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The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: Starman Jones

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.

Starman Jones
It is green

On paper, Starman Jones is a fairly generic young adult sci-fi adventure. It's about a farm boy who dreams of space, leaves home, and hitches a ride on a spaceship. Granted, this archetype wasn't the cliché it is today, but it still feels like a fairly standard hero's journey. It does show Heinlein struggling with his own evolution as a writer, because though it is presented as a juvenile story, Heinlein doesn't write it that way, choosing instead to go into the details of space travel in the form of an arcane future form of navigation he calls "astrogation."

The book falls somewhere between Heinlein's earlier juveniles and Starship Troopers. It never fully embraces the adult themes or controversial political ideas of the latter, but it feels like it wants to, that Heinlein, while writing it, had to remind himself that he was writing for a young audience. There are characters and situations that skirt the edges of Heinlein's later works, but they never come into the foreground, with the focus of the story stubbornly remaining on the naïve boy who barely registers anything cynical, sexual, or violent.

Taken as a young adult novel, it's a pretty good story, but it takes a long time to get where it's going. It starts out strong, telling the story of Max Jones, a young man with big dreams who has been saddled with a brutal life at home on the farm. Max decides to take matters into his own hands and escape to the big city where he eventually sneaks aboard the Asgard, a commercial vessel that feels more like a cruise ship than anything else. From there, the novel gets a bit problematic, as the plot moves glacially with no apparent destination or major conflict.

Starman Jones
Calling Max a "hillbilly" right there on the cover is pretty messed up

Max worries he'll be discovered for the stowaway he is, but that doesn't lend itself to much more than background tension, and he does meet a romantic interest in the character of Ellie, but their interactions are few and increasingly far between as Max's station on the Asgard begins to morph into a role as an assistant astrogator. It isn't until nearly three quarters of the way through the book before anything of any real consequence actually happens, when the lead astrogator dies of a heart attack and his replacement makes an error of calculation that sends the Asgard into unknown space.

At this point, the book suddenly becomes entertaining again, and the last fourth feels like what the entire novel should have been: the adventures of a ship lost in space and the young kid thrust into a position of authority to deal with the trials and tribulations that follow. It's got imaginative aliens, exciting action, a romantic entanglement that works and subverts expectations, and impressive dramatic stakes. It's not without it's own problems--Max's becoming captain because of some obscure legal minutiae that wasn't mentioned earlier and the out-of-nowhere revelation that, despite all that talk of never getting home, it was theoretically possible for the Asgard to just go back the way it came are both painful dei ex machina--but if this part of the book had been expanded and the middle half had been pared down to a chapter or two, I'd call this one of Heinlein's best early works. However, the middle section is so long-winded and exhaustively mind-numbing that I doubt enough readers will make it to the best parts of the story.

Starman Jones
Sketched by a very talented little bird

Instead, Starman Jones is one of Heinlein's most frustrating novels. It feels like a padded-out origin story that is designed to set up a better story to follow, which doesn't exist. As a coming of age tale, it mostly works, with the character of Max having a genuine arc that is spelled out quite clearly by the end, but all of the drama that changes him occurs during the last fifty pages, with the preceding hundred fifty acting as more of a treadmill in which nothing much happens aside from a bunch of increasingly unlikely coincidences that lead to his eventual ascension to the role of captain of the Asgard.

Now, to be clear, my opinion seems to be in the minority regarding Starman Jones. This is often lauded as Heinlein's best juvenile, and it was a smashing success when it was released. I'm willing to entertain the possibility that I'm missing something, that a hundred and fifty pages of a bland main character demonstrating his photographic memory for numbers to his superiors is riveting reading for young adults in the fifties. If I am, I sincerely apologize.

Despite my distaste for it, however, I can look at Starman Jones as an important step for Heinlein as a writer. It's far better written than Rocket Ship Galileo, and its plot is a test run for the basic outline of Starship Troopers. His characters are decent, if a bit one-dimensional, and his fifties-era sexism only shows up for a couple of paragraphs. And yes, those last fifty pages are fantastic. He's maturing, and not long after Starman Jones, he would leave the juveniles behind and become an adult-oriented writer of science-fiction.

-e. magill 7/4/2019

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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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