In response to Kevin's thoughts regarding Robert Heinlein, I decided to try reading a few of his novels in order to give an unbiased opinion of the man's writing talents, as I am pretty much a blank slate in this matter. I've read "Have Space Suit, Will Travel" and enjoyed it. But that's the only Heinlein work I've read--or at least, that I remember having read; I think I read "Farmer in the Sky" and possibly "Rocketship Galileo," but I'm not entirely certain.
So over the weekend I picked up "Space Cadet," which was originally published in 1948, making it the second of his "juvenile" novels intended for teens.
Maybe I have simple tastes, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story. I won't say it's a really great book, because it does have some serious construction issues--which I'll discuss shortly--but it was engagingly written and I was able to read it all in two sittings. It did not bog itself down with long-winded, technically pedantic descriptions, or launch off on tangents immaterial to the plot. It stays pretty much on message, in telling the story of young Matt Dodson from Des Moines, Iowa, who is accepted into the training program for the Space Patrol along with several other young men who become his chums. Two of the boys are from colonies on Venus and Ganymede, while a third one is from Texas.
The narrative focuses on Matt as he undergoes a number of tests designed to weed out those candidates unfit or unable to physically tolerate the rigors of space travel; this is perhaps the most interesting and realistic part of the book. Once Matt passes and is frocked as a cadet, he is shipped out to the training ship PRS James Randolph, orbiting the Earth near a space station that is a large city in the sky.
To say that Matt has a number of adventures would not be quite correct, and that's probably one of the biggest problems I found with this book--it's rather underwhelming. The most exciting thing that happens, and which ought to be the climax of the novel--when Matt, Tex, and Oscar manage to repair and fly the century-old research ship Astarte, believed lost on Venus--happens off-screen, as it were.
The book is more about the procedurals of a putative academy and space patrol than it is about young men having Adventures In Space. Alot of ink is devoted to a shuffling conga-line spacewalk on the hull of the Randolph, and yet the actual flight of the Astarte is not described. I grant that Heinlein did very well in thinking up how a space academy would function, and perhaps the dullness of his imagined space patrol is a reflection of the reality of space flight. He does say, several times, that finding things to keep one's mind occupied while travelling in space is the hardest part of space travel.
There were a few items that appeared in the novel that may have been speculative fiction in Heinlein's day, but which exist today, such as the "slidewalk" at Hayworth Hall at the Academy, and the cell phones the boys carry--and duck into their luggage so as not to have to pick up calls from their worried parents. And the planetarium-like ceiling of the rotunda at Hayworth made me wonder if J.K. Rowlings had borrowed the idea for her sky-reflecting ceiling at Hogwarts.
In actual fact, "Space Cadet" is a lot like the Harry Potter stories, only without the tedious Voldemort sub-plot. It even has a snobby bully in the person of Girard Burke, who starts off by annoying Matt and his chums, and finishes by nearly getting them all killed and endangering the colonies on Venus with his arrogance.
Rather than adventures, Matt engages in a series of vignettes illustrating the training and duties of a space cadet. He gets used to weightlessness. He attends to his lessons, sometimes resorting to hypnosis in order to learn subjects at a greatly accelerated rate. He gets into a few scrapes with his buddies on leave at the space station. He has a crisis of intention as to whether he wants to stay with the Space Patrol or join the more colorful Space Marines--or to quit entirely and stay planetside after his first return home. He decdes to stay with the Patrol, because he realizes that he is no longer the boy he once was, and doesn't feel comfortable with his family anymore.
Matt takes part in a search mission for a missing patrol ship that disappeared while mapping the asteroid belt. The ship is eventually found, with all aboard having been killed when a stray meterorite punctured the airlock door in the mother of all holes-in-one. The team of the Pathfinder had discovered evidence that the asteroids were really debris from a planet destroyed by a nuclear explosion, indicating that there had at one time been an advanced civilization on "Lucifer,"the lost planet.
Finally, he, Tex, Oscar (from the Venus colony) and Lieutenant Thurlow are sent down to investigate a distress call coming from the equitorial area of Venus, and find that their old enemy, Girard Burke--who quit the Patrol in order to work as a captain for his father's spaceship construction company--has gotten his crew killed and himself captured after gravely offending the amphibious, all-female native Venerians by taking the "mother of many" hostage in an attempt to force the Venerians into relinquishing mining rights to the Earthlings. Thurlow, knocked unconscious when their lander toppled over into a sinkhole, is unable to be part of the action, so it's up to the trio of cadets to keep themselves alive, smooth over relations with the Venerians, and somehow get back to their Patrol ship. And after they successfully accomplish this, instead of being hailed as heroes, they are pretty much just greeted with a shrug, because they only did what Patrolmen are expected to do. Their best.
