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A Boy and His Space Suit

Have Space Suit — Will Travel

By Robert A. Heinlein 

1 Nov, 2014

The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) Reread


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1958’s Have Space Suit — Will Travel brings us to the end of the Scribner Heinlein juveniles — universally recognized [0] as the only true Heinlein juveniles — and leaves us perched on the abyss that contains the Heinlein juveniles written without the firm hand of editor Alice Dalgliesh to moderate Heinlein’s various quirks (or alternatively, to insist he play to hers). While it isn’t quite up to Citizen of the Galaxy, it’s an interesting example of how much Heinlein could milk out of a very straightforward plot.

The title references a popular catch phrase of the first half of the 20th century. Readers would likely have been aware of the popular TV show Have Gun — Will Travel (1957 – 1963), which also referenced the phrase. The title is also an apt description of the plot: young Kip Russell has a space suit and he does a lot of traveling in this book, a quarter million light years and who knows how many years. But he doesn’t start out meaning to acquire the suit or to visit one of the Magellanic Clouds. He starts out trying to win a soap jingle contest.

For a kid like Kip, not rich, not spectacularly smart, not — as far as he knows — well connected, condemned to a dismal high school, space is tantalizingly out of reach. Others may pay their own way to the Moon [1] or earn it with outstanding skills but Kip is just a regular teen without much money. Moreover, he’s a kid with enough self-awareness to doubt that he is in any way exceptional. 

When a soap company offers a trip to space as prize in their jingle contest, he sends in his effort(s). Many of them. Kip is organized and relentless and he does do comparatively well, just not well enough to win the first prize. Instead, he wins a used space suit, which he nicknames Oscar. Some people might have stuck the suit in a closet or sold it for the $500 he is offered but Kip decides to treat the suit as another teen might treat a jalopy. He spends the summer learning about space suits by refurbishing Oscar. 

Luck favours the prepared and that goes for bad luck as well as good. Kip tests his radio at just the right time and frequency to catch the attention of the pilot of a passing flying saucer and his choice of call signs convinces her to land near him, which would all be pretty darn cool if it wasn’t for the fact the pilot, an almost-twelve-year-old girl named Peewee Reisfeld, was on the run. Thanks to the detour, both she and Kip end up captured by the bad guys. 

The bad news: Kip, Peewee and a benevolent alien named the Mother Thing are prisoners of a group of aliens Kip nicknames wormfaces. Wormfaces are horrible enough to look at but their behavior is worse. Earth is close enough to wherever they are from — Kip guesses Proxima Centauri — that the wormfaces want Earth for their own. Given the technological edge they have over humans, the main thing keeping them from just taking over appears to be a 4.3 light year logistical tail. 

The good news is the wormfaces have a use for humans, so they might not just wipe us all out. The bad news is that they plan to use us as food.

Kip, Peewee and the Mother Thing are nothing if not plucky and for all their advanced technology, the wormfaces are oddly lousy as jailers. They have good reason not to want to kill either Peewee or the Mother Thing (Kip, on the other hand, is dismissed as chatty food). The trio keep escaping, bravely marching off towards near-certain death in the hope that they can get word of the wormface invasion to someone in a position to do something about it. While it becomes obvious that any given attempt has slim odds of succeeding, the trio only have to succeed once.

What Kip cannot know is the Mother Thing’s people, and the vast and ancient organization of which they are a part, are far more dangerous than the wormfaces, far more powerful and casually genocidal. By bringing humanity to the attention of the Galactics, Kip and Peewee may have traded an invasion that might have failed for an obliteration that would most definitely succeed. The difference between survival and extinction comes down to two kids from Earth. 

Jo Walton reviewed this for Tor a few years ago. I’ve carefully not looked at that review lest it directly influence me but I remember pointing out in comments to her review that Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in Space has a premise that initially resembles that of Have Space Suit — Will Travel, but takes it in a completely different direction, one that I would describe as kinda dull”. Heinlein had a better approach than steadfast Clarke; once Kip gets kidnapped, it’s never ending series of escapes, chases, death marches, captures, horrific revelations and two-fisted court cases, along with a tour of the wonders of the local universe. 

