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From Free Love to the Free-Fire Zone: Heinlein's Mars, 1939-1987.

McGiveron, Rafeeq O.

University of Texas at Brownsville

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Originally published in Extrapolation, 2001



From Free Love to the Free-Fire Zone: Heinlein's Mars, 1939-1987.

Although as early as 1942, with the inscrutable super-stratospheric ball-lightning creatures of "Goldfish Bowl," Robert A. Heinlein  undermined the pulp science fiction cliche that Mars was the nearest home of intelligent alien life, Heinlein  still clung to the idea of Mars as the cradle of an alien civilization in fact for at least another decade and in fiction for a decade longer, and the planet--colonized by humans though not necessarily inhabited by Martians--appeared in the background of his works until the end of his career. In "Where To?", an article written in 1950 but apparently not published until 1952, Heinlein seriously predicted that within the coming half century "Intelligent life will be found on Mars" (Expanded 339), and late in 1952 when Heinlein prepared to visit astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who had discovered Pluto in 1930 from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, he wrote his agent that he hoped "perhaps, to see the canals of Mars through his telescope" (Grumbles 140). Heinlein’s mistakenly confident prediction and his letter's hopeful reference to the "canals," qualified neither by quotation marks nor by phraseology, still reveal a lingering belief in Percival Lowell's hypotheses that all too soon would be scientifically unsupportable. [1] In fiction, of course, Heinlein referred to an indigenously inhabited or human-colonized Mars in at least eight stories and twenty-two novels from the pulp magazines of the 1940s, through his Scribner's juveniles of the 1940s and 1950s, into his Putnam's work of the 1960s and 1970s, and even beyond. Of these many works, "The Green Hills of Earth" (1947), "Ordeal in Space" (1948), Red Planet (1949), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) seem to fit most clearly together, with such novels as Space Cadet (1948), The Rolling Stones (1952), and Podkayne of Mars (1963) also being closely--if not even completely--compatible with this central conception of Mars.

Heinlein’s descriptions of an inhabited Mars are especially consistent in the Red Planet/Stranger continuum and fairly complementary even in the two-dozen works outside of it, suggesting that Heinlein established a pattern that comfortably fit his concerns--artistic, scientific, [2] and moral. Jack Williamson has observed that the extraterrestrials of Heinlein’s juvenile fiction "often serve as teachers for the [novels'] maturing heroes" (19), and I have noted that "Heinlein’s alien worlds of the 1940s and 1950s... serve the didactic purpose of humbling the human species" ("Heinlein’s" 245). Heinlein’s Mars is worthy of critical investigation because from early work in the pulp magazines and the editorially restricted juveniles [3] to the fairly uninhibited Stranger in a Strange Land and beyond--from his second published story to his very last novel-Heinlein runs the gamut from free love to the free-fire zone.

George Edgar Slusser claims that "Heinlein’s view of Mars has been remarkably consistent throughout his career" (29), but this is something of an overstatement. After all, although critics have examined certain major works, to date no one actually seems to have examined the totality of Heinlein’s depictions of Mars. When we do look at Heinlein’s entire work with Mars, we will see not only the strong consistencies of the Red Planet/Stranger continuum but also the vagueness and even occasional inconsistencies of peripheral works as well. Yet while the sexuality of Stranger in a Strange Land obviously is absent from the pulp stories and juvenile novels of the 1940s and 1950s, the wise Martian justice alluded to in the early pieces still is present in the later novel as well--and perhaps it is more significant. Heinlein’s Martians may believe that "Thou art God" and may have proof that the soul lives on after death, yet the corollary of this is a firm sense of justice. Such sentiments are not contradictory but complementary. Heinlein’s Mars reminds us that any society, from the most austere to the most self-indulgent, must be based on wisdom and justice if it is to avoid destruction from without or from within.

