Even Spider Robinson admits that Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) is the weakest of Heinlein’s juveniles. It’s the story of three boys of school-leaving age who have a rocket club in which they have learned just exactly the technical and scientific skills appropriate for them to help a scientist uncle build a moon rocket. They do this and go to the moon, where they discover Space Nazis and ruins of ancient Lunar civilization—“Blowups Happen” also mentions a potential Lunar civilization, I didn’t know it was considered possible that late.
The Patterson biography gives quite a lot of information about the way this book was written—deliberately as a juvenile, aimed at boys, with no romance, focusing on the details. Heinlein wrote it quite quickly, and really he taught himself how to write juveniles from the experience. There are no girls, and the boys are sketchily characterised compared to his later books. Also we have an adult directing everything—a mad scientist, admittedly, but still an adult.
The good bit of Rocket Ship Galileo is the boys building the ship and overcoming engineering problems. I also like the way the boys approach their parents and tell them they want to go to the moon instead of going to college. Other people have talked about Heinlein’s insistence on the different ethnic background of the boys—I think the different class background is also interesting. All three boys were intending to go to college. Ross comes from a family with property and money and the expectation that going to college is what people do to get on in life. He has his own car. Art comes from a single-parent immigrant family where education is important—his uncle is a PhD rocket scientist—but the money to pay for it is difficult to find. He lives in an apartment and is expected to work. Morrie comes from a big working-class family—his father’s attitude is that he can go to college, or to the moon, or wherever he wants to. Since his Bar Mitzvah, he has been a man, and can make his own decisions.
The worst bit is the Space Nazis. I suppose people did still believe in secret Nazi bases in 1947—Werewolf and Odessa and all of that—but it sounded ridiculously implausible when I first read this in 1978, and even sillier now.
The most regrettable didn’t-happen-that-way bit is the commercial intercontinental rocket flights—why don’t we have those? I suppose jets are in some way better, but it beats me as to why. Oh well, it’s probably totally clear to an engineer. Similarly, when they get to the moon the way in which they plan to stay for weeks and immediately make a permanent pressurised shelter is very different from what really happened, and rather better. I boggle every time I read pre-spaceflight descriptions of Earth from space—they really didn’t know what it looked like, they didn’t know we lived on a blue and white planet, they thought it would look like a globe with the land significant. But I love the way they land on the edge of the dark side. There’s something just right about that.
It’s interesting that Heinlein hoped to have it made into a film. It would have been an interesting early SF film, and I would absolutely go and see it.
I hadn’t read this for a long time, and enjoyed it more than I remembered. It’s pretty thin stuff compared to what Heinlein was to achieve with the later juveniles, but it rattles along quickly enough that the flaws don’t really matter. It’s not where anyone wants to start with Heinlein, or even with the juveniles, but it certainly has its moments.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. 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.