In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
For his second juvenile novel, written in 1948, Robert Heinlein decided to follow the old dictum “write what you know.” As a 1929 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, it would have been obvious to him that the story of an academy cadet would make a great plot for a juvenile novel. All he had to do was set it in the future. The book, rather unimaginatively entitled Space Cadet, picks up on some of the themes of Rocket Ship Galileo, with the United Nations Interplanetary Patrol using advanced versions the first tale’s atomic rocket, and tasked with controlling the atomic bombs staged in orbit that keep peace on the planet. It is not a direct sequel, as the “Nazis in Space” plot of the previous book has been dropped, but it does pick up on many of the same themes.
I had not read Space Cadet in my youth, and only got around to reading it sometime in the last decade or so. It may have had something to do with occasionally being called a “space cadet” myself, as over the years (possibly because of TV shows like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) the term had become a pejorative for someone not in touch with reality. And as a youngster whose nose was often in a science fiction book, I must admit the term did fit. In my first reading, I was not impressed, as the book is laden with descriptions of life in space that might have been new and interesting when the book was written in 1948, but by the 21st century had become rather predictable. But I recently found it available in an excellent full cast reading from Bruce Coville and the people at Full Cast Audio, which gives you the full text of the book with a narrator, but with all the dialogue presented by a troupe of voice actors. This time around, I found the story much more engaging. Whereas before I wanted to get past the Academy part and onto the good stuff, this time I was willing to give Heinlein, and his ideas about how training and education should be conducted, more serious attention.
Of course, reviewing a book you listened to poses some challenges. It is hard to flip back and forth among the pages to check for names and events you want to mention. So I set out to find a physical copy. The folks at my local used bookstore find that Heinlein works leave the shelves as soon as they come in. My son and I own a number of Heinlein’s juveniles, but not this one. And while some Heinlein books are easy to purchase on the internet, many of his juveniles are only available for an unreasonable price. So I decided to renew my acquaintance with my local library and signed up for a new library card. The Heinlein books on their shelves were limited, but computers put the entire catalog of every library in the state at my fingertips, and soon a copy was on order from the inter-library loan system. I was expecting an old and tattered edition, but was surprised to find a more recent 2005 reprint from Tor Books with a nice cover by accomplished science fiction illustrator Vincent Di Fate.
About the Author
Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) was one of America’s most widely known science fiction authors, frequently referred to as the Dean of Science Fiction. I have often reviewed his work in this column, including Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, “Destination Moon” (contained in the collection Three Times Infinity), The Pursuit of the Pankera/The Number of the Beast, and Glory Road. From 1947 to 1958, he also wrote a series of a dozen juvenile novels for Charles Scribner’s Sons, which at the time had a young adult line focused on publishing science fiction novels targeted at young boys. These novels include a wide variety of tales, and contain some of Heinlein’s best work (I’ve added links for the books I’ve already reviewed in this column): Rocket Ship Galileo, Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, Between Planets, The Rolling Stones, Starman Jones, The Star Beast, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Have Spacesuit Will Travel. This is not the first time Space Cadet has been discussed on Tor.com, as the inimitable Jo Walton looked at it over a decade ago.
One of the main themes of what used to be called juvenile fiction, and is now referred to as young adult fiction, is the protagonist’s coming of age. There is a whole literary genre of what is called the “bildungsroman,” or stories that follow the formation or education of a person as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood. In Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey, this transition fits into the stages of departure and initiation for the hero or heroine. Leaving home and going away to a school provides the perfect setting for a character to be removed from the familiar comforts of their youth, tried and tested, and thrust into the world of adulthood.
As a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, this would have been readily apparent to Robert Heinlein. Moreover, he would have also observed that the traditions of military service would likely ensure that the academies of the future would be similar, in many ways, to those of the past. I myself graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1977, and when reading about academy life in the decades gone by, or reading accounts of academy life today, while there are some aspects that have certainly changed over time, much remains the same.
The academy in Heinlein’s Space Cadet produces officers for a United Nations Interplanetary Patrol, charged with keeping the peace, and most importantly, with maintaining a network of orbital nuclear weapons that deter nations on Earth from going to war. Heinlein makes it clear that this is an international organization, drawing personnel from all nations, religions, and races. One thing he missed in imagining this future was the presence of women. Women serving in a combat organization was still far from becoming a reality in the 1940s, and was still met with stiff resistance when the first female cadets reported in the senior year of my own Coast Guard Academy service (the number of female cadets has since grown, with the corps of cadets now consisting of 38 percent women).
What Heinlein gets right based in his own experience (and which gives the book a grounding in realism), is the process of academy training. Old possessions are taken away, and uniforms are issued. There is a steady stream of new information to be learned, and new customs with which to conform. There is a profusion of tests, examinations, and evaluations. The cadets are thrust together with others from different states, nations, and in this case, even planets, and new friendships are forged. Cadets who are accustomed to being among the smartest and most capable person in the room now find themselves to be average, or struggle to keep up. There are grueling physical challenges, which in the Interplanetary Patrol Academy include exposure to high acceleration and zero gravity, piloting, and learning to function in space suits. Because of the challenges, attrition rates are high, and the cadets gradually leave behind their old identities and begin to see themselves as part of a larger organization. It was impossible for me to read this part of the book without flashing back to my own academy experience.
Some parts of Space Cadet deliberately diverge from past practices. Heinlein had a lot of opinions about the weaknesses of traditional public education in America, and often aired those opinions in his juveniles. The book lingers on how cadets are educated, in a largely self-directed manner. The length of the Academy program is not fixed, and being a cadet may also include long cruises aboard Patrol ships in a training status.
