Podkayne of Mars

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Podkayne of Mars
Written by: Robert A. Heinlein
Central Theme:
Genre(s): Science fiction
First published: November 1962, January, March 1963
v · d · e

Podkayne of Mars is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, originally serialised in Worlds of If (November 1962, January, March 1963), and published in hardcover in 1963. The novel is about a teenage girl named Podkayne "Poddy" Fries and her younger, asocial genius brother, Clark, who leave their home on Mars to take a trip on a spaceliner to visit Earth, accompanied by their uncle.

This book, along with Starship Troopers, shows Heinlein moving away from his old, comfortable territory of juvenile science fiction novels. Both books were written for a publisher expecting to market a juvenile science fiction novel, and both raised serious objections from the publisher.

Plot summary

The book is a first-person narrative in the form of Podkayne's diaries. Podkayne is 15 in Earth years (a bit over eight Martian years) while her genius younger brother Clark is 11 Earth years (6 Martian years) old. Due to the unscheduled "uncorking" (birth) of their three remaining creche-frozen babies, Podkayne's parents are forced to cancel a much-anticipated trip to Earth. Disappointed, Podkayne confesses her misery to her uncle, Senator Tom Fries, an elder statesman of the Mars government. Tom arranges for Clark and Podkayne, escorted by himself, to get upgraded passage on the Tricorn, a luxury liner to Earth.

During boarding, Clark is asked by a customs official "Anything to declare?" and facetiously answers "Two kilos of happy dust!" As he anticipated, his seemingly flippant remark gets him taken away and searched, just in time to divert attention away from Podkayne's luggage, where he has hidden a package he was paid to smuggle aboard. Podkayne suspects the reason behind her brother's behavior, but cannot prove it. Clark was told it was a present for the captain, but is far too cynical to be taken in. He later carefully opens the package and finds a nuclear bomb, which he, in typical Clark-fashion, disarms and keeps.

Much of the description of the voyage is based on Heinlein's own experiences as a naval officer and world traveler. Clark's ploy is taken from a real-life incident, related in Heinlein's Tramp Royale, in which his wife answers the same question with "heroin" substituted for the fictitious, but equally illegal, happy dust.

Once aboard, they are befriended by a well-known socialite and minor celebrity, whom Poddy chooses to refer to by the pseudonym "Miss Girdle Fitz-Snugglie", aka "Girdie". "Girdie" is an attractive, capable, and experienced woman apparenly in her thirties, and who -- unknown to just about anyone -- has been left impoverished by her late husband; she has used the last of her alleged fortune on a ticket to Venus to get a fresh start away from the public eye. Much to Podkayne's surprise, the normally very self-centered Clark contracts a severe case of Puppy Love.

The liner makes a stop at Venus, which is depicted as a latter-day Las Vegas gone ultra-capitalistic. The planet is controlled by a single corporation; the dream of most of the frantically enterprising residents is to earn enough to buy a single share in it, which guarantees lifelong financial security. Just about anything goes, as long as one can pay for it. The penalty for murder is a fine paid to the corporation for the victim's estimated value plus his projected future earnings. On a less serious level, Heinlein anticipated, by over forty years, television ads in taxicabs (in the book, holographic), which have since been implemented in taxicabs in major cities worldwide.

The Fries are given VIP treatment by the Venus Corporation and Podkayne is escorted by Dexter Cunha, the Chairman's dashing son. She begins to realize that Tom is much more than just her pinochle-playing uncle. When Clark vanishes and even the corporation is unable to find him, Tom reveals that he is on a secret diplomatic mission, and the children have been his protective coloration -- instead of an accredited representative to a vital conference on Luna, Tom appears to be a doddering uncle escorting two young people on a tour of the solar system. Clark has been kidnapped by functionaries of a political faction opposed to Mars' agenda.

Podkayne makes an ill-judged attempt to rescue Clark by herself and falls into the kidnappers' clutches as well -- only to find her uncle caught too. The captors' scheme is to use the children to blackmail the uncle into doing their bidding at the Luna conference. Clark quickly realizes that once Uncle Tom is released, no matter what happens, their kidnappers will have little reason to keep their prisoners alive. He is prepared, however; he engineers an escape, leaving the nuclear bomb behind to blow up the kidnappers.

Two versions of the ending

In Heinlein's original ending, Podkayne is killed. This did not please his publisher, who demanded and got a rewrite over the author's bitter objections. In a letter to Lurton Blassingame, his literary agent, Heinlein complained that it would be like "revising Romeo and Juliet to let the young lovers live happily ever after." He also declared that changing the end "isn't real life, because in real life, not everything ends happily."

In the original ending, after they escape from the kidnappers to a safe distance, Podkayne remembers that a semi-intelligent Venerian "fairy" baby has been left behind, and returns to rescue it. When the bomb that Clark leaves for the kidnappers blows up, Podkayne is killed, shielding the young fairy with her body. Clark takes over the narrative for the last chapter. The story ends with a hint of hope for him, as he admits his responsibility for what happened to Podkayne -- that he "fubbed it, mighty dry" -- then shows some human feeling by regretting his inability to cry and describes his plan to raise the fairy himself.

