Monday, November 17, 2008

Stranger in a strange land

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me to learn that there are many fan sites for the science fiction author (and legend) Robert A. Heinlein, so I shall just link to his official website -- which seems to focus more on him and not so much on his books -- and leave Wikipedia (Heinlein was a nudist!) and the other geeky pages to Google searchers. His Red Planet (which was evidently heavily edited for the sensibilities of the post-atomic-age teenage set) has now been published in audio (and Heinlein's original manuscript restored) by that family-listening-loving Full Cast Audio. I do like the cover.

Red Planet's heroes are Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton, two boys who are being raised on Mars by their pioneering, colonizing families. Jim has a pet "bouncer" (the blue object with three eyes) named Willis who is friendly and childlike, but has the ability to remember and reproduce the conversations of the humans he encounters. Jim takes Willis with him when the boys head off to boarding school, but trouble quickly ensues. Willis is confiscated by the new, corrupt headmaster -- who intends to ship him to the London Zoo. When Jim and Frank spring Willis, they learn of an even-more nefarious plot: The colonists' annual migration from south to north pole (to avoid the subfreezing winter Martian weather) will not take place, as the "company" running the Mars operations from Earth wishes to save money. Willis' imitative skills alert the boys to this plot.

Jim (the impetuous adventurous one) and Frank (the sensible one who actually gets things done) set off in their pressurized suits and ice skates on a trip that essentially takes them from the equator to the pole along Mars' frozen canals. Fortunately, through Willis, Jim had already made a connection with the native population, and it is the Martians who eventually return them to the colony so they can tell them about the cancelled migration. The colonists rise up in revolt, and -- after a brief skirmish -- win the day. But there is more of a battle ahead of them: The nonviolent Martians have not really welcomed the colonists to their planet and now they want them gone. It is up to Jim and Willis to broker a peace.

I am not a science fiction fan, although I bet my brother read this when he was a kid. There is something vaguely amusing about it now: The language is old-fashioned, the women are non-existent (except when they are assigned kitchen duties), and it lacks the consciousness about people who are not like us that is so much a part of our lives and our literature today. However, I did hear a wee bit of perhaps-we-have-been-a-little-overbearing-in-our-takeover-of-your-planet in amongst the libertarian message of let-us-alone-to-be-who-we-want-to-be. On the other hand, if you can overlook these qualities (and I think some kids can), Red Planet is a fairly exciting adventure; and if the adults take a little bit more of center-stage once the colonists stage their rebellion, it's still a pretty kid-oriented story.

But in audio, all its flaws seem much more obvious. The weak, whiny women, the outdated language, the casual violence, the Earth-centric disinterest and disdain for the wonders of another place and its people. There are many wincing moments. But, often I'm wincing while listening to a full-cast audio because the readers are so overly emotive and dramatic, and that was not the case here. The readers did a fine job -- they effortlessly hit all the right notes of youthful enthusiasm, cranky old codger, adorable blue ball, dignified Martian elder. The music was wonderful as well: properly space agey.

But this was a case of the story taking me out of the audio: Every time one of those 1940s-era literary bloopers hit my ears, I wanted to not be hearing it. Ouch.

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