The book opens with Matthew Dodson re-reading a letter appointing him a cadet in the Interplanetary Patrol, as he travels to report to the Commandant, Terra Base, located in Santa Barbara in the North American Union. He immediately meets another cadet, Bill “Tex” Jarman, who will become a friend serving with him throughout the book. Upon their arrival, they find a motto over the door in Latin, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who will guard the guards?” a crucial issue for a force that controls the ultimate weapons of the age. They meet Oscar Jensen and Pierre Armand. It turns out Oscar is from the colony on Venus, and Pierre, or Pete, is from Ganymede. The processing is intense and impersonal; even the meals are highly structured. Then come tests—some physical, some mental, and more than a few psychological. Matt meets the irritating and opinionated Girard Burke, a rich kid who resists all efforts to mold him into a member of the Patrol. Matt also hears what will be the first of far too many stories about Tex’s colorful Uncle Bodie.
As the boys explore the museum, they find an exhibit dedicated to a hero of the Patrol, Lieutenant Ezra Dahlquist, who prevented a coup d’etat, known as the “Revolt of the Colonels,” where a cabal of officers attempted to take control of atomic weapons that the United Nations, and its nascent Interplanetary Patrol, had staged on the moon. Dahlquist defied these illegal orders and sacrificed his life by sabotaging the highly radioactive bombs. [This is a reference to one of my favorite Heinlein stories, “The Long Watch,” which interestingly enough, had not yet been published, only appearing in 1949 in American Legion Magazine. If you have never read that inspiring story of duty and sacrifice, you can find it available to read for free here, in the Baen Free Library.]
At the next day’s breakfast, Matt finds the attrition rate has been staggering, and the survivors of three different tables now fit at one. They go over the “bumps,” a high-speed elevator system that simulates the effects of high G’s and zero gravity. The cadets then go on a short sub-orbital hop in a chemical rocket. At the end of the day, Matt lingers to watch other rockets, and sees one crash, reminding him that the course he has undertaken can be dangerous. He encounters Burke again, who is convinced the crash was a hoax, perpetrated as part of the psychological testing the cadets are receiving. They then participate in their first muster, and find the patrol takes seriously the heroes who have been lost while performing their missions. If it wasn’t obvious before, Burke is more a straw man than a character, set up by Heinlein to represent all that is wrong with people who do not accept the wisdom of the Patrol and its customs. Shortly thereafter, Burke resigns from the Academy to take command of one of his rich father’s merchant rocket ships.
Their education then shifts into orbit, aboard the school ship PRS James Randolph, and Heinlein takes the opportunity to walk the reader through the basics of space travel, acceleration, functioning in zero gravity, and the physics of geosynchronous orbits. The boys also learn more about military culture and traditions, an important part of the process. Matt initially struggles with his studies, but eventually finds his footing. Eventually, a leave at home makes him realize how much he has changed, as he finds it jarring to be back among the surroundings of his youth.
The story shifts again as Matt, Tex, Oscar, and Pete head out on PRS Aes Triplex for a cadet cruise that turns into an incredibly action-packed journey (though Heinlein still takes plenty of time to paint a convincing picture of life on a spacecraft, where because of weight and space limitations, crews are small, and everyone aboard has a host of collateral duties). Their first destination is the asteroid belt, a mission to find a missing Patrol ship, PRS Pathfinder, which has not responded to radio calls for over six months. They find Pathfinder, its crew dead because of a freak accident, and they split the crew in order to bring her home, giving the cadets aboard Aes Triplex more responsibilities.
On their way home, Aes Triplex receives a call. There is a merchant rocket ship in distress on Venus, and theirs is the only Patrol vessel within range to assist. Their landing craft crashes in the muddy marshes of the planet, and they are taken prisoner by the Venusians, in this book portrayed as intelligent semi-aquatic creatures who live in a matriarchal society (unlike the later book Between Planets, where Venusians are portrayed rather charmingly as large intelligent dragons). And, in one of those coincidences that would be improbable in real life (but authors seem to find rather convenient), we discover that the captain of the merchant ship who has created an interplanetary incident is none other than Burke, the cadet who never fit in. There are both diplomatic and engineering challenges to overcome before they can fly to safety, and the cadets are aided by the intriguing Venusians, at first assumed to be pre-industrial, but who turn out quite adept with technologies humans have not mastered.
Heinlein’s decision to “write what you know” paid off, as this book is one of the strongest of the juveniles. His Interplanetary Patrol is an idealized organization, with a strong focus on ethics and character. His own military career was cut short only five years after his commissioning by illness, and as is often the case with those whose military careers ended due to situations beyond their control, his views of military life are tinged with a bit of nostalgia. While Heinlein has plenty of opinions and thoughts to air in this book, the “preaching” doesn’t get in the way of the story, because there is also plenty of action to keep the reader engaged.
In this second juvenile, you begin to see Heinlein hitting his stride and becoming more comfortable with writing for a younger audience. Space Cadet is an enjoyable adventure tale, with the realistic portrayal of academy life grounding an adventure story whose focus is outer space. It is a bit dated in parts (most notably in not anticipating the presence of women in the military, and assuming a habitable Venus), but holds up pretty well for modern times. And now, I’m interested in your impressions: If you’ve read it, what did you think of the book? And what other classic coming of age stories have you enjoyed reading?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.