Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Have Space Suit, Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein

Write a soap jingle, win a space suit, travel to the Magellanic Clouds!

Have Space Suit, Will Travel

Scribner's, 1958, 256 pages

A journey of 167,000 lights years begins with...a bar of soap? Fasten your zero gravity restraints for Robert Heinlein's novel of intergalactic adventure, a story that carries teenager Clifford "Kip" Russell from his job as soda jerk to space-suit winner to alien abductee! Along the way Kip is joined by a pint-sized genius named Peewee and an empathetic alien creature known as "the Mother Thing." The story of how this strange trio battles alien gangsters only to end up on trial in an intergalactic court trillions of miles from Earth features all the wicked humor, brilliant detail, and g-force drama that made Robert Heinlein the world's favorite science fiction writer.

Heinlein isn't quite a "guilty pleasure" for me, because I think he was a genuinely great writer, when he could keep his head out of his ass and his hand off his dick and actually stick to the story. In his early days as a writer, particularly when writing his juveniles, his books were pure story, and Have Space Suit, Will Travel was one of the last he wrote in this series. Heinlein had settled into his groove by now, so this story had all the well-established Heinlein tropes: the wise patriarchal father who tries to teach his son critical thinking and bootstrap independence, a motherly mother who is a much-loved appendage with almost zero dialog, the adventurous young man with a heart that is pure and a head that is a little squishy, a precocious ten-year-old girl who is a snarky, adorable genius, and aliens who range from wise and benevolent to pure evil, but turn out to have a few more shades of gray than is initially apparent.

Set at some point in the future when there are colonies on the Moon but the world still looks pretty much like 1950s America, Clifford "Kip" Russell enters a contest sponsored by a soap company to win a trip to the Moon. Instead he wins a consolation prize: an old surplus space suit. So he learns how to put it on and charge it and starts taking hikes in the suit and filling its oxygen tanks, 'cause what else is a red-blooded American boy going to do with a space suit? And one night, while tuned to the radio frequency usually used by spaceships, he picks up a signal. Next thing you know, he's abducted by a UFO and finds himself aboard an alien ship with Peewee, a fellow Earth abductee. Peewee has already made friends with the Mother Thing, a lemur-like alien who speaks in musical notes. The Mother Thing is also a prisoner of the creatures who own the ship, nasty, tentacled aliens that Kip calls "wormheads." The wormheads take their captives to their secret base on Pluto, where Kip learns of their dire plans for Earth.

If all this sounds faintly silly, it actually works pretty well because Heinlein makes the science as plausible as possible for the time. There is rather a lot of coincidence involved in the protagonist being the one person on Earth who happens to be walking around in a functional space suit when abducted by aliens (naturally, the space suit proves critical to Kip's daring escape), but even there Heinlein makes the "coincidence" less improbable. The space suit is practically a character in itself, and the technical details of operating it and the problems it presents are where Heinlein really went to town on the science-y bits. The intergalactic aliens who can snatch modern teenagers, Roman centurians, and neanderthals out of space-time got handwaved a bit more.

He also turns it into a true space opera when Kip and Peewee and the Mother Thing are taken via FTL starship to Vega. There, the "wormheads" are put on trial for their nefarious activities... but it also turns out that humanity is on trial too. The Three Galaxies are concerned about the speed at which Earthlings are developing and their warlike traits, and so they collect some "representative samples" of humanity from different points in time in order to examine the species and decide its fate. Kip and Peewee, of course, are two of these samples, and Kip gets to make a speech about why these super-advanced aliens shouldn't wipe out mankind.

This wasn't a wholly original plot even when Heinlein wrote it, but he fills it with both realistic and fantastic details, and best of all, teenage Kip doesn't suddenly turn into a grand spokesman waxing eloquent on behalf of Earth: he stammers, screws up, and ends up screaming threats at aliens who travel between galaxies and can move planets around. It was actually pretty funny, and entirely believable. How much better would you do if you were put on the spot like that?

I do like me some (early) Heinlein, and his juveniles have always been a great entry point for sci-fi novices. Are they dated? Yes. (I still can't get over the slide rules. There are always slide rules in his books.) And while he does feature intelligent female characters with initiative, Have Space Suit, Will Travel certainly doesn't break any barriers by depicting anything that would have made 1950s mainstream (white) America even a little bit uncomfortable.

On the other hand, it doesn't have the didacticism of Starship Troopers nor the polyamorous wanking of his later novels, so if you're looking for a "safe" Heinlein that you can enjoy guilt-free, this one is a good choice. It's not my favorite among Heinlein's juveniles, but it's still a pretty good read.

Verdict: You really can't go wrong with early Heinlein. You can go very, very wrong with late Heinlein. Have Space Suit, Will Travel is a novel that conforms very much to the Boy's Adventure rocketships and Bug-Eyed Monsters sci-fi aesthetic of its time, but Heinlein is still an author who teaches other authors how to write, and who wrote Young Adult fiction that never insulted its audience. A great retro-SF classic.

Also by Robert Heinlein: My review of Starman Jones.
Tags: books, reviews, robert heinlein, science fiction

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