Heinlein Part 2 – The Juveniles

Heinlein: What’s the Deal With Him?

The Juveniles.  That is where it all began for me, and I was probably typical.  Exploring the science fiction shelf in the kid’s floor of the library I found and read “Red Planet.”  Fantastic.  The characters were intelligent (well the good guys were) and the story combined adventure, humor and a young protagonist that we could root for.  As I worked my way through the series I had no idea that most science fiction (especially juvenile sf) was nowhere near as good.  And I didn’t know why I liked these books so much.  But I do now.  Heinlein had identified something important in how Americans of my generation viewed ourselves and the future.  We believed it was time for humans to push the frontier beyond Earth.  Heinlein had translated the Western into science fiction.  His heroes are easily seen as descendants of the pioneers who pushed across the plains and forests of North America in the 19th Century and colonized a continent.  His families (and they often came as families) were colonizing the Solar System.

Consulting my on-line encyclopedia (specifically Infogalactic) I find the following chronology:

Rocket Ship Galileo, 1947

Space Cadet, 1948

Red Planet, 1949

Farmer in the Sky, 1950

Between Planets, 1951

The Rolling Stones aka Space Family Stone, 1952

Starman Jones, 1953

The Star Beast, 1954

Tunnel in the Sky, 1955

Time for the Stars, 1956

Citizen of the Galaxy, 1957

Have Space Suit—Will Travel, 1958

 

Interestingly, Rocket Ship Galileo was always the weakest (in my mind) of the novels both in terms of plot and character development.  In fact, it’s the only one I’ve never re-read.  I can see that he had not quite come up with the formula he later perfected.  And just to personalize this, here is my list in order of personal preference (top being favorite):

Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Citizen of the Galaxy

Starman Jones

The Rolling Stones

The Star Beast

Farmer in the Sky

Red Planet

Tunnel in the Sky

Space Cadet

Between Planets

Time for the Stars

Rocket Ship Galileo

Of course, I probably could move around anything other than the top and bottom entries depending on mood.  But this tells you more about me than about the author.

So, as I approach sixty why do I consider these children’s books interesting or relevant?  Was it the extraordinary prose style or absolute unique character of the protagonists?  Not at all.  Heinlein was a very capable writer and wrote clean prose but he was no Faulkner.  And many of his young adult characters are almost interchangeable.  The real reason was because these novels combine all the components of good fiction.  The plots are lively and interesting.  The characters are engaging, sympathetic and admirable.  To my mind, Heinlein in this series is the heir to Kipling’s “Kim” and Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”  You recognize in them a voice that isn’t confused about the rightness of the endeavor his characters are engaged in.  There’s very little of the moral ambivalence that became the defining characteristic of the 1960s and beyond.  This was the spirit of the post-WWII optimism.  This was the high noon of the American Century and it was beautiful.  We would get another taste of this spirit when Ronald Reagan brought back American optimism in the 1980s.  We’ve had precious little of it since.

I’m of the opinion that adopting the same kind of feel to sf today would be popular.  For this reason, I think the Heinlein juveniles (and some of his better adult stories and novels) have value as a template for what to look for in a sf story today.  Lately I’ve seen the beginning of this idea occurring and I see that as a hopeful sign.  If this return to optimistic story style coincides with some kind of a Trump resurgence in American optimism in general it could be a fortunate thing for the sf fans of my grandsons’ age.  So, hat’s off to RAH (and his editors) for producing a set of young adult sf novels that could last a hundred years without aging at all.  I think I’ll re-read “Have Spacesuit Will Travel” for Christmas.

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