Aug 19, 10
Read in June, 2010
Reputations accrete in funny ways, and often we end up with a mental picture of a person or his work that's less than accurate. Take Robert A. Heinlein for example, the so-called dean of science fiction writers. Though Heinlein's career spanned nearly half a century, most folks today know him for the militaristic Starship Troopers, whose characters blasted not only intergalactic arachnids but Marxism as well. But theme-heavy SF doesn't compose the entirety of his oeuvre. Indeed, most everyone except his devotees seems to have forgotten that Heinlein began his career by writing juvenile fiction, a good example of which is his farmer-turned-spaceman adventure Starman Jones.
Ever since he was a child, Max Jones has yearned to go into space. His uncle, a space navigator (or astrogator, as they're called), used to regale him with stories of interstellar travel and let him peruse his manuals, thick compendiums stuffed with calculations used to guide spaceships through charted territories. But he had little hope of getting into the astrogator guild. After his father died, Max ended up working the family farm day in and day out, which left little time for anything but dreaming. Then one day Max's mother showed up with an unwelcome surprise -- a new husband, one Biff Montgomery, a man whose sole achievement lay in avoiding honest work like the plague. Now Max has to discover if he can break into a guild or, barring that, an actual ship. Apprentice or stowaway, either option sounds fine to Max. With Biff in the picture, it's off-world or bust.
There's plenty in Starman Jones that hasn't aged well. I had to suppress a smile when reading about Max cooking up biscuits and ham at his farm on one page and then calculating inverse cubes on his slide rule the next. Anachronisms abound, as one could rightly expect from a book coming out of the golden age of science fiction. But if you look past the outdated stuff, you'll find a novel with surprisingly strong bones. Heinlein's characterizations are quite deft, from a mysterious interloper who may or may not have a checkered military past to a headstrong ambassador's daughter with more gumption and savvy than is immediately apparent. And the action picks up nicely once Max makes it into the void. (Honestly, with the word "starman" in the title, was there ever any doubt?) Jones may be a little creaky in the joints, but it still gets along pretty well in the end.