What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, Rudy Rucker?

Three Heinlein Juveniles: Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Tunnel in the Sky

Starman Jones by Robert A. HeinleinCitizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. HeinleinTunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

I remember loving Heinlein’s novels as a boy. My favorites were and still are his three adult novels: the lovely time-travel tour de force The Door Into Summer, the radical insurgency of Revolt in 2100, and the noir and speedy The Puppet Masters. I loved those exhilarating, spine-riding slugs of The Puppet Masters so much that eventually I worked them into my own novel, Master of Space and Time.

But in this note I’ll focus on three of Heinlein’s so-called juvenile novels, starring young boys as heroes—Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Tunnel in the Sky. I read these when I was twelve or thirteen years old, and I reread them again when I was fifty-two, and working my novel Frek and the Elixir—which was also aimed at teenage readers.

As others have noted, Heinlein had a great knack for presenting his futures as accomplished facts without a great deal of gee-whiz. Generally, his actual science is mostly calculus and Einstein’s theories of relativity. Heinlein’s analogy between warped space and a crumpled scarf in Starman Jones made a lasting impression on me—eventually impelling me to study up on relativity theory myself. And, as a future mathematician, I was marked by the scenes in Starman Jones where the boy hero has memorized the tables of numbers needed in order to carry out a hyperjump.

In drawing up the social organizations of his future societies, Heinlein was less creative. He tended to fall back on copies of certain pre-existing types of societies. To me, there’s something of old England in Starman Jones. Citizen of the Galaxy reminds me of Graeco-Roman times with its castes of nobles, guildsmen, and slaves. As a boy, I could certainly relate to the notion of a slave rising to power, as in Citizen of the Galaxy. But Heinlein’s spaceships are run like the Navy ships he must have known, and the expeditionary parties in Tunnel in the Sky are very militaristic as well. I never liked these kinds of rigid settings—already by 1959 they seemed stale and oppressive. And when I reread Citizen of the Galaxy as an adult and came across a scene with two weary, knowing colonels talking about how great some general was, I felt a total visceral revulsion.

I loved the cool Heinlein spaceports, huge and sprawling, with oddly shaped out-buildings filled with diverse, colorful aliens. Many of Heinlein’s ships are freighters, hauling around minerals like thorium, and rare food stuffs, and drug plants, and jewels. In order to get around the hassle of having years-long sub-light-speed trips, he used hyperjumps in Starman Jones. Here, you had to fly in a spaceship out to some kind of nodal location, and jump from there. This was a good move, as then we get to have the excitement of being in a bulbous spaceship, as well as the thrill of hyperjumping to the other side of the galaxy.

In Tunnel in the Sky, Heinlein dropped the spaceships, and had people simply stepping through star gates. I loved the flying jellyfish-like aliens in Tunnel in the Sky, and later I’d write some stories about creatures like this myself—although even now I still haven’t written about them as much as I want to. An odd false spoiler in Tunnel in the Sky is that early on someone tells the boy hero to look out for “stobor.” My nimble young mind quickly noticed that “stobor” is “robots” spelled backwards. So all through the book I was waiting for the killer robots to arrive! They never did, and near the end of the book, someone remarks that “stobor” is simply a slang word akin to “snafu,” meaning some unexpected problem.

In both Tunnel in the Sky and Starman Jones, the boy hero’s relations with his parents are artistically unsatisfactory. In both novels, the parents are ineffectual bloodless liberals, and the somewhat militaristic boy never makes peace with them. He never reaches any kind of atonement with his father and mother. And, still in the psychoanalytic vein, the boy’s sexual attitudes remain at an undifferentiated polysexual juvenile level—quite unlike the more typical kind of hero who finds a partner and begins to think of forming a family.

For instance in Tunnel in the Sky, the hero’s big sister grabs him and kisses him on the lips, and her chrome battle armor digs into him. She’s in the “Amazon” army unit and she speaks of getting her subordinates to “peel down” to their underwear for “night duty.” And then Big Sis takes over the stewardship of the boy from ineffectual Mom. This is fairly kinky but, as I recall, as a boy I enjoyed reading about this and mulling it over. We valued Heinlein’s titillating or naughty bits, and no matter that they had very little connection with real life.

