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