Child markers and adulthood in Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles

In comments to my post on The Rolling Stones, Carlos Skullsplitter suggests that:

We have a rather good sense of the ideal Heinlein man and the ideal Heinlein woman. But for Heinlein, a boy is an instar stage on his way to becoming a competent man, and a girl is a literary experiment. It might be that lack of specifically child-marked things is what makes his juveniles compelling to younger readers of previous generations.

I think Carlos has an interesting point. Heinlein had no children, in writing for children he wasn’t writing as a parent, which does change your experience and expectation of children. He was reaching back to his own memory of boyhood. He wasn’t talking down to his audience, and he wasn’t marking them for children in the ways children’s writers tended to do. He wasn’t thinking of them as children, he was thinking of them as being on their way to being competent men. And yes, that would be refreshing. As Patrick Rothfuss puts it: “Nobody likes being treated like a child, even if they happen to be one.”

Looking at the juveniles as a whole,1 the protagonists tend to be boys on the verge of adulthood. Sometimes they are explicitly coming of age stories, like Between Planets and Tunnel in the Sky. But even when they’re not, they tend to start with a boy who is thinking about college or starting work, a boy of seventeen or so. The boys in Rocket Ship Galileo (post) use their college money for the spaceship. Kip in Have Space Suit, Will Travel (post) has just graduated highschool. Starship Troopers also begins with graduation and has classroom flashbacks. Jim in Red Planet is leaving home for further education.

I imagine that they were intended to be read by people much younger than that in their original publication in Scouting publications and as Scribners hardcovers, they seem aimed at a reader of about eleven to fifteen, a reader who is not yet on that cusp of growing up, but a reader for whom it is in sight. The protagonists are not adults with adult concerns, they are boys with whom younger boys (and girls, and grown ups of all genders) can identify, but they older boys with an eye to those of the privileges and advancements of adulthood that younger boys can want, most especially self determination. Everyone wants their rocket pilot license.

One of the most obvious ways in which the protagonists remain children at any age is their complete lack of sexuality—even in Between Planets and Starman Jones (post) where there is a hint of romance, that’s all it is, a hint. Even in Starship Troopers, there’s nothing beyond “girls smell nice.” Often there are no girls—and there’s not even a hint of homosexuality anywhere. (I’ve seen homosexuality denigrated without ever speaking its name in Victorian children’s books—Heinlein doesn’t do that either.) Sex itself is denigrated, especially in Space Cadet (post). These books all take place in a universe where sex is something slightly icky that happened in the past to produce the present generation, and will happen in the misty far future to produce the future generation, and which is best not thought about right now. This was the norm for books aimed at children and adolescents until really recently. (And it’s pretty much the way I thought about sex up until puberty.)

Juveniles are not YA. Farah Mendlesohn defines the difference:

YA was not simply a fashionable new category, it described a different ideology of teenagehood and the teenage reader. In the new YA novels, adulthood as defined by the world of work was replaced by adulthood defined by the world of relationships.

Heinlein definitely wasn’t interested in putting that “world of relationships” into his juveniles. And it’s not just sex and romantic relationships that are missing. There are a lot of pals but not many intense friendships. There are mentors and parents, but with a few exceptions (Max and Sam, Thorby and Baslim) significant bonding tends to be between boys and alien pets. Jim and Willis, and John Thomas and Lummox in The Star Beast, have that boy-dog dynamic, but are genuinely intimate.

So, the world of work? In the same article (which is well worth reading all of) Mendlesohn says:

In their fiction for younger people, Heinlein, Norton, and their contemporaries wrote with an eye on concerns very similar to those found in adult science fiction: the world of work, the world of changing technology, and the bright new opportunities promised by these things. They could do this for two reasons. First, the world of teens was much closer to the world of adults than it is today. Norton and Heinlein’s audience was either already earning their own living or would be a few years in the future. Now the fifteen-year-old reader might be a decade away from the professional workplace. Second, Heinlein and Norton shared the values of the adult SF market and assumed that their role was to introduce younger readers to that material. They loved what teen SF readers loved: the bright shiny promises of the future.

I was thinking that everyone wants to have adventures and nobody wants to work nine to five, but there’s more actual money-earning work done in Heinlein’s juveniles than in any other set of books I can think of. In Between Planets, Dan on Venus washes dishes in a Chinese restaurant every day for months. In Have Space Suit, Kip works hard at the soda fountain. Max in Starman Jones works on the farm, and then on the ship works with the animals and then does his shifts in the control room. The twins in Time for the Stars (post) get involved in the project as an alternative to washing glassware as a summer job. Castor and Pollux’s desire to make money fast is half of what drives the plot of The Rolling Stones, and they work hard on the old bikes every day. In a genre that’s practically devoid of actual work, this is impressive.

The examples I’ve given are almost all part time jobs, or stopgaps. They’re the kind of work young people used to be able to get in the era when Heinlein was growing up, and which may well be outside the experience of today’s fifteen year old. Of all these examples, only Max is working full time. But Matt in Space Cadet and Juan Rico have military careers. And Thorby in Citizen of the Galaxy2 (post) has a set of careers, beggar, trader, cadet, businessman.

