Starman Jones is one of Heinlein’s juvenile novels (today it would be called a young adult novel). Many people feel that some of his best work is represented in these books. I tend to agree with this. Starman Jones is also one of his best juveniles. Well, you can see where that puts it in my opinion already.
Max Jones is an Ozarks hillbilly. He lives on the family farm and dreams of someday following his father’s brother, Uncle Chet, into space as an astrogator. But the deaths of his father and uncle leave Max trapped on the farm, and duty bound to provide for his step-mother. Max struggles to keep food on the table and has to forego his dreams of working in outer space. But when his step-mother remarries and his new step-father sells the family farm and tries to steal the astrogation books that Max got from Uncle Chet, Max decides that his commitment to his step-mother is ended and he runs away to try and claim a berth as a legacy candidate in the hereditary guild of astrogators.
On the road he meets a hobo named Sam Anderson who shares his dinner with the hungry runaway but steals Max’s astrogation books and identity card before disappearing. Max hitchhikes a ride with a freight transporter and reaches Earth Port, the main space port in North America. Upon reaching the guild headquarters Max discovers that Sam had attempted to impersonate him and get a reward for returning the valuable astrogation tables. Sam managed to escape without getting arrested. Now Max receives the substantial reward for the books but learns that his Uncle Chet did not list Max as a guild candidate. Crushed by the news, Max leaves the guild office and immediately bumps into Sam.
Max at first was thinking of turning Sam into the authorities but since their last meeting Sam had come into a windfall (gambling winnings) and was dressed as a prosperous citizen, whereas Max was disheveled and unwashed. Sam actually ends up saving Max from arrest as a vagrant. Spotting Max to a good meal, Sam apologizes for stealing Max’s books and lets him know that there is still a way for Max (and Sam) to obtain berths on a star ship. Sam has connections that can fake identification papers that will indicate that Max and Sam are members of the guilds that work on these commercial space liners. With this paperwork (paid for with Max’s reward money) and coaching by Sam, Max passes himself off as a Steward’s mate working for the ship’s Purser on the Asgard. Max was greatly aided in this coaching by the fact that he has an eidetic memory, basically photographic recall of anything he’s seen.
Max and Sam work their way into different roads of advancement on the Asgard. Sam had been a space marine long ago who had gone AWOL and was still a wanted man so now he uses his service training to become the ship’s Chief Master-at-Arms and uses that office to supplement his income with clandestine gambling operations for the crew. Max is in charge of the ship’s livestock which includes the passengers’ pets. An extraterrestrial animal called a spider puppy is the pet of Eldreth (Ellie) Coburn, the daughter of a VIP. She meets Max because of his kind treatment of the spider puppy and once they become friends, she takes it into her head to use her connections with Captain Blaine to help Max advance into a position on the ship that would give him a high enough status to allow her to be seen with him. Because his forged papers claimed that he had formerly trained as a chartsman (a lower level member of the astrogation team) he is given the chance to try out for the job on the Asgard. Here he meets Dr. Hendrix the ship’s Astrogator. Hendrix had trained under Max’s Uncle Chet and he is interested in seeing if Max has inherited the family’s mathematical skill. Dr. Hendrix is generally sympathetic toward Max and goes out of his way to teach him the skills he needs. Max also meets Mr. Simes the Assistant Astrogator. Simes is an unfriendly, belligerent man who jealously guards his prerogatives as Dr. Hendrix’ assistant. He resents Max’s presence and once Max’s eidetic memory is demonstrated Simes more than ever goes out of his way to denigrate Max’s skills.
The story proceeds very skillfully and Max is shown to mature and take responsibility for the choices he made that put him on the ship. And circumstances on the ship lead to excitement from various sources. The ship is lost during a poorly executed transition, sort of a translation through folded space that sends the ship to a completely uncharted area of the universe. A planet where they take refuge has hostile lifeforms that threaten the lives of the crew and passengers of the Asgard. And due to death, suicide and mutiny Max finds himself the only astrogator left on the ship and dependent on his memory to provide astrogation tables need to attempt to return the Asgard to familiar space.
I won’t go into all the details but suffice it to say that Starman Jones is a lively and fascinating story that combines various types of characters interacting in a consistent science fiction plot. Some of the details of how astrogators do their jobs now would seem quaint and illogical with the advent of powerful computing equipment but this in no way diminishes the interest in the story. As a naval officer Heinlein paints a very convincing picture of life on a star ship. His hierarchy among the crew members and their relation to the passengers allows the dynamic of the story to play out.
This book was written in 1953. Mores and attitudes have changed drastically in the sixty-five plus years since Starman Jones was written but I’ve given this book to a grandson of mine who reads science fiction voraciously and he gave it high marks. It still maintains a high position among any young adult science fiction books written since then. Highly recommended.
After you’ve read enough sexbot articles on Drudge maybe switch to something interesting
I loved the juvenile books Heinlein wrote including Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Between Planets. Read them as a boy, still love them. Starship Troopers is considered by many to be a Juvie as well, but I put it in with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as far as political writings go. Pity Heinlein wasn’t a Founding Father who could have added a few things to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
I loved his books too. I liked his idea of using military service as a pre-condition for voting rights.
I agree. Make potential voters prove, by placing themselves between the nation and danger, that they put something above their own stinking hides. Some form of selfless service. Firefighter and cop would qualify, anything that required you to risk your safety and life for others, most of whom you never know personally. Read Heinlein’s speech to the graduates of Annapolis. It’s one of the great ones.
It’s a great speech. Maybe if we clean up the mess we’re currently in there will still be some left in the next generation to appreciate the message.