Lion of the Blogosphere

Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein

Spoiler alert: I do give away the ending as part of this review.

I believe that I first read this book when I was in sixth grade. And I know that I read it more than once. But the only part of it that I remembered is that the main character was captured by centaurs and that there was a girl with him who he played chess with. Otherwise, I didn’t remember anything about this book at all.

As you should know by now, in the 1950s, Heinlein wrote a bunch of novels that Heinlein fans call his “juveniles” because they were marketed to teenage boys and had main characters who were teenage boys. But other than it being a sort of coming-of-age story in the future, I don’t find Starman Jones especially juvenile at all. It’s a far more adult book than The Hunger Games. Along with Tunnel in the Sky and Citizen of the Galaxy, I rank this a top-three Heinlein juvenile.

The book starts with the main character, Max Jones, reading a book he borrowed from the library. And this immediately alerts you to problems of reading retro science-fiction. It’s impossible to believe that people would still be borrowing physical books from the library hundreds of years in the future.

This book was written in 1953. At that time, transistors were in the early experimental stages, the first fully transistorized computer had yet to be built, and the first experimental integrated circuit chip (that is a wafer of silicon with more than one transistor on it) wouldn’t be built until 1958. Today, an iPhone has billions of transistors on its main IC ship (for example the A11 chip in the iPhone 8 has 4.3 billion transistors), but Heinlein just couldn’t imagine that possibility. Also, while Heinlein was a great writer and had a background in engineering (which he studied at the U.S. Naval Academy), I don’t think he knew very much about computer science.

In Heinlein’s somewhat dystopian computer-less future, the world economy has devolved into a caste system, one that’s not entirely rigid, but rigid enough to condemn Max to a life of poverty. To work in any sort of job requires one to be a member of a guild, and entrance into a guild is either handed down from father to son, or an apprenticeship has to be purchased with more money than Max has.

Max’s father is dead, and his step-mother is lazy, stupid, and selfish, but Max takes care of her instead of going to school because he father told him to take care of his “maw.” When Max’s step-“maw” brings home this mean loser and says they got married, Max runs away from home and never looks back.

Through a series of fortuitous events, Max hooks up with a vagabond and scoundrel named Sam. Sam helps Max fake a record of membership in a guild so that Max can get a job onboard a departing spaceship. Sam’s plan is that when they reach a world called Nova Terra, they will go AWOL and start a new life there. Nova Terra is apparently a libertarian paradise where there is no bureaucracy, no guilds, minimal laws and minimal taxes, a man with talent and ability can become anything he wants. But that’s not what Max wants. Max just wants to work onboard a spaceship because being onboard a spaceship is so awesome compared to anything else. Although, the way Heinlein describes life aboard a spaceship, it sucks. Sam seems to me to have the right idea.

Just about every Heinlein novel contains one or more father figures who are also used as the voice of the author. Sam definitely represents the voice of the author in this novel. Although there is a second father figure, Doctor Hendrix, the chief “Astrogator” aboard the spaceship who takes Max under his wing. Unfortunately, Doctor Hendrix dies, and his job is taken over by Simes who is both incompetent and perhaps psychopathic. He hates Max, we presume because he sees that Max is smarter and has more talent than him.

Heinlein is obviously trying to make a point about dysfunctional bureaucratic organizations. And it’s going to be even worse in the dystopian future when people are recruited into the most important job on a spaceship on account of their father having the same job and not because they are the most capable.

I won’t go into detail about what Astrogators do or about how Max is trained for that role. Let’s just say that it doesn’t make any sense at all based on what we know about computers today, but it was still an enjoyable read and I was able to suspend disbelief.

The other main supporting character is a rich girl, Eldreth “Ellie” Coburn, a passenger on the ship who Max fortuitously meets on account of his first job on ship, before being promoted, was to take care of the ship’s kennel, and Ellie’s pet spider monkey was among the more normal pets in the kennel. The spider monkey is able to talk and is said to have the intelligence of a human toddler. The book never broaches the ethics of taking such a smart animal away from its natural alien environment and making it into a pet. The characters just accept it as the natural order of things that humans are entitled to keep lesser species as pets.

The big gender-bending plot twist is that Ellie allows Max to “teach” her how to play 3D chess, but later we discover that Ellie was actually a champion chess player and she was just playing dumb for Max’s sake because girls aren’t supposed to show off how smart they are. The lesson in most of Heinlein’s books is that girls can do anything that boys can do, but for the most part what girls want to do is get married and have babies. We never find out if Ellie has any babies, but she does get married at the end, to her boyfriend back home and not Max.

The greatest politically incorrect part of the book is when Max makes the following observation to Ellie:

I suppose girls are probably as intelligent as men, but most of them don’t act like it. I think it’s because they don’t have to. If a girl is pretty, she doesn’t have to think.

Followed by some comments about Ellie not being that pretty. It’s after this faux pas on the part of Max that Ellie reveals her true chess-playing prowess.

But I think the observation is on the money, and not just the part about pretty girls not having to work hard at anything. Heinlein correctly notes that there’s a difference between being intelligent and using that intelligence to think. I see a lot of blog commenters confusing these two things. In addition to Ellie not being required to think because she’s a girl, she also doesn’t have to think because she’s rich. No matter what she does, and she acts up and misbehaves quite a bit, she’s going to have a cushy life ahead of her.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

April 24, 2019 at 10:35 AM

Posted in Books

13 Responses

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  1. In the Foundation series by Issac Asimov, books are no longer merely words on a printed page. Books seem to be multumedia recordings that required a book player to be rendered into sight and sound…akin to Blu-rays or DVDs, but far more advanced.

    Oswald Spengler

    April 24, 2019 at 1:13 PM

  2. Recently finished “Revolt in 2100.”

    A great red pill book. The edition I read even had an afterword by Heinlein, where he predicts our current madness (although in his time, the bad dummies were the KKK types, but I think he would see today for what it is).


    April 24, 2019 at 1:22 PM

    • A modern Heinlein would probably be one of these polyamorous libertarian Asperger types.

      Modern Orwell I’m thinking ‘dirtbag left’, or maybe intellectual dark web.


      April 24, 2019 at 7:09 PM

  3. Heinlein probably imagined in 1953 that much of the technological advances occurring in the next century would be in aeronautics and space exploration. Instead, those fields seem to have plateaued since about 1975 (at least when it comes to manned space exploration and commercial aviation) and computer technology has been at the firefront of technological innovation.

    Oswald Spengler

    April 24, 2019 at 1:24 PM

  4. In every day life, it seems that women are roughly equal in intelligence to men (outside of things like math and spatial relations), but I think this is an illusion resulting from the greater deference,accommodation, and respect which is subconsciously and automatically accorded to women over men.


    April 24, 2019 at 2:12 PM

    • Women have better verbal ability, which is more important in most situations.


      April 24, 2019 at 7:08 PM

  5. I am pretty sure there are some Heinlein books in which there is interplanetary or even interstellar travel, but the characters still use slide rules. I definitely remember slide rules in Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity” (1954).


    April 24, 2019 at 8:55 PM

  6. Please tuck away the review if you are going to give away a major spoiler.

    Justice Duvall

    April 24, 2019 at 10:37 PM

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