Innocent farmboys, spoiled heiresses and lovable rogues

Starman Jones — Robert A. Heinlein


1953’s Starman Jones sees Heinlein abandon the Solar System (and plausible propulsion systems) for the wider galaxy. He also discards the idea of his protagonists coming from loving (if sometimes troubled) families and the quasi-utopian settings of some previous books, although he does not venture into the outright dystopia of Between Planets, the better to force his protagonist head-long into adventure.

Young Max Jones has the misfortune to live in an interstellar empire where the future is very unevenly distributed, thanks in part to a rigid guild system seemingly designed to inhibit social mobility (or from the point of view of guild members, protect their jobs). Unfortunately for Max, the niche fate has landed him in is poverty-stricken Ozark dirt farmer (although at least Max is an autodidact, so his lack of formal schooling does not mean he is ignorant). If that was not bad enough, Max is who was also saddled with the responsibility of taking care of his foolish and slatternly step-mother, “Maw”, by his dying father.

Max’s uncle achieved a far loftier fate than Max’s father. Before he died, Max’s uncle was an astrogator on a starship and he had promised to get Max into his guild. Until now Max’s promise to his father has kept him tied to the farm but when Maw remarries to a local ne’er do well, one who makes it clear life with him will be very unpleasant, Max decides to take his uncle’s textbooks and leg it to Earthport in hopes of being granted a position in his uncle’s guild. Sadly, his uncle never got around to filing the right forms and the Guild has no place for Max.

As luck would have it, Max encountered lovable rascal Sam Anderson on the way to Earthport and while the innocent Max has no idea how to proceed at this point, Sam has the know-how, connects and lack of inhibiting ethics to buy them both papers allowing them to take positions on the starship Asgard, albeit humble ones. Unfortunately their papers won’t stand up to close scrutiny so both Sam and Max will have to go AWOL on one of the nicer colony worlds.

The first two thirds of the book documents Max’s astounding rise from hick to Starman: his job tending the passengers’ menagerie of animals gives him a meet-cute with Eldreth “Ellie” Coburn, a very well-born lady who takes an interest in him. Thanks to her off-stage machinations (and a detail in the fake papers Sam purchased), Max is given a rare chance to transfer from the Purser’s office to astrogation. Access to his uncle’s texts and Max’s habit of self-education combined with an eidetic memory with the skills needed to survive in this position despite the open hostility of the loathsome Simes, who resents Max’s presence in astrogation. Perhaps best, Max is able to come clean about his forged papers, although he is careful not to implicate Sam.

Interstellar travel in Starman Jones is accomplished by a combination of extremely high acceleration, near-light speed travel and the use of “congruency points” linking otherwise distant points in space-time. This is a pretty tricky affair and alas for the passengers and crew of the Asgard, human factors conspire to send the Asgard off course and into uncharted space from which they may never return.

The good news is there’s a habitable planet they can reach. The bad news is it’s already inhabited…

This was the odd juvenile out when I was a teen, published by a pre-Del Rey Ballantine when all the other Heinlein juveniles were available from Ace. At one time I knew how that came to be. I am happy to say this particular mass market paperback has weathered almost 40 years in very good shape.

I found it amusing that right about the time I thought “this would make a fascinating episode of Mayday” we discover that in fact while starships don’t appear to have cockpit voice recorders there is an analog for flight data recorders, one that plays a role in Simes’ eventual downfall.

On the grand scale of Heinlein societies from utopian to dystopian, this is clearly suboptimal but not unbearably so. People’s places in society are essentially fixed - I assume the guilds are a dig at unions - and the Earth clearly has room in its economy for emperors and subsistence farmers but nobody seems to be starving and most of the people we see are not unhappy with their lot. Earth and its teeming four billions are under the controlling hand of the Empire and some colony worlds are likely worse, but there are other planets where a man is free to marry the “husband-high” girl of his choice and have as many kids as he wants. There is a lot of room for things to be much, much worse than they are.

I regret to report that things do not appear to be quite as sunny from a woman’s point of view as from a man’s. Women exist to be married off appropriately (or at least conveniently) and social rank does not seem to matter except to restrict the pool of potential beaus. Max doesn’t seem entirely clear on the second point although Sam is - Sam basically proposes that Max blackmail Ellie’s dad into making him go away – and so is Ellie. Max is fun but her husband is going to be the unfortunately named but presumably well-to-do “Putzie”.

Speaking of Ellie, I remembered her as the first of Heinlein’s girls in charge, someone who provides unrequested but much needed motivation for Heinlein’s rather passive protagonists. That’s sort of true – if not for Ellie, Max would not have become an astrogator and things might have turned out far worse for the Asgard – but a lot of what I took as strong will on her part is more that she is so privileged that she cannot even see that she is privileged and nobody she had to respect has ever said no to her before.

Fans of the ever  popular “girls have to play dumb to get boys” will be happy to know that a lot of Ellie’s apparent ignorance and ineptitude is obfuscation designed to avoid driving men away from the glory that would be her unshielded competence, as Max discovers in this charming interlude:

Once when Ellie had fought him to a draw Max said, “You know, Ellie, you play this game awfully well — for a girl.”

Thank you too much.”

No, I mean it. I suppose girls are probably as intelligent as men, but most of them don’t act like it. I think it’s because they don’t have to. If a girl is pretty, she doesn’t have to think. Of course, if she can’t get by on her looks, then — well, take you for example. If you …”

Oh! So I’m ugly, Mr. Jones!”