Regarding Heinlein’s slang—at this point a lot of it seems painfully corny. Is this simply from the passage of time, or was Heinlein already painfully corny in the 1950s when he wrote the books? The 1950s Beat writers like Kerouac and Burroughs used contemporary slang, and their books still don’t seem corny. Perhaps the difference might be that Heinlein’s slang was fake, a literary construct. That is, I’m guessing that his contemporaries never did talk like the characters in his books. One feels, on the other hand, that the Beats were writing the slang used by actual living and breathing individuals of their particular historic time. But, again, as a boy, I thought Heinlein’s snappy lines were cool.

So, from this vantage point I’m finding a few flaws. But I want to come back to the point that, when I first read Heinlein’s novels as a boy, they hit home in a way that no other novels did. He was showing me a believable future in which, as I think Vonnegut has remarked, I could become a hero just as I was. I didn’t have to go to college or grow up or change in any way. All I needed to do was to find my way to a spaceport or a stargate and—wow! I’d be off, wisecracking with girls, moving up the ranks, hopping through space warps, ditching my parents, slaughtering aliens—and learning to think.

Rudy Rucker can be found online at http://www.rudyrucker.com

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Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.

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0 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, Rudy Rucker?

  1. The jellyfish creatures are in Starman Jones, not Tunnel in the Sky.

    I never considered the colony groups in Tunnel to be militaristic. In fact, I can’t see how anyone would. They had a leader, but any group like that would.

    But then you did say that you felt revulsion when some former colleagues of Baslim were talking about him. This was a guy that decided to live as a beggar in an oppressive society so that he could try to bring down the slave trade.

    Seems like you are predisposed to dislike the military.

  2. Just to mention that the stobor thing isn’t slang for anything. The teachers just invent a new way every year to make sure they look out for the unexpected, and this year they personified it as stobor.

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  8. I always thought “stobor” was something whose explanation must have vanished in the second draft — “Beware of behaving like robots,” i.e. don’t just follow the program because sooner or later it won’t be right. And Rod does indeed, at first, follow his training and fail to notice things and in general function out-of-touch with the unknown; he gets better at things as he starts paying more attention to his surroundings and less to his rules. But that theme is very underplayed and didn’t end up being what the book was about, so I figured “stobor” was one of those traces of a road not taken that show up in many, many novels (but Heinlein’s particularly because he didn’t like to revise in depth).

  9. “But then you did say that you felt revulsion when some former colleagues of Baslim were talking about him. This was a guy that decided to live as a beggar in an oppressive society so that he could try to bring down the slave trade.

    Seems like you are predisposed to dislike the military.”

    I didn’t remember this bit, so I didn’t know what he was talking about, but if that’s the conversation he means then I agree with you. I’m no huge fan of the military all the time myself but Baslim was a fucking hero.

  10. I believe your take on Heinlein’s parents is off; in Tunnel, Mom and Dad argue and Sis steps in to end the argument (discussion is one thing, action is another – a very Heinleinian trope) and in Starman Jones, the start of Jones’ problems is his widowed mother remarrying a lout. Jones’ real parent is Sam, the hobo.

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  12. Mr. Rucker’s comments are factually erroneous in ways that would be inexcusable in a review. Since they are, in fact, a reminiscence, their accuracy cannot be questioned. He remembers the books that way, and they had that impression on him.

    I always thought Heinlein’s boy slang was a little too “Boy’s Life” magazine in tone, also – but since I was reading them in the 70s, I was never sure whether people really did used to talk that way. If you read other youth fiction of the time, they certainly did talk that way in most of those books. Heinlein wasn’t writing for Kerouac’s audience, nor for Kerouac’s editors, and had to satisfy a different audience.

    And Steve is quite right, his take on the parent in Starman Jones is just completely off base. Even for Tunnel in the Sky, however, is it really surprising that a book written for young adolescents will have ineffectual parents who just don’t understand the hero? The readers are adolescents, right? Who think their own parents are hopelessly out of touch?

    Overall I was disappointed in this essay, but really all it showed is that there isn’t only one way to experience a story.

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