Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

When the story opens an adolescent boy named Thorby is being sold on the slaver’s block in the ironically named Plaza of Liberty in Jubbulpore, the capital of Jubbul, which is itself the capital of the Nine Worlds ruled by the Sargon.  The Nine Worlds is presented as an oriental despotic empire complete with a caste system that includes slaves, beggars and thieves as acknowledged roles in the society.  Now this is embedded in a future that includes interstellar space ships, faster than light communication and a human civilization that has spread hundreds of light years from Earth.

Baslim the crippled beggar manages to purchase the boy.  He overcomes the boy’s ferocious hatred of his owners and uses kindness and fatherly discipline to raise the boy to be an honest and resourceful man.  As time goes on Thorby figures out that Baslim is a lot more than just a beggar.  Inside his lodgings in the underground slums of Jubbulpore, Baslim has modern teaching equipment that he uses to teach Thorby languages and mathematics and the history of the world he lives in.  Also, Baslim seems to be a spy, collecting information on the slave trade on Jubbul.  Eventually Baslim tells Thorby that someday Baslim would be gone and Thorby must leave Jubbul to escape from the squalor and injustice that was life in the Nine Worlds.  He uses hypnotic suggestion to implant a message in Thorby, that when delivered by the boy, would tell one of Baslim’s friends, who was a starship captain, that rescuing the boy would be the payment for a favor Baslim had done for the captain’s family.

And one day Thorby finds that Baslim has been arrested and executed as a spy and that the Sargon’s men are after Thorby.  Luckily Thorby had spotted Captain Krausa of the starship Sisu.  The message and the implied debt are acknowledged the Captain and by clever subterfuges performed by Thorby’s friends he is smuggled aboard the Sisu and escapes Jubbul.

Overcoming his grief at the death of his adoptive father Baslim, Thorby is adopted into the family that is the crew of Sisu.  A complex phratry and moiety arrangement connects the “family” on Sisu with the other Trader ships with their own “families.”  Thorby struggles to adapt to the strange ways of his new family but the connection to his ship mates stabilizes the boy and gives him the sense of belonging he needs.

But what Thorby doesn’t know is that Baslim had told Captain Krausa that Thorby probably had a family somewhere out in the free worlds beyond the Nine Worlds.  Krausa was committed to hand Thorby over to the authorities of the Space Guard, when he could, for reunion with his family.  But Thorby’s relation to Baslim means that the Sisu would gain great status with the other Trading families by keeping Thorby in their family.

After many adventures including shooting a space pirate ship out of the skies Thorby is finally returned to the Space Guard.  He learns that Baslim was a highly decorated officer in the Guard and he was doing espionage to help destroy the slave trade.  For someone associated with Baslim the Guard does everything humanly possible to help Thorby and finally finds his true family.  The details of this final chapter take him back to Earth and solves the mystery of his years as a slave.

Heinlein has crafted a story that combines facets of adventure stories from many sources.  Others have noted that there are some elements of the story that are reminiscent of Kipling’s novel Kim.  But mostly it contains the elements of Heinlein’s Future History Universe.  I especially found the world of the trader ship Sisu very imaginative and enjoyable.  But the whole book keeps the reader engaged, the characters are excellently drawn and the plot is lively.  Once again this is a Heinlein juvenile that is highly recommended.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

“Have Space Suit – Will Travel” is probably the most whimsical of all Heinlein’s juvenile novels and also one of the most entertaining.  The protagonist is Kip Russell, a high school senior who more than anything wants to go into space.  But his high school doesn’t have the rigorous curriculum necessary to qualify him for a top engineering college.  But exhorted by his father to show initiative he enters the “Spaceway Soap” tag line contest that has a first prize of a free trip to the Moon.  He enters hundreds of phrases and one of his wins but it turns out another contestant sent it first so he gets a consolation prize of a real (but used) space suit.  Kip spends his summer repairing and installing the equipment needed to make the suit a functional piece of equipment.  As the summer is ending, he decides he will send the suit back and get the cash refund that will help him try to enter the local state college that is Kip’s only option.

But before returning it he takes it out into his rural neighborhood and using the functional radio transmitter that he’s installed in the suit he sends some fake messages.  He broadcasts, “Junebug to Peewee, come in.”  And when, surprisingly, Peewee answers him he tells her to home in on his position.  And then a flying saucer lands in front of him.  And then another one lands.  And then an alien comes running out of the first one and gets shot.  And then Kip gets shot with a ray gun.

