Scribner's, 1953, 272 pages
It was a desperate time, when one's next meal and the comforts of home couldn't be taken for granted. Max Jones, a practical, hard-working young man, found his escape in his beloved astronomy books. But when reality comes crashing in and his troubled home life forces him out on the road, Max finds himself adrift in a downtrodden land - until an unexpected, ultimate adventure carries him away as a stowaway aboard an intergalactic spaceship.
But to where? And when? And how can he ever get back? With the ship's pilot dead and his charts and tables all destroyed, Max must call upon all of his untested knowledge and skills in order to survive.
I learned to read adult fiction starting with my parents' sci-fi and fantasy collection. When I visit my folks today, I still love browsing their shelves full of old yellow DAW paperbacks. They've got pulp SF dating back to when they were teenagers; a lot of those books are now falling apart, but I remember every cover. Kids today grew up on Harry Potter and Twilight; I grew up on Tom Swift, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein.
Not all of these books were great literature, of course. Tom Swift was an endless series published by a book packager and written under a pseudonym. Once you've read the first couple of Tarzan or John Carter books, you've read them all. H.P. Lovecraft I probably shouldn't have been reading when I was twelve. And then there's Robert A. Heinlein.
There are books and essays about Heinlein all over the Internet. There's probably no science fiction author more rabidly loved and rabidly hated than him. Heinlein is practically a corollary to Godwin's Law: in any Internet discussion about science fiction authors, someone will inevitably mention Heinlein, and there will be wank.
Some other day, I may review some of Heinlein's later novels, which ranged from brilliant to unreadable, often in the same book. But my opinion of Heinlein is that, quite simply, his earlier stuff was his best. He was a commercial, genre writer and made no bones about it. He loved what he did, but it was his living, his craft, he took it seriously but he had no pretensions about making a "literary" impact or saying anything profound in his stories. (People infer a hell of a lot about Heinlein's politics from his books, and certainly his views did color what he wrote, but he's not nearly the axe-grinding ideologue that many of his fans are -- people forget that he wrote characters who expressed certain views because that's what he thought that character would say, not because the character was speaking for the author.) He had some hang-ups, and gaping blind spots when it came to women (boy, did he ever) and these really became apparent later in his career, when he was the Grand Old Master of science fiction and could spend an entire book jerking off to his fantasies.
But I maintain that his so-called juveniles still stand up as some of the finest Young Adult fiction ever written.
I read most of these when I was a kid, but Starman Jones is one of the few I never did read, so it was a pleasant experience to sample a Heinlein juvenile as an adult, as it has been many years since I did read a Heinlein novel (and most of the later ones I read left a bad taste).
The thing about his juveniles is that while the intended market was mostly boys (girls, of course, did not read science fiction in the 1950s*), Heinlein intended them to be read by adults also, so he did not "dumb down" anything or write in a way that an adult would find childish. The stories were largely about young people having adventures, and thus attractive to young readers, but beyond that, he pretty much wrote the way he wrote his adult novels (minus the orgies). This is in contrast to JK Rowling, who has also said that she wasn't specifically writing for children, but the Harry Potter books are very clearly children's books (and it shows when Rowling tries to handle more adult themes later in the series).
Today, the market formula for Young Adult is basically: Hot boys + hot girls + love triangle + some kinda supernatural thing + high school. In Heinlein's day, it was Bildungsroman + rocketships + aliens. That's Starman Jones in pure form. Max Jones is a "hillbilly" from the Ozarks working his father's farm when his widowed stepmother marries a bullying lout, who promptly announces that they're going to sell the land, and he's also going to sell all the astrogation manuals Max's uncle left him. Max runs away, taking the books with him. Through various misadventures, by luck and by pluck he manages to get himself a berth on an outward-bound starship.
Even modern science fiction has not given up on the Horatio Alger in Space story: the young man (or, nowadays, woman -- imagine that!) of lowly origins starting at the bottom and working his or her way up the ladder of command. As is usually the case in these stories, Max's rise is helped along by occasional good and bad fortune. For the most part, Max is less Gary Stu-ish than Heinlein's later characters. He has a talent for math and an eidetic memory -- he's literally memorized all the charts and tables in the astrogators' books, a talent which comes in handy later -- but other than that, he's a fairly normal young man, likeable and decent but not the sort who instantly pulls everyone around him into the gravitational orbit of his own life story.
