Dec 3 2010 4:05pm

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

Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert A. HeinleinHave 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.

Dave Robinson
1. DaveRobinson
You're right, it's a very strange book in comparison to his other juveniles, though I never batted an eye when I read it as a kid. It does make one wonder what he was trying to do with it.

Still, as always, it's compulsively readable - and possibly the best novel about a passive protagonist ever written.
David Neylon
2. dwneylonsr
Nice write-up Jo, although I have to say that this is one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. I probably probably read this in my early to midteens, so probably about 65 or so. Identifying with Kip was fairly easy for me. The setting wasn't very far in the past. In fact there was a Mom and Pop (literally) Sundries store at the corner with a lunch counter. I think some of the interaction with his father is important. He's mildly eccentric and mysterious. Of course since I grew upwithout a father perhaps it meant more to me. :) In fact, I think I'll pull this out tonight and read it again.

3. OtterB
This has long been my favorite Heinlein juvenile, with the possible exception of Space Cadet. I don't get the feeling of failure/passivity that you do from it. I see the message that things don't always work out the way you plan, but that doesn't make your plans futile. Reality is complicated and sometimes things don't go well, but that doesn't absolve you from doing your best - in fact, it makes it even more important. If Kip hadn't been trying to get to the moon, he wouldn't have had a spacesuit; if he hadn't worked to make the spacesuit as real as possible, it wouldn't have had a working radio - and he would never have been in communication with Peewee and off on this adventure. Peewee had to rescue Kip after he set the beacon on Pluto, but the beacon did bring help for them. I'd call that interdependency, not failure. Kip and Peewee's speech to the aliens may or may not have been persuasive, but the fact that the Mother Thing had watched them in action had to weigh on the side of humanity.

I also like the mutual respect that develops between Kip and Peewee.

To each his own, I suppose.
Frank C
4. fmcola
This reminds of my recent re-reads of Isaac Asimov's books... the storyline really suffers from how dated everything is. I was an avid sci-fi reader in my younger days and I've been thinking about trying my hand at writing in this genre (now that I'm retired and plenty of time), so I've been reviewing some of the older "hot" authors. I think that the combination of my "maturity" as a reader and the obsolescence of the technology they incorporates, creates a future world that is no longer plausible... I guess some scifi doesn't age very well!
5. Mike G.
Once upon a time (in the early 80's), I was a teenager living overseas, getting my high-school courses done by correspondance.

This meant that at the start of the school year, a big box of courses and materials would show up, including things like reading material.

One year, the box had _Have Spacesuit, Will Travel_ as the english book.

Obviously, I didn't get to figure out what else was in the box until the next day, when I'd finished the book :)

I'll always love that book. I think it's time to re-read it again, even though there's no ebook of it yet.
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams
Have Spacesuit is one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. In fact, I just came across it while cleaning the living room and moved it to the bedside re-read stack. (Current top book is Nutmeg for the POB re-read) I don't see Kip as passive, because he keeps on trying, even with the failures. I still remember the bit about using a dollar bill to measure with, when he's trying to get out of the hole/jail cell.

Plus, his dad wins the Heinlein Eccentric Family award. Telling the IRS that you don't keep records and then inviting the agent to dinner? Hiding the college plans from your kid? (I work at a university- it would be very tough now to get admitted when the semester is about to start and you haven't yet applied!) And of course, he introduced me (and Connie Willis!) to Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.
7. LizardBreath
I always liked it better than any of Heinlein's other juveniles as well; something about the 'plans don't necessarily work out, things you can't control will happen to you' worked for me, in a way that the rest of them don't. I agree that Peewee is useless as a character; I'm not sure quite what's wrong with her, but she just isn't there enough to pay attention to.
8. Michael S. Schiffer
Reality is complicated and sometimes things don't go well, but that doesn't absolve you from doing your best - in fact, it makes it even more important.

Huh-- that's the first time I've seen a congruence between Have Spacesuit Will Travel and The Lord of the Rings (where Frodo likewise fails, but only his and Sam's and their allies' efforts make the final eucatastrophe possible). Heinlein wouldn't have given the same role to Providence that Tolkien did. But the basic message about the importance of continued effort (with hope as an effective virtue in the face of apparent lack of rational support for it) winds up very similar.
9. Stefan Jones
Very different from the other Heinlein juveniles, and my absolute favorite.

I mean, I was thinking about the darn thing just this morning -- the bit about rotating planets -- and I haven't read it in at leastt fifteen years.

