Podkayne of Mars
By Robert A. Heinlein
Published by the Library of Congress (USA), National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Read by Martha Harmon Pardee
Before writing this book, Robert Heinlein was perhaps best known for his juvenile science fiction novels, like Have Spacesuit-Will Travel, Rocketship Galileo, Farmer in the Sky, Starman Jones and so forth. They were written for the younger readers, although I would maintain that they are still enjoyable for adult readers as well, especially if you are looking for an intellectual “palate cleanser” after reading one or more stories of somewhat heavier content.
Podkayne of Mars is frequently referred to as the last of the Heinlein juveniles and is about a young woman (roughly 15 years old) of good family who just happens to live on the former penal colony world, Mars. She is personable, friendly, intelligent and wants to be the first female starship captain and also loves taking care of babies. Honestly, she is a bit too good to be true, but she is also one of the more beloved heroines of Science Fiction.
The story concerns her interplanetary trip with her Uncle Tom, an at-large senator, and her obnoxious, genius brother, Clark. If there is any character less believable than Poddy, it is definitely Clark. He seems to have the knowledge of an adult combined with the self-centeredness of a completely spoiled brat. Well, Poddy is a bit shallow too, but while she thinks she is worldly wise, she is obviously quite naïve and a bit self-centered as well, although in times of emergency she puts her own comfort aside to help out where she can. Clark, on the other hand is always playing an angle and that is where they all get into trouble on Venus, an entire planetary version of Las Vegas.
Points for realism go to Heinlein for his descriptions of the physical mechanics of space travel and the socio mechanics of shipboard life, which was based on his own globe-trekking experiences. He used a lot of that in his much later book Job: A Comedy of Justice. Less realistic are some of Podkayne’s behaviors in her situations. I had some difficulty accepting some of the matter-of-factness of a fifteen year old just stepping in and doing some of what she does, and it was even less believable from her younger brother, but then the Heinlein juveniles are like that sometimes (in one, Dad comes in and says something like, “Let’s build a spaceship and travel around the solar system,” as though that was something anyone might do in their backyard. Get past points like that, however, and the rest of the stories follow along naturally.
There has been great debate as to whether or not it is a juvenile. Certainly it was presented to the publisher as a juvenile, as was Starship Troopers. I think it is safe to say that Starship Troopers is a somewhat sterner story, but Podkayne is a transitional piece; a late juvenile that already shows Heinlein’s change toward more adult themes.
Warning: Spoilers ahead: Actually I am constantly mentioning stuff that might be spoilers, so I am not sure why I am calling attention to it now, but… There are two endings to this story; Heinlein’s original, and probably ending in which Podkayne dies due to Clark setting off an atomic bomb that he later admits he should have deactivated, and then there is the ending in which she survives. The original publisher was not willing to accept a juvenile story in which the title and first-person character dies, so Heinlein was forced to rewrite the ending in spite of his grumbles that not every story has a happy ending. The original ending is probably more realistic, but I think the publisher was correct that kids, the intended audience, were probably not prepared to read about the death of a character who had been talking directly to them throughout the rest of the book. I found neither ending satisfactory, since killing off the main character is just a weak ending while the rewrite was obviously forced.
Aside from that, this is not too bad a story, marred by a couple of occasions in which Clark breaks into Podkayne’s diary to leave his own, rather unnecessary remarks in the narrative, thereby breaking the flow and rhythm of Podkayne’s own storyline. Another flaw, to my modern mind is Poddy’s switch from wanting to be a starship captain to being a mere officer on a ship with a preference for taking care of babies. It is a decidedly late 50’s or early 60’s point of view. However, if you are a fan of the Heinlein juveniles, you should probably enjoy this story too and if you prefer his later works, this is an interesting bridge between his early and later writing styles.
Martha Harmon Pardee reads the story entertainingly. As Poddy’s voice, in fact, she does a quite believable rendition of a young woman in her mid-teens. Her reading is lively and engaging. As a professional reader, I would have expected more vocal differences between the characters in the story, but most of the story is told in Podkayne’s voice, even when quoting another character’s words, so maybe a differentiation of voice is not necessary in this case and might even have been distracting.
So, the story has its flaws, mostly with the endings, but it is not a bad story up until then. If you like, you can imagine an ending you prefer. After all, the original publisher did just that. And while you are at it, you can imagine Ms Pardee’s engaging style reading your ending as well.