Ever outward: Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, 1958, is the last of Heinlein’s juveniles but for Podkayne of Mars, and it seems to me quite different from the others, and from Heinlein’s other work. It starts traditionally in near-future America with a teenage boy who wants to go to the moon. It then opens out and out, to the moon, to Pluto, to Vega, to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. It does the same opening out as far as stakes are concerned—there’s a boy repairing a spacesuit and hoping to go to the moon one day, then he’s kidnapped by flying-saucer aliens and trying to escape, then he’s rescued by another set of aliens and hoping to get home, then he’s surrounded by a league of aliens and the future of the human race is at stake.

Have Spacesuit gets away with all of this in two ways—firstly the first person voice of Kip, who is very practical, very determind, and with no intention of giving up on anything ever. We accept the most amazing things happening because Kip is amazed and trying to figure his options. Secondly, the book varies between extreme detail on things Heinlein knew about and could have Kip know about—space suit design, oxygen bottles, what soda jerks have in the pockets—and Clarke’s Law magic baffled handwaves on the things he doesn’t. If Kip knows how it works, he tells us, if he doesn’t he tells us that.

Not so much spoilers as an assumption that you’ve either read it or don’t mind.

The oddest thing about Have Spacesuit is that the protagonists, Kip and the little girl genius Peewee, are mostly passengers in the plot. If the book has a message it’s that you have to try your best even though you will fail sometimes. This is not like other Heinlein juveniles. When I was a kid this was one of my least favourites of them, because of this. It wasn’t the message I wanted. The message has grown on me somewhat, but the book hasn’t, really. Kip is a very passive protagonist, and he often does not achieve what he tries to do. I think this may have been Heinlein’s deliberate intention, having noticed how little of this there is in fiction—it’ll be interesting to find out when the next volume of his biography comes out. But it disappointed me as an immature reader, and even now my favourite part of this book is the very beginning when Kip is working as a soda jerk and educating himself and fixing his space suit.

The book begins, like many Heinlein juveniles, with our teenage hero on near-future Earth with his eccentric family. Time for the Stars (post), Farmer in the Sky, Starman Jones (post), and Tunnel in the Sky all start that way. This Earth, in strong contrast to all of those, isn’t dystopic. It’s America of the 1950s, plus a moonbase. Centerville might as well be Pleasantville. The one thing wrong with it is that school is too much fun and not enough education, so Kip’s father persuades Kip to study the important stuff—math and science and Latin—on his own.

Kip wants to go to the moon, so he enters a competition to win a trip there, by writing slogans on soap wrappers. You wouldn’t believe how science fictional I found this when I was twelve, so I won’t tell you. But I thought it just as made up as the aliens.

Kip’s also working as a soda jerk in a drugstore—this actually does mean he was serving soft drinks to people in a pharmacy, which, well, again with the science fiction astonishing future stuff. What an imagination I thought Heinlein had! Instead of cafes or restaurants, people are drinking cold Horlicks in chemist shops and calling it a “fountain”—what could be more futuristic? And Heinlein makes us feel Kip’s pride in his work—his shakes are the thickest. And it’s an actual pharmacy, the owner makes up prescriptions while Kip serves the drinks! It’s up there with food pills. Heinlein needed this as a plot device, so that Kip could be socialising with the horrible bully Ace Quigley while also selling soap, but he really made it work and seem almost plausible because Kip takes it so for granted. When I found out this was a real American thing I was extremely taken aback.

Kip sells a lot of soap and makes a lot of entries to the competition. He doesn’t win the trip, but he wins a used space suit, which he repairs and makes functional for fun. The description of him fixing the space suit is the best part of the book—and it seems that Heinlein may have worked on development of early space suits and been talking from experience. (Bill Higgins has been giving talks about this connection, which I recommend if you can catch him.) But even here we have the theme:

Microwave circuitry is never easy. It takes precision machining and a slip of a tool can foul up the impedance and ruin a mathematically calculated resonance. 

Well, I tried. Synthetic precision crystals are cheap from surplus houses and some transistors and other components I could vandalize from my own gear. And I made it work, after the fussiest pray-and-try-again I have ever done. But the consarned thing simply would not fit in my helmet.

Call it a moral victory—I’ve never done better work.

I finally bought one, precision made and embedded in plastic, from the same firm that sold me the crystal.

Thematically, we have: “sometimes you can try your hardest and it won’t work, but don’t give up, try something else.” And also we have the message Heinlein couldn’t know he was writing: “it was 1959, and the day of teenagers being able to take the covers off everything and rejig it was almost over.” I find that word “transistor” almost poignant there. Kids in Heinlein juveniles knew how things worked because they lived in a macro-world, with things big enough to tweak. Sure computers are great and I shudder at the loneliness of the world without them, but that microwave transistor radio, “precision made and embedded in plastic,” marks the beginning of the end of the possibilities of building a spaceship in your barn.