And last week, the line about laughing jackasses holding back progress came to mind.

I thought the Vegans and the Mother-Thing were cool. Perhaps a bit like Tolkein's elves, once you read the backstory and realize that they're not just all about singing and admiiring trees. The Vegans are compassionate and understanding and insightful but really, really smart about it. A race of Sapient Whisperers. When the Mother-thing reluctantly calls the worm-faces "naughty" in her testimony, the galactic council knows its as close as a Vegan can come to condemnation.
10. Rush-That-Speaks
This was always my favorite of Heinlein's juveniles. Still is.

It's the one that spoke to me as a neglected kid, is the thing. I didn't have any agency in my own life, and I knew it. What this book says, over and over again, is 'if you do the hard thing, and it will be very hard, even if you fail it will change the situation so the next hard thing will be different'. If they'd had to try to make the walk to Tombaugh Station again, if he'd had to try to set a beacon again, I'd have given up reading in despair, but as it is the message I got from this book was not ever to stop trying because even if you totally fail or it looks as though you've totally failed, you may have shifted an intangible. That was very important to a kid dealing with the same kinds of parental crazy over and over and over and bloody over again and feeling as though it would never, ever stop.

And this is also why the Mother Thing and the Wormfaces have always worked for me-- this is a book for the kids who have no power, or very little power, and the Mother Thing is the good side of the adults who do things to your life for inscrutable reasons and the Wormfaces are the bad side. They're not three-dimensional because as a child sometimes good and bad just drop on you as though perpetrated by aliens and you understand the reasons why later or never. But Kip recognizes the good, repudiates the bad, and does the best he knows how to do to understand the world around him and make things happen in it. I think it's significant that the reward is college-- knowledge, future, agency, and he's getting there on his own steam. His reward is the ability to make himself into a person who cannot be jerked around this way.

So yeah, I grabbed onto this book hard, it was a favorite for years. Still a better reflection of my actual experience of childhood than most things.
Liza .
11. aedifica
Jo, the soap contest and the soda jerking seemed just as fictional to me! I grew up in the central US, yes, but late enough and in a different enough sort of city that that kind of drugstore might as well have been something invented.
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
It's been a long time since I read this book but I always liked Kip. It wasnt so much that he failed as much as he was out there giving all his effort. I, too, read this in the early to mid 60's the first time and I related pretty well to Kip.

I didn't get much from Peewee, but I liked the Mother Thing.

The contest thing was pretty real. There used to be a lot of contests or prizes that you sent in for. In fact, I think you can still collect cereal box tops for prizes. Cigarettes used to be good for those too. I remember when I used to smoke collecting the tabs to send in for stuff. I'm pretty sure a lot of it is collectable now, lol.
13. Stefan Jones

I love the cover artwork up above. For many years I had a half-dozen Heinlein juveniles from that era, with covers by that artist. But not "Have Spacesuit . . ." First time I've seen it.

RE soda jerks and soap jingle contents, I guess I was culturally-literate enough to recognize these things as real but old-fashioned, but a perfectly acceptable element of the story. (I suddenly remember a piece kid-lit I read in the early 1970s, but was a bit archaic even then. The protagonist got rid of a litter of kittens by giving them away as "premiums" for the sales of the "bluing" he peddled door-to-door. I had to ask my mother what that was.)
14. Raskolnikov
Hmm, haven't read this one. I really haven't liked what Heinlein I've read, in large part because the focus on hyper-competence and achievement comes across as really narcistic and Mary Sueish. It seems that this work has a somewhat more realistic theme to it, and the notion of a cosmos that's not 'humanity, Rar!' also seems appealing.
15. Stefan Jones
@Rashkolnikov: That aspect of Heinlein turns me off too. While there's a touch of that here, the Old Man character is relatively unobtrusive. And yes, there is a rare bit of "humanity needs to grow up" you don't find elsewhere.

In other words: Yes, give it a try.
16. Kevinmarks
Having now read the heinlein biography, I can see where the"keep trying even when plans don't work out" might have come from.

Jo, how about the aliens in Star Beast?
j p
17. sps49
I'm with 9 and 10, and never forgot the gum in the door track.

This was also the first Heinlein I read. I think.

I also cut the ends from most of my Revell model' boxes for a contest to win a Chevy 4x4 (while too young to drive) > smowmobile (in Alabama) or whatever the lesser prizes were. I would've sent the 3x5 cards but, like Professor Russell, I felt that would be percieved as mild cheating.

