In my recent blog post about Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands of Mars I mention how I found that book in a bargain bookshop in my hometown of Gothenburg around 1980. That bookshop — long since gone and I have forgotten its name, even though I remember its interiors quite well — carried for a while a large selection of classical SF titles from a cheap British paperback publisher (the shoddy proof-reading is ample evidence for its cheapness). I bought a score or more books there during a warm summer, mostly Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein works from the 1950s. Some still remain in my bookshelves, even though I am no longer the youngster for which they were intended. The nature of quality is sometimes hard to pin down, but stories you don’t want to get rid of 30 years later ought to possess it in some regard.
An introductory digression: “The Vietnam War” — when the contemporary reader hears that phrase, she will most likely think of the American intervention in Indochina 1965-73, portrayed in movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. But this was actually the second Vietnam War. The first Vietnam War was fought 1946-54 between the French, who had ruled Indochina as colonial overlords since the late 19th century, and Viet Minh, a communist movement supported by Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was as dreadful a war as the following one and France eventually failed to impose its political will on Vietnam. (Unfortunately the United States did not learn much from the French defeat and therefore repeated many of its mistakes 15-20 years later.)
Back to the main subject: One of the books I picked up at that bookshop was Robert Heinlein’s Between Planets, first published in 1951. It is a fast-paced adventure, in which teenager Don Harvey gets unwillingly embroiled in an interplanetary conflict a century or so in the future. An oppressive global Earth government, “The Federation”, has established colonial domains on parts of a habitable Venus that is covered by jungles and swamps. These settlements supply raw materials in the traditional center-periphery colonial trade patterns and their inhabitants of course hate being exploited. There are several early references to censorship, regional unrest and police-state surveillance, so the reader quickly understands that the rulers are an unpleasant lot, even though the regime is never described in detail.
Due to interplanetary political developments, Don, a former Venus resident carrying a surreptitious object of high intelligence value, leaves Earth for Mars, but ends up on Venus because of the unpredictability of war (it makes sense in context). On the way, he befriends a “pseudo-dragon” (a non-human Venusian native) thanks to his knowledge of their whistle-language and then he starts a new life in the human rebels’ capital. Many complications ensue. Great fun to read when you are a teenager.
When I re-read the book after my university graduation in the mid-1980s, I saw two historical parallels. I do not claim to know what Heinlein thought when he wrote the story, but he plays a very obvious “1776” historical card — spotted in phrases like “taxation without representation” — in the rhetoric of the human Venusian rebels. But their revolt does not resemble the actions of the Massachusetts minutemen of 1776.
The Viet Minh used 1776 rhetoric, too, when they declared independence from France at the collapse of the Japanese occupation in 1945. They appealed with some success to the US for assistance in their anti-colonial struggle. The French government disagreed and expelled the American agents in Hanoi; its ensuing attempts to reimpose colonial rule quickly ignited a long war.
In Between Planets the human Venusians ends up fighting a jungle guerrilla war against a military expeditionary force sent from Earth to “restore order”. They adopt a Mao-style strategy, moving among the civilian population “like fish in the water” while maintaining good relations with the amphibious pseudo-dragons, who are neutral in the war because they are too alien to be a part of it. Soon the conflict becomes a Vietnam-style quagmire. The soldiers from Earth fail to understand local customs and therefore they time and time again offend the pseudo-dragons, making them more and more sympathetic to the human rebels. And it is hard for a regular army to pin down guerrillas sneaking through jungle and fog.
The war quickly turns into a series of raids, search-and-destroy missions, etc, in a fluid combat zone without front lines. It is never made clear how the rebels organize themselves politically during this phase, because all events are seen through the eyes of Don Harvey, a simple soldier and human-dragon interpreter. But the story hints at the need for a sturdy organization if the rebels are to stand up to the invaders. And the Viet Minh pulled off that stunt during relentless French pounding in the late 1940s. The pseudo-dragons play partially the same role as China, e.g. by providing safe havens for the rebels in places where the Federal army will not go for political reasons.
The story has a non-Vietnam ending, though (it was written before the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu). A poor one, too: the classical “the conjurer pulls a white rabbit out of the hat”. Heinlein makes it too easy for the Venusian rebels. But this is a story for teenagers, so there is perhaps no reason to make matters complicated. The Vietnamese faced a far trickier situation in 1955 when the humiliated French departed. And the frequent atrocities by all participants in terrestrial anti-colonial wars after 1945 — e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia, Angola, Portuguese Guinea — are not even hinted at.
The technology of the story is atomretro for a 21st-century reader: interplanetary spaceships in Hohmann orbits, nuclear weapons (used a few times during the Venusian rebellion, though not against civilians), pre-transistor electronics, ray guns, almost-Wild-West-tech pioneer cities on Venus (e.g. with electricity but without cars), primitive cellphones (one appears already on page 1 to set the tone of the story). So for you and me this is an alternate history, in which humanity’s development took a different course around 1946.
Mars appears peripherally in the story, described in the traditional deserts-and-ruins manner. I would have loved to see more of that world, but Heinlein never revisited this particular timeline.
I like Between Planets because of its vivid description of a retro-futuristic adventurous solar system that ought to exist. Heinlein portrays unfamiliar societies in crisp paragraphs that evoke the sounds, tastes and smells of, for instance, a rough swamp city under the eternal cloud cover of a tropical Venus. The aliens are credible, too: tough fellows with arcane customs and a century-long history of interacting with those quarrelsome newcomers from the third planet. Humans play carefully around pseudo-dragons, because everybody know that they “own the place”.