A Heinlein juvenile about a family that joins a colony terraforming Ganymede. I read it as a kid, but didn’t remember much. Continuing my theme of surprise!grimdark, I thought it would be a charming tale of explorer spirit and space farming, and it turned out to be awesomely depressing despite a pasted on yay semi-upbeat conclusion. That is not the normal tone of a Heinlein juvenile, which could have dark aspects but were overall optimistic. It also has my least favorite of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes, Bill. He’s clearly meant to have flaws and learn to be better, but I really disliked him for a good 80% of the book.

Bill, an Eagle Scout, lives with his father after their mother’s death in a glum dystopian Earth with food rationing and few opportunities. (It does have microwave dinners, though – good prediction, Heinlein!) Due to being bad tempered and insecure in that awful teenage way that manifests in constantly trying to prove himself and thinking he’s better than everyone, he doesn’t play well with others. Also, he despises girls and women. The misogyny is partly a sign of the times thing and partly a character trait that he’ll mostly get over, but it’s really grating.

He begs his father to let him go be a colonist and farmer on Ganymede, and is pleased when his dad, after testing him to see if he’ll flip out if his father goes without him, tells him they’re going. But first he has to get married! Right now! To a woman Bill barely knows, with a daughter he’s never met before!

You can see where Bill gets his interpersonal skills.

Bill sulks, is mean to the daughter (Peggy, who is younger than him and clearly adores him), and refuses to go to the wedding. Nevertheless, they embark. The space voyage involves Bill running a scout troop, learning to be slightly less of a colossal jerkwad, and saving a bunch of lives by plugging a hole in the ship with his precious scout uniform after a meteorite strike. There are also multiple pages of math and physics explaining… stuff. I skipped those.

At Ganymede, the colonists find that they have been victims of a bait and switch: the farms they were promised are not available and won’t be for years, and the existing colonists don’t want them. It’s hard or impossible to go back, and conditions suck. Poor Peggy can’t adjust to the low air pressure and has to be lodged in a special pressurized room for as long as they’re there. This is super depressing, but the gloom lets up a bit when Bill sharecrops for a nice family who has successfully farmed, and the family eventually gets a farm of their own though Peggy is still stuck in her room and can only leave it in a bubble stretcher.

The farming part is unusual. Due to the expense of transporting mass, there’s very little equipment and farmers need to pulverize rock into dust, then mix it with bacteria to create dirt. It’s backbreaking labor, and that’s most of the farming we see. I was a disappointed, as I wanted more “Little House on Ganymede” details, Bill learning about cows when he’s never seen one before, etc, but most of what we get is pulverizing rock.

And then! Depressing spoilers! Read more... )
Dan Davis, genius engineer, invents a household chore-doing robot (which I have to admit that I covet) but is screwed out of his patent by his partner and his double-crossing fiancée. Through a sequence of events too fun to spoil, he ends up in the future – and then back to the past, trying to fix things. And, alas, hit on an eleven-year-old. Sort of.

His evil partner’s eleven-year-old daughter Ricky has a massive crush on Dan – and, though he has never known her as an adult, he tells her that if she waits till she’s twenty-one, he’ll marry her then, even though he won't have any contact with her in between her being eleven and the day he marries her. And he does! I find this both squicky and weird. People change a lot between eleven and twenty-one.

There’s also a passage of jaw-dropping sexism in which Dan muses that he should never trust a woman after his fiancée screwed him over – but it’s okay to trust Ricky, because she hasn’t yet reached sexual maturity and so can’t manipulate him with her mind-warping femininity field! I honestly wonder what Heinlein (okay, or Dan) would have said if someone had said, “So, since your male business partner also screwed you, does that mean you should never trust a man?”

This book was one of my favorite Heinleins as a kid, but even then that made me grind my teeth in proto-feminist annoyance.

