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The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: Rocket Ship Galileo

On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.

Rocket Ship Galileo
That's how you get people interested: spacemen shooting each other on the moon

Before we get started, a bit of background: Going into this summer, I had only previously read two Heinlein novels, his most famous ones in Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Of the Big Three--Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov--he was the one I had the least familiarity with. I was surprised and delighted to discover more of Heinlein's work over the course of this exercise (including at least one novel that I think is far superior to the two I had previously read), and I'm not particularly sorry it's taken me this long. Heinlein is probably the most adult of the Big Three--which is ironic considering he started his career as a juvenile writer--and I'm not sure I would have appreciated him as much when I was busy reading Clarke and Asimov in my teenage years. With that disclaimed, let's get on with it.

We start our examination of Robert Heinlein with his first novel, the juvenile paperback Rocket Ship Galileo. It's the story of three precocious teenage boys who decide, with the help of their mentor Dr. Cargraves, to fashion a rocket to fly to the moon. They tackle the engineering and logistical problems of such an endeavor, figure out how to convince their parents to let them do it, and eventually succeed, despite something insidious in the background that seems determined to stop them. On the moon, they find something wholly unexpected: they are not the first men to reach it, and they may be the only thing standing in the way of a nuclear apocalypse back on Earth.

Let's get one thing out of the way: this isn't a very good book, at least not by Heinlein standards. Heinlein wrote it very quickly and had no prior experience in writing juveniles, though he would eventually write a dozen of them, all of which were reasonable successes for Scribner's. As such, it's a bit sloppy, the characters are paper-thin, and the plot relies on accepting that the primary adult in the story is a negligent lunatic all too eager to risk the lives of three young men in pursuit of his dream. Still, you can see shades of Heinlein's future style in his witty dialogue, his mid-century charm, and his thematic obsession with lateral thinking.

Rocket Ship Galileo
A pretty basic cover, but it feels iconic

You can also tell that he is earnestly trying to instill in young readers a fascination with science and technology, daring his audience to dream big but study hard. He gets across the importance of family and friendship, and though the three boys are pretty bland, they at least come from different socio-economic backgrounds to add a flavor of Heinlein's social progressivism.

Published in 1947, the book takes place in what was then the near future. An exact date isn't given, but it isn't terribly long after World War II, only long enough for the world to start using rocket ships for commercial flights and international postal delivery, which is a pretty neat bit of futurism that sadly never came to pass in the real world. It also makes a few broad assumptions about atomic energy and significantly underappreciates the difficulties of lunar travel, but on the other hand, it does neatly foreshadow how the Cold War would eventually force the United States into a space race, even going so far as to predict that the Russians will make it to space first.

The plot goes completely off the rails in the last fifty pages or so, which is both startling and awesome. It can all be summed up in two words: "Space Nazis." On one hand, it is incredibly silly, and it seems to come out of nowhere. There are plenty of obvious hints that something shady has been going on from the beginning, but it's an enormous leap from a cloak-and-dagger bit of industrial espionage to Nazis setting up a base on the moon from which they plan to start nuclear war with the Earth.

Rocket Ship Galileo
The moon is orange, orbited by giant floating heads, and surrounded by clouds, as is scientifically accurate

On the other hand, I have to admit it's probably my favorite thing about the novel. It's ridiculous, but it's also fun, like a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick mixed with equal parts John Carter and Indiana Jones. Later in his career, Heinlein would figure out how to telegraph such a wild plot twist in a way that eased audiences into it, but here, I think the whiplash he gives readers is actually pretty great, even if it is a sign of his immaturity as a writer.

Despite being one of Heinlein's weakest works, which you'd expect from his first novel, it is at least a relatively short and entertaining read. Heinlein does get hung up on the details here and there, but his sense of plotting and pace are pretty good, which is why his early years as a juvenile writer were so successful.

Next week, we'll look at the science-fiction film classic Destination Moon, loosely based on Rocket Ship Galileo and co-written by Heinlein himself. Make sure you're following me on Twitter or Facebook for updates, and also check out my YouTube channel, where I'll be dropping a video review of Destination Moon as well.

-e. magill 6/6/2019

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  • Rocket Ship Galileo
  • Destination Moon
  • The Puppet Masters
  • The Puppet Masters (film)
  • Starman Jones
  • The Door into Summer
  • Starship Troopers
  • Starship Troopers (film)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • The Number of the Beast

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