Jun 18 2009 11:55am

Starman Jones, or how Robert A. Heinlein did plot on a good day

Starman Jones is one of those books I can’t really read any more, because I’ve read it too many times and I know what all the words say before I get to them. If you haven’t read any Heinlein, it would be a terrific place to start as it has a lot of the things he’s good at and relatively few of the things people tend to find problematic.

It’s the story of Max Jones, a poor boy with an eidetic memory from one of the worst of Heinlein’s typically dystopic future Earths. It’s a simple story, intended as a juvenile, by Farah Mendelsohn’s interesting definition, the story of how a boy grows up and finds work.

Max runs away from home, tries and fails to join the Astrogator’s Guild, lies his way onto a starship where he’s promoted through the ranks from looking after the passengers’ pets to captain. It was written in 1953, and it’s set in a universe that managed to develop FTL but still has computers that have to be programmed in hex, in realtime, from logbooks. It’s written in Heinlein’s typical prose style, which you either like or you don’t, and with his typically excellent skills at conveying huge amounts of worldbuilding disguised as character and scenery.

Aedifica, in the thread on Friday says

Regarding various comments about the ending and Heinlein’s endings in general: Even before I started to have problems with Heinlein’s characterizations of women, I noticed he couldn’t seem to write an ending worth a damn. (I just kept reading them anyway.) It’s true I haven’t read many of the juveniles, but of the ones I have read, it always seems to be storystorystorystory inconclusive ending.

Now this is true of many of his later, longer novels. But if you look at Starman Jones, it does the same thing except that it works and has a lovely satisfying ending. My charming, if well-read, NEL edition of 1975, reprinted 1977, has an awful cover but a convenient list of chapter titles at the front.

There are twenty-two chapters in all.

The first and last chapters are both called “Tomahawk” and both involve Max sitting on a hill near his hardscrabble farm, watching a supersonic train pass. (Supersonic trains now, Amtrak! You know it makes sense!) In the first chapter, he’s a boy wishing he could go to space. In the last chapter he’s an astrogator with a ship to catch. The story has come full circle, from train to train, but Max has grown up.

In between these two framing chapters, which could be seen as introduction and conclusion, the twenty intervening chapters are split: four chapters on Earth, three chapters with Max looking after pets, three chapters with Max as a chartsman, three chapters with Max as an astrogator, five chapters with the ship getting lost, Max on the alien planet, being captured by aliens and escaping, two chapters of Max as captain. It’s quite easy to see this as “storystorystory end” but in fact there’s no meandering going on. Each step leads inexorably to the next.

I haven’t mentioned any characters, other than Max. There are tons, obviously, but there are two other significant characters, Sam and Eldreth. Max meets Sam in the second chapter. Sam’s a tramp, Sam wants to get off Earth. He steals Max’s books. In chapter five however, they pool their resources “Your money and my know-how” to get off planet. Sam’s fortunes on the ship rise and fall, and Sam eventually (chapter 19) dies heroically on the alien planet, saving Max and Eldreth from aliens. Sam’s purpose in the novel is to be a good father, to counteract the bad stepfather Max is fleeing, but also to represent the lawless frontier as opposed to the over-regulated Earth and ship. Sam wants Max to run with him on a frontier planet where there’s some space. Sam teaches Max that too much law is bad, but also by laying down his life for his friends and by other things he says, he demonstrates that not enough law is bad, too. Through the trajectory of Sam’s life as it intersects Max’s, Max learns that you need some give in the system, but you need a system. Max owns up to his deception when he has a chance to become an astrogator, and is accepted anyway.

Eldreth is a girl, a passenger, owner of an alien pet, a spider-puppy called Mr. Chips, or Chipsie. She’s upper class and a little older than Max. He meets her in chapter seven. She helps him get promoted to chartsman, but her purpose in the plot is to be a girl and a romantic interest, though it never quite gets as far as that, and to be someone outside the rigid hierarchy of the crew who can (as an aristocrat) safely see the ranks as an illusion. From Eldreth Max learns that is is an illusion but he also learns that it’s also necessary in a ship in space to know who is in charge. Eldreth also represents civilization, by having a pet and playing 3D chess and dancing. 

It’s also worth noting the Good Astrogator, Dr. Hendrix, and the Bad Astrogator, Simes. Hendrix knew Max’s uncle, promotes Max, then dies and everything goes wrong. Simes is just what you’d expect if you select your astrogators by legacy admissions, bad at his job, cowardly, and a bully.

