Lion of the Blogosphere

Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert Heinlein (spoilers)

I think this is an overrated Heinlein juvenile novel. There’s some interesting stuff at the end, but in order get there you have to get through a lot of boy stuff.

It takes place in the relatively near future in which men are just beginning to colonize the moon. Teenage boy lives in small town in flyover country that feels exactly like the 1950s and not the future. Boy’s dad is like the dad in every other Heinlein juvenile novel, preaching extreme self-reliance.

Boy wins a used space suit in a contest sponsored by a soap company. (Soap? Heinlein predicted space travel, but failed to see that detergent would replace soap? And that detergents and soaps combined would become a very minor part of the economy?)

Massive amount of copy devoted to explaining the technical details of how space suits work. Various plot elements are contrived so that boy needs to wear the space suit. Boy, supposedly not the best student in his school, knows more about science and math than most valedictorians.

That stuff out of the way, the interesting stuff at the end is that all of humanity is put on trial by a federation of aliens, and the boy is forced to represent mankind. The aliens believe that humans are violent and warlike, and if our technology continues to progress at such rapid speed, we would become a threat to the peaceful races of the galaxies. The punishment, if found guilty, is that all mankind would be destroyed. The aliens are not exactly the merciful Christian good guys.

Good news for mankind: we are given a reprieve and will be re-evaluated again sometime in the future.

Some people think that Heinlein was an evil fascist because he proposed a government in Starship Trooper in which only military veterans are allowed to vote. But the reality is that Heinlein was interested in exploring different ideas and one shouldn’t assume any one novel represents his true beliefs. In this book, he proposes an idea that I associate with liberal leftist science fiction, that mankind is barbaric compared to civilized alien races. This type of liberal leftist science fiction is demonstrated by the movie Arrival in which the aliens come with a gift for mankind, but mankind, paranoid and barbaric, launches a military attack on the peaceful aliens.

On the other hand, the Heinlein aliens, by even contemplating the harsh punishment of genocide of all humans, are much more evil than humans, at least by modern standards of judging good and evil, so there’s sort of a jumble of liberal and conservative science fiction ideas.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

February 24, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Books

14 Responses

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  1. The old, “humans are violent” and every other race in the universe is peace loving and wise is an old old trope by now, but at the time this was written, I don’t think that was as worn out as it is now. Although going by your review of Arrival, they’re still selling it.

    Mike Street Station

    February 24, 2017 at 3:54 pm

  2. This is a golden age for hard S.F. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, or Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, or Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. All excellent.

    David Pinsen

    February 24, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    • I tried reading Seveneves, and I couldn’t finish it. Too plodding, and just too depressing.
      Realistic? Seemed to be, but I didn’t want to live it.

      Half Canadian

      February 24, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      • The last 3rd is completely different, but I couldn’t put down the first two 3rds down. It’s not plodding, but it is detailed. The Derb called it “engineering fiction”. Of course you wouldn’t want to live the end of the world. Who would? Still, a gripping read. And in the last 3rd, he imagines the world reborn.

        David Pinsen

        February 24, 2017 at 8:25 pm

  3. Star Trek TNG’s long trial story arc directly imitates Have Space Suit, Lion.

    Heinlein’s point is humanity better be ready for everything: the advanced ET’s don’t really appear so advanced morally–but for all we know we’re dogs talking to an ET 3 year old.

    The tech wiz that does so-so in school is reality.


    February 24, 2017 at 6:12 pm

  4. Heinlein picks his hero to be the kid who loves science and math, not the valedictorian, because he is against tyranny of the nerds.

    Our country is run by a “meritocracy” of ivy-league valedictorians, aka nerds, not the people with convictions, moral courage, and common sense.

    Vote by military veterans only is something ivy-league nerds would never support because they haven’t a patriotic warrior spirit, not even a thimbleful, and are happy to betray their countrymen for a few dollars and feels. Heinlein “got” this.

    Anecdotally, the top 10 students in my high school class were basically worthless compared to the 10th-20th student, in all things except collecting As on their report cards. We must reject strivers!


    February 24, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    • Similarly his blue collar “computer man” hero in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

      David Pinsen

      February 24, 2017 at 8:39 pm

  5. Based on your promotion of Heinlein I bought and I’m reading Menace From Earth which is a bunch of short stories. Can’t say I’m getting into it too much though I do like the resourcefulness of the characters.


    February 24, 2017 at 11:52 pm

  6. Starship Troopers was a great book that was made into a terrible movie. Just a total POS on film. FWIW, IMHO, YMMV, etc…


    February 25, 2017 at 1:16 am

      • The cornball B-Movies/TV shows of the 80s sci-fi/horror genre were the best. They gave us a visceral reaction which movies today do not.

        I remember watching this film about Manhattan’s underground and didn’t want to descend down into the subway station after that. The 80s America and especially NYC were not only crime infested, there was a dark overtone throughout the entire era where Reagan rule the roost.


        February 25, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      • And the 80s was scary. There quite a number of trite shows about non-humans preying on humans as a food source.

        I think we need to bring these shows back, simply because there are too many wasted morons who deserved to be eaten.


        February 25, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    • I thought the movie was great. It worked as both a traditional war movie and a parody of one.

      I saw it in a theater in Manhattan and there were audible gasps at some of the violent scenes. I suspect New Yorkers are inured to scenes of violence today.

      I didn’t read the novel, so I don’t care about how faithful it was to it.

      David Pinsen

      February 25, 2017 at 2:05 pm

  7. My mother read this to me as a bedtime story when I was a little kid. It might not be a flawless story to an adult reader, but it works well when you are five. Shop-warn sci-fi cliches still seem fresh at that age.


    February 25, 2017 at 1:26 am

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