Judging a Book By its Covers: Podkayne of Mars

Welcome to Judging a Book By its Covers, the column which covers covers!

Book covers are a fascinating art form, full of challenges. Can you sum up a whole book in a single image? How do you balance the need to seem fresh and original, to stand out on the shelf, with the need to signpost genre and expected audience to potential buyers? Did you even crack the fucking thing open before you drew this shit? The artists we’ll be examining today have chosen many different approaches to answering these questions.

Coming up with a single representative image is especially tricky when the book itself doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that’s why the first book up is Robert A. Heinlein’s Podcayne of Mars. I first learned about this one when I saw a (circa 1990s) ad for a new edition that would let people vote on which of two endings they preferred – the one with which it was originally published or the “director’s cut” that Heinlein strongly favored – and this got my curiousity up. What was this mystery book with an ending which was apparently TOO HOT for 1963?

Blog The Chrishanger quotes the back cover of one of the paperback editions:

Tomorrow’s answer to the anti-missile-missile, Podkayne of Mars. An interplanetary bombshell who rocked the constellations when she invaded the Venus Hilton and attached the mighty mechanical men with a strange, overpowering blast of highly explosive Sex Appeal.

Holy moly! A slice of steamy erotica like this probably got the decency squad called on it! No wonder they had to make changes! Yeah, this is complete bullshit and in fact this book is about a fifteen-year-old and contains no sex (or mechanical men) at all.

Podcayne (or “Poddy”—she’s named after a Martian saint) is a teenager who lives on Mars with her scientist parents and 11-year-old genius brother, Clark. She views Clark with a kind of ooh-this-wily-little-brat, he-gets-away-with-everything big sister loving exasperation, although he’s pretty clearly an actual psychopath. Podkayne dreams of being the first woman starship pilot and goes on for a few pages about how if you pretend to be dumb boys will like you better. It may be the future, but it’s still the 1960s.

The kids are excited to join their uncle on an upcoming trip to Earth, with a stopover on Venus. As they’re boarding the ship, Clark makes a crack about smuggling drugs and gets yanked out of line for a bag (and maybe cavity) search while the rest of the family gets waved through. Podkayne and her luggage are three kilograms over the weight they’re supposed to be and she later catches Clark sneaking out of her cabin after rifling through her bags. It doesn’t take a psychopathic genius to figure out that he used her to smuggle something on board, and when she confronts him with the mysterious extra three kilos he tells her she’s getting fat. Oh, Clark! Go die in a solar flare.

Sadly, the imminent solar flare does not kill him, though everyone needs to squeeze into a radiation shelter. Podkayne spends her time in the nursery cleaning sour milk baby vomit in zero G. This awakens something in her and—could it be that maybe she doesn’t want to become a pilot after all? Maybe the true path to fulfillment lies in nurturing and motherhood? It’s a good think Podkayne likes cleaning up barf because now I’m gonna hurl too.

There are a few more shipboard hijinx. Clark continues to be a little shit, but to people who deserve it this time. And we arrive on Venus and would you believe that this book is like two-thirds over already?

Venus is a corporate libertarian hellhole with screaming ads all over everything, and Podkayne has a hell of a fun time going to casinos, flirting, and eating giant sundaes until, guess what, we’ve reached the last thirty pages or so and it’s time for the plot to start.

HERE IT GOES

The kids’ uncle is secretly a diplomat and he’s going to be attending a meeting about the fate of Mars and he brought the kids along as cover but now Clark has disappeared and he’s probably been kidnapped and then their uncle goes to find him and also gets kidnapped and Podkayne goes to find both of them and also gets kidnapped and they’re held in a jungle compound guarded by a carnivorous Venusian fairy and the kidnappers will kill the kids if their uncle doesn’t go back and vote the way they want so the kids resolve to escape and it turns out the thing Clark was smuggling was a goddamn NUCLEAR BOMB which someone gave him to bring on the plane as part of a unrelated plot to kill their uncle, and he defused it but held onto it just in case, and if all else fails they can take the kidnappers down with them, but it’s okay because he snaps the neck of the woman holding them and Podkayne grabs the gun and Clark kills the carnivorous fairy too and they run off in the jungle in separate directions just in case another conspirator comes back because he can’t chase both of them and that way one could get back to the city and get help for the other and the plan works and they’re free!