Heinlein toys with variant ideas of Mars throughout his writing, often working the planet into his fiction even when he does not--or, later, cannot with a straight face--refer to native Martians themselves. Such early stories as "Misfit" (1939) and "Space Jockey" (1947) easily could mention Martians, but in these pieces Heinlein’s focus happens to be elsewhere, and instead he simply refers to travel to and from a human-colonized Mars as being fairly common, without specifically telling us whether natives inhabit the planet. "Gentlemen, Be Seated" (1948) likewise does not happen to mention Martians; when one character calls a construction engineer "the best sand-hog in four planets" (Past 279), however, it seems very probable that one of those planets is Mars, perhaps inhabited by natives but at least colonized by humans.

In later fiction it becomes less plausible to postulate the existence of Martians--though certainly Heinlein on occasion does it--but even in the more cautious works Heinlein’s technique is similar to that of the three early stories. For example, The Star Beast (1954), Time for the Stars (1956), and Starship Troopers (1959) all mention human colonization of Mars in unobtrusive one or two-line references early on, within the first ten or twenty pages of text; the tense "Sky Lift" (1953) is similar. When the teenaged narrator of Have Space Suit--Will Travel (1958) is kidnapped by malevolent "wormface" aliens and taken to their base on Pluto, he reminds us that humans "hadn't even attempted Jupiter's moons yet" (III), implying that the nearer Mars, if not colonized, at least has been explored. The reference to the mining boom in the asteroids in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) might be similar, though this certainly is more debatable.

Moreover, at least two works seem to refer to native life on Mars without necessarily specifying whether that includes intelligence. "Sky Lift" suggests that the disease ravaging the scientific colony on Pluto is "a mutated virus, possibly of Martian origin" (Menace 116). In this story, therefore, viruses may be the planet's most advanced form of life, but we are not told whether Mars was the home of civilization in the past or whether any remnants of higher life remain. Even more cryptically, the earlier Methuselah's Children (1942) tells us only that Mars is "Worn out and useless" (Past 698). If the planet is not simply barren but instead is "worn out," this seems to imply a world that already has supported life for millions of years, evolving from a lush young world like Earth toward what was considered to be a bleak old one like the Moon, as Percival Lowell believed it was doing (Lowell 126--27, 206--8). As in "Sky Lift," such a description allows for the possibility that Mars still is inhabited by anything from mere viruses to the vestiges of an ancient civilization.

Toward the end of his career Heinlein comes almost full circle, returning to peripheral references to the human exploration or colonization of Mars and tying together, among many others, older works that deal with the planet. In Time Enough for Love (1973) Lazarus Long reminisces about the colorful frontier Mars of "The Green Hills of Earth" (108--9, 126--32) yet stops short of mentioning the earlier story's natives. In The Number of the Beast (1980) Heinlein’s Mars is an unabashedly Barsoomian one colonized by imperial Russians and British; by the end of the book he works in references to Stranger in a Strange Land (493) and 'The Green Hills of Earth" (509). Even the very late novels Friday (1982) and The Cat Who Walks through Walls (1985) allude briefly in a few places to human colonization of Mars, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987), Heinlein’s last novel, not only weaves old characters and plots as does Time Enough for Love but also very specifically mentions "Manned expeditions...sent to Mars" (370).

Although some pieces here and there throughout Heinlein’s career thus do not specifically suppose an indigenously inhabited Mars, over a dozen other works do. While the Martians of Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Stranger in a Strange Land are three-legged, those of Starman Jones (1953) have three eyes (29) and presumably three legs, and those of Podkayne of Mars are of three genders (56), Heinlein actually describes Martians' physical appearance rather rarely. Though separated in publishing by twelve years and in intended audience by five or ten years, Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land provide the most clearly unified portraits of Martians. The young--always female--are "fat, furry spheres" whose size is between that of a basketball and a medicine ball, while the adults--always male--are often over twelve feet tall, "huge," somehow reminiscent of "ice boats under sail" (Red Planet 7, 29; Stranger 90; Grumbles 254--56). Occasionally, of course, Heinlein works outside of this central description of trilaterally arranged Martian physiognomy. In Double Star (1956), for example, Martians are tentacled creatures that reproduce by fission (57); to human eyes they resemble upright tree trunks, and "they [can] look all directions at once without turning their heads--if they had heads, which of course they don't" (7). The Martians of Between Planets (1951) even possess some sort of "pseudo wings" (25).

