Sunday, July 22, 2012
GUEST POST - Holmes IV: A "Monogram" on the Heinlein Juveniles
("holmes_iv" is a regular commenter at the Heinlein Society Nexus Forum and submitted the following essay, or "monogram," as he puckishly names it, for publication here. I may disagree with him on a few interpretations but very much enjoyed it. It is published exactly as sent except for some formatting adjustments)
Monogram on the Heinlein Juveniles
Robert A. Heinlein, in an attempt to establish a little financial security -- something that previously had eluded him -- began a series of juvenile novels for Scribner's in 1947.
I believe he originally thought of them as "boy's books," in the tradition of Tom Sawyer. Over the years, however, I think he learned a respect for his audience, and while he never produced an equivalent to Huckleberry Finn, the novels did become more mature in both writing style and theme.
Rocket Ship Galileo, the first of the juvenile novels, certainly was no more than a "boy's book." Its premise is preposterous: Three teenaged boys assist a rogue scientist in the construction and operation of a moon rocket.
Once they reach the Moon, they discover a nest of Nazis, a secret cell which is determined to finish
World War II from its hidden base on the Moon. The American teenagers and their mentor use rifles in an attempt to defeat the Nazis, which they do.
While the story is silly, Heinlein does use it to propagandize for matters he considers serious: toleration of minorities, in this case Jews, and promotion of serious education for minors, or at least respect for the intellectual abilities of minors.
His view of his audience had not changed much with the publication of Space Cadet in 1948. Though the plot is much less preposterous than that of Rocket Ship Galileo, he still believed he was writing for an audience of boys. However, the science is much better in Space Cadet.
For example, there is a very good scene about how to maneuver in weightlessness. There is also discussion about how to grow vegetables in a weightless environment.
There is also a mature discussion of the politics of the atomic bomb -- probably the first in juvenile fiction of any sort.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around four boys (actually three as the story progresses) who join the Space Patrol as cadets. Their ship crashes on Venus, and the Venusians help them get back home. I especially enjoyed Heinlein's portrayal of the alien society.
Unlike Rocket Ship Galileo, the protagonist shows growing maturity through the course of the story; not unheard of in juvenile fiction, to be sure. He does this through his acceptance of being dumped by his girlfriend and through his reluctant admission than his dad was right when he said the U.S. was too powerful politically to be worried about a bomb attack. His maturity is also shown through his attitude toward the Venusians, and is contrasted by the immaturity of the attitude shown by an ex-cadet.
Red Planet (1949) also contains mature discussion of subjects not normally found in boy's books: the inherent unfairness of unrestained capitalism and the attempt by those exploited to become free and to rule themselves.
While Jim, the protagonist, and Frank, his best friend, don't "grow up" during the course of the story, the society they are part of does. Thus, political maturity stands in for the boys' maturation.
This novel also introduces the Martian society and Martians that Heinlein would return to in Stranger in a Strange Land and Podkayne of Mars. These are not the only Martians Heinlein made use of, but they certainly are the ones his fans remember best. They are Apollonian in nature, but since Heinlein is still writing "boy's books," there is no Dyonisian society to contrast them with.
The next novel in the series, 1951's Between Planets, begins rather like a silly boy's book, but quickly changes tone. In it, the protagonist, Don, is plunged into political intrigue, thanks to the anti-colonialist views of his parents. Don gets cut off from his family and must learn to cope by himself on the frontier planet Venus. He grows up quickly; instead of feeling sorry for himself, he joins a revolutionary army and behaves like a mature adult.
This is also the first Heinlein juvenile with a serious female character, though her name eludes me at this point. She is a cheerleader for Don of a sort, exhorting him to act like a man. But we're still in the realm of "boy's books" here, and there is no romance.
The Rolling Stones (1952) is written in a more light-hearted, humorous vein. Cas and Pol, moon-reared twins and geniuses, are the protagonists. In this novel, Heinlein offers a good take on long-range space travel, and what it might be like to live among the asteroids.
Cas and Pol really don't do any growing up in this story; I think it was meant more for fun than anything else.
