Authors: Robert A. Heinlein
Tags: #Science fiction; American, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
Robert A. Heinlein
Copyright 1958 Robert A. Heinlein
An earlier shorter version of this story was published copyright Street & Smith Publications, Inc., 1941.
To Edward E. Smith, PH.D.
Coming of Age in a Dangerous Galaxy
by Tony Daniel
Robert Heinlein did not burst forth from the head of Zeus a science fiction writer. After growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Heinlein followed his brother’s pathway and got an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis where he graduated twentieth in a class of 243. After serving as a gunnery officer on the first U.S. aircraft carrier, he came down with tuberculosis and was cashiered from active duty by the navy. Thrown out of a career at twenty-seven, a career to which he’d expected to devote his life, and sick with tuberculosis, the young Heinlein spent the next five years reinventing himself through trial and error.
What worked was science fiction.
The SF tale itself was at a critical juncture in the late thirties, and World War II would shortly push it over the edge as millions of men and women returned home matured far beyond their years by what they had seen and done. Would science fiction grow up? Would SF stories be about real people facing problems created by believable extrapolation, or would gee-whizz wonder tales staffed by stereotypes continue to rule?
Heinlein was already there with the answer. His stories would be about ordinary men and women who did not set out to save the world, but who merely wanted to live their lives, get ahead without cheating their morals, and make their existence somehow meaningful. Sometimes they saved the world in the process, but this sort of megalomania was never their intent.
John W. Campbell’s
magazine was publishing this new, grittier material, with muscular prose and an adult attitude. Heinlein quickly became Campbell’s go-to writer for a decade.
As the Forties ran down, Heinlein cracked the slicks, well-regarded magazines such as the
Saturday Evening Post
and others, and was asked to produce a series of juveniles−what we would now call young adult or YA novels−by the upscale publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons. Over the next decade, he tried to write one juvie a year along with one adult SF novel, and mostly succeeded in doing so.
The juveniles became breakout bestsellers, were snatched up by an expanding system of local libraries, and created a decent living for Heinlein. Heinlein ultimately produced thirteen of them.
The juvies got better and better with each volume, culminating in the exciting, deeply-moving
Citizen of the Galaxy
, with its haunting echo of Kipling’s
and finally with the zenith of the series, a masterpiece of American fiction,
Have Space Suit
Citizen of the Galaxy
Have Space Suit−Will Travel
are the last two of the Scribner’s juveniles, but not the last juvenile. Heinlein considered
, which was rejected by Scribner’s in the early version of a politically-correct editorial snit by Charles Scribner himself (and immediately snatched up by rival Putnam), the final book in his young adult series. But, as Heinlein also notes
is a novel oriented toward adults that just happens to have a youthful protagonist.
Citizen of the Galaxy
is the classic tale of the young person who climbs from a lowly state (in this case, abject slavery) to competence and finally to a position where he’s able to reclaim his lost heritage. He’s helped along the way by a series of complex, compelling and sympathetic wise figures. These adults have adapted to a baroque and corrupted galactic civilization, but have managed to retain their own integrity and continue to fight for the right. They all serve as models for Thorby, who is forced by circumstances to come of age immediately−or die a poor, bewildered child. Adapt he does, and off we go on a compelling adventure full of Heinlein’s usual attention to detail and drama until Thorby eventually becomes a figure of wisdom himself.
Have Space Suit−Will Travel
is, without a doubt, the jewel in the crown of the juveniles. In many ways, it is science fiction’s
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The parallel between Kip and Huck (or, depending on circumstances, Kip and wily-but-civilized Tom Sawyer) is no accident. Mark Twain was Heinlein’s favorite writer. Heinlein was a great collector of Twain’s work, as well, and had
, even obscure seldom- or never-reprinted pieces by Twain, on his bookshelves.
young Kip wins a decrepit space suit as a bait-and-switch prize in a cheesy contest. But if space is as free and wondrous as Huck’s Mississippi river, it also proves to be just as fraught with dangers and decisions. And in an ending that prefigures the ground-breaking, game-changing adult science fiction novels Heinlein was shortly to write, Kip must save humanity while somehow remaining true to himself. For, of course, it is the average guy who never gives up on his dream, no matter how much hard-scrabbling and scheming its fulfillment requires, who is the real Heinleinian hero.
As a matter of fact, says Kip, the universe, its powerful alien overlords, and existence itself needs to respect
and their crazy drive and dreams or things will go badly for
. “All right, take away our star−You will if you can, and I guess you can. Go ahead! We’ll
a star! Then, someday, we’ll come back and we’ll hunt you down.
All of you
The juveniles were wildly successful and influential. The generation who first read them became the scientists and engineers who put humans on the Moon and who laid the foundations for the coming information age. The books have stood the test of time and found future generations. This author was profoundly influenced as a teen by the tragic pathos of separated twins in
Time for the Stars
, the valor-laden ethos of
and the complex philosophical satire of
Stranger in a Strange Land
(a lot of which yours truly barely grokked at the time−but so what? The story rocked).
The success of the juvies and their human-centered worldview produced a critical backlash against all of Heinlein’s work that often verged on incoherent rage.
The first objection is to Heinlein’s politics, and is usually founded on a simplistic reading of
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by those who have had one too many doctrinaire sociology classes in the process of receiving a second-rate education.