Now, while I did enjoy the story, it has got a lot of shortcomings. I've already mentioned its lack of swashbuckling excitement. That's not really a flaw--the book is more realistic for it--but it does make the vignettes a lot more dry than they could have been. And this is why I think the bit with the Venerians was added at the request of an editor--or at least, it seems this way--because the readership expected aliens, danger, and excitement. Personally, the entire sequence on Venus feels like a different story, and a little shark-jumpy; since the rest of the book is so reality-based that it could have been the actual diary of an astronaut, to suddenly introduce parthenogenic frog-seal-beavers who have advanced degrees in chemistry and live in cities under the lakes of the swampy surface of Venus is a grinding gear change.
The Venerian part in and of itself isn't bad, it just doesn't really fit with the rest of the book's style.
Then there's the matter of Pierre, the boy who was born on Ganymede, so that everything on Earth is three times heavier than he's used to. He exists solely to make that observation; he's soon sent off on a Patrol ship based near Ganymede, and he's overjoyed to be "going home." Meanwhile, Tex, Matt, and Oscar are posted together on the Aes Triplex, and we never hear from Pierre again.
The character of Tex is drawn with a broadly stereotypical brush--he drawls, he uses quaint colloquialisms, he has a quick temper, he brags on his Uncle Bodie's weird adventures, and he instigates a lot of the trouble the boys find themselves in. He is, in a word, overdone. Naturally, he's the comic relief.
Oscar, on the other hand, is underdone--he's pretty much just "there." An extra to be the guy who knows things Matt doesn't, so Matt can react off him.
There's a character named Arensa, to whom Heinlein devotes much descriptive effort, and who shortly thereafter quits the Patrol because he's sick and tired of being passed over for a commission. I guess he was created to be an example of someone who leaves the Academy, but he ends up starring in one more pointless vignette.
The names of the starships puzzled me. Why, for example, would anyone name a ship Kilroy Was Here? Who is the James Randolph the training vessel is named for? What the hell does Aes Triplex refer to?
And when the cadets muster, they always invoke the names of four cadets who died in the line of duty. Only one of these four is explained in any detail; not knowing what the other three did in order to be so honored by Tradition, rather diminishes their mystical importance for me.
I have no way of knowing if the book had been much longer in manuscript form, and was chopped down by some unsympathetic editor, or whether Heinlein himself just dashed these thoughts out, alternately investing great thought and care in some scenes, and using generous doses of handwavium in others. Considering the amount of detail he puts into scenes and character development when it's not really needed, I suspect he originally had a lot more material. For example, he spends a lot of time describing how the commander of the Academy is blind, "yet seems to be able to see into people's minds". And then he never uses the character again.
Heinlein also spends a nearly excruciating amount of detail describing the g-force accelerator, a sort of demonic amusement-park ride which starts off by whirling its passengers around in a centrifuge, then drops them off a cliff, so they experience the sensations of launch and freefall. He talks about bleeding eardrums and noses, of blowing chow and blacking out. And yet, not a word about how they flew the Astarte to the Venus South Pole Colony.
The only females in the book--besides the Venerians--are Matt's mother and a few incidental women, like a nurse and a random lady on the space station whom Tex ludicrusly propositions. Mention is made of some girlfriends back Earthside, but they are merely passing comments, possibly just for form, to prove Matt has red blood. Finding out that she was marrying some other guy might have been more poignant, if we had any sort of actual backstory for her and Matt's relationship; pretty much Matt goes with her on a picnic, writes to her a few times, then gets a wedding announcement. Yawn. And while the names of the cadets in Matt's cadre indicate a multi-racial and multi-national composition, the main characters are all white guys. Matt's mentor, Mr. Wong, is probably Chinese, but it's not explicitly stated.
Yet despite these petty nitpicks, all in all, I have a positive opinion of the book. I would have liked there to have been more of it. It's written simply enough to engage a non-techie like myself, but is doesn't talk down to its audience. The characters are mostly nice people, trying to do their best and uphold the honored traditions of their job. Despite some scientific ideas that have since been superceded by new discoveries, the story doesn't seem dated at all, except for a few bits of slang. I'd recommend the book.
This book, incidentally, inspired the "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" franchise of the 1950's.