One of the most common things you used to see in children’s adventure stories was the absent parents. The children are sent off to the country to convalesce. Or the parents have to go to America/Australia/Brazil/Europe and leave the children with relatives. Or, in a certain set of British books, the children are evacuated. This is a pattern that lets the author get the parents out of the way so the children can have adventures, and then allow the parents to return for a happy ending and return the children to the status of dependants at the end of the book.

Heinlein doesn’t do this ever at all. Heinlein’s protagonists tend to be firmly embedded in families, all of whom are mildly fond of each other. Heinlein’s families tend to trust each other—Red Planet would be a good example, where Jim’s father says he’ll stand by him whatever he has done, and then becomes the leader of the human rebels on Mars. The family in The Rolling Stones would be another example. I don’t know how typical or atypical this is in reality, but it’s fairly unusual in fiction.

The juveniles sometimes have parents who are around but fairly loosely attached—Time for the Stars and Have Space Suit. Kip’s father is the worst—I think not telling your child they have college financing to “see if they work something out for themselves” is a really horrible mind-game to play. (Also, a terrific reason to socialise higher education.) In Farmer in the Sky, Bill is clearly “parenting” his father, who doesn’t eat if he’s not home and doesn’t make ration points count—until they emigrate and become a healthy family with the addition of a stepmother and sister. This is the only “blended” family I can think of, and it works out pretty well. The Stones have three generations but that’s unusual, I can’t think of any other one that does.

Max in Starman Jones is an orphan, and so is Thorby in Citizen of the Galaxy, but he gives both of them existing connections, they’re not your typical fictional orphans who have no context. Max has a stepmother and her new husband, Thorby has Leda and her father—not to mention all the families he has made along the way. Even Dan in Between Planets who has been at school on Earth and barely remembers his parents, isn’t free of their connections—though again his real emotional relationship is with an alien.

In Tunnel Heinlein gives us the interesting situation of parents going forward in time for a medical condition, and a sister assuming guardianship. And here he deliberately undermines that expectation of set up and has Rod return at the end of the novel grown up and away from his parents, never to be returned to dependence. There’s a similar bit in Space Cadet, where Matt goes home and doesn’t fit. Since Patterson claims a lot of that book is autobiographical, and since Heinlein does it twice, I wonder if he might have been using some of his own experience there?

In any case, while Heinlein’s juvenile protagonists often rebel, I can’t think of a case where they rebel against their actual parents. The only example I can think of is Starship Troopers. where Johnnie does rebel against his parents values by enlisting—and in another reversal of trope, his father later follows him. He doesn’t learn better, his father does.

Then there are adults who are mentors without being parents—lots of those, some of them aliens. There are assorted teachers, and sergeants, and engineers, and captains, and one pharmacist, and a civil servant ,and Baslim the Cripple and—the books are full of them. They tend to be helpful but not prescriptive, being a half-way shelter. The real exception is Sam in Starman Jones. He’s a criminal and a rascal, but also a hero.

The thing that unites the juveniles is the tone, the confidential tone that seems to be saying “It’s you and me together, we’re both intelligent people. Listen to me now, I’ll tell you how it really is…” That’s a tone that can be appealing or repulsive to different people—I like it, but I have seen people get furious with Heinlein because of it. It’s quite clear that Heinlein got this from Kipling, and specifically from Kipling’s juvenile novel Captains Courageous (e-text), which absolutely is a Heinlein juvenile, except with dorys and cod fishing instead of spaceships. So this is a child marker—but while Kipling was widely read by children of Heinlein’s generation, was he read by the children who were reading Heinlein?

Mendelsohn mentions “shiny futures” but I have argued that Earth in the juveniles tends to be dystopic. Having said that, they are shiny futures, because Earth exists to be left, rebelled against, abandoned by. Earth itself plays the role bad families often play in children’s stories. Heinlein’s shiny futures are in space, on the moon, on Mars and Venus, inhabited by wiser races, on Ganymede, and further out towards the stars. Earth is played out decadent Europe, space is explicitly the New American Frontier. Macleod says that history is the trade secret of science fiction—Heinlein used specifically U.S. history over and over in his juveniles, aimed at young American readers who would have recognised it.

In most of the juveniles, the boy grows up in the course of the book, but is still a boy at the end going on to new adventures. Rod is last seen as an adult after a jump to give him a happier ending, but that’s the only case. Thorby is seen stuck with adult responsibilities and no more adventures. Time for the Stars uniquely ends with marriage. But generally they end with new horizons, and with achieved adulthood being just like boyhood only with more freedom and more responsibility. I can see why that was appealing—it certainly appeals to me.


1. I didn’t read them as juveniles, I read the whole lot of them in Pan and NEL British editions that were clearly aimed at adult readers. But I was twelve at the time.

I’m going to arbitrarily define “the juveniles” for the purposes of this post to exclude Podkayne and include Starship Troopers. This is because I don’t want to re-read Podkayne, and because I think this is where ST is best understood.

2. I’d just like to say that my copy of Citizen of the Galaxy is still missing, and I’m prepared to extend the amnesty as long as you return it right away. It’s the Penguin edition with the begging bowl full of stars. Don’t make me read it from the library again!

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently 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.


Back to the top of the page


Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.