Max has his one freak talent, his eidetic memory, and it is what gets him promoted and ultimately saves them all when Simes destroys the logbooks and dies, so that only Max can get them home. But everything that’s there is working towards the plot. The pet, Mr. Chips, who seems to be there only to give Max a way of meeting Eldreth, saves the two of them when they’re captured by aliens. They send her back to the ship with a message, and she manages to communicate it to Sam, who comes to rescue them. (Tangentially, Heinlein rarely has aliens, but when he does it’s odd how often they’re utterly incomprehensible and manage to chase humans off their planets. Not really what you’d expect.)

It’s easy to see the overview as a set of adventures, leaving Earth and going to other planets, getting promoted, but it all has one goal: getting to that position where Max’s freak talent is the only thing that can save them, where he becomes captain and astrogates them home. Everything leads to that. It’s climactic. You couldn’t predict that is where it would end up (I think, I don’t know, I first read this when I was twelve), but there aren’t any false leads. And beyond that, the real story is Max learning lessons—from Sam, from Eldreth, from his experiences—and ending up back on that hillside with a job to go to. Both stories end up at the same point, and everything reinforces the theme not just of Max growing up but of him learning what it is to grow up and what he actually values. At the beginning he’s a kid with a freak talent, at the end he’s a man who has lied, told the truth, seen a friend die and brought his ship home. There are no false moves, everything goes towards that. And it’s a great end. All his juveniles have great ends.

Now Heinlein, from what he said about how he worked, did all that entirely on instinct, sitting down and writing one word after another and doing what happens and where it’s going purely by gut-feel. When he gave Eldreth the spider-monkey, he wasn’t thinking “and later, it can rescue them from aliens” because he had no idea at that point that they’d get lost and end up on an alien planet. But when they got to the alien planet, he knew what he had and what he wanted to do because of the way it flowed. But it works like wyrd, where the beginning is wide open and it narrows in and in so that at the end there’s only one place for it to go.

It’s not surprising that when he lost that instinct (because of age or illness) but kept his other skills, he produced some late books that just keep going along until they stop.

Clifton Royston
1. CliftonR
This is one of the great books of science fiction.

I think maybe when my son finishes the Madeleine L'Engle books he's plowing through now, I'll see if he wants to try this.
rick gregory
2. rickg
Heinlein rarely has aliens, but when he does it’s odd how often they’re utterly incomprehensible and manage to chase humans off their planets. Not really what you’d expect.)

Actually it's very much what I expect, at least the incomprehensible part. Too often authors trivialize the *alien* part, making the look funny and talk oddly but if we just trade some code that describes the elements or something, we all of a sudden can converse. But we'd have NO referents in common. Incomprehensibility is the right stance I think.

Thanks for the review Jo - this is a Heinlein I've not read and I'll have to check out.
David Dyer-Bennet
3. dd-b
This one was out of my rotation (I think I didn't have a copy for a long time), and I brought it back in relatively recently, like this decade. It stands up very nicely for me, too; I enjoyed reading it.

Hmmm; aliens. Heinlein has his Martians who appear in a number of books (Double Star, Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and of course Stranger in a Strange Land). Glory Road sort-of has aliens, but it also has widespread humans with no explanation, too. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel has pretty comprehensible sentient aliens, major characters. The Star Beast has major aliens, who don't particularly chase us off. Methuselah's Children has us run off by that on planet of aliens (and Lazarus returns there in Time Enough For Love). Between Planets has Venusians that we're on decent terms with.

Lots of his books are pretty much in-system, which somewhat limits the possibilities for aliens, especially later on as we learn more about the conditions on Mars and Venus.

Heinlein, the third nova of science fiction, came after Weinbaum, so he had that widely-noticed improvement in aliens to work from.

I haven't gone into the later books; all of those at least potentially have aliens, though, since they connect to the Lazarus Long universe. I don't think it's right to say that Heinlein doesn't often have aliens.
4. gottacook
I just got around to Starman Jones a few months ago, after having encountered 40 years ago, at age 12 (in my school library), Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Space Suit--Will Travel. Those last two of the 12 "juveniles" were so satisfying and so rereadable that I never developed much interest in the 10 others until recently (although by 1970 I was into the "adult" fiction: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Puppet Masters, etc.)

