Annapolis in space: Robert A. Heinlein’s Space Cadet

I’ve always loved Space Cadet, but reading it in the light of Patterson’s biography was almost like reading a new book. I had known about Heinlein’s naval career, of course, but I hadn’t known about the details of his own time as a cadet in the U.S. navy. It’s surprising how many of the details Heinlein just transferred into space and a higher tech level. It isn’t the details, though, it’s the spirit of Annapolis that Heinlein transmuted into space. Reading Space Cadet after reading the biography I kept comparing and seeing what he’d done, where before I’d always believed it was all made up—I mean they learned languages in the hypno-lab and had to do rocket equations!

Space Cadet (1948) is the second of Heinlein’s juveniles, a book aimed directly at teenage boys. It’s much smoother than Rocket Ship Galileo; it feels as if Heinlein’s got the hang of this now and knows what he’s doing. The story is about young everyboy Matt going into the Space Patrol as a cadet, going through a process of education, then going to Venus and having an adventure. The book has always felt to me just a little unbalanced, with the Venus part not quite fitting the rest. The reason for this is explained in the biography—Heinlein had planned a different ending, and had to rethink part way through when he saw that it wouldn’t work. Patterson tells us what that original end would have been, and reading the book knowing that, I can see the shape of that story showing through the familiar lines of the book I know so well.

This is a book about a boy going into space and becoming a man, through military training. I first read it when I was twelve and I have re-read it frequently since. I’d say it glorifies the military far more than Starship Troopers, yet people never scream about it. I think this is partly because it’s a juvenile and partly because it’s such a nice book. Repeating the names of the four dead heroes in every roll-call doesn’t feel like glorifying the military, it brings tears to one’s eyes. There’s no war here, no oppression, the Patrol are keeping the peace. This is a “man against nature” story.

If Rocket Ship Galileo had a crew of multi-ethnic American boys, Space Cadet goes one better and has a Texan, an Iowan, a boy from Venus and a boy from Ganymede. There’s also a francophone officer. Their actual identification is with the Patrol—Heinlein does a very good job of showing how boys from different planets and backgrounds are immersed in the traditions and demands of the Patrol and emerge as officers. It’s not just “pie with a fork” and the customs of the natives of Venus, it’s also Matt going home on leave and finding that it has become strange to him.

They’re all boys. The book contains no girls, and neither does the space service. There’s one funny moment when the cadets try to pick up a woman on a space station who invites them to a Baptist youth club—apart from that I don’t think there are any human female speaking parts. This is balanced by the Venerians, the alien inhabitants of Venus, all being matriarchal and female and making the cadets use words like “mother” and “daughter” and “she” about themselves. Heinlein didn’t need to make them matriarchal, it was an interesting choice, and I wonder if he did it deliberately out of a desire to balance things.

Spoilers for the original intended ending coming up.

Patterson said Heinlein intended Matt to nuke his own hometown. This would have been a much darker and grimmer book, and I’m not sure how it could have been a juvenile in 1948. The hints are there, the stuff about which bombs are overhead when Matt is on leave, his father’s smug complacence about the U.S… If the book had gone in that direction that would have been set-up, as it is, it goes in the Venus direction and that’s just character balance. To get Matt to nuke Iowa, Heinlein would have had to have put in a lot more politics—and as it is, there aren’t any. It would have been a very different book, better in some ways, worse in others. It would have been closer to Ender’s Game than anything else Heinlein wrote. Kids would have loved it. I certainly would.

He didn’t write it—instead we have an adventure on Venus and a light age-appropriate story. I said it was “man against nature” but years ago my son suggested dividing stories into “man against man,” “man against plan,” and “man against canal.” By that division, the post-training half of this is, like most of Heinlein, man against canal—dealing with technology to overcome obstacles.

I’m extremely and irrationally fond of this book and greatly enjoyed reading it with something new to think about it.

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.


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