BUT

(and here comes that ending)

Mid-escape, Podkayne suddenly remembers the carnivorous fairy had a baby and makes a U-turn to go grab it so it won’t be abandoned where Clark left it lying on top of its mother’s corpse. (That fucking kid, I swear.) Except it turns out that Clark forgot to deactivate the bomb they didn’t end up needing, and Podkayne gets blown to shit and dies.

Heinlein’s editor told him he had to change it because audiences just maybe wouldn’t want a novel that was 90% about flirting, pranks, and sightseeing to end with the teenaged protagonist getting vaporized by a mini-nuke? Heinlein was insistent that it was very important to the book’s message, which was…

(Before you read further, try to guess what YOU think the moral of this story was!)

… about parental neglect, something I wouldn’t have guessed in a hundred tries. See, Podkayne and Clark’s parents were really involved in their careers and they were ignoring their kids. Apparently? It really didn’t seem like they were; the whole reason they weren’t on the trip was they were caring for month-old triplets. But the kids’ uncle calls up the parents anyway and bawls them out for being so wrapped up in themselves that their son is a psycho and their daughter is dead, oh, and also it’s ESPECIALLY bad that Podcayne’s MOTHER was career-focused because OH, TAKE A FUCKING GUESS.

Now, one might point out that, say, Unk, just whose watch did this happen on? And whose idea was it to bring the kids along as camouflage on a sensitive and dangerous diplomatic mission? And who spent tons of time with those kids without noticing that his nephew was a soulness, neck-snapping, suitcase-nuke-carrying monster? Also, even if you did have a point, maybe the “your daughter is dead” call and the “here are some criticisms of your parenting” call should have been two separate phone calls. Ya know?

Anyway, the editors made Heinlein change it and he did it in the pissiest, most half-assed way possible. Remember how in old GI Joe-type cartoons a plane would get destroyed and someone would yell from offscreen that it’s okay because they had parachutes? Kinda like that. Instead of being dead, Podcayne is just in the hospital recovering from a nuclear bomb to the face, as you do. (I guess it hit her just right.) Either way, the parents get an earful for their apparently shitty parenting and Clark resolves to honor his sister by becoming slightly less evil.

Unsurprisingly, when the people got a chance to vote they picked the mediocre book with the shocking twist ending over the mediocre book with the mediocre ending, and so it was decreed that Podkayne of Mars was officially Podkayne of All Over The Venusian Landscape. But don’t feel bad for her, she’s in Voted Out Heaven batting her eyes at Jason Todd and scarfing down handfuls of pink and purple M&Ms.

So how on Mars are you to do a cover for a book that’s mostly a leisurely, lighthearted travelogue and then takes an abrupt, awkward swerve into being a political thriller with a gruesome downer ending? Let’s find out. For the record, what we know of Podcayne’s appearance is: she’s fifteen in Earth years, thin and pretty (well, duh) and she’s blonde and has blue eyes. She and Clark are actually half-Maori, but strongly take after the Scandinavian side of their family. We don’t learn much about what their clothes look like, so the artists were left to use their imaginations with, uh, interesting results. (Be warned that one of these covers is borderline NSFW.)

THE GOOD ONES

Ace paperback edition, 1987

I think this one is my favorite. We’ve got Podcayne and Clark, looking more or less how they’re described in the book. They’ve got a lot of personality – Podkayne is confident and eager, Clark looks like he’s mulling over the right way to take over this rinky-dink burg, see? It accurately conveys that this is a science fiction book that’s mostly about kids traveling, and it doesn’t sex up Poddy. If there’s anything wrong with this one it’s that it misleads you into thinking the book is better than it is. I look at the picture above and see a story about an adventurous girl who neither gives nor blows up, and a smart-aleck kid who’s more Jason Fox than Dexter Morgan, and man, I wish I’d read that book.

Baen mass market paperback, 1995

I’m putting this up top with the other one for most of the same reasons. Poddy’s outfit is cute and practical; Clark’s ‘1970s Marvel villain’ collar is less successful. He smiles with the subdued malevolence of one who knows that this is nothing compared to what Podcayne’s going to be wearing further down the quality ladder.

Ace paperback, 2005

Case in point, I’m not sure what to make of this getup – nobody needs that many armbands, kiddo – but I like the quiet, contemplative mood. A number of the covers just sort of punted by drawing a starfield, and this one’s already outdone most of them just with its background.