When Kip wakes up, he is aboard one of the flying saucers and he meets Peewee.  She is a ten-year-old girl and a genius.  He finds out that she is being held prisoner by bug-eyed monsters that have also captured the alien that he saw earlier.  Peewee calls this alien the Mother Thing because of her empathetic abilities.  When Kip met them, Peewee and the Mother Thing had stolen a ship from the bug-eyed monsters (that Peewee calls the Wormfaces for obvious reasons) and been chased to his location.  Peewee had thought that because Kip had called for Peewee by name that it was her father trying to save her.  Her father is a very important scientific expert working with the government and academia.  She was kidnapped by some human agents of the Wormfaces while she was a tourist on the Moon.  And the Moon is where the flying saucer is taking them.

The story is extremely compelling with plenty of exciting exploits with planetary, interstellar and even intergalactic travel that expands the plot into higher and higher levels of extraterrestrial civilization.  By the end of the story Kip is representing Earth in a trial for the very future of the human race.

The story is a tour de force to showcase Heinlein’s ability to combine all of the tropes of the Golden Age Science Fiction space opera stories into an engaging adventure featuring a young adult protagonist that fits the Heinlein juvenile specification of an up by his bootstraps achiever who wants to go into last frontier of outer space by hard work and clean living.

I won’t give away all the details but I will say that this story is immensely entertaining and the protagonist is a wonderfully Heinleinesque narrator for this romp through the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond.  Very, very highly recommended for young and old alike.

 

The Star Beast by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

When I got a Newfoundland dog many years ago there was never any doubt that his name would be Lummox.  Because that is the name that Heinlein gave to his star beast.  When we meet Lummox, he’s living in the backyard of John Thomas Stuart XI.  He’s lived there for over a century under the present owner’s father, grandfather and great grandfather.  Over the course of his tenure he’s grown from about the size of a chihuahua to something larger than an elephant.  He’s equipped with eight legs and an appetite for a menu that ranges from rude neighborhood dogs to a Buick automobile.  His personality is friendly, enthusiastic and energetic but his discipline and attention to his master’s orders are decidedly inconsistent.  And for a creature with such an imposing size he has the voice of a baby girl.

Johnnie and Lummox are best friends, almost brothers, and even though his mother doesn’t share his feelings for the beast his girlfriend Betty is on their side.  So, when Lummox gets into trouble for going off reservation and busting up a lot of stuff, Johnnie and Betty do everything in their power to save Lummie from the clutches of the unsympathetic local sheriff who wants to have Lummox terminated as a public menace.

Heinlein weaves together the two threads of Lummox’s past and present to provide a future that wouldn’t have been guessed at the start of the story.  Mixed in with this is the story of Mr. Kiku, the Under Secretary of the Department of Spatial Affairs and his fear of snakes.  Heinlein builds up the little constellation of characters in the Department very nicely and gives us his ideas about how the permanent career bureaucrats in a government department interact with the political appointee that supposedly manages them.

And this is a typical Heinlein trait.  He likes to build up little self-consistent “worlds,” like Westville, the small town where Lummox lives or the Department of Spatial Affairs.  In another book you’ll find that the small-town people act and talk a lot like the people in Westville in this story.  I’m guessing that these small towns were like the small towns in Missouri that Heinlein remembers from his childhood.  And his descriptions of life on a space ship in several of his books comes from his own experience of shipboard life in the U. S. Navy.  Likewise, his ideas of government bureaucracy came from his experience as a government employee.

And throughout we get to know Johnnie and learn about his struggle to weigh loyalty to his friend against fighting insurmountable odds. He is the Heinlein young man character who has been raised to respect authority, is socially conventional, polite and honest.  But he runs smack dab into the injustice of the bureaucratic machine.  In the ensuing turmoil he discovers that a man sometimes has to break the rules to do what’s morally right and protect his own.  And mixed in with this is his relationship with his overprotective and domineering mother and his hyperactive and ambitious girlfriend.  This is another part of his growth as he finally asserts himself against these women jockeying for control of his life.

In this book Heinlein creates a few extraterrestrials types.  And he provides both sympathetic species and other less friendly from a human perspective.  And this lack of empathy allows for a plot device that has since been “borrowed” by the makers of the movie “Men in Black.”  See if you notice it when you read the book.  But the most interesting extraterrestrial is Lummox and Heinlein’s description of Lummox’s internal point of view is highly entertaining.  From my experience as the owner of a Newfoundland I found the beast’s motivations for some of his mistakes extremely familiar and plausible.