A notable aspect of The Rolling Stones is that it introduces Hazel Stone, a character Heinlein would co-opt in the 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a pre-adolescent. In The Rolling Stones she is a grandmother. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Hazel is a rather humorless character; in The Rolling Stones, she's part of the fun.
Farmer in the Sky, 1953, is the novel in which Heinlein began gaining more respect for his audience; it really does not read as a "boy's book" for the most part.
Bill, a teenaged protagonist, has a mostly adult relationship with his father, George, and his outlook on life is heavily influenced by his departed mother, Helen.
George remarries, to a woman named Molly, who has a daughter, Peggy, and the new family emigrates to Ganymede, where they will become farmers.
The book is full of the pioneer spirit and the maturity that such a spirit demands. That is nowhere better portrayed than in the illness and subsequent death of the child, Peggy. Aware of what immigration has resulted in for her, her spirit never flags. This is probably the best example of a "Heinlein Moment" in the series so far.
There's also a lot of cool stuff about how to turn barren rock into arable farmland.
Starman Jones, also from 1953, further shows how Heinlein's respect for his audience is growing. Except for the "no sex" requirement, it could easily take its place among novels aimed at adults.
It is basically a novel about accepting responsibility. Max Jones faked his way into employment on a starship, and through no fault of his own ends up being the captain. In a pivotal moment, Max admits he's a liar to his superior officer, thus accepting responsibility -- and has even more responsibility thrust on him.
The contrast to Max is Sam, a disgraced space marine who seemingly has no conscious, but a helluva lot of street smarts. But Sam redeems himself in true Heinlein fashion when he sacrifices himself to save Max, the only person who can safely get the rest of the ship's compliment back home.
There's another minor step forward in adult theming, and if you blinked, you missed it: Sam and Max are confronted by a hooker.
The main female character is Elly, and here we're back in "no sex" land. She is to Max what the female character in Between Planets is to Don.
The Star Beast (1954) marks the series' next, and last, full foray into humor. John Thomas Stuart XI is the teen protagonist, and although one might argue that he grows over the course of the book, one might just be wrong.
John Thomas is pushed around by every female character in the book, from his mother to his girlfiend to his pet, a creature from outer space brought back to earth by his great-grandfather, another John Thomas Stuart. In fact, he is "pushed around" by the memory of all his John Thomas forebears and their exploits.
By book's end, John has been manipulated into what amounts to a life sentence as his pet's pet, back on her home planet, and into marriage.
The point of the book is not so much John's march to maturity, but society's struggle to gain maturity through sloughing off outdated notions, namely, racism.
The two real heroes of the book are an African and an American Jew, and this must have been pretty daring stuff for a "boy's book" written in the mid-Fifties.
Granted, The Star Beast didn't do much for feminism. But rather than criticize the story on that front, I would like to point out that Heinlein, who I believe would not have shunned the moniker "hack writer," did make use of several convenient stereotypes throughout his career.
Next we come to 1955's Tunnel in the Sky, which I always thought of as Heinlein's answer to 1954's Lord of the Flies, a novel I think Heinlein probably abhorred. (Just for the record, I thought Lord of the Flies was pretty good.)
In Tunnel in the Sky, a group of teenagers is cast upon a planet with very few tools and weapons, and this is the story of how they established a civilization of their own -- with morals, rules of conduct, ethics -- in contrast to the barbarization experienced by the boys in Lord of the Flies. The characters certainly "grow up" -- they must, or they will die. Heinlein's optimism shows through.
Protagonist Rod certainly grows from confused high school student to wise leader of the tribe through the story, first showing his maturity in backing the political cabal which overthrows his "captaincy," but later even more so when he is abandoned by all his friends when Earth comes to the rescue and he finally accepts that going back is the right thing to do.
And Heinlein redeems himself marvelously on the feminist front, first through the portrayal of Rod’s sister, who defied her father to become a soldier, and her fierce, no-nonsense attitude toward her profession (and later marriage to the novel's moral center, Rod's teacher). But my favorite character is Caroline, as no-nonsense a chick as there ever was, but who retains her sense of humor. And her black skin -- we're still just in 1955 here.
