Thursday, April 18, 2013

A spacesuit named Oscar

Robert Heinlein is quite properly considered one of the masters of science fiction. He wrote ground-breaking and important novels throughout his career, but my personal favorites are among the "juvenile" novels he wrote in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s.

Today, we'd probably call these young adult novels, but they in no way wrote down to their audience. They are great stories in terms of plot construction, full of intelligent ideas and philosophies. They are simply great science fiction adventure stories.

His later works just don't appeal to me. I admit that this is in part because the views he often presents about subjects such as religion or sexual morality are significantly different from what I believe, but my main problem is that he seemed to often sacrifice good plotting in order to hammer us over the head with those ideas. Gee whiz, if he had just told stories as well as he did in his juveniles, I would have been happy to enjoy his later novels while still disagreeing with him.

(Though, at the risk of seeming inconsistent, I love Starship Troopers despite the fact that a good 40% of the novel consists of pausing the story to pontificate about what makes a healthy society. Then again, I agree in general terms--if not always in specifics--with much of what he has to say in that novel. Also, the armored soldiers vs. alien bugs battles are awesome.)

Of his juveniles, the last one he wrote is my absolute favorite. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was first serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1958, then published as a book that same year.

It's got a wonderful premise. The setting is the future--we've begun to go out into space and have a permanent city on the Moon. But Earth is otherwise just like 1950s Earth, with the main character (high school student Kip Russell) working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore.

But Kip has plans. Encouraged by his father to self-educate himself beyond what he learns in school, Kip already has an expert's knowledge of engineering, mathematics and astronomy. He wants to go to the Moon more than anything else in the world.

He enters a contest to write a slogan for a soap company, with the first prize being a trip to the Moon. But he wins second prize--a used spacesuit.

Kip tinkers with the suit (he names it Oscar), gets it working and is taking it on a sort of test-run across his back yard when he's kidnapped by aliens and taken to the Moon.

This is the start of an absolutely wonderful adventure story. Kip isn't the only prisoner of the aliens (called Wormfaces by Kip). There's also Peewee, a pre-teen girl who still carries around a doll with her everywhere, but who also happens to be a genius. Then there's Mother Thing, an alien who is the enemy of the Wormfaces and who exudes a sense of protection and love to the humans.

The Wormfaces are planning on soon taking over Earth. Kip, Peewee and Mother Thing are tasked with the job of escaping and hopefully foiling their plans.

During this, Heinlein avoids the trap of turning his young protagonists into action heroes, something that would be realistically beyond their capabilities. Instead, they have to use their brains to problem-solve their way out of dangerous situations. Heinlein uses this basic premise to generate an enormous amount of tension. When Kip and Peewee are trying to escape by travelling 40 miles across the surface of the Moon to the human settlement, there are several problems to overcome. How do they take Mother Thing with them when none of the available space suits fit her? How does Kip share oxygen with Peewee when the valves on her suit aren't compatible with the air tanks he has available? Heinlein takes these problems and adds them to the physically strenuous task of hiking 40 miles over rough terrain and creates a mini-epic within the novel. The entire sequence is un-put-downable.

He does it again later on when the protagonists end up on Pluto. Kip must walk one hundred yards outside a building to plant a radio beacon--but his suit isn't properly insulated against the extreme cold. Once again, there is an epic mini-adventure within the main story.

On top of all this, Kip and Peewee find out that the Wormfaces might just be the least of their problems, when they encounter a sort-of federation of alien races that are debating whether its safe to leave us potentially dangerous humans alive.

The characterizations are among Heinlein's finest. Kip is completely believable as an intelligent teenager, able to keep his cool in dangerous situations largely because he had great parents who taught him self-discipline and how to think for himself. Peewee is precocious and downright adorable--Heinlein finds the perfect balance between portraying her as a genius at science and math while still reminding us that she's just a little girl. Her relationship with Kip, which quickly evolves into a big brother/little sister dynamic, is heartfelt and honest.

Portraying a child genius in a realistic way is never easy. Star Trek: The Next Generation tried it with Wesley Crusher, but (despite Wil Weaton's skill as an actor) was largely a failure in that Wesley is in the end simply annoying. But Heinlein succeeds (as did Orson Scott Card in Ender's Game). Peewee seems very real and, though she can get on Kip's nerves from time to time, we quickly come to love her as much as does Kip.

Another strength of the novel is that Heinlein never loses track of just how wondrous outer space is. Even in the midst of dangerous adventures, Heinlein smoothly integrates descriptions of the mountains of the Moon or the landscape of Pluto or the Milky Way as seen from a planet in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. He reminds us of the enormous scale of space--of the mind-boggling distances between planets and stars and galaxies.

Some SF universes, such as Star Trek and Star Wars, make interstellar travel pretty routine. And this is fine--that's a part of the stories being told in those worlds. But it's nice to be reminded that traveling in space isn't something that will ever be completely routine. And this isn't just because Space is a harsh environment that is always trying to kill us. It's also because Space is...well, Space--full of planets and nebula and neutron stars and countless other majestic sights. Even when Heinlein is tossing his characters into what seems to be certain death, he never lets us forget that.


  1. When I first started using the library the librarians directed me to both Heinlein and Andre Norton. One of my favorites was the Star Beast. I also noticed a strong similarity between the Flat Cats of the Rolling Stones and Tribbles.

  2. There definitely is a similarity, though I don't think David Gerrold mentions the Heinlein novel when he wrote his book about creating the episode. It's been years since I've read that book, though, so I might just be forgetting a reference.

  3. Apparently Heinlein may have gotten the idea from a 1905 story called Pigs Is Pigs in which a pair of Guinea Pigs reproduce outrageously.


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