Book Review: Red Planet (Russ Winterbotham, 1962)


Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham, is in many ways typical of science fiction in the decade leading up to the Moon landing, but its theme of humans in space being little more than beasts and its charmingly goofy aliens have earned it a place in my jaded little heart.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The events of the novel are narrated by Bill Drake, who is one of five astronauts already selected for the historic mission to Mars. He begins the tale as the final candidate for the sixth position completes his final test. All he has to do is land, and he’ll have earned his way onto the crew of the Jehad (the rather unfortunate name of the ship designed for the mission).

To everyone’s dismay, the test goes horribly wrong. The candidate sustains a serious injury and, as the Jehad is to launch within days, cannot join the crew. Although the mission could be accomplished by a crew of five, the commander (Dr. Spartan) insists that they need a full complement. There is, however, no time to fully train another astronaut for the mission. Unless…

There is one other person who is fully qualified, who has taken every test and worked closely with Dr. Spartan on the project. The only hitch is that this astronaut is… A WOMAN! Public sentiment would be very much against sending an unmarried woman on a two-year mission with five men, we’re told, and the space program can’t afford to lose popular support.

The solution is gloriously absurd. If she marries a member of the crew, then somehow everything is copacetic. With her limited selection of grooms, Gail Loring chooses Bill Drake. She makes it clear that this is a marriage only for creating the illusion of respectability, which does nothing to dim Drake’s hopes of making the union real.

The rest of the story largely concerns the struggle for “ownership” of Gail Loring. There’s no other way to put it. The men of the Jehad are incapable of sharing space with a woman without fighting over her.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Of the five men, only three join the contest to try to “win” Loring — one is too perfect and noble to do anything untoward and another too craven. Drake, of course, tells us that he’s only trying to protect her from the others.

There are a lot of ways to die in space, and life requires vigilance and discipline. Some of the best speculative fiction from the mid-1900s used this struggle against the extreme environment as their central plots. Teamwork and ingenuity are emphasized as the key to survival. Where this book works best is in reversing this formula. One of the “suitors” begins to use the perils of the journey to eliminate his rivals. The dangers of the expedition are amplified by the division and mounting paranoia of the crew.

Then they land on Mars, and the plot takes a detour to crazy town.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Like many since H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, Winterbotham portrays Mars as a world past its prime. Life can be sustained only at the bottom of deep channels, and it is deadly to outsiders; ruined cities silently crumble amid the wastelands of the surface; and the fallen descendents of the builders of Martian culture are as aggressive as they are incredibly silly.

Picture a green ball, about the size of the bottom tier of a snowman. Add spindly limbs and a growth on top that resembles a beanie with a radar dish. Picture rows of them holding hands, sharing their generated electricity to produce a lightning bolt. Try to take the threat seriously.

With this story, Winterbotham managed to combine all of the best and worst of the science fiction of the time. The admission of female accomplishment while maintaining repressive sexual politics is all too common for the era. The exceptional woman can be equal, but she really just wants to make house. Racial equality is mentioned, but the scope of it is limited to white Europeans. It’s a frustrating mix of nascent ideas and recycled plot points — a weird specimen of pulp adventure that fascinates me with its contradictions.

I can’t say I recommend Red Planet, but if you happen to stumble on a copy, have a taste for the less conventionally good, and can put up with a work so rooted in its time, you could pass a lazy afternoon with it.

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