Thereafter she beat him three straight games, one with a disgraceful idiot’s mate. He looked at the boards sadly when it was over. “And you are the girl who flunked improper fractions?”

Mr. Jones, has it ever occurred to you, the world being what it is, that women sometimes prefer not to appear too bright?” He was digesting this when she added, “I learned this game at my father’s knee, before I learned to read. I was junior champion of Hespera before I got shanghaied. Stop by sometime and I’ll show you my cup.”

Let’s just pretend this is one of the dystopic details.

Getting back Earth’s teeming billions, the reason Max has a farm is because the empire requires farmland to stay in use. The fact that they don’t then take steps to ensure maximum sustainable production suggests to me that this could be a hold-over from an earlier era.

The farm raises an interesting detail that I missed the previous times I read this, one that involves Max’s astrogator uncle. We know the farm has been in Max’s family for four centuries and there’s no hint I saw that the family fell from a lofty position. We also know the Guilds do not generally allow outsiders in without paying a hefty fee. How then did Max’s uncle become an astrogator?

Another detail I missed before this reread is a passing reference that suggests the or at least a dominant religion in the Empire is Islam.

Martians in trefoil sunglasses and respirators, humanoids from Beta Corvi III, things with exoskeletons from Allah knew where, all jostled with humans of all shades and all blended in easy camaraderie.

Although it’s cheek by jowl to a reference to the Salvation Army so perhaps I read too much into that.

This book stands out as possibly the first young adult novel I ever encountered that featured pretty transparent references to johns being rolled by prostitutes. Now, as it happens when I was a little kid one of my neighbors ran a very respectable brothel out of her house so I spotted what was going on there right off but how many of the intended audience would have? I would also love to know how that section got by Heinlein’s editor.

This features one of Heinlein’s standard visions for a horrific alien civilization, where where an entire ecosystem is slave to some guiding intelligence’s decrees. We see it in Methuselah’s Children,Time for the Stars, and arguably The Puppet Masters and when it’s aliens trying to cram humans into their system, it’s disturbing at best and actively malign at worst. In this specific case, Heinlein includes an interesting passage early on in the book:

On Gamma Leonis VI (b), New Mars, the saurians known locally as “chuckleheads” or “chucks” could and did replace Percherons as draft animals with greater efficiency and economy — but men disliked them. There was never the familial trust that exists between horses and men; unless a strain of chucks should develop a degree of rapport with men (which seemed unlikely) they would eventually die out and be replaced by the horse, for the unforgivable sin of failing to establish a firm treaty with the most ravenous, intolerant, deadly, and successful of the animals in the explored universe, Man.

I don’t know whether it’s supposed to be ironic that the malevolent forces are trying to do to humans what we do to other animals or if it’s only bad when others do it to us.

As previously established, Heinlein did not get relativity and this provides another example. In this work, light speed is a universal escape velocity rather than a speed material objects can approach only asymptotically. The trick isn’t reaching it, which doesn’t seem difficult at all, but doing it in the right place at the right time so one is transported across the universe rather than simply vanishing. This

No, because we _can’t_ be less than a hundred light-years from explored space.”

I don’t see the hitch. This ship can do a hundred light-years in a split second. What was the longest leap we made this cruise? Nearly five hundred light-years, wasn’t it?”

Yes, but — ” Max turned to Eldreth. “You understand? Don’t you?”

Well, maybe. That folded-scarf thing you showed me?”

Yes, yes. Mr. Daigler, sure the Asgard can transit five hundred light-years in no time — or any other distance. But only at calculated and surveyed congruencies. We don’t know of any within a hundred light-years, at least … and we won’t know of any even if we find out where we are because we know where we aren’t. Follow me? That means that the ship would have to travel at top speed for something over a hundred years and maybe much longer, just for the first leg of the trip.”

suggests that there isn’t even time dilation, something supported by the fact the Asgard spends a lot of time near light speed but the twin paradox is never mentioned.

Speaking of things Heinlein didn’t get, computers. Although one can hand-wave away the way the ships computers work as Guild featherbedding, I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

(About the ‘folded-scarf thing” referenced above – did some other author borrow that? Was it in A Wrinkle in Time?)

Perhaps the most interesting figure in Starman Jones is Max’s unreliable but charming mentor Sam. Although Sam spends a lot of the book off-stage having his own adventures, including him was a canny choice for Heinlein because Sam gives Max a seductive example of easy roguery to resist. Max is forced on number of occasions to choose between hard but right answers and easy but wrong ones. Max almost always demonstrates moral rectitude despite the pressures and influences that he is subjected to and when he does not, he regrets it. Sam, who never saw a situation he couldn’t work a crooked angle on, provides both temptation and greater moral contrast for Max. It would have been very easy for Sam to emerge as an almost satanic figure but instead Heinlein opted to give him genuine virtues to go with his genuine flaws, with the result that Sam is probably one of the most likable characters Heinlein ever created.

The odd thing about Sam is there’s a specific character actor I imagine him as, although I cannot just now put a name to the actor. Someone like Peter Riegert but not, I think, actually Peter Riegert (although Riegert could certainly have done the role justice when he was he was the right age to play Sam). 

While there are elements of this that are quaint and others that have just aged badly, I did have fun rereading this and thinking about the implications of various aspects. I don’t know how suitable this would be for a modern teen – I have a feeling it’s right in the middle of SF’s uncanny valley – but I don’t regret rereading this.

Starman Jones is available in a variety of formats, from the Virginia edition to more affordable options.

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