I do think I'll try to get my daughters (11 and almost 13) to read Starman Jones, perhaps also Citizen, Space Suit, and Between Planets, as well as Schmitz' The Witches of Karres -- that is, if I can pry them away from their various ongoing book series.
5. Chrysostom
Sam's death really stuck with me as a kid.
6. DemetriosX
Something that really needs to be borne in mind when considering Heinlein's portrayal of women, especially in the juvies, is that he had a very specific audience in mind. When he was writing most of his best stuff, SF was being read by youngish, white males. As a businessman, he wrote to his target audience. Some of the juvies were even serialized in Boys' Life, and they fit the audience perfectly, without adaptation.

In his defense, would often try to turn the audience's expectations upside-down, for instance revealing after several pages that a character the audience is meant to identify with is black or Asian. Also his female characters tend to be very strong and better than the men, they just tend to work through the men. The best example of that is probably Jacqueline Daudet from Tunnel in the Sky; Rod never really twigs to the fact that she is the real leader of the group. When I have heard Heinlein called a sexist in discussions, I have often replied, "Yes, he was. He clearly believed that women were superior."
Clark Myers
7. ClarkEMyers
I suspect a count of the whole body of work would show aliens more often than not.

There is no place for aliens in much of the earliest work and much of the later work is very much human universe centered - I Will Fear No Evil is odd enough without aliens. Door Into Summer I suppose with the Martians removed the cat is alien enough? Buck?

I think Woodie and Libby went back and dropped most of the aliens out of that series early on at least for purposes of affecting the mostly human worlds. Are the computers alien intelligence or just AI?

To Sail Beyond the Sunset or Cat Who Walked Through Walls and such don't use aliens.

I might reframe to say more often uses aliens as exotic humans so close as not to be noticed as aliens - however fond I might be of Sir Isaac Newton and glad to see some again in Number of the Beast but curious about other aliens who again are mostly plot tokens in that book.

I'd agree that as affects the story the better, more memorable, aliens are more exotic but again in a mostly human - for purposes of the story at least - universe.

In another early book with aliens the Venusians of Space Cadet are exotic enough to be an issue however comprehensible for story's sake.

In many books e.g. Farmer in the Sky the aliens are again sort of plot tokens not characters as not characters inside the gravity controlled environmental tanks of We Also Walk Dogs.

In other books the plot and the story could be done with biological humans in lieu of aliens - Prisoner of Zenda did Double Star with aliens as not quite our sort but homo sap just the same.

Still lots and lots of aliens.
Andrew Mason
8. AnotherAndrew
Actually, Methuselah's Children has two planets with aliens (one of which has two alien species).
j p
9. sps49
Heinlein was also published in Calling All Girls magazine- at least one story; I can't recall where his other feminine juveniles were first published.

Starman Jones may be the only juvenile I havenn't read yet. The rest are good reading for all ages, though.
Liza .
10. aedifica
Jo: I haven't read this one yet, but I can see I'll have to! It does sound very elegantly designed. (And about the aliens: there are also the ones who chase humans off without meaning to!)

DemetriosX @ 6: I do applaud Heinlein's treatment of female characters for his time--but his time is not my time, and in my early 20s I realized I had to stop taking his female characters as role models. I'm still (in my 30s) trying to shake off some of the less helpful ideas I "learned" from him about what women (like me) ought to be like.
Mitch Wagner
11. MitchWagner
Jacqueline Daudet the real leader in "Tunnel"? What an interesting idea. She certainly is a strong woman -- or, girl, rather.

I sometimes think that Heinlein had problems portraying young adult women. Girls and teen-agers? No problem. Old women? He did some great characters there. But his young adult women characters tend to be weak and manipulative.

I think if I could only pick one of my favorite novels to be made into a terrific movie, "Starman Jones" would be it. It could still be done today, if we assume that the astrogators and other statisticians' guilds have suppressed the past 40 years or so of computer development.

The storyline of the Star Trek movie is similar to "Starman Jones," but I like the ending of the Heinlein book better.
12. DemetriosX
Mitch Wagner@11: It wouldn't take a lot of tweaking to get Starman Jones updated. Make him a lightning calculator and have the bad guy destroy the navigation computer, or leave the eidetic memory and have the bad guy wipe the database.
13. Chrysostom
Ah, here was the passage I was thinking of:

