Sunday, July 7, 2019

Birthday Review: Capsules on some of Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles

Birthday Review: Capsules on some of Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles

Robert Heinlein was born 112 years ago today, in my state (Missouri.) A couple of decades ago I decided to reread (or, in many cases, read for the first time) all his so-called "juveniles". I found that effort quite rewarding -- I think they held up very well. So, here's a selection of what I wrote back then -- all very short looks -- about some of those juveniles (I didn't manage to write about all of them.) I will say, in summary sort of, that my favorite on that reread was Citizen of the Galaxy.

Let me add, while I'm here, a strong recommendation for Farah Mendlesohn's The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, a critical survey of all of his work. Farah treats his writing from the perspective of multiple different themes, so that she revisits different stories multiple times. Her views strike me as very intelligent, very provocative. She provides a necessary corrective to both his critics on the left, and his adulators on the right. For me, she was particularly useful on the late novels, acknowledging their weaknesses but sensibly highlighting both what some of them did right (fitfully), and, more importantly, illuminating how the thematic aspects of the late novels reflect his lifelong concerns. Definitely the best book about science fiction I've read in 2019.

Rocket Ship Galileo

The first, and regarded by many as the worst, of RAH's juveniles.  I can see why, but it's still pretty enjoyable.  Some far-fetched stuff, like the spaceship in a back yard business (and the estimate of what R&D for the first moon flight would cost: 1.5 million dollars), also the ancient race on the moon thing. Not to mention Nazis.  But it's still a good read.

Between Planets

A half-Venusian, half-Earthling boy gets caught up in the Venusian revolution. Enjoyable.  As with so much Heinlein (or, really SF of that time period!), the ending is seriously rushed.

Red Planet

A young man and his semi-intelligent Martian "pet" go to the "Company" school, and discover that the "Company" doesn't really have the best interests of the colonists at heart. One of many RAH depictions of Mars, this one seems more Leigh Brackett-like than the others. One of the better plotted juveniles, I think. I liked this quite a lot, really.

Space Cadet

A boy joins the Space Patrol, and his experiences as a "Cadet" are detailed.  As a novel, rather episodic. But generally fun, and with plenty of Heinleinian philosophy underlying his concept of the duties of the Space Patrol. (Is the Mars briefly mentioned in this one the same as the Mars of Red Planet? It can't be exactly the same, because the political situation seems very different.  But his (very brief) description of the Martians seemed similar.)

Tunnel in the Sky 

This features a group of students sent through a matter transmitter gate to a frontier planet for a "survival test". But the gate collapses, and they are marooned there. To an extent, it's like a response to Lord of the Flies. It's a pretty good story, structured better than many of RAH's novels.  It also features one of his black heroes, though the evidence for that is vague (probably on purpose).  The awful Darrell Sweet cover muffs it, of course.

Starman Jones

I think this one of the best in the series.  This features a teenage boy who stows away on board a starship, and works his way from stable boy to Captain.  It's episodic, like many of these books, but very enjoyable.  The depiction of the use of computers in navigation is, well, interesting (says someone who writes navigation software).  Both books share the odd feature of most of Heinlein's juveniles, the shying away from love interests.  Obvious love interest candidates are dangled before the reader, but nothing ever happens (to his protagonists, that is).  Even when his protagonists, in the juveniles, do marry, it's after oddly truncated romances: see Time for the Stars for a perfect example.

Another interesting feature of the juveniles is the range, throughout the books, of future Earth societies depicted.  Heinlein doesn't copy himself at all, I think, in this area.  The details are rarely foregrounded, but the background hints are neat.

Time for the Stars 

An odd duck, really.  Save maybe for the revised version of Podkayne of Mars, rather the saddest of the juvies (that I've read).  It's uneven, but some of what RAH is trying to pull off here is very ambitious.  The careful contrast of the characters of Tom and Pat makes this much more a novel of character than usual for Heinlein.  I don't think he quite succeeds, but still a very worthwhile effort.  (The above is probably gibberish to someone not familiar with the plot of Time for the Stars: basically, the central conceit is that some identical twins (and occasionally some other people) have telepathic links, which transmit at near infinite speed.  This makes them naturals for communication pairs, one to accompany a slower than light starship to new planets, the other to stay at home and receive transmissions.  Tom and Pat are one such pair: the further twist, of course, is time dilation, so that the twin who travels with the starship ages very little, while the other twin grows old.  That's pretty much the whole story, though RAH includes plenty of action (and tragedy), and even a non-convincing love affair at the end.)

Citizen of the Galaxy

Citizen is very enjoyable, the story of Thorby, a slave who is bought by an old beggar who turns out to be much more than it seems: after the old man’s death, Thorby spends some time with the Free Traders, a fascinatingly sketched spaceship based society, before eventually finding his true family, which naturally enough is a fabulously rich and powerful clan on Earth.  It’s a fun read, with some very interesting sociological speculation: the plot is a bit coincidence-driven, however, and things come too easily to Thorby (by which I don't mean he doesn't face much hardship and difficulty: he does, but (especially right at the end) he seems almost magically talented enough in just the right areas to succeed against significant odds.)

Have Space Suit, Will Travel

High school kid wins a derelict spacesuit in a contest, refurbishes it, and ends up kidnapped by aliens, taken to the moon and points beyond, and eventually facing a crisis which may mean the end of humanity. And good solid Heinleinish fun/instruction along the way. Also features one of his best heroines.


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  2. It's fun (and sometimes depressing) to revisit reading from my youth. My adult sensibilities read the stories in a completely different way. I miss the total immersion of discovering Heinlein when I was ten, when the printed words faded away and I swam in the story. I feel the same way about Edgar Rice Burroughs, and all the Doc Savage books. I wish I could read that way now.

  3. I've been rereading the Heinlein juveniles at a one a week pace and posting plot and brief opinion, but yours beat mine with a stick. I agree with your opinions on them, and unlike the above commenter, I am enjoying the books.