Title: Podkayne of Mars
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science fiction, YA.
Original serialization: Worlds of If, November 1962, January 1963, March 1963.
Hardcover Publication date: 1963

Podkayne of Mars is the diary of a fifteen year old girl, Podkayne "Poddy" Fries, who was born and raised on Mars. She is very chatty (at least on paper), and does sound quite a bit like a fifteen year old girl, which is impressive for a 50-year-old male author. She is well educated and her primary goal in life to be a spaceship pilot, which gives Heinlein a chance to stick in a lot of hard science fiction, facts about Mars, its moons, and space flight in general.

In addition to her parents, who don't have a very large part in the story, we meet her genius/psychopathic younger brother, of whom she is given the impossible task of watching over, and her powerful uncle, who has an important but undefined role in Martian politics. The three of them set out to travel to Earth by way of Venus, and various adventures ensue.

This is pretty standard as far as Heinlein's books go; engaging, but with a somewhat lumpy storyline. Good hard science fiction with lots of interesting side adventures. We get to see his traditional Mars (with the ancient Martians et al), and the Venus Corporation. There are some good political ponderings, but not much in the way of the classic Heinleinian libertarianism just yet.

This book is on the borderline between Heinlein's juvenile stories and his later adult works. This book, along with Starship Troopers caused some discord with his publishers, G. P. Putnam's Sons, who were expecting something appropriate for his younger fans. Podkayne was salvaged by the publishers by the simple action of completely changing the ending (more on this below -- after the spoiler warning, for obvious reasons).

One downside to this book, and a reason that it may not appeal to the Young Adults of today, is that Heinlein is writing from a full-blown 1950s moral and cultural standpoint. Although the setting is clearly far in the future, sexism is still deeply embedded in the culture. This may have been the way things were back in 1962, but it sounds pretty stupid today. (On the plus side, Heinlein comes out strong against racism.) Aside from that the 1950s aren't too extremely intrusive, although the language is sometimes outdated.

Spoilers: I am now going to tell you all about the ending. ALL ABOUT IT!

One of the interesting things about this book is that it has (at least) two endings, radically different from each other. In the original manuscript, Heinlein killed off his main character, and worse, told us about her death through a second-hand account. Heinlein stands by his ending, claiming that is necessary to drive home one of the major themes of the story, that bad parenting has serious consequences. (In his typically sexist way, he blames this bad parenting primarily on the mother, whom he thinks should have given up her career to spend more time with the children).

The book was originally published with an alternate ending -- one in which Podkayne lives, although is severely injured. This ending may actually be better not only because it is happier, but because it forces Heinlein to extend the story a little more to drive his point home. In the revised ending the 'bad parenting will tell' theme is made a little more explicit.

In 1993 Baen printed an edition containing both endings, and offered cash rewards for essays presenting arguments defending each ending. The response was exceptional, not only in number but in quality. While they were expecting to pick the ten best essays to reward and publish, in the end they could only narrow the field down to 25 deserving essays, all of which they rewarded and published in the 1995 edition.

These essays are very well written, and much more interesting than they sound. Both endings are well defended for a variety of reasons, and the essays contain some of the most entertaining literary criticism that most of us will ever read. Neither ending is chosen as the ultimate winner, but a third option is presented -- an edit of the extended Podkayne-lives version modified so that we get the extended dialog, but still have the educational experience of seeing Podkayne die.

(I think she should live.)

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