What’s your favorite Heinlein novel, Joan Slonczewski?

Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. HeinleinHave Space Suit—Will Travel was one of the more important books I read as a child. It starts with a bright teenager obsessed with getting to the moon, like I was. To get there, the teen has to win a space suit and get kidnapped by aliens, and escape with the help of two females—a child genius and an advanced alien—both clearly brighter than he is. Back then, bright females were scarce in any fiction.

In Have Space Suit, Heinlein’s ability to hook the reader draws us through a remarkable introduction in which an entire space suit is described at length. We keep turning pages through the teen’s course selection for senior year, as he takes up Spanish, Latin, calculus, and biochemistry—all of which later help him escape the aliens and worse. The book feels deceptively simple; its opening line consists of seven words of one syllable. Yet Heinlein weaves in concepts of mindboggling depth, from gas exchange in a space suit to linguistic development in the Roman Empire. Through it all, the humor is fresh and obvious to any reader. The Roman soldier even cracks a queer joke—imagine getting that past the juvenile censors in 1958.

From the protagonist’s teenage viewpoint, Earth-bound adults appear distant and preoccupied. The only ones who seem to be having fun are scientists. That, too, seemed familiar to me as the child of a physicist who worked on a Hal-like IBM 360. In the sixties, science was the stagecoach, the mule train heading toward the future’s ever-receding frontier. Have Space Suit was the kind of book that did that, a fictional journey driven by science.

Heinlein’s aliens are completely fantastic, yet somehow as real as a neighbor next door. Even the most advanced creatures are fallible, making mistakes that might doom an entire race. Yet the story begins and ends in small-town Ohio, near the home of the Wright brothers, and near where we raised our two sons. Today, this area still feels about the same. Any day now I expect to see those two alien space ships racing in.

Joan Slonczewski can be found online at http://bioscifi.kenyon.edu/index.php/Main_Page

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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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