A few peripheral works are particularly thin in their depiction of Martian society. Beyond This Horizon (1942), one of Heinlein’s earliest descriptions of an inhabited Mars, contains perhaps his most unusual, for in this work "The poor degenerate starveling descendants of the once-mighty Builders of Mars can hardly be described as intelligent--except in charity. A half-witted dog could cheat them at cards" (126). Extinct but at least more dignified, the Martians of The Puppet Masters (1951) "were all dead before we swung down from the trees" (103), and humans seem to know little, if anything, of their culture. These two novels neither fit the Red Planet/Stranger continuum nor fit together in a consistent future of their own, but two more are vague enough that they still could be compatible with Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land. Mars is inhabited in Farmer in the Sky (1950), but the one-line reference--telling us that Martians, like Venusians "don't use pictures" (216)--is so cryptic that it is impossible to tell whether they are technologically advanced or primitive. Tunnel in the Sky (1955) is similar, telling us in a brief description of the "remarkably unattractive real-estate" of the solar system only that "Martians prosper in near vacuum" (19).

In four other non-related works Martians are on roughly the same technical and social levels as humanity, amenable to trade and personal contact. "'--We Also Walk Dogs"' (1941) mentions Mars as one of the solar system's major diplomatic powers, and "Jerry Was a Man" (1947) returns to this rather more traditional science-fictional portrayal of Mars as the intellectual equal--or superior--of Earth. Here a peripheral Martian character, "bad temper[ed]" and "self-centered" (Assignment 190) as only a member of the "Great Race" (Assignment 191) can be, is a master of genetic engineering. He works for an Earth-based genetics corporation and, rather incongruously, "ha[s] modified (himself] to a semi-manlike form" (Assignment 175). The Martians of Between Planets are concerned with the political and military machinations of humans, and in Double Star "every [Martian] nest has stereo-receivers" to follow the news of Earth (90). Fred Erisman notes correctly that with Double Star "Heinlein makes...a moving argument for racial tolerance" (221), and of these eight works, Double Star by far contains the most description of Mars. Even this, however, is comparatively thin, for unlike, say, Red Planet or Stranger in a Strange Land, Double Star is not particularly informative about Martian culture. After being adopted into a Martian nest, for example, the human narrator apologizes for his narrative elision but still maintains, "I have no more right to tell the detail of the adoption ceremony than a lodge brother has to be specific about ritual outside the lodge" (58).

Although some pieces thus present slightly differing views of Mars, the remaining stories and novels are rather more unified in their depiction. In many works Heinlein’s Martians seem advanced not only intellectually and technologically but also even morally--and thus are aloof toward humans and their petty problems. Envisioned in the tradition begun by "the immortal Dr. Percival Lowell" [4] (Red Planet 15) and continued by over four decades of science fiction writers, Heinlein’s Mars often is described as a slowly dying world crisscrossed with great canals thousands of kilometers long. The once-accepted "canals" of Mars are specifically mentioned--often with an almost boyish relish--in fully half a dozen works. Beyond This Horizon refers simply to "the once-mighty builders of Mars" (126), but in "The Green Hills of Earth" the canals are still infused with the spirit of, as one of "Noisy" Rhysling's poems puts it, "the gods who shed the tears that lap these crystal shores" (366). In Red Planet the human colonists run jet-powered skate boats on the "steel-blue" ice (23) of the ancient canals. From the quasi-religious to the mundane, such descriptions are characteristic of the science-fictional mood of the 1940s.