In the revised version, Podkayne is injured by the bomb, but not fatally. Uncle Tom, in a phone conversation with Podkayne's father, blames the parents -- especially the mother -- for neglecting the upbringing of the children. Uncle Tom feels that Clark is dangerous and maladjusted, and attributes this to the mother giving priority to her career. Clark still takes over as the narrator, and, again, regrets that Podkayne was hurt and plans to take care of the fairy, this time because Podkayne will want to see it when she is better.

The 1995 Baen edition includes both endings (which differ only on the last page), Jim Baen's own edited postlude to the story, and a collection of readers' essays giving their opinions about which ending is better. Most of these readers favored the sad ending, partly because they felt Heinlein should have been free to create his own story, and partly because they believed that the changed ending turned a tragedy into a mere adventure, and not a very well constructed one at that.

Tropes used in Podkayne of Mars include:
  • Accidental Pun: This only happens from Poddy's point of view, when "Girdie" says "Girdie must gird her loins" and start working for a living.
  • Advert-Overloaded Future: On Venus, people are constantly barraged by ads. Poddy and "Girdie" even have a hologram of a devil appear inside their taxi and try to get them to buy an addictive drink called Hi-Ho. The company that makes it pays the taxi company to force the ads on their captive customers.
  • Alternate Universe: Judging by several references and corresponding inferences, this appears to be a timeline where feminism never really took off in the mid-20th century, and hundreds of years later there has yet to be a female captain of a spacecraft (something that happened in our timeline in 1999). On the other hand, Poddy's mother is a respected engineer, so it's not entirely a male-dominated society.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Subverted -- in the end he's actually much smarter and sophisticated than his older sister (and most adults), even if he is a sociopath.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The recording Poddy was making as she wandered the Venusian outback, up until the point the bomb went off.
  • Brats with Slingshots: Clark turns a metal shoe tree into a slingshot with which he kills several people and creatures during the escape from Mrs. Grew and her staff.
  • Celeb Crush: Clark's crush on "Girdie".
  • Child Prodigy: Clark, with his IQ of 160.
  • Cool Big Sis: "Girdie" becomes this to Poddy.
  • Cosmetic Catastrophe: Poddy tries to imitate garish makeup from a magazine cover. Fortunately, "Girdie" shows her how it should be done.
  • Country Mouse: Poddy, both in her own eyes and in those of the first-class passengers on the Tricorn.
  • Diary: The book is presented as Poddy's diary, with several notes written in it by Clark, as well as an addendum by Clark at the end.
  • Enfant Terrible: Clark.
  • Evil Genius: Clark, arguably -- and it's Clark who makes the argument that he is one, debating with the reader at the end of the book whether or not he is "evil" because he understands evil in a way Poddy didn't.
  • Expy: Podkayne herself is an expy of an earlier Heinlein character "Puddin'", the lead character in some romance short stories included in Expanded Universe.
  • Fantastic Drug: "Happy Dust", which doesn't do much for humans but is highly addictive (and violence-inducing) for Venusians.
    • "Hi-Ho" probably counts, as well.
  • Fantastic Fighting Style: Poddy's mother is described as skilled in a martial art called "Kill-Quick".
    • This same martial art gets a similar reference in several other Heinlein novels, such as Citizen of the Galaxy and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. From the context, it would appear to not be an exotic martial art but instead how Heinlein refers to military hand-to-hand (in a similar context, his referent for street-fighting maneuvers is "dockside").
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Heinlein seems to have been trying to do this with Poddy, but she turned out to have too much presence and personality for it to work.
  • Gossipy Hens: Mrs. Garcia, Mrs. Grew, Mrs. Rimski and Mrs. Royer aboard the Tricorn. In at least Mrs. Grew's case, it's just a cover.
  • Hair of Gold: Poddy.
  • Hands-Off Parenting: The elder Fries.
  • Impossible Hourglass Figure: 15-year-old Poddy gives her bust size as 90 centimeters and her waist as 48 -- roughly 36 and 20 inches, respectively. She doesn't give her hip size but the passage makes it clear she's not unhappy with her appearance, so it's probably proportionate. This on someone who's 157 cm (5'2") and 49 kg (108 lbs), with "legs that are long for my height". It's no wonder Dexter Cunha ended up gravitating toward her.
  • In-Series Nickname: "Grewsome", applied to Mrs. Grew by Clark.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: Both averted, in that there are very obvious racial differences between individuals (Uncle Tom, for instance, is Maori where Poddy appears very Scandinavian), and expressed as an obvious future, at least for Mars (racists among the ship's passengers make unpleasant comments about the mixing of races on Mars, and Poddy describes herself as "colonial mongrel in ancestry").
  • Infraction Distraction: Clark makes a truly obnoxious crack about smuggling drugs onto the Tricorn as they're going through the Customs checkpoint, thus guaranteeing that the agents will wave the rest of his family through quickly so they have time to teach the smartass kid a lesson by spending the next half hour taking his luggage apart under a microscope and giving him the rubber glove treatment. Which prevents the guards from finding the tactical nuclear warhead he hid in his sister's luggage.[1]