Reading the book now, I’m struck by the wit and style of some of the prose, which is quite unlike the transparent plainness of Tunnel in the Sky and Space Cadet (and, thank goodness, the icky-poo twee of Podkayne.) Have Space Suit – Will Travel had a similar sense of fun, but fewer wisecracks and memorable turns of phrase. Summer has something of the tone of a private eye novel, which makes sense as it involves a crime, a patsy, a no-good partner, and a double-crossing dame – and is set in that perennial haven for sardonic detectives, Los Angeles.

Other highlights include the ginger ale-drinking tomcat Pete (everyone’s favorite character, I’m sure) and a convincing portrayal of culture shock due to time displacement. The future is so carefully worked out that its datedness and wrong predictions become an aspect of its charm and an intriguing invitation to the reader to compare prediction to reality. This is a very fun book, if you can overlook the sexism and try not to think too hard about the romance.

My edition features a man in a cape and a ridiculous-looking helmet much like that of the X-Men’s Havok, but even less cool, clutching either a desk toy or a piece of modern art: Door Into Summer Signet D2443

In-print version, with strange-looking woman and an unhappy cat: The Door into Summer

Diane Duane’s The Door Into Fire, in which the damsel in distress is a man and so is his lover-rescuer, and the cat is a fire elemental and shapeshifter. I highly recommend it if you like sweet, tastefully sensual, comfort-reading fantasy, but am mostly linking so you can witness the utterly tasteless cover, featuring a writhing naked woman, a glowing phallic symbol, and a Knight Who Said Nii: The Door Into Fire (The Tale of the Five #1)
Have Space Suit – Will Travel was my favorite Heinlein when I was a kid, and it generally holds up. It’s very bright and cheerful and likable, except for the genocide.

Teenage Kip wants to go to the moon, but he has no money. His father encourages him to practice self-reliance and study advanced math from textbooks. (A recurring theme in all three of the novels I’ve read so far is that a normally intelligent person should be able to do types of math I’ve only ever heard of in Heinlein novels.) When Skyway soap offers a free trip to the moon for the best slogan written on a soap wrapper, Kip gets the whole town in on it and submits thousands of entries. (This whole section is quite funny: “Come highway or byway, there’s no soap like Skyway!”) He’s a runner-up, and wins… a space suit.

Only slightly daunted, he fixes it up at great and generally interesting detail (this is where I first skipped a big chunk of math, something I was to do repeatedly throughout the book) and, when he gets it working, answers a hail. A space ship nearly crashes on top of him! He is kidnapped by alien space pirates and locked up with a friendly telepathic furry alien, the Mother Thing, and a genius little girl, Peewee. A series of adventures ensue, Kip isn't the only one who gets to be heroic, and it’s all a lot of fun, except for the math. (Though I’m sure for some readers – at least one on my f-list - the math was the best part.)

And then they all get tried by creepy genocidal aliens. Even when I was eleven, I found this part strange and unsettling. This go-round, I noticed two things which escaped me then: as Earth is on trial using four completely random people as its representatives, the three evil Wormface aliens could be just as unrepresentative of their species. (And what about all the baby Wormfaces?) Also, Wormface’s evil tirade (“We can do whatever we like! We don’t recognize your authority!”) is not dissimilar to Kip’s heroic last stand of mankind (“Go to hell! If you condemn us, we’ll hunt you down and kill you!”) I assume that, at the very least, Heinlein intended the genocide aliens to be creepy. I’m not sure if the other issues I mention were intentional.

When I was eleven, I loved the final scene, in which Kip stands up to a local bully. I still like it better, and it fits with the tone of the rest of the book better, than the weird Trial of Mankind.

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel

I don’t have a lot to say about Space Cadet, whose teenage hero has the least personality yet. The best part of the book is the first quarter, in which Matt takes a slew of oddball tests to get into the all-male Space Patrol academy, and then begins training. More casual racial diversity here. The cultural diversity consists of a guy from Venus and another guy from Ganymede – that was handled well – and a guy from Texas, named Tex – that was not.

The middle section, after Matt’s learned the basics and is studying math and so forth, was a bit dull, enlivened only by a scene I was probably not supposed to laugh at in which he goes back home and his mom is hilariously horrified when he earnestly explains how he maintains the orbiting nukes that will destroy their hometown in case of war, and is baffled when this upsets her.

