Notes and Quotes: Robert A. Heinlein’s BETWEEN PLANETS

This is the fifth of Heinlein’s so-called “juveniles,” what would be called YA (young adult) books today, that Heinlein published from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I posted about the second of them, SPACE CADET, here last year, but have been negligent about the others. It wasn’t until rereading these books (there are 13 or 14 of them) in chronological order in recent months that I noticed they proceed in outward progression from Earth. The first half are set on Earth and the Moon, then in interplanetary space, then Mars, then Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, and then, with this book, Earth, a large space station orbiting Earth, Venus (for most of the book), and finally Mars. The latter books are mostly set in interstellar space, i.e. planets in other solar system, except for the last one, PODKYANE OF MARS, as the title indicates.

I remember especially liking BETWEEN PLANETS when I first read these books back in the 1970s, though I don’t remember why (maybe because of the secret agent spy angle concerning that ring? Or more likely just the moving variety of settings: Earth, space station, etc.). It’s a fine book, as most of them are. Heinlein’s innate wisdom and insights are on his usual display.

When I decided to reread this book a few months ago, I checked Amazon for any recent trade paperback edition, and found none. So in the photo is the 1970s era Ace paperback, with a really ugly cover, that I first read; and 2000s-era book club omnibus including this novel and three others. I read the latter; page references are to that.


In a future with human settlers on Venus and Mars, a young man with loyalties to multiple planets becomes a pawn in an erupting planetary war, as he unknowingly carries a secret of ancient Martian science to his parents on Mars.


Another fine YA novel. Its depictions of Venus (swampy) and Mars (canals) were traditional for its era. There are imaginative ideas about the intelligent creatures who inhabit them (Venerian dragons, with an ancient hierarchical system). Savvy insights into politics, revolutions, and history. And a plot that culminates with a technological, conceptual breakthrough.


  • Don Harvey, a teenager schooling at a horse ranch on Earth, gets a message from his parents, living on Mars, to take passage there immediately. The context is that Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars form some kind of interplanetary union that is threatening to break apart. Don’s loyalties are suspect because he was born in transit (on a spaceship between Earth and Venus), lived on Venus for a time, is now living on Earth, and whose parents are on Mars, though Don has never been there.
  • Don transports to Chicago and checks in at the spaceport, then, as instructed, looks up “Uncle Dudley,” Dr. Jefferson. They meet for dinner, and Dr. Jefferson is greatly concerned about a package that Don needs to take to Mars, but which hasn’t been delivered yet. The lights go out in the restaurant (is it a drill? or an attack?); the two escape through the darkness; agents await them at Dr. Jefferson’s apartment and threaten to torture Don unless he talks. The agents decide he’s potentially disloyal and that he should leave at once.
  • The mysterious package is delivered – a cheap ring in a box with wrapping paper. In the morning Don boards a ship for Circum-Terra, a navigation and communications space station hub, meeting along the way a Venerian (the dragon-like creature depicted on the paperback cover above) named Sir Isaac Newton.
  • At Circum-Terra men in uniform announce that Venus is taking over the station, that all of them will be returned to Earth, and that no ship is going to Mars. Don protests to the CO, who realizes Don is a “displaced person” (having been born in transit), but if he doesn’t want to return to Earth, he’ll be put on a ship to Venus. So he boards the Nautilus, for Venus; as it pulls away, the station is blown up. And he later learns the ship returning to Earth was blown up too.
  • Eventually the Nautilis arrives at Venus, and Don arrives in New London. (This Venus is the traditional cloud- and -fog shrouded swamp land, but otherwise livable by humans.) Through all this Don has managed to keep the cheap ring. He meets various people, some shady, some generous, and gets a job at a Cantonese restaurant washing dishes.
  • Preparing for war, the Venusian locals pass a draft. Don volunteers. The Federation (Earth) attacks, destroying ships in orbit of Venus. Soldiers land, killing some people, rounding up others into prison camps. Don is found and interrogated about the ring, where is it? (Don has given it to a local for safekeeping.) A sympathetic guard lets him escape the prison camp.
  • Don escapes pursuit as he wades or swims through the Venusian swamps. He comes to a remote farm fortunately run by a Venus Republic soldier. Again Don asks to join the forces, and is sworn in. Over the next weeks he learns to be a guerilla. Then, given his ability to communicate with the dragons, he’s summoned for a special assignment, and hiked 300 km to a contingent of dragons, with Sir Isaac in the middle.
  • With the dragons is a human, Phipps, and a Martian, Malath. Phipps wants the ring! Don obstinately wants an explanation. Phipps tells him there’s an “Organization” of scientists on the Earth and other planets who have decided the ancient Martian language enough to recover their physics, that would enable ships to travel between the planets in days (rather than months), and maybe even move planets.
  • The local girl Don left the ring with just happens to be there with the dragon contingent. Trusting Sir Isaac, whose language does not allow him to tell falsehoods, Don turns over the ring.
  • The ring is taken to a lab where a tiny wire is extracted, and with a second wire, “played” to hear a voice recite topics of Martian physics.
  • They have 39 days before Federation ships will reach Mars (threatening Don’s parents!). The Venusians apply the ancient Martian knowledge to build an actual ship. Don, sidelined and bored, contemplates escape, but is discovered, and offered a spot on the ship.
  • The ship is brought to the surface, lifts off, and heads out at 20G, without anyone feeling it inside. They pass through a “discontinuity” of space, unable to see the stars. Don ponders his future: he’ll never settle on Venus, or Mars. Space is his home.
  • The ship emerges at Mars (with again the traditional “canali” visible from orbit), is challenged by Federation ships, and destroys them. Don anticipates seeing his parents.