Even in the early 1950s, however, as Heinlein  still hopes "perhaps, to see the canals of Mars" with Clyde Tombaugh (Grumbles 140), his fiction also still shows a commitment to the old Lowellian notion of planet-wide Martian "handicraft" with "a highly intelligent mind behind it" (Lowell 208). The protagonist of Between Planets gazes from orbit at "The fabulous canali [that] were already plain to the eye; he [can] see them cutting through the soft greens and the dominant orange and brick red" (190). The main characters of The Rolling Stones get a similar view from Phobos: "They stud[y] the ruddy orange deserts, the olive fertile stretches, the canals stretching straight as truth across her flat landscape" (143). These two passages are particularly interesting for their dogged commitment to the canals' reality and for their subtle unease about the canals' possible unreality. The passage from 1951, after all, calls the supposedly real artifacts "fabulous," while the passage from 1952 seems to use the "straight as truth" simile almost as a challenge to the nonbelievers Heinlein knows must exist. By Stranger in a Strange Land, a decade later, Heinlein’s nod to the canals is quick and perfunctory; we are told simply that a space probe's "pictures showed that the 'canals' were engineering works [,] and other details were interpreted as ruins of cities" (II).

Heinlein often describes ancient Mars as having a recorded history much greater than that of youthful Earth. In Space Cadet when a recruit of the Interplanetary Patrol sits down to his academic studies, his "color-stereo" projector "portray[s] in chill beauty the rich past of the ancient planet" (77). The narration of Red Planet explains that "Mars must once have had a population greater than it does today," and in a small Martian town that "might have been abandoned before Noah laid the keel of his ship," two boys rest upon "a metal slab, its burnished face bright with characters that an Earthly scholar would have given an arm to read" (102). Later, as an adult converses with a Martian who "has trouble remembering which millennium he is in," the human is shown a four-dimensional globe that reveals the ancient canals being built (187). Between Planets mentions "ancient Martian records" (163) dating back "millions of years" (22) and ruins wherein archaeologists "[can] dig ... and study the customs of the ancient and dying race" (163). More prosaically, the ancient Martian ruins of The Rolling Stones have been transformed into tourist traps by the human colonists (147, 148, 165). Podkayne of Mars contains even more references to "ancient Martian artifacts" (8, 31), Martian tombs (36), Martian ruins "that [were] old when stone axes were the latest thing in super-weapons" (44), and the fact that "we know Martian history of millions of years ago better than we know human history a mere two thousand years ago" (56).

Occasionally Heinlein gives his ancient civilization not only canal-building skills but other technical achievements as well. For example, the Martians of "Jerry Was a Man" developed "plasto-biology"--genetic engineering (Assignment 171)--and the Martians of Double Star carry a ceremonial "life wand" that can fire an energy beam (89). In Red Planet, perhaps Heinlein’s most thorough treatment of Martian technology, Martians use sophisticated holographic techniques to simulate the outdoors in their social rooms (35, 105), hidden environmental engineering to raise atmospheric pressure in their dwellings without an airlock (36, 104), and mind-reading apparatus that can replay an entire lifetime of memories in mere hours (112, 118). The book's two teenaged protagonists discover a system of ancient, ultra-high-speed "subways" far beneath the planet's surface (108-9), and, more surprisingly, humans learn that the Martians "had interplanetary flight millions of years back ... had it and gave it up" (184). The narration of The Rolling Stones also hypothesizes about Martian space travel, suggesting that Phobos might have been used as a spaceport by "the Martian ancients" (136).

Heinlein’s Martians are not just engineers, of course, but healthy relishers of life whose temperament is reflected in their arts. "Noisy" Rhysling, the blind poet of the spaceways in "The Green Hills of Earth," sings of "the slender, fairylike towers" along the Grand Canal and "the riparian esplanade where the ancient great of Mars had take their ease ... --ice blue plain of water unmoved by tide, untouched by breeze, and reflecting serenely the sharp, bright stars of the Martian sky, and beyond the water the lacy buttresses and flying towers of an architecture too delicate for our rumbling, heavy planet" (Past 367). Red Planet tells us "no two Martian cities looked alike. It was as if each were a unique work of art, each expressing the thought of a different artist" (32). The "ancient towers" (76) of these cities are "iridescent" (32), "feathery," "floating" (105), almost "too beautifully unreal to be solid" (28). Stranger in a Strange Land also describes Martian cities as "faerie" and "graceful" (89), and it explains that Martian art, often a series of arranged emotions, "could [be] called a poem, a musical opus, or a philosophical treatise" (91).