The fact is, Heinlein’s novels contain practically
from decadent oligarchy to fundamentalist totalitarian hells, to control-ridden socialist states, to libertarian anarchies. Furthermore, while Heinlein is clearly on the side of the angels of democracy, he’s never doctrinaire about anything political. On the contrary, his usual point is that
system short of outright dictatorship can be made to work with competent and honest administration.
Politics, for Heinlein, is always practical, seat-of-the-pants stuff (see his insightful and amusing primer on local politicking,
Take Back Your Government,
for his nuts-and-bolts approach). He’s an empiricist when it comes to justice and morality. His critics, on the other hand, tend to be rationalists with preconceived rubrics that they are certain reality had better mold itself to if reality knows what’s good for it.
Heinlein finds such attitudes juvenile in the worse sense−and dangerous for the holder’s continued survival chances. He makes this point time and again in story form. Educate yourself, learn from experience, do whatever it takes to adapt, abandon useless assumption. Your purpose
to be individual survival, for humanity comes only in the unit of the individual. Anything else destroys what makes us unique.
You−and not some nebulous collective consciousness or high priesthood−are the human race’s flawed, imperfect protagonist. The story that matters is
story, not that of some king, nation-state, or intergalactic uber-government. Those entities are merely background characters for the individual action that matters. And whatever your circumstances, it’s your duty to answer the call to heroism and hard striving that being born a person
The backlash of the self-appointed tastemakers that crested with the appearance of
was not a surprise to Heinlein
He’d already had a great deal of practice in staying the course when writing the twelve juvies that preceded it.
All but the last of Heinlein’s young adult novels were overseen by his fretful editor at Scribner’s, Alice Dalgliesh. At least to Heinlein’s sensibilities, Dalgliesh combined in the most annoying form imaginable the fashionable leftism that infected American publishing starting in the 1930s with the instincts of a small-town librarian on a fundamentalist book-banning kick. Both of these types are particular
throughout Heinlein’s fiction−and here was an editor, someone with power over his paycheck, who combined both, in his real life.
Heinlein was particularly irked by Dalgliesh’s Freudian interpretation of nearly every cultural idea he put into a story. As he put it, she seemed to believe that “[s]cience fiction consists of stories about the wonderful machines of the future” and anything else was a sign an author was working out his inner mother complex and simultaneously scrawling depraved sexual notions onto the blank slates his young readers presumably had for minds.
But how did this odd juxtaposition of writer and editor produce some of the best literature of the twentieth century? Because, like the writer of sonnets who makes use of a constricted form for the beautiful effect it can produce, Heinlein forced himself to write−and to write
within Dalgliesh’s dogmatic confines. If he couldn’t break the rules, he decided to transcend them.
The results? Young adult novels that adults can read with pleasure and without having to make allowances. Books filled with young characters
getting it on,
but getting it on with their environment, with the business of staying alive, with the generation of new, cool ideas. Love, romance, sex is all part of life, part of the process of survival. All of the relationships that appear in the juvies are remarkably mature and adult. Heinlein simply didn’t have that sometime teenage fascination with the hidden or creepy when it came to sex. But with Dalgliesh’s pop Freudian analysis of everything in mind, he had to think about every word he wrote in such terms−allegedly to keep that kind of stuff
. At the same time, Heinlein absolutely refused to write down to an audience, even if the audience was adolescent boys (and many, many girls, as later became apparent).
So we get remarkable friendships, such as that between Kip and the precocious PeeWee in
Have Space Suit−Will Travel
whose quirky and clever goodness inspire Kip to become a hero he could never have imagined, much less have accomplished, without her. With Heinlein’s older protagonists, romantic relationships become very real, more akin to marriage than to a simple hook-up. Most importantly, they are high stakes, and involve the problem of how to, say, work to bring down a totalitarian state or deal with alien abduction while somehow keeping friendship and love alive.
All of Heinlein’s heroines, like his heroes (although his male characters never seems to be an issue with Heinlein gender critics), are entertaining and desirable because of
they are rather than
they are. This applies even more so outside the juvies. Take
, where Mary Sperling’s stark choice has nothing and everything to do with being a woman. As her genetically-extended extra days of life run out, she has to decide between the true love she’s finally found and a version of immortality that may destroy her as an individual.
The closest Heinlein comes to portraying a total naïf and objectifier of women is John Lyle in
Revolt in 2100,
a collection of interconnected novellas first published in
These were the stories that made Heinlein’s name. Yet even though quixotic, unrealistic romantic passion triggers Lyle’s revolt against his fundamentalist masters, as he comes to maturity in the trenches such notions give way to longing for a lasting relationship with a battle-tested soul mate who is as strong-willed and individualistic as he is.
In company with Heinlein’s political critics, the gender critics always seem to make the categorical mistake of taking this or that character’s pronouncement
a Heinlein tale for Heinlein’s own attitude. It’s all nonsense. One look at Heinlein’s relationship with his wife Virginia in
Grumbles from the Grave
and it becomes obvious that Heinlein’s career was a joint venture and a shared journey with someone he considered just as smart and driven as himself−and most definitely somebody he knew from experience was a better linguist, mathematician and life-organizer.