Five Books That Improve Upon Heinlein’s Juveniles

Nothing fills me with dread quite like a middle-aged male writer announcing that he plans to write a YA novel just like the ones Robert Heinlein used to write . I could explain why this is such a harbinger of disappointment…but Charles Stross has already beat me to it. Instead, allow me to offer some non-Heinlein novels that succeed in scratching some of the same itches that the RAH juvies once scratched. For me, that requires the intended audience to include teens, that the genre be science fiction in the narrow sense, that the protagonist be a young adult, and that they get to do something that actually matters in the course of the book .

For the most part, I think RAH juv-a-likes work better when they are not series, but since I am not sure why that would be, I won’t insist on it.


Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)

Many, but not all, Heinlein juvies start with the protagonist choosing to leave home. Like the protagonists of Citizen of the Galaxy and Between Planets, Falling Free’s genetically engineered Quaddies, products of an attempt to create humans able to function in free fall, have no choice but to leave. Intended as a slave race, technological progress in other fields has made them obsolete. Their creators are not inclined towards charity. Staying in the facility that they call home will result in their disposal as surplus to requirements “post-fetal experimental tissue cultures.” But how can young Quaddies, carefully sequestered from society and dependent on their creators, escape to freedom?


Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford (1993)

Matt Roney and his friends have this in common with the leads of works like The Rolling Stones and The Star Beast: they live in comparatively happy, prosperous societies whose governments are for the most part competent. Not that this matters to thirteen-year-olds, preoccupied with their painful awareness that adulthood is visible but just out of reach. As is the case in The Star Beast, the aforesaid government is not as far off-stage as the protagonist would prefer. Matt’s father is a senior functionary, involved in decisions crucial to Luna’s future.

Ford created a meticulously detailed world for his coming-of-age story, then displayed the remarkable strength of character needed to NOT expound endlessly on every detail. The result: a lean, energetic tale about an adolescent struggling to become an adult.


Rocket Girls by Hōsuke Nojiri (1995)

Rocket Girls celebrates, as does Rocketship Galileo, teens in space. Expendable teens.

Yukari Morita has two qualities that make her uniquely qualified for the Solomon Space Association’s effort to develop reliable crewed rockets. The first is that the schoolgirl is small enough to fit into the LS-5, unlike the SSA’s current astronaut . The second is that her quest to find her missing father has led her to the very island on which the SSA is based. Petite and available is an unbeatable combination, at least as soon as the SSA works out how to convince Morita to crew a space craft whose main positive quality is that it doesn’t blow up anywhere near as frequently as the LS-7.

Morita is an intelligent, serious young person surrounded by enthusiasts uninhibited by any morsel of restraint. It all works out; there are solutions to every roadblock. Some of these solutions are kinda nuts, but they work.


Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn (2017)

Like Podkayne and Clark Fries of Podkayne of Mars, Polly and Charles Newton are on their way to Earth. Unlike Podkayne and Clark, Polly and Charles actually manage to reach Earth. They are being sent to a terrestrial boarding school. As is the case with the boarding school in Red Planet, not everyone at the school has the sibling pair’s best interests at heart. Unlike Heinlein’s protagonists, the pair manage to make it through the whole book without fomenting planetary revolution or dying in an explosion.


The Trove by Tobias S. Buckell (2018)

Fans of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island may find Jane Hawkin’s situation eerily familiar. Jane lives in an inn with her mothers and is caught up in a dangerous search for long-lost pirate treasure. Treasure hidden, not on an island, but away on an uncharted world. Arr, maties.

The Heinlein connection? Between Planets also features a plucky young person  who inadvertently comes into possession of plot-vital information. He experiences a number of near-death adventures as a result. Jane is more in control of her destiny than is Don in Between Planets. Kudos to her parents for raising a kid with serious coping skills.


A book yet to be determined…

Many of the protagonists of the classic Heinlein juvies are not the super-intelligent, omni-competent protagonists of so many other tales. It is fair to say, in fact, that they are not the sharpest pencils in the box. This works. A protagonist who is slow on the uptake may stumble into wild adventures. Such a protagonist also offers an opportunity for authorial mouthpieces to explain how the world works as the protagonist blinks uncomprehendingly.

Rod from Tunnel in the Sky comes to mind. He’s astounded that older people date. He is sufficiently unobservant that he fails to notice that his new partner is a girl (even after grappling with her). His redeeming features: he’s stubborn steadfast and he not only asks for advice but follows it (his sister recommends traveling light, and he does).

‘Not smart but determined’ isn’t all that rare a combination, both in fiction and in real life. However, I am hard-pressed to think of a fitting fictional example of “young person willing to heed advice from others” in a work that fits the criteria established above. The logical solution is to heed Rod’s example and ask for advice. So: what book should I have suggested?


1: Fun fact: Heinlein died about thirty years ago. By pure coincidence, thirty years is also the median age of humans on Earth. That means that when Heinlein died, half the current population had not even been born. I have no idea what fraction was born when Heinlein was both alive and writing novels that were readable, but clearly it’s a much smaller number.

2: Thus eliminating the novels in which adults or other great powers fix everything. Deus ex machina, a venerable trope.

3: There were other alternatives. The SSA has an on-staff astronaut and they could cram him into the LS-5, provided they surgically removed various body parts not necessary to operate a space craft. The astronaut proves oddly resistant to this reasonable proposal.

4: The plucky young person is a boy, because none of the classic Heinlein juveniles had women leads. In fact, the Heinleinian girl-in-charge didn’t start steamrolling the leads until Ellie in Starman Jones. Between Planet’s Isobel probably could have been a girl-in-charge had she been a constant presence…but then, if she had been there and Don had listened to her, the book would have been much shorter. A novella, perhaps.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.



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.