Berkley mass market paperback, 1982

Putting the Venusian fairy baby on the cover was a common strategy, perhaps trying to evoke what I’ll call the Baby Yoda Effect. It’s a tiny part of the book, but pivotal, so it’s fair. I like the way this cover blends SF and fantasy eyefeels (love that distant megastructure looming over the clouds.)

HajimeMOTO SF Bunko, 2011

My Japanese is pretty hit-or-miss but the title is something like “The Girl Who Soared Through the Heavens.” I wish the picture was higher resolution because from what I can see it looks great, but it’s kind of hard to make out (I thought she was being hugged by a Claptrap-like robot at first; nope, that’s a suitcase.) The funky spaceport setting is cool and perfect for this book. Kudos to whoever was putting this much effort into releasing this story in Japan in 2011! I suspect it was a labor of love, and it’d be fun to read a re-translation back into English.

Berkely paperback, 1971

This one captures a balance of wistful and oppressive, and puts a lot more effort into the landscape of a semi-terraformed Mars than the book itself does. I love that city of bell jar domes.

THE OKAY ONES

Blackstone Audio CD, 2009

Someone really had some fun with font effects here. The brasher, computerized counterpart to the 2005 Ace edition’s ‘Poddy and porthole’ composition, this cover seems to be aiming for “sexy” and hits “kid who got into the beauty supplies” which… is actually kinda perfect? Something very much like that happens in the story when Podcayne copies a look from a Venusian fashion magazine. Was this intentional? If this was intentional, my hat is off to you.

Ace trade paperback, 2010

I don’t dislike this image but I don’t think it really works for this book. This is a cover for a book about an entrepreneur or con artist or (if you changed the ‘wanderlust’ on the side of the ship) possibly a member of the Space Police.

Avon paperback, 1968

I’m not convinced that that distant explosion is going to kill Podcayne or even put her in the hospital, but I really love that crazy corkscrew building. You’ve really got to wonder what that thing is for.

A. Mondadori, 1988

And here’s an alternate (and better) rendering of the same scene. Swankier art, more alien jungle, and it doesn’t give away what’s about to happen. I dunno about that Flash Gordon cape, though.

Robert Hale hardcover edition, 2003

The book cover equivalent of aiming for a 2.0 GPA and achieving it.

THE WEIRD ONES BUT IN A KINDA COOL WAY

J’ai Lu, 1974

This baroque production sure clues you in that you’re about to read something odd. It could be Brian Froud art for a never-made 80s fantasy film with lots of practical effects from the Creature Shop.

Urania magazine, 1963

I had no idea what this was supposed to be at first until I found another illustration from the same Italian magazine:

Urania, 1984

Oh! It’s the fairy! The fairy is described in the book as being tiny and cute, with a naturally growing tutu of green fur. Here’s another interpretation – I’m pretty sure this one came from the story’s original publication in If magazine:

Interesting how two people can be working off of the same description and one gets a pin-up girl and the other gets Cthulhu.

THE ONES THAT DIDN’T EVEN TRY

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963

This is the version I read, and yes, this is the original and the library was still holding on to a hardcover from 1963. There are a bunch of covers that are just starfields and/or generic spaceships, and this is the easily the worst of the lot.

If Science Fiction, 1962

One of the original magazine publications. Pointing out specific inaccuracies would be missing the point; this was just one of the dozens of ‘space dude and weird alien’ covers they had ready to go in a big file and has nothing to do with Podcayne. Pretty standard practice at the time. I don’t hate it for what it is, though; this could have been the box art for one of those early Mega Man games from before Capcom realized they should probably tell their artists what Mega Man looked like.

Wales, 2005

Meanwhile, fifty years later, Czech publisher Wales just horked the cover art from Heinlein’s (unrelated) Friday and called it a day.

THE WORST ONE

New English Library, 1974

NO. This is not an outfit, this is the setup to an Oglaf punchline. The hair is wrong, the background looks like it’s from your great uncle’s painting of some ducks he shot, and why is she cradling a random lavender orb? Even among the thirst covers this is a low. Ugh.

And that’s some (not even half) of the covers out there for Podcayne of Mars! What did YOU think of them? And what cover-rich book should I cover next?