Although this is the last true Heinlein juvenile, in many ways it’s the one that has aged the most. Kip’s Centerville might as well be Archie’s Riverdale. The small towns I grew up near in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t exactly cutting-edge tech centers but none of them were as … quaint as Centerville. Although Heinlein does not explicitly give a year for the setting, a detail involving Pluto’s orbit places the events of this book — the bits in the Solar System, anyway — between February 7, 1979, and February 11, 1999. Centerville, however, could be a town in one of Mickey Rooney’s pre-war movies. 

The Mother Thing has the advantage of being much easier on the eyes than the wormfaces but the Galactics, considered as a group, are high-handed and paranoid, powerful and mean. It’s not quite true that they cannot wrap their minds around the idea of rehabilitation; it’s more that they generally cannot be bothered to try rehabilitation if the race they are considering looks anything like a real threat. 

On reflection, I suspect looks harmless” and likeable” is the Mother Thing’s people’s main weapon. They may be the opening shot in the Kawaii Wars we all know are coming, the first step on the way to the total chibification of the universe. 

Heinlein develops what I am going to call his Dick-Head Dad character to its highest degree in this book. I’ve commented that the more useful a parent is in a Heinlein juvenile, the faster they end up off-stage or six feet down. A few of Heinlein’s parents — moms in particular — are obstructive because they have unrealistic views of the world. Dick-Head Dads could be useful; they just choose not to be. Kip’s father is old enough to be Kip’s grandfather, a brilliant man who married his own most brilliant student (apparently terminating any career she might have had in the process) before retiring to rustic isolation. He has any number of forcefully presented opinions like:

Dad says that anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote. 

But dear old Dad, while not actively hostile to Kip, only occasionally takes an active interest in him. This has the beneficial effect of getting Kip into the habit of doing things for himself but it also means that Kip is only a couple of years away from college when Dad suddenly notices his son’s formal education is useless. 

Kip’s famous rant at the end of the tribunal may owe a lot to his dad. In retrospect I regret that Kip never used the phrase get off my lawn.” I doubt that rant convinced the aliens of the value of the human spirit but it may have helped convince them humans aren’t a threat. 

This book also marks the end of evolution of Heinlein’s views on modern schools, which began by looking at them rather favourably in Rocket Ship Galileo. By the time he wrote Space Suit, RAH settled on dismissing modern schools as a waste of time. He pretty much stuck with that theme for the rest of his life.

On a number of occasions Heinlein has Kip work out various physics problems in his head. This has a couple of purposes; RAH is feeding his young readers basic physics and astronomy in a digestible form and it allows Peewee to establish herself as the brains of the pair, because what takes Kip an hour to plod through is trivial for Peewee.

I am going to chalk Kip’s mistaken ideas about Proxima Centauri to his lousy education, though it is clear that dear old Dick-Head Dad may have played a role here.

I looked at that Proxima Centauri problem and saw something else. The turn-over speed read 1,110,000 miles per second, six times the speed of light. Relativity theory says that’s impossible.

I wanted to talk to Dad about it. Dad reads everything from The Anatomy of Melancholy to Acta Mathematica and Paris-Match and will sit on a curbstone separating damp newspapers wrapped around garbage in order to see continued-on-page-eight. Dad would haul down a book and we’d look it up. Then he would try four or five more with other opinions. Dad doesn’t hold with the idea that it-must-be-true-or-they-wouldn’t-have-printed-it; he doesn’t consider any opinion sacred-it shocked me the first time he took out a pen and changed something in one of my math books.

I am afraid Kip’s issues with relativity owe more to problems with Heinlein’s education than Kip’s own. 

For me, the highlight of the book is young Peewee Reisfeld, twelve years old — almost — and willing to take on an alien invasion single-handed if she has to. Peewee might be the finest example of Heinlein’s girls in charge. Peewee is smarter than Kip, she is just as brave, she manages to escape (temporarily) from the wormfaces before she ever meets Kip, something she keeps up through the book, and she saves Kip on a number of occasions. Rather like Rod in Tunnel in the Sky, Kip is a fine enough fellow but it’s a supporting character who steals the book. As I closed the cover of the last true Heinlein juvenile, I really wonder what this book would have looked like if in 1958 Heinlein had been able to envision and publish a juvenile with a female lead. If only. 

Normally I would link to the Virginia Edition of this and more affordable editions but for some reason I cannot come up with working links for either. 

0: In my household, at any rate.

1: I did wonder how the two wormface quislings managed to get enough money to get to the Moon. They seem like regular mooks, not people with enough on the ball to scrape together a small fortune.