One of the most important social activities of the culture which nourishes this art is "growing together," for while the ceremony of water sharing so noticeable in Stranger in a Strange Land--which indeed is first mentioned in Red Planet (37-38)--symbolically seals a relationship, the growing together first helps create that relationship. In "Ordeal in Space" growing together seems a meditative blend of contemplation and appreciation: "[The Martian] could sit for hours with a friend or trusted acquaintance, saying nothing, needing to say nothing. 'Growing together' they called it--his entire race had so grown together that they had needed no government, until the Earthmen came" (Past 352). In Red Planet two human boys are included in such a session:

For a long time nothing was said. Jim's thoughts drifted away, to school and what he would do there, to his family, to things in the past. He came back presently to personal self-awareness and realized that he was happier than he had been in a long time, with no particular reason that he could place. It was a quiet happiness; he felt no desire to laugh nor even to smile, but he was perfectly relaxed and content.

He was acutely aware of the presence of the Martians, of each individual Martian, and was becoming even more aware of them with each drifting minute. He had never noticed how beautiful they were. "Ugly as a native" was a common phrase with the colonials; Jim recalled with surprise that he had even used it himself, and wondered why he had ever done so.

He was aware, too, of Frank beside him and thought about how much he liked him. Staunch--that was the word for Frank, a good man to have at your back. He wondered why he had never told Frank that he liked him.

Jim . . . lay back, and soaked in the joy of living. (36-37)

By Stranger in a Strange Land, of course, growing together also includes human activities from religious worship to sex.

Apparently central to the Martians' ability to "grow together" is their almost matter-of-fact spirituality. By Stranger in a Strange Land humans begin to learn the truth, long known on Mars, that "You can't die . . . --you can only discorporate" (295), but Heinlein  starts to work in the concept even in early pieces. An officer of Space Cadet tries to suggest to a young cadet that the Martian belief in the "other world" just might be valid, even though humans do not yet understand it: "Let's forget the usual assumption that a Martian is talking in religious symbols when he says that we live on just 'one side' while he lives on 'both sides.' Suppose that what he means is as real as butter and eggs, that he really does live in two worlds at the same time and that we live in the one he regards as unimportant. If you accept that, then it accounts for the Martian being unwilling to waste time talking with us, or trying to explain things to us. He isn't being stuffy, he's being reasonable. Would you waste time trying to explain rainbows to an earthworm?" (143-44) Red Planet clarifies the concept of the "other world." The Martians, explains a gruff old doctor, the book's wisest human character, have "everyday relations with Heaven--their heaven--as close and matter of fact as the relations between, say, the United States and Canada" (187). He realizes that the Martian Old One with whom he negotiated the continued stay of humans on the planet was "a ghost" (187). Too many of the colonists of Red Planet are interested in getting Mars "opened up to exploitation" (28), but, as I have noted elsewhere, "Martian spirituality allows the native inhabitants of Mars a crucial perspective which most humans lack" ("Heinlein’s" 251). According to Jubal Harshaw, the corresponding gruff old doctor of Stranger in a Strange Land, "A Martian dies when he decides to die, having discussed it with friends and received consent of his ancestors' ghosts to join them" (123). He suggests that the Martian attitude toward death is "like Stevenson's 'Glad did I live and gladly die, and I lay me down with a will!"' (98). Though Slusser contends that while "Mars is an old culture, far superior in knowledge and wisdom to Earth," it is "decadent, no longer a vital, dynamic race," Heinlein actually portrays neither "decadence" nor "inertia" (Slusser 29), but a world of great "cultural wealth," one that places "the supreme value ... on interpersonal relationships" (Stranger 186).