The final section picks up again, when they get stranded on Venus and encounter friendly aliens. The aliens, who are all female, are the only women who appear in the book other than Matt’s none-too-bright mother. They’re chemists, so Heinlein approves of them.

Space Cadet
I enjoyed this when I was about eleven, but it seemed very dated to me even at that time (early 1980s.) It’s even more dated now. Science fiction dates faster than fantasy: readers end up living in the projected far-future year (and all the predictions are wrong), social attitudes have completely changed and are harder to overlook via “but that’s how it was in the past/the fantasy world is just like that” when the story is set in the future of our world, and old slang is twice as jarring when it’s spoken on a space ship.

That being said, I did enjoy the book.

Heinlein Stock Character # 1, teenage lunkhead Rod Walker, is taking a survival course whose final exam is to be dumped on an alien planet for a week. The course is taught by Heinlein Stock Character # 2, Wise Old Philosophy-Spouting Mentor. Overpopulation is a serious problem, currently being solved by dumping refugees on other planets via teleportation gates, which possibly explains why there’s no monitoring or alarm you can hit to rescue (and flunk) you. If things go wrong, you die.

Rod’s sister is the one I ranted about the other day, the totally awesome space soldier who joined the military solely because she’s so utterly desperate to bag a man, any man, and have tons of babies.

Rod makes it through the survival test, but pick-up never arrives. He and the surviving students are forced to build a civilization on an alien planet with nothing but the tools they have on them and the skills they learned in the course.

I love the premise and enjoyed all the adventure and survival. For me, there is a strong element of wish-fulfillment: of course I’d want to take that course and do that test. I was less enthused about the civilization-building, which becomes increasingly glossed over as the story continues. The civilization itself is quite dated, which is unsurprising but distracting. Men hunt, women cook. When stobor attack, women are sent away, including the ones who are excellent fighters. Etc.

Part of Rod’s story involves learning that girls don’t have cooties, first when he teams up with Jack, a boy who turns out to be a girl, and then when he befriends the extremely bad-ass and amusingly eccentric Zulu girl, Caroline. So far so good! But then Jack marries and largely drops out of the story, Caroline dedicates herself to supporting Rod, and people keep forbidding Caroline (clearly the most competent person in the entire book) to do things because she’s a girl. Nothing happens to really resolve this. It’s set up as fairly significant, and then dropped.

Rod becomes mayor (despite not ever really demonstrating leadership, in my opinion – I do not understand why way more intelligent and competent people overwhelmingly support him) and makes Caroline city manager, but we don’t really see her do much. I think she’s supposed to be in love with Rod, but if so, he never notices. I am pleased to note that she joins the space Amazons at the end and there’s no mention of babies. Props for that.

Also props for racial diversity (a little undercut by some "China is scary" stuff at the beginning) and even a teeny attempt at cultural diversity. Apparently some people think Rod is supposed to be black, which would make Caroline’s constant “Oh no Rod, YOU be leader, I will do anything to support you,” slightly less creepy, but if so it’s not actually mentioned in the text. Rod says his sister looks a little like Caroline, but he could mean they’re both tall.

The ending is a little depressing, though plausible.

The main thing I remember from my first reading is that they’re warned against “stobor.” I spent the entire book convinced that they were all idiots for not reading this clear code-word backward, and was disappointed when “robots” never showed up. That being said, the explanation of the stobor is pretty cool.

I still enjoy Heinlein’s plain, readable style and focus on how things work, but I’ve got nostalgia working for me. Efforts to push him on current youngsters are probably doomed.

Tunnel in the Sky
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

This inspired me to create my own list which, like Heinlein's, is a mix of things I've done, figure I could do if I had to, and daydream that I can do. (Unless Heinlein dictated his from beyond the grave, he had not already died gallantly.) I do not, however, remotely think they are things all human beings should do. Well. Maybe "take criticism gracefully."

