fi links from Whisky Prajer’s blog [LINK HERE], I got the urge to set aside some of the history books I was reading, and go down to my local bookstore and just browse the fantasy/sci-fi sections until I found something that looked like it would be just ridiculously fantastic enough to be enjoyable.
Fantasy books aren’t hard to find these days—even in Cambodia. There are several used bookstores here in Phnom Penh for expatriates which keep on their shelves all the trashy fantasy books that backpackers bring with them from their home countries, and then leave behind here once they finish them.
The difficulty, though, is choosing the right book to get immersed in. They all have pictures of fantastic beasts or magical things on their covers. They all promise a world of fantasy and imagination. But as fans of the genre know only too well, many of the stories between these fantastic book covers are disappointing, and some can end up being very boring.
(In many ways, browsing through fantasy books is a lot more fun than actually reading them. I can spend hours standing in the bookstore, looking at the covers, flipping through each book briefly, and imagining the world of each book. But when it comes to actually reading the books cover to cover, I actually get through very few of them.)
Anyway, it’s always a gamble to try to choose a book by its cover, but sometimes the gamble just has to be taken. After browsing through several books in the fanstasy/sci-fi section, this book caught my eye as looking suitably promising. The cheesy artwork and big bubble lettering seemed to promise good-old-fashioned pulpy fantasy fun. The exotic location and the magical fairy were also good. And the back cover sounded interesting enough: “this is Heinlein’s famous novel of an adventurous Marsgirl on her first space voyage, her kidnapping on Venus, and her discovery that fairies are neither imaginary…nor nice.”
I had read Robert A. Heinlein before—two books which I read 8 years ago now on Bear’s recommendations: Stranger in a Strange Land, and Starship Troopers If you follow the above links to read my reviews, you’ll note that I gave both books slightly mixed reviews. I don’t remember them as being bad reads, although I do remember that Robert A. Heinlein tended to mix a lot of talk and preaching into his books—something I’m not always looking for in escapist entertainment. But at the same time, I do remember both books as being competently written, so I decided I might as well give Robert A. Heinlein another go.
This is a funny little book. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.
The first thing to note is that the book cover (both the cover art and the blurb on the back) completely misrepresent this book. (I know that’s just par for the course in this genre, so I’m not going to complain too loudly about it, but I do need to just state it for the record.)
The bulk of the book is not about fairies or kidnappings or any of that stuff. In fact, it takes this book a long time before anything remotely exciting starts to happen. Most of the book is just descriptions of space travel in the future, or of life in the future space colonies.
The book is about a teenage girl named Podkayne who lives on Mars. (The book is set in the distant future, when humans have settled the solar system, and there are human colonies living on the moon, Venus, and Mars.) She begins to keep a journal in which she writes all about her life and ambitions.
(Sidenote: I’d be curious to know what a female reviewer would make of this book. There were times when I thought Robert Heinlein did a very poor job of imagining the thoughts of a teenage girl, but I suppose on that subject I’m no more qualified to judge than he is.)
Podkayne, her younger brother Clark, and her Uncle Tom embark on a journey to see Earth for the first time. But first, before seeing Earth, the ship stops over at Venus.
For most of the book, there’s not really a plot. It’s just the narrator Podkayne describing what life is like for people on Mars, then describing what life is like on the space shuttle between Mars and Venus, then describing what life is like on Venus.
As with the previous Robert Heinlein books I’ve read, Heinlein is interested in politics and society as much as with science fiction, so we get a lot of discussion about how the different societies of Mars and Venus are arranged.
If I’m making this sound boring, the good news is that Heinlein is a skilled enough writer that he can just about pull it off. The plot will stall for long periods at a time, but the prose is quite readable and I found myself still turning the pages despite my frustration with how unexciting the plot was.
And then, the last 30 pages out of 176, the book suddenly remembered it had a plot it needed to get around to, and finally things really began to happen.
So…I’m not at all sure about what to make about this book’s ending. The prose style was the same as the rest of the novel, but the pacing and plot seemed like they had come in from a different book altogether.
And then at the very end, the book all of a sudden seemed to forget who its protagonist was, and what the point was. After the reader has spent so long getting to know the heroine, she’s just completely disregarded at the end of the book. Her brother gives a quick summary of the dramatic events at the end, and she’s sidelined from the narrative completely. And then the book ends with the reader unsure of whether she’ll even live or die.
While the heroine has been completely forgotten, the focus of the last couple pages is all on the brother, and how he has been ruined by the neglect of the parents. This is something that had not been a major theme of the book before now, and seemed an odd note to end the book on.
In conclusion, I’m not really sure what to make of the end of the book. But the whole thing was a short and pleasant enough read. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone, but I wouldn’t not recommend it either.
The Wikipedia page on this book gives some interesting information (W).
Apparently this book was at a stage in his career when Robert Heinlein was beginning to move away from pulpy science fiction, and when this story was originally serialized in an adventure magazine in the early 60s it caused some friction between Heinlein and his publisher.
Apparently the ending Heinlein wanted to publish was with the heroine dying at the end, and was upset that his publisher made him re-write it because, he argued, in real life people die.
The ending with the heroine dying at the end is slightly better than the ambiguous ending that now stands, because in the current ending it’s not even clear if she lives or dies, and at the very least, giving the reader some certainty would have been better than leaving them in ambiguity.
That being said, although Heinlein’s original ending was marginally better than the re-written ending, in my mind all of the original problems still stand either way—it still jars with the rest of the book, and it still abruptly changes focus.
Noam Chomsky "Thought Control In Democratic Societies"