Enter the Heinlein Girl in Charge

The Star Beast — Robert A. Heinlein

Starbeast

1954’s The Star Beast is notable for a couple of things. Of all the Heinlein Girls in Charge, The Star Beast’s Betty Sorenson is the girl most in charge and in Mr. Kiku we find an extremely uncommon figure for SF, a sympathetic career bureaucrat.

The plot begins without hesitation on page one when Lummox, a Brobdingnagian alien brought to Earth generations before by protagonist John Thomas Stuart XI’s great-grandfather, decides to go wandering looking for tasty meals. Although Lummox refrains from eating any of the townsfolk, the expedition does not go entirely well. By the end of it, Lummox has done more property damage than John Thomas can reasonably hope to pay back and some of the more agitated townsfolk want the star beast destroyed.

Meanwhile, Permanent Undersecretary for Spacial Affairs Henry Gladstone Kiku is busy dealing with an endless sequence of space-related crises, from visiting diplomats who see no reason quarantines should apply to them to star ships lost forever between the stars. The most recent one seems comparatively minor; he needs to deal with Ftaelm, a Rargyllian emissary. Rargyllians are medusoid and snakes give poor Kiku the heebie-jeebies.

Out in dinky little Westville, the rather hapless John Thomas is short of useful ideas about how to keep his pet alive; sullen obstructionism doesn’t seem to be working. Luckily for John Thomas, his girlfriend Betty is planning on becoming a lawyer and she is just full of cunning ideas how to save Lummox without leaving John Thomas penniless. While not all of her ideas are as constructive as she thinks they are, the real problem is her clients, who manage to sabotage the case for the defense quite effectively.

Off in the capital city, Kiku learns that Ftaelm is working on behalf of the Hroshii, a race unknown to Earth but not to the Rargyllians, who fear the Hroshii. The Hroshii are looking for a lost princess of theirs and they have good reason to think that she is on Earth. While the Hroshii are a proud race, disdainful of contact with lesser species they are willing to relax this ban long enough to scorch Earth clean of life if their princess is not returned. Ftaelm makes it very clear his people – old, far traveled and more knowledgeable about the galaxy than humans – absolutely believe the Hroshii can deliver on their threat.

To the credit of the functionaries at Spacial Affairs, they do go to the trouble of making sure Lummox is not the missing princess, something they reject for what seems like good reason. By the time Kiku and his associates realizes they’ve made a mistake, Lummox has been scheduled for destruction. The only thing standing between humanity and extinction by volatilization is Lummox’s comparative invulnerability. And two plucky kids!

Well, one plucky kid and John Thomas Stuart XI.

Something I missed every previous time I read this is that the ambassador who wants to evade  quarantine gets buried at the end of the book. Probably just as well he was not allowed to wander around outside an environment suit.

Poor John Thomas, named so Heinlein could slip a dirty joke past his editor, has the misfortune to sharing his novel with supporting characters who are far more interesting than he is even more so than is usually the case for the protagonists of the juveniles. Either of Betty or Mr. Kiku would make better protagonists than John Thomas, who could be replaced by a 100 kilogram sandbag without marring the book too much. Even Kiku’s assistant Greenberg is more memorable than John Thomas. John Thomas does seem destined for deep space glory by the end of the book but this is entirely thanks to his great-grandfather’s predilection for kidnapping and Betty and Kiku’s shared determination to shape his future. If it wasn’t for the people around him, John Thomas would probably be manning a desk, wondering where his life went wrong.

The less said about John Thomas’ mother, the better. She’s one of those useless female worrywarts who turn up in Heinlein from time to time. She does have some reason to be concerned about her son’s interest in space, given that his father died there, but if she gave a moment’s thought to his lineage, the wild-eyed revolutionaries, the lost explorers, the criminals serving out life sentences, she’d soon realize her son is almost certainly doomed no matter what he does. Instead we get to see her evolve through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, once it’s clear she has no real choice in the fate of her son.

On the face of it, this seems like one of the nicer settings in the juveniles but on closer examination there are disturbing hints about the true nature of the setting. Dinky little Westville has special equipment to handle mass rioting because in the recent-enough-to-remember past there was mass rioting and Heinlein casually references disastrous space-plagues and World War Four. The lawsuits, various infodumps and certain conversations make it clear this is no Star Trek universe where everyone pretends to get along but one where rank is won the hard way; for example, races who can speak but who lack the means to manipulate their environment aren’t even counted as people. Kiku and the boys down at Spacial Affairs see themselves as trapped in a world perpetually on the brink of disaster and not just because that’s an incredibly enabling thing to believe for people with their jobs.

Kiku is a remarkable figure because he is a career bureaucrat who is shown to be dedicated, ingenious and determined. He’s also black and from Kenya, something I bet not a lot of high-status characters in 1950s SF could say, and his knowledge of what happened to Africa at the hands of the imperialists shapes his reaction to the Hroshii. He’s also, despite my past comments about him selling the aliens a breeding pair of kids, very reluctant to throw a few people under the bus for the greater good.

I think part of what made the idea Kiku tolerable for Heinlein is that as a career bureaucrat Kiku stands in opposition to something Heinlein hated even more than bureaucrats, which is “democratically elected officials”. Heinlein’s forays into electoral politics generally ended in humiliating defeat so it’s no surprise to see the one elected official who gets much stage time is ignorant, obstructive and dangerous, quite unlike trained professionals like Kiku and Greenberg. 

There’s an interesting passage towards the end of the book:

“Mr. MacClure,” Kiku said softly, “as a distinguished predecessor once said, in dealing with certain types you must step on their toes until they apologize.” He urged the Secretary toward the door.

That seems to me very similar to the Shouting at Russians bits in “Pravda Means Truth”:

Defense in Depth: Be prepared to simulate anger at any instant. It is much better to pretend to lose your temper before things have grown so unbearable that you actually do blow your top; it saves wear and tear on your ulcers and enables you to conduct your tactics more efficiently.

The Star Beast predates that visit to Russia and the article inspired by it by a good six years. That makes me go “hmmm.”

Far more so than Ellie in the previous book, Betty is the strong-willed female supporting character I mean when I say “Girl in Charge”. Once one of those shows up in a Heinlein juvenile, the only reasonable thing for the male protagonists to do is practice saying “Yes, dear”; free will or at least the protagonists’ free will is not going to play much role in their lives after they meet their destined Girl in Charge. The interesting thing is Girls in Charge are generally portrayed positively rather than as nags, the direction I’d expect from a writer of Heinlein’s vintage.

While Heinlein can wrap his mind around girls independent enough to divorce their parents for reasons unsaid, he just cannot imagine one whose life will not ultimately center on marriage.

On the whole, one of the better Heinlein juveniles. Looking at what is to come, I think the books go from strength to strength from here as Heinlein begins to master this particular form, which would be great if I didn’t know it would all go to hell with Starship Troopers and Podkayne of Mars.

The Star Beast is available in a variety of formats, from the Virginia Edition to more affordable editions.


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