Robert Heinlein, The Rolling Stones

In Robert Heinlein’s juvenile romp, The Rolling Stones, a nice Lunar family — mom, dad, grandma, and four kids — hop in a Winnebago and go driving across country for a couple years, to see the sights. Except replace Winnebago with spaceship, and country with Solar System. The ertswhile Loonies (we’ll retroactively apply this Moon is a Harsh Mistress nickname here for convenience) make hair-raising orbital maneuvers, visit Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and are fixing for Saturn’s moon Titan before the novel is through.

It’s not your average family vacation. Or maybe it would be, if the rest of us dreamed as big as Heinlein did rather than cutting the NASA budget. C’est la vie.

There are a number of influences and traditions to parse in this novel. Obviously, it’s Golden Age, 1950s hard science fiction, which means rocket ships, other planets, aliens, et cetera. The technical details are explored with relish. Modern literacy research suggests young males are more likely to be reluctant readers than girls, and one solution is to let them read what they want, which is often technical non-fiction about vehicles or space rather than fictional stories about people and emotions. Heinlein apparently already had that figured out 60+ years ago.

Which brings us to the fact that this is one of Heinlein’s dozen or so young adult books, a modern term both more inclusive and less pejorative than either the “juvenile” or “for boys” labels of the time. Besides finding joy in the technical, this also translates to there being little in the way of adult content and almost no romance to speak of, not to mention a preference for male POVs (though the story is technically of a third-person omniscient perspective, the narrator hovers over the shoulder of the twin boys, Castor and Pollux, far more frequently than that of their mother or older sister; grandma Hazel is an exception in that she gets a fair bit of stage-time).

But The Rolling Stones (which was published in the UK under the title Space Family Stone, an obvious reference to The Swiss Family Robinson) is also a frontier story, the “family in a tin-covered wagon heading west”, akin to the (non-fictional) narratives of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series, or any number of Westerns.

Frontiers, be they the “final frontier” of space or historical frontiers like the ever-shifting border lines of the American West, share certain elements in common. It’s a particular type of person, the “rugged individualist” Heinlein admired (and to some degree personified), who chooses to head to the edge of civilization or beyond; consequently, that makes for a very particular type of social environment in frontier towns.

And there’s a sense of adventure in getting out of the big city and heading into, if not unknown territory, certainly little-well-known territory like a sparsely-populated mining outpost in the Asteroid Belt. Heinlein made no secret of his intentions to inculcate into his young male readers certain moral virtues with these books, which included self-reliance, thinking ahead, a good work ethic, and assistance to those in need.

Heinlein’s juvenile leads were always boy scouts in spirit, and sometimes literally (see Farmer in the Sky), and boy scouts know (presumably) that space travel is serious business. In fact, parts of this book originally appeared in Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.

The author is thus sure to gravely inform his readers as to the risks while also being sure nothing really bad will ever happen, at least to the title characters. (A far cry from today’s YA works where teenagers kill each other with blunt instruments.)

In the hands of a lesser author, the novel might seem somewhat meandering. The Stone family head off to visit Mars just for something to do, one thing leads to another and the journey continues. There are mini-episodes of adventure here and there, but the book as a whole doesn’t have a clear destination or anything clearly at stake. In fact, the novel doesn’t even end with the journey being completed, it just sort of stops at one point, while the Stone family, we are assured, is ready to continue, again ever outward.

Yet even if the Stones are themselves not certain as to the specific reason for taking their trip, nevertheless they grow and learn and change through it. I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, and took a break to burn through this one, and I’m reminded of what a huge influence Heinlein was on all the serious planetary colonization science fiction that came after him.

If reading Robinson makes me wish I were a NASA scientist chosen for a one-way trip to start the first Mars colony, reading Heinlein makes me wish I were a teenager taking the same trip with my NASA scientist parents. I actually like the fact that the retro-future of the Rolling Stones boasts the perfection of space technology while the pinnacles of computer science are just glorified calculators, since it means everyone in space has to be really good at physics and mathematics to survive a trip. It’s a far cry from giving voice commands to the ship’s computer like in Star Trek.

RAH characters tend to be the best and brightest of their time and place, but they’re also good people. They represent humanity at its best. It makes me want to know them. It makes me want to be them, working at something difficult enough and important enough to require the best I’m able to offer. I have to thank Heinlein for his optimism, for thinking that people can live up to that.

(Baen, 2009)

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