With Time for the Stars (1956), Heinlein completely abandons talking down to his audience. This could have been published as an adult novel, as could all the subsequent novels in the series. (Well, hell, so could Tunnel in the Sky.)
It is the story of Tom, twin to Pat, who has dominated Tom throughout his life. Tom and his crew are lost in space, and the story is of Tom growing up, accepting the responsibility to tell Pat to go to hell. There is a strong black male character who stands as the example of "the responsible adult."
This novel may also be Heinlein’s greatest statement about individuality. He makes use of twins in various forms throughout his career, all the way from If This Goes On … (the protagonist is twinned by plastic surgery) through Stranger In A Strange Land (the resemblance between Jill and Dawn) through the World As Myth novels. Tom’s acceptance of his own individuality – the breaking off from Pat – is his step toward ultimate maturity. I don’t think there is a clearer statement of this idea in the whole rest of Heinlein’s ouvre which deals with twins.
Where do I even start with Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)?
Thorby is a slave, bought for a song by the beggar, Baslim. His first lesson in maturity is learning right from wrong.
Through a series of misadventures, Thorby loses Baslim, his stand-in father, and comes first under the protection of Captain Krausa and his strong-willed mother, then of the interstellar space corps, and finally the corporate umbrella from which he originated.
He learns confidence with Krausa, then that confidence is stolen from him when he is given over to the space corps, or Guard. He has a hard time adjusting to the Guard, though he is trying, when he is unexpectedly discovered to be the heir to the biggest fortune on Earth and the nominal head of a corporate empire.
He is "adopted" (for the fourth time in the story) by the man who actually runs the business, Uncle Jack. Thorby chafes under the benign despotism of Jack, and finally accepts the mantle of responsibility for running the corporation.
This is one "boy's book" where the protagonist grows up, and how!
But since it is a "boy's book" still, there is no sex with the chief female character, Jack's daughter. Like the female characters in Between Planets and Starman Jones, her chief function is as cheerleader, but in a climactic scene, she also stands as an example of responsible adulthood when she defies her father, Jack.
I said earlier that The Star Beast was the final "funny" novel in the series, but Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, while a serious novel, does have its humorous scenes, particularly with a character named "Ace" and in scenes dealing with protagonist Kip's refurbishing of a space suit.
Kip's already pretty mature for an 18-year-old at the beginning of the story, thanks to the hands-off approach to fatherhood of his dad, Professor Russell. He matures even further when he has to protect his new friend, Pee Wee, and, incidentally, the Earth.
He -- and Pee Wee's father, also a professor -- demonstrate the mature, proper way of behavior in the face of new and startling knowledge -- they take it in stride. Heinlein also uses the story to make pointed criticism about the way we educate kids. That is, we don't really respect their abilities. As we have seen, Heinlein has learned to, or at least learned to respect their ability to absorb mature themes in their literature.
The culmination of the series is Starship Troopers (1960), and the line is that when it was rejected by Scribners, he crossed the street to Putnam and had it published as an adult novel. However, Wikipedia says it was published as teenage fiction. You decide.
Here's a growing-up story if there ever was one! Juan first defies his rich parents to join the Infantry, then goes through a whole series of experiences that add layers of maturity to him, until finally he accepts the responsibility of leading his fellow troopers into battle -- and of putting his own life on the line for the protection of the larger society.
This is a military coming-of-age story, maybe even one that had been told many times before. It's chief distinction in the Heinlein juvenile ouvre is the detailed mental and moral journey Juan takes. It is the only juvenile told in first person.
Because of its military setting, Heinlein is able to finesse the area of sex, since he imagines the infantry as a male-only outfit. It still is today, though by the time of this novel’s setting, it surely won’t be.
I have not tried to go into too much detail about the stories. I assume anyone reading this essay has read all or most of them. I wrote the essay because I like writing about Heinlein and I had a few points to make along the way, none of them very profound or original, but it's what I had to say.
I hope you enjoyed it.