Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Astounding Stories #14: The Heinlein Juveniles

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Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The realization, he says, is that along with being a great movie star and a beloved style icon, Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a comparable realization, I’ve decided, that has to be reached about Robert A. Heinlein. As well as being a cult figure, the first science fiction writer to break through to the mainstream, and an object of veneration for countless fans, he was also the best writer the genre ever produced. And believe me, I know how boring this sounds. Frankly, I’d love to come up with a contrarian stance—that Heinlein is interesting primarily for his historical significance, that he’s revered mostly out of nostalgia, or that a handful of masterpieces allow us to overlook the fact that much of what he wrote was routine. But none of this is true. Of all the science fiction writers I’ve read, Heinlein is consistently the most compelling author, the most interesting thinker, and the most versatile artist. He’s the one writer of his era who could seemingly do anything, and who actually did it over an extended period of time for a big popular audience: great ideas, meticulously developed science and technology, worldbuilding, plot, action, character, philosophy, style. Heinlein was given what the sports writer Bill Simmons likes to call the “everything” package at the car wash, and he more than lived up to it. To a very real extent, Heinlein was the golden age of science fiction, and it’s hard to imagine John W. Campbell doing any of it without him.

This doesn’t mean that Heinlein was a perfect writer. For all the smart, tough, attractive women in his fiction, most of them ultimately come across as desirable fantasy objects for a certain kind of man. (The one really likable, compelling female character in his work, aside from Podkayne of Mars and Hazel Stone in The Rolling Stones, is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”) He never entirely lost the didactic streak that undermines his first unpublished novel, For Us, the Living, even if he advanced so rapidly in craft that it didn’t really matter. His late novels are a mixed bag, but they were never anything less than intensely personal, and they could hardly have been written by anyone else. And it goes without saying—or maybe it doesn’t—that merely because Heinlein was the strongest writer, sentence by sentence, in the history of the genre, it doesn’t mean that he was right about everything, or even about most things. As you read his stories, you find yourself nodding in agreement, and it’s only later that you start to raise reasonable objections. A novel like Starship Troopers is so cunningly constructed around its central argument that it can take you a while to realize how completely the author has stacked the deck. Heinlein liked to say that he was only trying to inspire people to ask the right questions, which isn’t untrue, although it seems a little disingenuous. He’s the most interesting case study I know on the difference between artistic mastery and good advice. They aren’t always the same thing, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, either: they coincide some but not all of the time, which is why the reader has to pay close attention.

Tunnel in the Sky

If I wanted to give a new reader a showcase for Heinlein’s talents, I’d probably start with his early, wonderful novella “If This Goes On—,” but I’d also consider recommending a few of his juveniles. These are the twelve books that he wrote for Scribner’s between 1947 and 1958, and although they were originally intended for young adults, they exemplify most of his strengths and almost none of his flaws. Heinlein explicitly conceived them as an updated version of the Horatio Alger books that he had loved growing up, and his pedagogical tendencies are both fully indulged and totally charming. The moral precepts he’s trying to inculcate couldn’t be more straightforward: “Hard work is rewarded.” “Studying hard pays off, in happiness as well as in money.” “Stand on your own feet.” And because he saw a strong technical education as the royal road to the stars, these books amount to the best propaganda imaginable for a career in the sciences. They’re filled with the kind of lectures—how a spaceship works, the physics of zero gravity, the design of a spacesuit—that most writers are rightly discouraged from including, but which many readers like me secretly crave, and Heinlein serves them up with great style. There’s no question that they inspired countless young people to go into science and engineering, which makes me regret the fact that he deliberately excluded half of his potential audience:

I established what has continued to be my rule for writing for youngsters. Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts. To this I added subordinate rules: No real love interest and female characters should only be walk-ons.

You could justify this by saying that these books were marketed by the publisher toward boys anyway, and that most of them wouldn’t have patience for girls. But it still feels like a lost opportunity.

Of all the juveniles, my favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, which starts out by anticipating The Hunger Games or even Battle Royale, moves into Lord of the Flies territory, and winds up as something unforgettably strange and moving. But they’re all worth reading, except maybe the aptly titled Between Planets, a transitional book that plays like Asimov at his most indifferent. Rocket Ship Galileo sends Tom Swift to the moon; Space Cadet looks ahead to Starship Troopers, but also Ender’s Game; Red Planet is terrifically exciting, and provides the first instance in which the adults take over the story from the kids; Farmer in the Sky is flawless hard science fiction; Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones come the closest to the ideal of a boy’s book of adventure in space; The Star Beast is uneven, but appealingly peculiar; Time for the Stars is a great time-dilation story; Citizen of the Galaxy has a lot of fun updating Kipling’s Kim for the future; and Have Space Suit—Will Travel begins as a lark, then grows gradually deeper and more resonant, to the point where I’m halfway convinced that it was one of Madeline L’Engle’s primary inspirations for A Wrinkle in Time. Heinlein’s uncanny ability to follow his imagination into odd byways without losing momentum, which is possibly his most impressive trick, is never on greater display than it is here. The best sequences, as in Starship Troopers, often take place in what amounts to basic training, and many of the juveniles fall into the same curious pattern: after a hundred fascinating pages about the hero’s education, there’s a sense of loss when the actual plot kicks in, as when Rocket Ship Galileo settles for a third act about Nazis in space. We’ve seen most of these crises before, and other writers, as well as Heinlein, will give us plenty of space battles and close escapes. But we’ve never been educated this well.

2 Responses

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  1. There’s a very interesting question here; if a book is entertaining, even inspiring, but contains the casual racism and sexism of it’s time (and times have changed, somewhat at least), should we give it to young people today? Heinlein –and most if not all others of the time — give the impression that science is a career for boys and backing them up is the only role for the girls. I would not want my daughter to read some of his books until she was a (highly) critical reader. It’s a long time since I read Red Planet — is there a bit of avuncular racism in there? I can’t recall. And if we can’t give it to young people today, then no matter how compelling, inspiring, line-by-line readable it is, it has to be treated for its ‘historical significance’ because it is no longer a recommendable book (at least for its original purpose).

    The only point you make I would take issue with is Heinlein’s breadth. I do not think he was broad. The same libertarian idea(l)s underpin all his work, his narrative devices are essentially conventional, even when his plots were not — okay, not entirely; I’ve ploughed through Time Enough for Love and it’s bits and pieces. He got on top of his didacticism until Starship Troopers (in which it is strong but overwhelmed by the propulsive narrative and the apparent seamlessness of the ‘logic’), and then it leaked out more and more, but I think it was always there. Of big name US authors I would rate Silverberg (and you always have to say ‘at his best’ because he produced so much ‘product’ early on) as one of the most flexible. But I suspect I have missed your point.


    August 6, 2016 at 7:05 am

  2. I think Heinlein’s versatility comes through most clearly in his short fiction, although I might be biased here, because I just swallowed all of it in one big gulp over the last year or so. Just to pick a few titles at random: the author who wrote “If This Goes On—,” “By His Bootstraps,” “Beyond This Horizon,” “And He Built a Crooked House,” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” along with Farmer in the Sky, The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers, and your pick of the later novels could clearly do just about anything, for better or worse. And I still think that his ability to balance momentum with digression, which you’ve mentioned before, is the best trick ever. If you can do that, you can get away with pretty much everything else.

    Which isn’t to say that Heinlein isn’t a fiendishly complicated figure. I’m still trying to work through my own feelings about him, which is why I haven’t gone into some of the issues you’ve mentioned above.


    August 6, 2016 at 7:41 am

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