With a working space suit and summer almost over (and without his college plans sorted) Kip goes for a melancholy walk in the suit, nicknamed Oscar, and adventure hits him. Before he knows where he is, he’s on a flying saucer headed for the moon, with two kinds of aliens and a little girl. Peewee’s an odd character. She’s eleven, she carries a rag doll, she’s a genius and a brat. She persuaded her parents to let her go to the moon alone, and once on the moon she was kidnapped by aliens who want to trade her for her father, a physicist. She escaped and stole a spaceship, then was recaptured with Kip. I first read this book when I was twelve, and a girl, and I never identified with Peewee or found her remotely plausible. This wasn’t a problem, because I had no trouble whatsoever identifying with Kip, and fortunately nobody told me that I was supposed to identify with Peewee, and I only thought of it on this reading.

On the moon, after a brief and delightful interlude of Kip being thrilled to be on the moon and in low gravity for the first time, they escape and try to walk forty miles to Tombaugh Base, through Lunar mountains and with Peewee’s oxygen constantly running out because the connectors on her bottles are incompatible with Kip’s. This is another wonderful passage—it’s very hard. They almost die. And they almost make it, only to be picked up again by the bad guys in sight of the base. “Call it a moral victory” again. I can remember being furious at this on first reading. It’s not what I expected from the kind of book it was. It’s more than a setback. I remember comparing it to Caradhras, but from Caradhras the Fellowship keep going on their quest, through Moria, but Kip and Peewee never get to Tombaugh Base, they get shanghaied further and further off, and they never rescue themselves.

Kip has met two kinds of aliens by this point. The first is the “Mother Thing,” who is a Vegan. She is described as being somewhat lemur-like, with a pouch, and small enough to fit inside Kip’s spacesuit with Kip. She’s loving and nurturing and I have never liked her, not when I was twelve and not now either. She isn’t developed enough to feel real. Heinlein had some great alien characters in other books—Sir Isaac Newton the Venusian dragon, and Willis the Martian. But generally aliens are not his strong point—they tend to exist to be threats, in Starman Jones and Methuselah’s Children (post) and here with the Wormfaces. This is his one attempt at a benevolent League of Aliens who are more advanced and powerful than us, and it leaves me cold.

The Wormfaces, on the other hand, are great villain-aliens. They have three scanning eyes, and they have wormy faces, and they totally dominate humans the way humans dominate horses—that’s great description, and Kip can’t resist them. When we get to the trial and the Wormfaces justifying themselves at the end they say Earth is empty but for animals, and I’d be sure they meant that, except for the way they want to kidnap Peewee’s father.

Their next stop is Pluto, where the two quisling humans who have been helping the Wormfaces get eaten by them, and Kip gets helplessly imprisoned for a long time. While imprisoned, he works out in great detail how far away Pluto is, and how far away the nearest stars are. One thing this book is great on is sense of scale, as it keeps expanding. It’s odd how the loss of Pluto as a planet and the existence of the Kuiper Belt has made the solid nine planet solar system of older SF seem so dated.

The Mother Thing engineers an escape, killing the Wormfaces, and Kip has to go outside on Pluto in his space suit and place a beacon. This almost kills him, and is another passage of great difficulty that ends in failure—he sets off the beacon but doesn’t make it back and has to be rescued by Peewee. He has successfully set off the beacon, however, because they are all rescued by the Vegans and taken to Vega, where Kip spends a long time recovering in bed in a simulacrum of his own room. Peewee gets a Clarke’s Law magic spacesuit, but Kip decides to stick with Oscar. While in bed, he calculates, with Peewee’s help, how far away Vega is from the sun.

As soon as Kip is well, and before we’ve seen half enough of Vega, the kids are whisked off to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, where they see the Milky Way Galaxy looking lovely. They work out how far it is to Vega, and really the distance between Vega and the sun doesn’t matter at that scale. The Wormfaces are on trial, and are condemned to have their planet rotated into another dimension, without their sun. I’ve always wondered about this, as the Wormfaces demonstrably have interstellar travel—did they only have one planet plus the base on Pluto and long term complex designs on Earth? Seems odd when you think about it. Then the humans are tried, essentially for barbarism and aggressive tendencies, and the aliens decide to help Earth. But it isn’t because of anything the kids do or don’t do, they decide for inexplicable alien reasons, just as they have decided to judge the human race on two kidnapped children, a Roman and a Neanderthal for inexplicable alien reasons. I would like to be swayed by Kip’s speech to the assembled aliens of three galaxies, but it all seems pointless. It’s aliens ex machina.

After that, we get a great post-script end, the kind of end you don’t normally get on juveniles, when the kid goes home with the treasure—alien knowledge in this case—and the grown ups believe them and treat them as grown ups. We also discover that Kip’s eccentric father had, ha-ha, actually had a college fund all the time and hadn’t told him so he’d develop self-reliance, which seems bizarrely negligent when you consider it’s Labor Day of the year Kip wants to go to college. But it’s all okay anyway because Peewee’s father has arranged for Kip to have a scholarship to MIT, in exchange for sharing alien secrets with them. What I like though is that the kids come back from their adventure and it doesn’t all turn to leaves and nothing gained as these things so often do.

It’s a very odd book, really. I keep re-reading it periodically to see if I’ll warm to it this time, but I never do. It’s Heinlein, which naturally means every sentence is compulsively readable and leads to the next sentence inevitably, so even though I don’t much like this book I can’t stop reading it once I start.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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