I was disappointed near the end- Mrs. Russell was his prize student, and now is "just" a housewife and mom? But the book as a whole was/ is a great read for me.
18. TorSaric25
This was always my favorite by far. I read it in the nineties, but have lways been fascinated with early 1900s Americana - There was an AM station where I lived that would broadcast the old radio plays from that era and I would stay up and listen to the Lone Ranger, and other shows. Weird kid. I can echo what others have said about continuing to try even if you fail, at least you have made a difference. The soda jerk sections always sounded realistic to me.
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Kevin Marks: Good call. I remember Lummox in great detail, but were her people more powerful, or just aliens humanity wanted to be on good terms with?

sps49, others: I also found the "prize student devolved to mom" thing annoying, and not only that but I find the whole concept of "mother thing" that people and aliens can have unbelievable and dumb -- I'd think it was sexist too if there wasn't a throwaway line in the Vega bit saying men can have it too, which redeems that. Maybe you have to like your mother to buy this concept.
David Levinson
20. DemetriosX
As I think I mentioned in the Hugo thread, I've never really warmed up to this book. I can't really put my finger on it, but it just doesn't work for me. It isn't Peewee; she's no worse than some of RAH's other genius brats of either gender (though I can only think of boys right at the moment). It isn't that Kip's plans often fail; that happens to others in the juvies, too. I suppose part of it is that I find the Mother Thing creepy.

I was culturally aware enough, that the soda fountain and contests weren't odd to me. What is strange is that they were phenomena that were really already dying out when he wrote this. I can just barely remember one major chain drugstore in southern California that still had an ice cream fountain in the back in the late 60s. I wonder if there was an intentional connection between Kip's job and the growing awareness that the days of the tinkerer were numbered. They were both things that were moving into the past. (Interestingly enough, tinkering seems to be making a comeback with the "making" movement. It's different, but related I think.)

Perhaps the most interesting thing that Heinlein was doing in this book was the sense of scale business. If nothing else, the book does an excellent job of showing just how big space is as the action keeps moving outward by an order of magnitude or more.
Clark Myers
21. ClarkEMyers
I find the text of Star Beast to be, deliberately I suppose, ambiguous as to the real powers of Lummox and her race - assertions of abilities contrasted with possible shadings of the truth by the intermediary to advance the relationship. Maybe the power of manipulation is the superior alien power?

I'd compare the setting to Tey's England without the Hitler war more than with any real U.S. of A of the 1950's. For those whose only picture of the soda jerk is this book I'd strongly suggest the fountain images in the film The Best Years of Our Lives - and as noted such things were already passing by the time Have Spacesuit Will Travel was published.

Myself I did not read the "prize student devolved to mom" as a reality but as a quirk of the choice of POV character - arguably like Podkayne this book can be seen as a rif on child raising here with contrasting themes of Kip and Peewee.
Bruce Cohen
22. SpeakerToManagers
Jo @ 19:

IIRC, at the end of "Star Beast", as Lummox is taking her new pets aboard her ship, the Right Honorable Permanent Undersecretary for Spatial Affairs Mr. Henry Kiku remembers that the night before he'd gotten drunk with Dr. Ftaeml, the alien intermediary in the negotiations, and Ftaeml had intimated that he'd deliberately made Lummox' people seem more powerful than they actually were in order to obtain a good outcome for the talks.

As for "Have Spacesuit", it was the last of the Heinlein juveniles but for "Starman Jones" that I read; I was 13 at the time and somewhat jaded because I'd read so much Heinlein. I didn't like it as well as most of the others, in part because it was even more episodic and less coherent a story line than the other juveniles. Also, it's clear that the major theme of all the juveniles is coming of age; taking on adult responsibility and learning how you fit into the larger world, and I don't see Kip doing that. He's mostly along for the ride, as you point out, and certainly can't take on responsibility for the success of his mission, and at the end, what has he learned about how he fits into his own world? That his father deceived him about how he was going to go to college? That his world doesn't matter because of the advanced space aliens who are coming to visit?

As for the aliens, Heinlein always seemed uncomfortable talking about aliens who were in any way superior to humans. I think he disliked the thought and avoided it, and when he couldn't there was usually a reason why the aliens weren't competition for us: Willis' Martians were old and tired, the Jockaira were really no match for Lazarus Long and his trusty six-shoot-, um, blaster, etc.
23. Bruce Munro
#14 Raskolnivok: I'm afraid humanity is still an Inherently Superior Race in the story. To quote:

'"We have no limits! There's no telling what our future will be."
"It may be determined that you have no limits. But, if true, it is not a point in your favor. For we have limits."'

