You can imagine my delight when I discovered Podkayne of Mars at my local bookstore some months back. I was still fresh from Have Spacesuit, Will Travel—the book that made me a Heinlein fan—and here was another Heinlein book, with a female protagonist who wanted to defy social norms and become a pilot! Was I about to discover one of science fiction’s first ever badass, take-no-crap, follow-no-rules, female warrior archetypes?
No. No I was not. And perhaps it’s my fault for getting my hopes up, but Podkayne of Mars fizzled on more levels than just that.
Podkayne is an 8-year-old “Marsman” colonist (which makes her 15 in Earth-years), named for one of the Martian (species) saints. Her dream is have her own spaceship, and though a female captain is all but unheard of, she might just have the brains and guts to pull it off. Sadly, the story is not about her pursuing that goal in any meaningful way. Instead, she and her (rather malevolent) super-genius brother Clark get taken with their Uncle Tom (no, not that one) on a “vacation,” to Earth. But there’s a secret, political motive behind Uncle Tom’s trip, complete with people out to make sure he never arrives.
The story is presented as entries in Podkayne’s diary, and, never having been a fifteen year old girl, I can only say that Heinlein is either great or terrible at writing them. Podkayne’s language is overinflated, full of deliberate attempts to sound sophisticated that often come off as faintly ridiculous, but fall short of endearing. It’s hard to say if this is a fault, because, frankly, when you’re fifteen you’ll do anything to be treated as an adult—but there’s also a reason why we don’t read books written by teenagers (The Outsiders notwithstanding). And it’s not because they don’t write books. Besides which, while there is such a thing as good bad writing, the same cannot be said of its mediocre counterpart.
Podkayne’s character is as much a let down as her language. Heinlein protagonists tend towards brilliant, driven people with big dreams. Podkayne is no exception, which is why it’s such a disappointment that her methods of getting what she wants consist of being cute and acting slightly stupid to manipulate men. Valid tactics, sure, but hardly empowering. For a while I held out hope that it was meant as a social critique, but round about page 150 when Podkayne seriously considers giving up her dream, because she’d be just as happy running a nursery on a spaceship as actually running the whole spaceship, I was seriously tempted to throw the book down in disgust.
I actually did raise my fist to the heavens and shout “HEINLEEEEEEIIIIIIN!” Lightning flashed and everything.
The plot is all over the place, even for a Heinlein novel. Our heroes are not so much “thrust” as “very gradually eased,” into a world of high-stakes political machinations. Which is to say that at least half the book is spent on the “vacation” portion of the program, and serious stuff doesn’t start happening until practically the end.
There is some legitimate fun to be had in Podkayne of Mars. As always, Heinlein’s world building is fascinating and believable, and some of the scenes between Podkayne and her brother or her uncle are quite good. Still, a protagonist who will frustrate the hell out of a modern audience and lackluster writing make this one hard to recommend. Pick it up if you’re a Heinlein completionist, or a gender studies major looking for something to be mad about.
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