Can you butcher a hog? How about eviscerating a bad book? )
Based on both recommendations and easy availability, I have obtained Space Cadet, Time for the Stars, Have Space Suit - Will Travel, The Door Into Summer, Podkayne of Mars, and Tunnel in the Sky.

I read Tunnel in the Sky, which I generally enjoyed and will report on individually, and three pages of Podkayne of Mars, which was all I could get through before I was overcome with the urge to vomit and/or hurl the book across the room. Those pages consist of 15-year-old Podkayne talking about being a giiiiiirl and going on about how pretty she is and giving her exact measurements and how she's smart enough to not reveal that she's smart because why would any giiiiiirl want to do things herself when she can bat her eyelashes at a man twice her age and have him do things for her? ICK ICK EW. Also, written in a rather twee style. I hate twee.

If it was about her learning better I'd keep reading, but I recall from the last time I read it that she gets blown up because she goes back to a house where she knows there's a bomb to rescue a cute alien kitten, and then her uncle lectures her mom over her comatose body about how it's all her mom's fault for having a career. (Flips to end.) "A woman has more important work to do." Barf. Nix on Podkayne.

Podkayne of Mars

Though I may change my mind after I've read more, my preliminary reading of one book and three pages of another suggests a theory on why people get so outraged over sexism in Heinlein's work, as opposed to getting outraged over sexism in the work of other male sf writers of the same time - especially when, as Heinlein's defenders argue, Heinlein actually has more interesting/badass/competent women than the others.

It's due to bait-and-switch. Because his women are more badass/competent/etc, the female or sympathetic male reader thinks, "Hey! Badass female soldier! Awesome!" Then, two pages later, the badass female soldier says, "Oh, I have no interest in the military at all! I'm only doing this because men outnumber women in outer space, so out there I can get a man and have lots of babies! I don't care of he's a total jerk and hideous, all that matters is that he's male. Oh to be pregnant!"

At that point, the reader is much more likely to be surprised and irate, their expectations having been unpleasantly thwarted, than if, as many other writers of the time did, no non-stereotypically feminine characters had been introduced at all.

As Jo Walton and others mentioned over at the Tor discussion, Heinlein has a trick of sounding extremely authoritative, in a manner which either seduces you into wanting to measure up to his rather eccentric requirements for true manliness/womanliness/awesomess, or else makes you instantly begin deconstructing them in your head. Or both at once. Again, this is unlike other authors of his time whom I've read, who were less concerned with what makes a Proper Man or whose opinions were not presented in such a compelling and forceful manner.

For instance, though I had to look this up as it's not in one of the ones I read, "Specialization is for insects." I'm sure not everyone has this reaction, but I bet I'm not the only person who reads that and instantly, defensively thinks, "I can do lots of stuff!" and then, "Tell that to a cardiac surgeon."

ETA: Complete quote: A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

This is being discussed in the DW comments.

Link to edition I'm reading, with strangely-proportioned hero: Tunnel in the Sky
As someone said, the internet's oldest established permanent floating flame war has started up again ("Just like the Greeks thought that they'd successfully put Hector down and that no one would survive to avenge him, so the establishment thought it had successfully put Heinlein down and no one would survive to avenge him,") reminding me of how much I enjoyed Heinlein's juveniles when I was twelve, though even then I had a taste for the odd, the dated, and the, shall we say, differently good.

I vividly recall reading Heinlein's rant in Have Space Suit Will Travel about how anyone who can't use a slide rule is a moron, and having to figure out from context that he was referring to an obsolete calculating device. That was by far the most sf-nal moment for me reading that book - a visceral sense that I was living in someone's future, and things had changed.

I'm now curious to re-read some of what I read when I was twelve and see how it holds up and doesn't.

Note: I refuse to re-read any Heinlein novels not listed, on the grounds that even at twelve, I was unable to read any of the late ones containing orgies, fanfic, grokking, "Sorry about the rape, Friday," etc, and I would probably find them even more unreadable now. I have never read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I hear it's more readable than most of his adult novels...?

[Poll #1607634]


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