Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Starman Jones, by Robert A. Heinlein

Max Jones is a young farmer, working hard to support his unlovable stepmother after his father's death, but he dreams of the life his Uncle Chet lived, as a member of the Astrogators' Guild. Chet had promised him that he'd nominate him for membership, but died while Max was still too young to join, and then Max's father, before he died also, made him promise to take care of his stepmother.

But when his stepmother remarries and she and her new husband sell the farm out from under him, he runs away, taking his uncle's astrogation books with him. The books get stolen from him by a deceitfully helpful conman, and then he discovers that his uncle had died before nominating him for the guild, and all his dreams seem crushed forever. But then he meets that charming conman again, who decides that they can help each other get what they both really want—a berth on a starship. For Max, it's a berth as a steward's mate, and he's tending farm animals again, but he's on a starship, and he's a plucky, resourceful, just plain likable young Heinlein hero, who makes you buy into every improbable plot twist along the way to his dream.

Once again, great fun.
Update, May 2017: Rereading this decades after originally reading this is interesting. It's still a fun story, with the plucky, young Heinlein hero who makes you buy into all the improbable plot twists. It is, of course, very dated in a number of ways. The improbability of star travel depending on a set of printed books of numbers and equations has often been commented on. The social dynamics of Heinlein's world has been the subject of lots of commentary and discussion, most particularly the often quite rigid gender roles, especially in the "juveniles," i.e., Heinlein's young adult novels. It's worth noting that he often (but far from always) subverts those roles somewhat. For instance, in this book, Ellie rather testily points out to Max that women are dealing with the reality of the rules they live with. Another woman, an appallingly predatory creature, sheds that behavior when the ship hits a real crisis and there are more important things to do than play social games.

And yet Heinlein never really questions those basic social roles, even as later in his career his expectations of what jobs women can hold expands considerably.

No, what really struck me this time is Heinlein's unquestioning assumption that starships and hyperspeed trains will exist side by side with dirt farmers relying on mule traction, cooking over an open fire is a mundane necessity for poorer farmers, and the hobos who would have been regularly encountered during the days of Heinlein's early adulthood.

It's a world largely unchanged, not from the 1950s, but to a great extent from the 1930s.

However, another thing that caught my attention this time is the way characters, major or minor, may be described in terms revealing that they are ethnic or racial minorities, with the fact having zero plot significance. Dark skin or an epicanthic fold are treated merely as mundane items of physical description, part of the normal range of humanity, just like brown hair or green eyes. There's a loud, tiny segment of contemporary sf readership that claims to revere Heinlein and yet thinks this is controversial when today's writers do it.

It's still great fun to read--at least for someone who first read it in the early 1960s. No guarantees for Gen Y or millennials, who grew up in an entirely different world than I did! Because pretty much everything I just mentioned as anachronisms were still real things that people knew about when I was a kid, even though less common than when Heinlein was.

For my fellow Boomers, you'll wince at some of the datedness, but for my mileage, it hasn't had a serious visit from the Suck Fairy.