Comments and Quotes

  • At the very opening, Don rides a horse, in the hills of New Mexico, and his phone rings. “Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking” he answers.
  • Among Don’s possessions, as he packs, is a slide rule. (Heinlein anticipated mobile phones, but not calculators.)
  • The Venerians speak a whistling language, which Don knows, though Sir Isaac uses a voder to translate his speech to English. The Venerians part by saying “May you die pleasantly.” Sir Isaac turns out to be very high-statused, a “child of the egg.”
  • Dr. Jefferson’s conversation at dinner includes fascinating cosmological speculation, which 70 years on is still plausible:
  • Studied any mathematical philosophy, Don? Familiar with infinite universe sheafs and open-ended postulate systems? … Simple idea and very tempting. The notion that everything is possible—and I mean everything—and everything has happened. *Everything*. One universe in which you accepted that wine and got drunk as a skunk. Another in which the fifth planet never broke up. Another in which atomic power and nuclear weapons are as impossible as our ancestors thought they were.

  • Along with the notion that the asteroid belt was a planet that blew up, Dr. J speculates about settling other planets by starship, or moving planets within the solar system. (Was this an inspiration for Greg Bear’s MOVING MARS?) p141: “the theoretical ground-work for new advances in physics had been worked out on Mars, spurred on by certain mystifying records of the First Empire—that almost mythical earlier epoch when the solar system had been one political unit.”
  • A sergeant on the ship to Venus talks to Don about the history of rebellions, the motivations on each side, and Don then reflects on the need to belong, as he contemplates enlisting:
  • Enlisting held another attraction: it would give pattern to his life. He was beginning to feel the basic, gnawing tragedy of the wartime displaced person—the loss of roots. Man needs freedom, but few men are so strong as to be happy with complete freedom. A man needs to be part of a group, with accepted and respected relationships. Some men join foreign legions for adventure; still more swear on a bit of paper in order to acquire a framework of duties and obligations, customs and taboos, a time to work and a time to loaf, a comrade to dispute with and a sergeant to hate—in short, to *belong*.

  • As always, Heinlein is a savvy student of human nature.
  • The dynamics of history, p153. Phipps, conversing with Don:
  • Mr. Harvey, have you given any thought to what sort of a world we will have when this is over? …Any government that gets to be too big and too successful gets to be a nuisance. The Federation got that way—it started out decently enough—and now it has to be trimmed down to size. So that the citizens can enjoy some ‘looseness.’ …What’s right for dragons is not right for us. Anyhow, families can be just as oppressive as government—take a look at the youngsters around here; five hundred years or so to look forward to before they can sneeze without permission. I asked your opinion because I don’t know the answer myself—and I’ve studied the dynamics of history longer than you’ve been alive.

  • Finally, I’ll note that the novel cites, on its almost last page, the theta/phi coordinates that I had never heard of until reading science fiction novels.
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