Possibly descended from some mighty Elder Race...

'"Inquiry"..."These creatures appear to be identical with the Old Race, allowing for mutation."...."But they are not of the Old Race: they are ephemerals. That is the danger; they change too fast."
"Didn't the Old Race lose a ship out that way a few half-deaths of Thorium-230 ago? Couldn't that account for the fact that the youngest sample failed to match?"
Michael Dolbear
24. miketor
5., Mike G :"I'll always love that book. I think it's time to re-read it again, even though there's no ebook of it yet."

Ebook just out in multi-formats !

click on Heinlein in the left column for the special 6 book bundle and other RAH books.

Citizen of the Galaxy
Have Space Suit -- Will Travel
Methuselah's Children
Revolt in 2100
Tramp Royale
Grumbles from the Grave

Mike D, Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames
25. Mike G.
Mike D @24, LOL! I was just coming back to post that - just found out on Baen's Bar.

Bought Space Suit and Citizen.
26. frosgrok
I don't agree with the stated problems about the various aliens.

"... they decide for inexplicable alien reasons"

Well, yea... That is a good thing. I know "literature rules" say that science fiction "aliens" are supposed to hold a mirror to human behaviour for the purpose of -insert psychobabble- ala Gulliver's Travels.

But sometimes an alien, is just an alien.

And in this case they're just echoing a theme from Heinlein's "Coventry": Right and wrong may be beyond our ability to determine, but damage and threat are not. They don't interfere if you eat yourselves, but if you look like you might eat them !WHAM! (or a nice quiet whoosh as your planet goes bye bye).

Wormfaces = problem = whoosh
Humans = potential problem / potential boon = wait and see

I understood the aliens way better than I understood the Nixon era.

"It’s aliens ex machina" Once again, realism rather than problem for me... If Vogons decide to blow up our planet, we will? Uhm, as of 2010, we will die. If some other save-the-whale type aliens decides to stop them? We will? Probably make funny noises that they can't understand. And the aliens in this book are not low end local interstellar aliens (that could still wipe us out with a big rock), no these are intergalactic ancient aliens. If there is any unrealism it's that the human race's future wasn't decided by clerk #793457 x 13 to the 256th power.

As for the Mother-thing, I did find her creepy, but I find that realistic as well. I mean imagine a vastly powerful race that could make us nice, and civilized, and calm, and bland, and happy... Ok, so that may not sound bad to some folks, many of whom go door to door trying to sell Jesus, but it scares me. And all that stops her people is that... they are too nice? Cold sweats. Check out Octavia Butler's aliens... They wanted only the best for us. They scared the #**t out of me.

To me the story's theme says: No matter how far away, no matter how bleak, no matter how big the other guy is: TRY! Even if you're a bug to them, TRY! Even if all you've got is one sock, you-are-not-ever-ever beaten, even if you're dead... As long as you TRIED!

Me, I'd probably give up: But the idea that some tough little kid's last act will be leaving a poison tack on the evil galactic overlords chair even as Earth is destroyed, because they read this... Warms my heart.
27. HelenS
this is a book for the kids who have no power, or very little power, and the Mother Thing is the good side of the adults who do things to your life for inscrutable reasons and the Wormfaces are the bad side.

Excellent point, Rush. But I think that the whole eccentric-parents-turn-out-to-have-it-all-sorted thing is more than a bit creepy. Part of the point seems to be how little Kip actually knows about his parents (especially his mother). Having to live in an anti-intellectual small town and teach yourself all that math and so forth when in fact your parents could have brought you up in a community where there were lots of others like you, including adult mentors (and in some ways -- not all -- they refuse to even be mentors themselves) ... it doesn't sit well with me.

I was interested by the Roman soldier's "And don't call me 'amico'; I'm a Roman citizen--so don't get gay." I'd have thought Heinlein couldn't have put in a reference to homosexuality in a juvenile, and also that gay was not yet widespread slang in 1958 (I may well be wrong about the latter), but what else could the soldier have meant? And what could Heinlein's juvenile editor (was it still Alice Dalgliesh at that point?) have thought he meant?
David Levinson
28. DemetriosX
HelenS @27: I think you're reading way too much into that "get gay". I think in 1958 it was more along the lines of "Don't get cute with me." According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the earliest attested use of gay in connection with homosexuality is 1971.