The human boys of Red Planet realize early on that "Martians are good people" (101). The beings whose voices are "filled with ... warmth and sympathy and friendliness" almost immediately can become "like ... old and trusted friend[s]" (30-31). They radiate "a warm glow of friendliness ... as real as sunshine" (115), and their dwellings are "filled with an atmosphere of peace and security" (107). Stranger in a Strange Land tells us that the difference between humans and Martians "lay not in longer lifetimes as counted in Earth years but in basic attitude. 'It is later than you think' could not be expressed in Martian--nor could 'Haste makes waste,' though for a different reason: the first notion was inconceivable while the latter was an unexpressed Martian basic, as unnecessary as telling a fish to bathe. But 'As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be' was so Martian in mood that it could be translated more easily than 'two plus two makes four'--which was not a truism on Mars" (59). The Martians of Stranger in a Strange Land--apparently like those of "Ordeal in Space" and Red Planet--know that "Waiting is" (287): "A Martian needing a few minutes or years of contemplation simply took it: if a friend wished to speak with him, the friend could wait. With eternity to draw on there could be no reason for hurrying--'hurry' was not a concept in Martian" (125). Even "with the aid of vastly superior logic," the Martians "[are] not omniscient and in their own way [are] as provincial as humans" (414); nevertheless, they seem as close to omniscience as is possible, and their moral judgments are almost never questioned.

Valentine Michael Smith, the orphaned human raised by Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land, explains that, unlike the case with humans, "among Martians goodness and wisdom are identical" (393) and that Martians grok rightness and wrongness far more intuitively than humans usually do. Grok means "to understand," of course, but Dr. Mahmoud, who might be termed the leading Terran expert on Martians, explains that it also means, "to drink" and "a hundred other English words, words which we think of as antithetical concepts. 'Grok' means all of these. It means 'fear,' it means 'love,' it means 'hate'--proper hate, for by the Martian 'map' you cannot hate anything unless you grok it, understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you--then you can hate it. By hating yourself. But this implies that you love it, too, and cherish it and would not have it otherwise. Then you can hate--and (I think) Martian hate is an emotion so black that the nearest human equivalent could only be called mild distaste."

Mahmoud screwed up his face. "'Grok' means 'identically equal.' The human cliche 'This hurts me worse than it does you' has a distinctly Martian flavor. The Martian seems to know instinctively what we learned painfully from modern physics, that observer acts with observed through the process of observation. 'Grok' means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed--to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science-and it means as little to us as color does to a blind man." (205-6)

Alexei Panshin finds that the "Martian-trained ability to do almost anything"-- which includes not only grokking but mental control of matter [5]--makes Martian spirituality "right by definition" "and hence trivial" (101). This is true, of course, but only if we try to apply the fictional specifics of the book's Martian culture to our lives; the notion of full understanding, as an ideal, still is most laudable.

Heinlein’s Martians may know all, but they most assuredly do not forgive all; their grokking of rightness and wrongness instead leads to an unwavering sense of justice. The human narrator of Have Space Suit--Will Travel explains his own, similar attitude very clearly: "But I don't hold with the idea that to understand all is to forgive all; you follow that and first thing you know you're sentimental over murderers and rapists and kidnappers and forgetting their victims. That's wrong.... If there were some way to drown such creatures at birth, I'd take my turn as executioner" (137). The Martian hesitates even less, for in a "cusp" a mature Martian "can always be sure of right action": "He knows. He groks. He acts" (Stranger III, 110). The Martians realize, in the words of "Mike" Smith, that "goodness alone is never enough. A hard, cold wisdom is required for goodness to accomplish good. Goodness without wisdom always accomplishes evil" (Stranger 393). When Heinlein explains that a cat's "carnivorous thoughts [are] most pleasing and quite Martian" (Stranger 228), he suggests that the use of force can be natural and proper. In writing that violence might be done for "artistic necessity" (Stranger 354), however, he complicates the matter--needlessly, it seems. We can only hope that Martian art is the equivalent of morality.

