June 2, 2009

Review: Starman Jones, by Robert A. Heinlein

The tag-line for this book reads "Max was just a hillbilly . . . until he became STARMAN JONES". Is that not amazing?

The rest of the book -- the innards, I mean -- is pretty good as well, although with all Heinlein it reads as terribly dated. Starman Jones was first published in 1953, which is not so much the issue; there are many books much older than that that read as period pieces and don't feel stale. But Heinlein was a  science fiction writer, of course, and the future he wrote is not the one that we've ended up with.

There are two basic things whose importance he never seemed to anticipate: computers and women. Granted, it would be difficult to anticipate the way that computers would shape our lives, writing in the early 1950s. And maybe it would be hard to anticipate how women's social/political/etc. roles would expand during the next handful of decades. But in any case, Heinlein's fiction -- Starman Jones being no exception -- tends to come across to me as impossibly passé. I still enjoy it, quite a bit, but it doesn't feel real.

There are no female starship pilots in Heinlein novels. There are no female soldiers, or doctors, or politicians, or anything really. If there's a woman on a ship, you can bet that she's either a passenger or a secretary. Most of his novels are as near to all-male as it's possible to get without including at least some women as window dressing and/or spacemen's main squeezes. Starman Jones is no exception and is full of snippets like this:
Once when Ellie had fought him to a draw Max said, "You know, Ellie, you play this game awfully well -- for a girl."

"Thank you too much."

"No, I mean it. 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. Of course, if she can't get by on her looks, then --" (210)

Charming, no? Of course, she turns out to be her planet's 3D chess champion, and whips him soundly before marrying the other man, but still. It's in there.

There are other gems of the time, too. Like this:
"Aye aye, Captain." Kelly sat down at the console, Max took the Captain's seat, feeling self-conscious. He wished that he had learned to smoke a pipe -- it looked right to have the Captain sit back, relaxed and smoking his pipe, while the ship maneuvered." (236-7)

Yup. Smoking his pipe on his spaceship. Like Popeye.
Walther abruptly changed the subject. "That phenomenal trick of memory you do -- computing without tables or reference books. Can you do it all the time?"

"Uh? Why, yes."

"Do you know all the tables? Or just some of them?"

"I know all the standard tables and manuals that are what an astrogator calls his 'working tools.'" Max started to tell about his uncle, Walther interrupted gently,

"If you please, sir. I'm glad to hear it. I'm very glad to hear it. Because the only such books in this ship are the ones in your head." (229)

Books! Imagine! The computers in this novel seem to essentially function as giant calculators, into which digits are punched by techs reading out of manuals. Nothing is digital; everything is "on tape" or on microfiche or on paper. It's wacky.

Aside from the twitch-enducing future-historical anomalies, Starman Jones is a pretty enjoyable book. It's not the best that Heinlein's written, but it's definitely passable. The plot is unremarkable -- kid from the sticks sneaks aboard starship, has adventures, becomes Captain -- but doesn't feel formulaic. If you're interested in science fiction, especially in the stuff coming out of its golden age, you may well enjoy Starman Jones.


Bruce Kitchin said...

I enjoyed this review very much. You caught very well the two points you made about the influence of computers and the change in women's roles and the perception of women since then. I was struck by the latter in the cult classic sci fi movie Forbidden Planet. It had the whole seafaring genre of the early 20th century down pat. The woman (I think there was only one) was a love interest and pauline in peril. It seemed terrible passé when I last saw it. That is what I think makes Asamov the great master he is. In Foundation, he even has a heroine in one place who is the active agent of the plot. Small progress but some. And he is great with computers. Of course, I love the Susan Calvin stories. Back to Forbidden Planet, I saw it in the mid to late 50's (thus giving away my age) and thought nothing much about it. It was not unlike Mr. Roberts (a WW II navy comedy). But when I next saw it was a couple of decades later and my thinking and society's thinking had changed significantly.

Lastly, on computers, Asamov was again the master. He developed a concept of the positronic brain that could never become obsolete because it implied so much but really didn't describe it. The imagery moved with the technical developments. Very brilliant. Heinlein kind of ignored them. An author named James Blish who wrote his famous Cities series and contributed to the Star Trek novelization. The computers in his Cities series became ludicrous in 20 years. He had them as behemoths which network by traveling back and forth on railway rails and physically mated to make the network connection. He even laughed at the image of 20 ton behemoths dancing around making and breaking connections. Otherwise pretty good stories but technically obsolete.

zibilee said...

My husband is involved in a project to read everything that Heinlein has written, and he has finished quite a few. He read this one quite awhile ago, and said he really enjoyed it. Of course he also said that Heinlein has a funny way of dealing with women in his writing, but that is something that seems to be standard in all his books.

zibilee’s latest blog post:A World I Never Made by James Lepore - 262 pgs

Tina Kubala said...

Old science fiction tends to be trippy like that. I find it rather charming if the story is good enough to stand on it's own.

A couple weeks ago, I read an old Star Trek: TNG novel, Ghost Ship, that got 1995 all wrong. The story involved a Russian ship that was destroyed in '95 while testing a high tech weapon. I'm just young enough (born in 1980) that the cold war wasn't part of my consciousness, so to think of it being an issue in '95 was distracting.

That was much more weird than reading, say, Asimov with computers spitting out punch cards of data.

Tina Kubala’s latest blog post:Creation to Abram and Shari: Genesis 1:1 to 16:16

jeff said...

I love this story, as a story wrote before man's exploration of space,as small as we have. Before computers as they are today,more than mere tools,but complete systems,able to replace humans.