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.

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