Book Review #3: HEINLEIN REASSESSED
While my Cheese Magnet colleagues are still off disporting themselves in San Diego, I am back behind the keyboard from my expedition and will soon have a report on the mysterious Dragonhuahua, as soon as photos get sorted out. In the meantime, here’s a book review to keep you happy, the third in my continuing series of science fiction and fantasy novels of the 1950s.
This time we’ll be examining a book by a man who has (much like the Dragonhuahua) achieved mythic status in the science fiction field, Robert Heinlein. Here’s a few words concerning my general opinions on Heinlein. I have not fully assessed his career, though I have read 25 of his novels (23 of them multiple times) and probably all of his short fiction. You would have to hold a gun to my head to get me to reread The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. A discerning reader would note from that statement that I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards him. There’s no doubt that he wrote some (actually, many) excellent novels though I’m not sure if he wrote any truly great ones. He also wrote some stinkers, particularly late in his career. The earliest novel of his I haven’t read yet is Stranger in a Strange Land. No particular reason; I’ll get to it. The couple from late in his career (see my comment on Cat) that I have read have not left favorable impressions on me, but this column is not about them and I don’t have the space to defend that opinion here.
I am currently going through a reassessment of his career, reading his novels in chronological order, which is as good any way to read them. I’m up to 1956 or so. The book I’ll be discussing here is Starman Jones (1953), which (so far anyway) is his best novel of the 1950s.
Characters: The pov character, Max, has eidetic memory, but beyond that lacks all the superman traits that are common for Heinlein protagonists. He acquires a mentor (Sam) who turns out to be an ex-space marine on the run from a dodgy past. Max also has a lazy grifter step-mom and acquires a mean grifter step-dad, so he runs away from home to start his adventure. The characters are all nicely drawn, but there is nothing extraordinary about them. 88
Setting: Max starts out poor on Earth. Not much is really delineated about the home planet except for the fact that professions are hereditary and are dominated by guilds which jealousy guard entrance to them. Once Max and Sam decide to crash the crew of an interstellar ship, this particularly circumscribed universe is minutely described and well realized. The semi-obligatory alien world they’re forced to land on and attempt to colonize is original in concept. 92
Plot: Heinlein hits his stride here. The plot is focused, spun effortlessly and believably. Most of the heroic feats preformed by Max and the other protagonists are mental in nature and thus are hard to describe, but Heinlein largely succeeds. The resolution is a little rushed and makes you wonder why they didn’t even consider their final solution to their difficulties before attempting to colonize the obligatory dangerous alien planet. Max is also the least susceptible teenaged boy to sex (even when a pretty millionaire’s daughter shamelessly throws herself at him) in the history of the universe, though probably this was forced on Heinlein by the editors of the time. The off-screen resolution of their “affair” is largely unsatisfactory, however, and smacks of thread-tying tactics that Heinlein often used to sew up the dangling bits of his plots. 92
Style: Heinlein is at his plain-spoken story-telling best here, with few lectures and no terribly overt demagoging. 92
Heinlein tics: This my term for the character-types, plot devices, and auctorial sleight of hand commonly found in Heinlein’s novels. Here’s the ones in this book.
Protagonist from broken home (mother never mentioned, father dead; sleazy step-mom who marries a mean grifter step-dad). Protagonist is a superman — mentally this time, with eidetic recall. No superlative physical powers this time around. He acquires an older mentor who is wise in the ways of the world and does have great physical powers. There is a beloved pet who survives intact. Beautiful (and rich and powerful) girlfriend pursues teen hero who remains oblivious to her charms but does kind of want to marry her. Government remains largely unmentioned, but its place is taken by hereditary occupational guilds who rule the protagonist’s worlds and whose rigid structures must (and are) overcome by the hero’s innate talents.
Overall Starman Jones comes in at 91, which is right at the point on the scale (not specifically settled as yet in my mind) that separates the merely excellent from the truly great. It is currently tied (with Asimov’s Caves of Steel and Sturgeon’s More Than Human) as the sixth best sf novel published in the 1950s. It seems quite possible that it may be surpassed by one of the additional seven Heinlein novels from the 1950s I’ve yet to reread..
The same probably can’t be said for the subject of the next review, Heinlein’s worst sf novel of the 1950s.
Which reminds me: no one has yet even tried to guess my (so far) number one sf/fan novel published in America in the 1950s, so I’m going to repeat my offer of free swag to the first who can name it. (It’s not that hard, really.). Granted, the worst one is rather obscure (but I’ll let that cat out of the bag at another time). So, I’ll also add this question whose answer will deliver free stuff. Name Heinlein’s worst sf novel published in the 1950s. Published. That’s a clue.
I’m keeping the prize vague this time around, so we can confer and get the winner something they really need and/or want (if I have it) and not just another signed copy of Inside Straight. (I may, may have my authors’ copies of Fort Freak soon, and could be induced to part with one of them.)