Actually, when Heinlein’s Martians resort to force, the reasons are indeed just. As early as Space Cadet Heinlein reports that on Mars the punishment for kidnapping "would be to stake [one] out on the desert, unprotected, for exactly the same amount of time" as the victim was held (177). The cadet who reminds us of this states it as a simple fact, unarguable either in detail or in justness, and even if this novel lacked the voracious "water seekers" with their "great scimitar claw[s]" of Red Planet (100), the extremes of Martian climate--and the lack of food and water--probably would be punishment enough. In Red Planet Martian justice is rather more otherworldly yet no less severe. Here the giant Martians encircle a transgressor, "mov[ing] in slowly, tightening the circle" until he is "completely concealed from the spectators by a screen of palm flaps," and though his protesting voice may "[stop] in a scream," when the Martians disperse there is "not even a spot of blood on the floor" (180-81).

Such "disappearing" also is used defensively numerous times in Stranger in a Strange Land, where it finally is described as pushing the person--or other object--"perpendicular" to our three dimensions (121). When Robert Plank claims that Mike's "disappearing" tactic sometimes "amounts to mass murder" (85), he is ostensibly correct, but this quick critical judgment also oversimplifies the issue by ignoring two important points: the tactic is used here only for immediate defense, and, after two instances of Mike's panicked destruction of armed, albeit uniformed, intruders who threaten him and his benefactors, in later moments of crisis he carefully attempts to "disappear" only weapons, not their bearers. When Jubal Harshaw questions him about the effective distance of the power, Mike replies, "Jubal, it is not distance. It is not seeing. It is knowing" (109). When Jubal wants Mike to demonstrate the "disappearing" on an ashtray, the latter is unable because he "do[es] not grok wrongness in its being, where it i s" (III). [6] There is a difference, such passages thus imply, between aggression and defense that Plank does not seem to recognize.

I have maintained that for Heinlein "there can be no more Munichs" ("'StarryEyed"' 67); Heinlein’s Mars also reminds us that there should be no more Pearl Harbors either, for his Martians sometimes are moved to violence by the need for long-term defense. Sensing a threat in the vigorous and unrestrained human species, the subterranean Martian Old Ones of Red Planet "had intended to exterminate" the human colonists (185), but a compromise eventually is reached. The gruff old doctor explains, "They don't care what we do with the surface as long as we behave ourselves. We can use the park, we can even walk on the grass, but we mustn't frighten the birds" (188). Moreover, in Stranger in a Strange Land--as in at least four of his juveniles--Heinlein  upposes the asteroid belt to have been formed by the break-up of a hypothetical planet once located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. [7] Indeed, in this book the Martians themselves are responsible for the formation of the asteroids: "The Martian Race had encountered the people of the fifth planet, grokked them completely, and had taken action; asteroid ruins were all that remained, save that the Martians continued to praise and cherish the people they had destroyed" (91). Even Mike Smith, despite the injunction of his benefactors not to "disappear" people anymore, knows that "at cusp, right action [is] required" (252); when confronted with the "glib fraud" (242) of the Fosterite cult leader he has no compunctions about dispatching the man, and later he still "grok[s] that he ha[s] chosen correctly" (252).

Martians believe that true "wrongness ... require[s] weeding, once it ha[s] been grokked and cherished and hated" (414). The discorporate Martian Old Ones contemplate the possibility of destroying humanity as they had the hypothetical Fifth Planet, with the mental subatomic manipulation of "a piece near the core of Earth about a hundred miles in diameter" (395). Such a destruction, Mike suggests, not only might be a necessary defensive maneuver but also would be considered "a mercy killing" as well: "You see, by their standards, we are diseased and crippled--the things we do to each other, the way we fail to understand each other, our almost complete failure to grok with one another, our wars and diseases and famines and cruelties--these will be insanity to them" (396). Fortunately for humanity, "Martians never hurry"; it will be "a minimum of five hundred years, more likely five thousand, before anything [will] be done" (396). By then, the novel's conclusion tells us, "it would be highly improbable approaching impossible that the Old Ones would be able to destroy this weirdly complex race" (414). Earth, it is suggested, will be too technically advanced--and, it is to be hoped, too morally advanced as well--to be vulnerable to Martian attack.