  • The Ingenue: Poddy.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Leaving Clark his bag of "junk" after kidnapping him was a big mistake. Huge.
  • Lost Aesop: The revised ending has Uncle Tom chastise Podkayne and Clark's parents for being hands-off parents -- which wasn't set up very well (if at all) during the novel.
  • Love You and Everybody: How Clark chooses to finish the last incomplete sentence of Poddy's Apocalyptic Log.
  • Meaningful Name: It's almost certainly no coincidence that Poddy's uncle is named "Tom" -- and is brown-skinned.
  • Mega Corp: The Venus Corporation.
  • The Mistress: Mrs. Grew and Mrs. Royer maliciously speculate that this is Poddy's true relationship with Uncle Tom.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Podkayne herself, named after a (native) Martian "saint".
  • No Name Given: "Miss Girdle Fitz-Snugglie", a nickname Poddy initially uses for a famous socialite she meets on the Tricorn as a bit of private snark; however, when "Girdie" turns into the Cool Big Sis and Poddy learns that her life is far from glamour and happiness, Poddy explicitly chooses to keep using the pseudonym in order to protect "Girdie"'s privacy.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Clark does this very well, apparently considering it a necessary survival skill.
  • One Nation Under Copyright: Venus under Venus Corp.
  • Population Control: Mentioned as being necessary on Mars, but doesn't affect the story at all.
  • Precocious Crush/Puppy Love: Clark's first bout of real human emotion, if we are to trust Poddy, is when he gets a case of this around "Girdie".
  • Prince Charming: Dexter Cunha, who initially comes off as too good to be true, actually seems by the end of the book to really be that nice.
  • Revised Ending: See "Two versions of the ending," above.
  • Rip Tailoring: Poddy, free from the eye of her parents and determined to seem more cosmopolitan than her Martian upbringing, mentions altering her only party dress in the privacy of her liner cabin to look a bit more grown-up.
  • Science Marches On: Jungle Venus and Dying Mars.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Oddly enough, Poddy is occasionally given to this. For instance, when discussing her bust size, she off-handedly says "my chest is 90 [centimeters]—not all of which is rib cage, I assure you, even though we old colonial families all run to hypertrophied lung development; some of it is burgeoning secondary sex characteristic", and when the family vacation is cancelled, she initially suspects her little brother of "charlatanous machinations of malevolent legerdemain".
  • She's Got Legs: Poddy, if her self-description is accurate. "Girdie" as well.
  • Shout-Out: Inverted. Podkayne appears in Heinlein's later novel The Number of the Beast, attending the party at the end along with many other Heinlein characters from previous books.
  • Smug Snake: Mrs. Grew, once her role as the agent provocateur is revealed.
  • Society Marches On: Podkayne mentions that she wants to become the first ever female spaceship captain. Eileen Collins captained a spaceship in July 1999.
    • Averted by the culture of the Solar System, which seems very much like America in the 1950s.
    • Poddy's early assumption that the shapely "Girdie" wears a girdle; girdles have pretty much disappeared except as a joke item for the obese in the decades since the book was written. If one allows that fashion may have followed the same cycle as social mores, this may be an aversion, though.
  • Soiled Dove: Implied about "Girdie".
  • Standard Time Units: Invoked and lampshaded: Poddy gives her age and that of her brother in Martian terms. At one point she complains about the differences in length between Martian days and those on the Earth ship she travels on, and later, on arriving at Venus, makes a joke about suddenly being in her 20s -- middle age on Mars.
  • Stepford Smiler: Clark reveals at the end that this is why he didn't trust Mrs. Grew from the first -- no one trustworthy smiles as much as she did.
  • Suspended Animation: Part of the Martian child-rearing system, in which parents have their children early when they're at the best physical time to do so, but cryogenically suspend them until later in life, when they're in better financial shape to raise them.
  • Switched at "Uncorking": What happens when a nice Martian couple named Breeze decides to decant their three babies together to raise as triplets, and instead get the three remaining frozen children of the Fries (pronounced "Freeze") family...
  • Technology Marches On: An interesting near-aversion turns up as a minor plot point: A variety of instant color photography, described at least a decade before any such real technology existed, sounds almost like the old Polaroid SX-70 system, except that the development process is water-triggered.
  • Unusual Euphemism: When she learns that the family vacation has been cancelled, Poddy lets loose with a positive tirade of these in her diary, that rather than sounding furious comes across as adorably innocent:

Oh, unspeakables!
Dirty ears! Hangnails! Snel-frockey! Spit! WE AREN'T GOING!

  • Vehicular Sabotage: The first attempt (that we know of) to prevent Mars from sending a representative to the conference is to try to smuggle a bomb onto the Tricorn; this is defeated mainly because the agent doing so fell for Clark's Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • Write What You Know: As a Navy veteran, Heinlein was familiar with spending long times aboard ships.
  • Younger Than They Look: According to Dexter Cunha (and a candid photo of her taken without her knowledge), Poddy looks closer to 18 than 15 while wearing the makeup taught her by "Girdie".

Spoilers for the original ending:

  1. No. Seriously.