Behind them Sam Anderson turned to face his death...dropping to one knee and steadying his pistol over his left forearm in precisely the form approved by the manual.
14. Keith Morton
This is one Heinlein juvenile I seemed to have overlooked and appreciate the review. I do seem to be reminded a bit of Citizen of the Galaxy, which I also liked.
15. Gwen13
"Tunnel in the Sky" used the same framing technique as "Starman Jones": in chapter 1, Rod is watching the departure of colonists at Emigrant's Gap, and then in the final chapter, he's the captain, leading a group outward at Emigrant's Gap.
16. Mark Wise
Thanks for posting this. It's been year's since I've re-read any of the juveniles. This brought back some of those joys.
17. Yonmei
[i]The best example of that is probably Jacqueline Daudet from Tunnel in the Sky; Rod never really twigs to the fact that she is the real leader of the group. When I have heard Heinlein called a sexist in discussions, I have often replied, "Yes, he was. He clearly believed that women were superior."
r years.

I've noticed that men often say this about Heinlein: women, not so much.

I read a lot of Heinlein's juveniles when I was the right age for them (IMO, that would be between eight and thirteen - I was about 13 or 14 when I noticed that when I (young teenage girl) showed up in one of his novels, it was always, always as a plot token: Heinlein didn't think I myself could become a space cadet or a farmer in the sky or visit ancient cities on Mars: he thought I could only be the love interest or the rescuable younger sister of the boy who was going to be the main character. That was an unpleasant realisation to have, about books I had loved for years.

I went on reading Heinlein for some time, and indeed still do: but I fell out of love with him then and never recovered. Starman Jones is one of the ones I read after I'd fallen out of love with him, sadly. Good review.
David Spiller
18. scifidavid
I got so interested in this article. I somehow missed the bright blue spoiler warning. I am currently beating my head on my desk.
19. Nancy Lebovitz
IIRC, everything in Starman Jones can be viewed as being about how information moves (more frequently, how it fails to move) in a hierarchy.

Unlike a lot of sf from the period, Heinlein's didn't have humans superior to aliens. His aliens are generally at least politically and mentally equal, and quite a few of them are smarter and/or in charge.

It's an example of Heinlein's realism that Max and Ellie didn't end up together, I think. He tends to have realistic wins rather than getting all the prizes.

In Number of the Beast, Hilda has clearly taken over the Gay Deceiver well before she's elected Captain. She convinces everyone else to rig the elections the way she wants them. I'd have to reread Tunnel in the Sky to have an opinion about whether Jacqueline Daudet is in charge-- if her authority doesn't get public credit, I'm still unhappy with the situation.
20. SteveC
Does anybody besides me see a parallel between Sam's death and the real life store of the Tramp on the Tracks?

21. Kevin Marks
This review made me want to re-read the book with my boys, so I went to Amazon, and it looks like it isn't in print?
23. bclarkie
Not in print any longer? Thank heavens, it's about time. Heinlein needs to go away for a few decades.
25. Carl V.
Having just read Starman Jones, and several other Heinlein novels over the past year, I would have to disagree heartily with bclarkie and say: bring on more Heinlein, in newer editions so that they can be discovered, and rediscovered, again!

Starman Jones was a cracking good read.
26. torgeaux
Heinlein's juveniles, and to a lesser extent, his three classics (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land) should be read by every growing Sci-Fi fan. His juveniles are clean and fun and everything fiction for kids should be. His classics are strange and thought provoking and everything fiction for the developing mind should be.
Jon Ogden
28. Oakman
I am always surtprised by the number of people who feel called upon to analyse Heinlein's juveniles without understanding the relationship he had with Scribners and his editor Alice Dalgliesh. She had a very firm idea of what would and would not be proper to include in a book aimed at the under 21 market and she, time and time again, insisted that RAH edit out or rewrite anything that she did not like or which she felt was sexual.

To discuss his "treatment" of women as if he wrote his books in 2000 rather than the '30's and '40s demonstrates a certain lack of historical perspective, IMHO.
29. Anonymouse
The Navy angle: Few things that I've noticed about STARMAN that are not so secret, but have not ever heard others mention. Heinlein went to the Naval Academy and served on ships. I did also. There is a very particular sort of learning path involved in qualifying watch stations. Leave aside the computer (that;s a detail). What matters is how you learn your ship, learn your watchstation and then stand your watch. All of that in STARMAN just completely resonates with me. I lived it. Especially the quartermaster chief! Even the sweat of the transition...well if you've ever seen a navigator of a submarine on the piloting party, coming out of the harbor in a's pretty recognizable. Yeah...a bit more extreme in STARMAN, but's a P-WORK. ;)
30. jorge matamoros
I dont understand why they havent make a movie based on this great book

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