The first half of the book is mostly about Max getting off Earth and becoming a spaceship crewman. Then the ship gets lost, and the crew and passengers are stranded on an alien world. Heinlein's aliens were usually quite strange and rarely friendly. In this case, he seemed to be directly satirizing the houyhnhnms of Gulliver's Travels; their new home is inhabited by vicious, centaur-like creatures who keep (and eat) debased, humanoid slaves. More adventures follow, leading to an escape and a fairly decent ending that if it were published today would pretty much require Heinlein to write two more books in a trilogy, but for what it was in 1953, made it a perfectly self-contained novel.
While reading it, Starman Jones is pretty much pure plot (Jo Walton has written a much better review than I ever could), but Heinlein fills the story with a classic (if homogeneous) mix of characters, all of whom show signs of growth over the course of the book. There is also a fair amount of worldbuilding with very little spelled out -- one thing Heinlein was very good at not doing was infodumps that interrupted the story. We learn early on that Earth has become an impoverished, authoritarian world (though not until Max actually leaves the planet do we find out that it's an "Imperium") where advancement is controlled by Guilds who are fiercely protective of their role as gatekeepers. We get to learn a little about technology: ships travel faster-than-light using a sort of "jump" drive, which Max explains briefly to another character using a metaphor involving a folding scarf, and weapons are lasers though not called that, but there is no meandering about tonnage and starship classes or kilowatt frequencies or anything else extraneous to the story.
Heinlein's strength, like Rowling's, lies in his storytelling, not his prose, but his prose (unlike Rowling's) is always perfectly serviceable, and there is rarely a false note in his dialog or the character interactions. He actually injects a little bit of science (like the aforementioned scarf metaphor to explain the concept of warping space, while technically obeying the laws of physics) and there's mention of the square-cube law early on, presented briefly and in a way that even a young reader can understand.
Which brings me to why I think Heinlein is so vastly superior to most modern YA writers. He doesn't think readers are too stupid to be willing to read a sentence here and there about science. He uses actual physics and realistic world-building. And his characters treat adult matters in a serious fashion.
Supposedly, there is buzz among agents and editors now that what they're really looking for next in the YA market is... YA science fiction. Imagine that.
Starman Jones (and Heinlein's other juveniles) are perfectly satisfying YA sci-fi reads, even today.
That said, is the story perfect? Well, no. It does show its age. Heinlein did no better than any other Fifties sci-fi writer in predicting the role of computers. There are computers in Starman Jones, but they're nothing more than number-crunchers. Astrogators still look up logarithms from printed tables, and do calculations with slide rules. (Slide rules!)
And you can hardly talk about a Heinlein novel without talking about the sexism, can you? Again, it's not nearly as bad as some of the WTFery in his later novels, but Starman Jones is a Boys' Own Adventures tale, and girls are... well, girls. There is a spunky female sidekick/love interest in the form of Ellie, a spoiled, rich passenger aboard the ship where Max is a lowly crewman, and they carry on a sort of Rose-and-Jack relationship (without the evil fiancee, or the sex), but her role is primarily to give Max reflection on how much he doesn't understand women, and to be rescued. That said, she does talk back, think for herself, and turns out to be a 3D chess champion. The gender roles in the book were very 1950s, but it was an enlightened sort of 1950s where girls could do things, kind of (before growing up to become wives and mommies). Naturally, none of those things included being crew aboard a starship.
There is no mention of race in the book, so you could argue that we don't know that everyone aboard the ship is white, but there's certainly no hint that they aren't all basically white Americans (aside from one character who has a Japanese last name). As for homosexuality... well, put it this way, you're better off reading the books where Heinlein doesn't try to insert Teh Gay into the story. So, a beacon of diversity Heinlein's juveniles were not, not even for the 50s. But they were still damn good reading. And before criticizing Ellie, Podkayne, and all of Heinlein's other spunky but rigid-gender-role-conforming female protagonists, I can't help thinking of the "heroines" written by the likes of Meyer, Fitzpatrick, Stiefvater, and Adornetto. Far more rigidly confined into actively destructive roles, and devoid of any traces of the spine and personality shown by Heinlein's heroines. I'd have to say the 1950s don't hold up so badly by comparison.
* Of course they did, but publishers didn't believe they did. And in fairness, the number of girls who did read science fiction back then probably was so small that discounting them as an audience was understandable from a marketing standpoint. Of course, if they didn't discount them as an audience they might have published books that more girls would have read -- but that's an essay for another time.
Verdict: If you are a lover of YA literature, you should know where the genre has been as well as where it's going, and (early) Heinlein is a highly readable author who wrote stories that are as enjoyable today as they were half a century ago. Starman Jones isn't my favorite of the Heinlein juveniles (it's less imaginative than Red Planet or Star Beast, and less epic than Time for the Stars) but it's a good story and aspiring writers (and a lot of published ones) could learn much from its linear plot, clear writing, and character archetypes.