Alexei Panshin is correct in noting the unreality of Martian "super powers," including the ability to grok (101--2), [8] but, as I have contended, "the Martians are obviously less an example to follow than a reminder that humanity still has far to progress" ("Heinlein’s" 251). Rather than simply stating the obvious, that Heinlein’s fiction is not fact, we should try to determine what lessons this fiction is trying to impart, for his nearly half-century treatment of Mars provides some sound ideas. It is true that "growing together," water sharing, promiscuity, grokjustified killing, and attempts at levitation will not help us in the real, everyday world. Heinlein’s underlying premise that we must strive for wisdom and justice, however, still seems most useful. Such qualities--calm deliberation backed up, when necessary, with determination--will help us in our familial and other personal relations, in our broader society, and in the national and international spheres as well. Heinlein’s Mars should remind us that from the back yard to the Balkans, only with wisdom will we be able to strive for right rather than wrong, and only with a sense of justice will we be able to maintain what is right.

Rafeeq O. McGiveron is an instructor of English and advisor at Lansing Community College in Michigan currently he is pursuing a doctorate degree at Western Michigan University. In addition to publishing on science fiction, he has written on mainstream authors, including an article in Western American Literature on Willa Cather's gaze across the vistas of terrestrial and cosmic spaces.


An early version of this paper was presented at the Twenty-ninth annual conference of the Popular Culture Association in San Diego on March 31, 1999.

(1.) Just seven years later, for example, while my Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy suggests that the "canals" do seem to reflect some sort of natural features and it admits that "the canal problem is still very wide open," it also states quite flatly that they "are neither artificial waterways nor bands of irrigated land on either side of such waterways--as Lowell thought" (205).

(2.) In a 1949 letter to his agent Heinlein notes with some professional pride his careful calculations-and fudging-concerning a scene in Red Planet in which a flashlight keeps a pair of boys from being smothered by a giant Martian cabbage sheltering them through the bitterly cold night (Grumbles 50).

(3.) For examples of how Heinlein chafed against the constraints of the editors of his juveniles, see Grumbles from the Grave (46-58, 63-67, and 69-77).

(4.) For a cogent overview and good bibliography of early scientific thought on the concept of an inhabited Mars, see Johnson and Clareson.

(5.) To call these abilities simply "amazing Martian powers," as Diane Parkin-Speer does (216), overlooks the fact that Smith is a human and that other humans learn them as well. These imagined powers, inherent in humanity yet forgotten, thus are reminiscent of those in early non-Martian Heinlein works such as "Elsewhen" (1941) and "Lost Legacy" (1941).

(6.) Later, of course, Mike does learn to "disappear" harmless items like clothing for entertainment and for mischief. Clothing, however, is not people.

(7.) The other works mentioning the hypothetical Fifth Planet are Space Cadet (1948), Farmer in the Sky (1950), Between Planets (1951), and The Rolling Stones (1952). For a brief discussion of Heinlein’s use of this world, see McGiveron, "Heinlein’s Inhabited Solar System, 1940--1952," in Science-Fiction Studies 23 (July 1996), especially pages 247-48.

(8.) Panshin's succinct statement that anyone trying to implement the supposedly progressive sexuality of Stranger "is headed for trouble" (101) is more useful, for, unlike the case with mental powers, Heinlein does seem to be proposing these new mores. In doing so, of course, Heinlein misses the possibility-now widely accepted-that the pair bond and even jealousy have a chemical basis and thus may indeed serve an evolutionary purpose.

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Rafeeq McGiveron teaches in East Lansing, Michigan. His Heinlein essay here is the one of several in a series that have appeared in Extrapolation and in Science-Fiction Studies.

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