I won’t ruin the story by giving away any surprises.  They’re too good.  I would call this one of Heinlein’s most original novels and definitely highly successful as entertainment.  Once again, highly recommended for young and old.

The Rolling Stones by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

After rereading Starman Jones and writing a review it occurred to me that the Heinlein juveniles are better than ninety percent of all the Young Adult (YA) science fiction that’s come out since.  So my idea is not to just look at plot but really give a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these classic stories.  Let’s look at “The Rolling Stones.”

The Stones are a family of “Loonies.”  That’s what the human inhabitants of Earth’s Moon call themselves.  In his Future History Heinlein has decided that the Moon is officially named Luna.  Roger and Edith are the parents of Meade, Castor, Pollux and Lowell (or as he’s nicknamed Buster).  And Hazel Meade is Roger’s mother.

Roger is an engineer by profession but lately his job has been writing a television (or whatever they call it) serial called Scourge of the Spaceways.  He despises the vapidity of the show but the hefty paycheck has hooked him.

Edith is a medical doctor and housewife who manages to keep the individualistic personalities of her children from wreaking havoc with her husband’s ideas of domestic sanity.

Meade is the oldest, recently graduated from high school and a social butterfly.  Castor and Pollux are identical twins high school juniors.  They are precocious engineering inventors who have made a good amount of money on an invention and are aching to break out on their own and make their fortune out in the far flung reaches of the solar system.  Buster is a four-year-old who is either a chess prodigy or can read his grandmother’s mind.  Finally, Hazel is one of the original “Founding Fathers” of the Luna Revolution (which Heinlein later back filled in his novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”).  She is a senior citizen but because of the preservative effects of living on the low gravity Moon she is quite lively and also extremely outspoken on everything from child-raising to larceny.

Heinlein creates a story about a middle-class family leaving their comfortable but boring environment in order to head out into the frontier of the solar system and experience life as a family and a crew.  Roger and Castor (and later Meade) handle the astrogation.  Hazel and Pollux run the engines.  Edith is the ship’s doctor, cook and also Buster’s mom.  Buster is (as his father notes in the crew list) supercargo.

But really what Heinlein is trying to point out is that the family hasn’t fared well under the modern lifestyle and living life together as a team can allow a father to get to know his children.  And allow them to find out more about their parents than just how much they are willing to spend on useless junk.  All the children benefit from the skills, talents and experiences of their parents and grandmother and the adults are enriched by the challenges of the trip and the chance to influence the choices their children make.

Of course, this is an altogether outlandish odyssey that they are on and apparently bankrolled by the amazingly lucrative writing contract for Scourge of the Spaceways.  Perhaps this is in a way a stand-in for Heinlein’s own lifestyle which was made possible by his well-paying books.  And considering the paucity of other money coming in from the commercial enterprises that the Twins attempt you could be excused for thinking the whole trip was a bust.  But it’s the setup we’re supposed to enjoy.  Seeing the Twins through the eyes of their grandmother as she attempts to extricate them from a legal mess that their ingenuity and inexperience combine to create, we see that this family is resourceful and interesting even when they fail.  These are the story elements that give the book its character.  The action, such as it is, is light and only occasionally rises above familial squabbling.  But Heinlein paints an entertaining picture of his Swiss Family Robinson in space.  Despite the futuristic backdrop and the extraordinary qualities of the individuals, the ethos and character of the family is mid-twentieth century American and it is a charming world that Heinlein has reimagined in the unrealizable future of his era.  The children despite their precocity are decidedly normal and compared to today’s versions, decidedly a breath of fresh air.

And whereas he did manage to tie Hazel somewhat into his other books, I had hoped he would have had a follow-on novel of the brothers in their grown-up stage pursuing fame and fortune while trying to avoid execution.  Some more exciting adventures in this frontier environment wouldn’t wear out the welcome for the Stone family among Heinlein readers.  In fact, one day I might write some of those stories, although if the copyright forbids, I’ll have to alter them to the extent of calling them Castor and Pollux Rock or Boulder or Pebble.  Either way the characters are too good to waste.

A remarkable thing about this book is that it introduced the science fiction creature the flat cat that was stolen by Star Trek and turned into the Tribble.  Of course, Heinlein was gracious enough to permit the theft but it just goes to show you how impoverished Hollywood really is.

The Rolling Stones is different from the other Heinlein juveniles in that the adventure is muted.  But I believe it has its own charm that is completely character driven.  The showcasing of a normal functional family is especially enheartening today when they are almost completely missing in books and films.

Highly recommended for children and adults.