Robert A. Heinlein: Starman Jones

Baen Books has been releasing new editions of Robert A. Heinlein works for over a decade, at a steadily increasing pace. So far this has included about half of the famed Heinlein juveniles, originally written for Scribner between 1947 and 1958. The latest from Baen is Starman Jones, first published in 1953.

Like other RAH reprints from Baen, Starman Jones includes an introduction from William H. Patterson, Jr. putting the novel in the context of the time and with respect to Heinlein’s other works. I already knew from Patterson’s biography of the grandmaster that Heinlein was consciously influenced by Horatio Alger, a nineteenth-century writer of adventure stories for boys.

Like Alger, Heinlein strove to provide moral training for the young people (especially young men) of his generation. The recurring moral theme of Heinlein’s juveniles (and many of his later adult novels as well) includes such prescriptions as “hard work pays off,” “honesty is the best policy,” and “study hard,” amongst others. By all accounts, Heinlein truly lived and espoused these values, and such universal lessons lend these books greater staying power than some of his more overtly political works.

One thing I didn’t realize, however, was that Heinlein had taken the basic plot for Starman Jones from a real-life event. If you wish to avoid all spoilers, you’ll want to skip over this next (quoted) paragraph, and Patterson’s introduction, as well. In Heinlein’s own words (as quoted by Patterson from the Heinlein Archive at UC Santa Cruz):

“This book was written without an outline from a situation in the early nineteenth century. Two American teenagers took off in a sail boat, were picked up by a China clipper, were gone two years — and returned to Boston with one of them in command.”

Heinlein took that same basic situation and turned it into space opera. At the novel’s opening, our hero, Max Jones (his precise age isn’t given but he seems to be in his late teens) is a farm boy, working the land hard each day to provide for himself and his widowed, but irresponsible step-mother. When she comes home with a new husband, known by everyone in town as a drunk and a lout, announcing that they’ve sold the farm, Max decides his filial duties are over. He leaves the farm with not much more than the clothes on his back and a vague plan of getting into space.

Ultimately, Max finds a friend in the older and wiser Sam, a roguish character with a penchant for bending the rules, but a good heart, and the two of them scam their way onto a starship. Through a series of unlikely but plausibly-written events, Max manages to rise higher and higher in the chain of command. When disaster strikes, his talents turn out to be crucial to saving the ship, its passengers, and his fellow crew members.

Heinlein’s earliest novels did read very much like early “boys adventure stories,” with two-dimensional characters and pulp-novel situations. Books like Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadets weren’t bad, mind you. But they weren’t great. By the time he was writing Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones, however, Heinlein was in the groove.

RAH didn’t apologize for a certain degree of formula in these stories, an update of Alger’s from a century earlier: a young man from a modest background, through the virtues of hard work, a bit of luck, and (uniquely, in Starman Jones) perhaps taking some liberties with the truth to get his foot in the door, eventually proves his mettle and resourcefulness and saves the day. Hey, it’s a good formula.

I haven’t read any of Horatio Alger’s books, but other comparisons spring to mind. A young lad on ship, starting at the bottom rung, eventually saving the day — sounds like Treasure Island, albeit without the treasure. In fact, Max Jones bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Jim Hawkins, each having lost a father, each finding a friend and role model in someone of dubious morals, Sam Anderson being Heinlein’s stand-in for Long John Silver.

Yet, though less obvious than the Robert Louis Stephenson comparison, I found myself thinking more frequently of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during Max’s interstellar adventures. Max Jones is, like most of Heinlein’s scrupulously honest young protagonists, very much more of a straight-arrow than the uncivilized Huck ever was, but he still finds it necessary to lie in order to get a fair shot. For the protagonist of a Heinlein juvenile to profit by something like falsifying shipboard documents is unusual enough to be worth mentioning, and reminds me more than a little of Huck, who had little need for civilization or rules but had little trouble determining right from wrong.

Mark Twain had something to say in his book about the difference between morality and law, particularly with respect to slavery and discrimination; Robert Heinlein had a similar bone to pick as well. The SF Grandmaster’s targets were the unions who, he thought, sought to trample the downtrodden, and make the rich richer. Standing in for them in this novel is an exclusive hereditary guild system, making it almost impossible to get into space if you don’t know the right people. (This is a major plot point in the story, forcing Jones’ hand in the deception.) It seems to me that Heinlein, politically very different in many ways, sought the same sort of social equality and freedom that Twain had, some 70 years earlier.

And it’s these universal themes that make still so readable. True, the technological aspects haven’t aged well. On the one hand Heinlein describes precision, supersonic bullet trains that never touch the ground. On the other hand, ship’s crew perform calculations by hand and feed the answers into antique computers for interstellar jumps.

Yet I’ll wager that most modern readers will suspend their disbelief on these points. The well-realized characters and smooth plotting represent this writer at his best. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about most of the ideas in this novel; it’s just a solid adventure tale (with a subtle moral undercurrent) that’s as fun to read today as it was 60 years ago. But with no larger goal than that in mind, Heinlein wrote a classic.

(Baen Books, 2011)

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