But I think you have some very valid criticisms of Kip's parents.
29. Rush-That-Speaks
Demetrios @28: your online dictionary is wrong. Very, very wrong. Cary Grant uses the word gay for homosexuality in Bringing Up Baby in 1938 sort of wrong. (Katherine Hepburn has taken his clothes away, and he's stuck wearing her bathrobe, which is frilly and covered with marabou. Her aunt comes in and looks disapprovingly at him and asks him to explain his outfit, and he throws his hands up in the air, shouts "I just went gay all of a sudden!" and does a magnificent swish-and-twirl exit. This seems fairly unambiguous to me-- and the movie seems to think the audience will get it.) So yeah, it is totally possible Heinlein is using the term that way, although it is also still much more possible than it would be now that he isn't.
30. Neil in Chicago
Have Spacesuit Will Travel was my first Heinlein; the best I can tell, it was pretty new when I read it. (And I was a fan of "Have Gun Will Travel".) I got it from the children's room of the Joliet Public Library.
Nothing can override your feelings about your first. There are a couple of lines I still repeat. "Go ahead" is a permanent favorite. And how could someone who has called himself an anarchist not love, "OK, unemployed spy"?
31. HelenS
Kip says the "don't get gay" is a "free translation. His advice was more vulgar -- I think. It was close to a Spanish phrase which certainly is vulgar." He's also glad that Peewee doesn't understand Latin. So the expression means, or at least implies, something more than "don't get cute." I'm quite willing to think it may mean something other than homosexual (indeed, given the strict limitations under which the juveniles were written, it seems as though there must be some alternate explanation available, even if it isn't what RAH was thinking), but I've no idea what.
32. HelenS
I just looked around in Google Books, and it seems that "Don't get gay" was a very widely used expression, basically meaning "Don't try to be funny" or "Don't fool around." I'd no idea. That presumably solves the editor problem. So maybe it is just coincidence that Heinlein hit on that bit of slang as an acceptable-sounding mask for a much dirtier insult, and maybe it's not. "Don't get fresh with me" would have worked, too, and it also has a possible sexual connotation (as "getting fresh" could mean making sexual advances as well as being childishly impertinent).
David Dyer-Bennet
33. dd-b
One of my favorites of the juveniles, probably ranking second behind The Rolling Stones.

I didn't see Kip as passive or ineffective. He's smart, knowledgable, works hard, and that work is absolutely key at several steps to their success.

Yeah, it was disappointing to be yanked back short of Tombaugh station. Life sucks sometimes.

It's true he didn't solve much of anything single-handedly by his own fearsome power. For me that's a GOOD thing. I like books where people DO often solve things single-handedly, but working with others and courting luck are very important skills, and should not be neglected in fiction.

I never did get the idea that Kip's parents were sane. It's possible Heinlein thought they were and I just disagree. I suppose it's also possible that he was off on the anti-city crap, and felt that raising Kip in a small town where he'd have all his intellectual impulses stifled was somehow good for him.
34. rmbellovin
I'm confused by the discussion here of the resolution of Kip's college plans; IIRC Peewee's father twisted the arm of MIT's president to get Kip admission and a full scholarship (Kip had applied but not been admitted). Where is it mentioned that Kip's father had a secret college fund?

This was the first Heinlein I ever read, at age 9 or so, after I put down Rolling Stones as being too boring, and it's still one of my favorites. It inspired me to learn to use a slide rule (I didn't quite understand that they were obsolete in the mid-'90's...).
Pamela Adams
35. PamAdams
It's on the next-to-last page. And only last night, Dad had told me that he had bought an education policy for me the day I was born--he had been waiting to see what I would do on my own.

Hmmm- I'm wondering if Kip's traveling the galaxy in his stocking feet had anything to do with Miles Vorkosigan's carpet slippers episode.
j p
36. sps49
Iunio may have meant exactly that. Pompeii has preserved graffiti which includes at least one I recall wondered of a male someone or other, we hear what you say, but for whom do you pluck thine ass?

The link is dead, sadly, and I can only find a few of those I remember online.
37. HelenS
Martial, Epigrams book 2, 62

Quod pectus, quod crura tibi, quod bracchia uellis,
quod cincta est breuibus mentula tonsa pilis,
hoc praestas, Labiene, tuae — quis nescit? — amicae.
Cui praestas, culum quod, Labiene, pilas?

translation from

When you shave your chest, your arms, your legs,
And all the bushes around your cock,
It's for your girlfriend, everybody knows, Labienus.
But who's it for, when you shave also your buttocks?

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