Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books: Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

Reputations accrete in funny ways, and often we end up with a mental picture of a person or his work that's less than accurate. Take Robert A. Heinlein for example, the so-called dean of science fiction writers. Though Heinlein's career spanned nearly half a century, most folks today know him for the militaristic Starship Troopers, whose characters blasted not only intergalactic arachnids but Marxism as well. But theme-heavy SF doesn't compose the entirety of his oeuvre. Indeed, most everyone except his devotees seems to have forgotten that Heinlein began his career by writing juvenile fiction, a good example of which is his farmer-turned-spaceman adventure Starman Jones.

Ever since he was a child, Max Jones has yearned to go into space. His uncle, a space navigator (or astrogator, as they're called), used to regale him with stories of interstellar travel and let him peruse his manuals, thick compendiums stuffed with calculations used to guide spaceships through charted territories. But he had little hope of getting into the astrogator guild. After his father died, Max ended up working the family farm day in and day out, which left little time for anything but dreaming. Then one day Max's mother showed up with an unwelcome surprise -- a new husband, one Biff Montgomery, a man whose sole achievement lay in avoiding honest work like the plague. Now Max has to discover if he can break into a guild or, barring that, an actual ship. Apprentice or stowaway, either option sounds fine to Max. With Biff in the picture, it's off-world or bust.

There's plenty in Starman Jones that hasn't aged well. I had to suppress a smile when reading about Max cooking up biscuits and ham at his farm on one page and then calculating inverse cubes on his slide rule the next. Anachronisms abound, as one could rightly expect from a book coming out of the golden age of science fiction. But if you look past the outdated stuff, you'll find a novel with surprisingly strong bones. Heinlein's characterizations are quite deft, from a mysterious interloper who may or may not have a checkered military past to a headstrong ambassador's daughter with more gumption and savvy than is immediately apparent. And the action picks up nicely once Max makes it into the void. (Honestly, with the word "starman" in the title, was there ever any doubt?) Jones may be a little creaky in the joints, but it still gets along pretty well in the end.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
makelessnoise; Hat Tip: Von Lehe Creative)


Evan Lewis said...

I'm surprised I don't remember this one. I was sucking up all the science fiction I could find in my grade school and junior high libraries.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I don't think than Heinlein's juveniles got all that much attention. They were pretty much all written at the very beginning of his career.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Have you read The Star Beast? It's probably my favorite of his juvenalia--a rather unexpectedly hilarious yarn about a boy and his "pet," which turns out to be a member of an ancient race that may decide to blow up Earth.

And then there's always The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which isn't juvenalia but is more narrative-driven and less ramblingly philosophical than most of his middle or late works.

However...I still think, as good as his stories are, nothing can equal his titles. For Us, The Living; Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; Stranger in a Strange Land; Beyond This Horizon; Tunnel in the Sky; The Cat Who Walks Through Walls; To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

Just reading them sends shivers down my spine and makes me want to grab a spacesuit and ray-gun, and go see what's Out There to be found.

Loren Eaton said...

Heinlein really does have great titles, doesn't he? The only thing I've read from him other than Starman Jones is (naturally) Starship Troopers, which was a little lecture-y for my taste. I certainly enjoyed this foray into his kids' stuff, so I may need to give The Star Beast a go.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Yeah, Starship Troopers is quite a bit lecture-y. I'm not sure I'd like it so much if I hadn't read it at the perfect moment in my life; even though I disagreed with it, I loved the way it gave me ideas that I could argue against.

But both The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Star Beast are far more entertaining, and do a much better job of integrating ideas and plot. Also, both are much funnier, which is always a good thing.

Loren Eaton said...

I don't recall a lot of the lecturing bits of Starship Troopers, although I know Heinlein wasn't a fan of communism. I read it such a long time ago.

The Star Beast sounds quite good to me. Think I'll add it to the list!

B. Nagel said...

I grew up on Heinlein and Asimov and Anderson and on and on. There's a gossamer story floating around that Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard made a wager as to who could create the "best" religious system. Asimov wrote the Foundation Series, Heinlein wrote Stranger, and L. Ron Hubbard developed Scientology.

Now as to the truthfulness of the claim, I can't say. But I really, really enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land.

CR- Is Star Beast the one where the animal is a many-legged over-exuberant dragon/dog thing called Lummox? If so, it's a good one.

Loren Eaton said...

I'd say Hubbard definitely lost that bet!