John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Have Space Suit, Will Travel

Continuing my stroll down memory lane, I am rereading some Heinlein I enjoyed in my youth. My lovely wife just presented me with a handsomely-bound copy of OUTWARD BOUND, a three-in-one edition put out by the SF Book Club containing HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL, and STARSHIP TROOPERS and PODKAYNE OF MARS.

HAVE SPACE SUIT is the first science fiction book I ever read. It was loaned to me by a friend of my father's who had a big crate full of paperbacks. My father was navy; sailors often collect a healthy number of paperbacks that they carry and read on cruise. My reading tastes at that age were books like YOUNG DANIEL BOONE And THREE BOYS IN A HELICOPTER And TOM SWIFT AND HIS TRIPHIBIOUS ATOMOCAR. I still remember the cover art: the heads of Fatty and Skinny and the horrible insectoid skull of Wormface hovering above the earth; in the foreground, out hero in his suit, Oscar. (Thanks to the miracle of the information age, I can find the very pic:

My take on it now? Good, solid workmanlike product from the Dean of SF. Only one thing that rubbed me the wrong way.


The cast of characters? Nothing new, nothing exceptional, but handled with Heinlein’s light Hemmingway-esque touch so that old stereotypes spring to life. We have Nice aliens (the Mother Thing) nasty aliens (Wormface) nasty humans (Fatty and Skinny, portrayed not without some sympathy) nice humans (Kip and Peewee, Kip’s Dad, the Pharmacist, and even the Secretary-General of the Federation, who helps Kip get into school.) The Mother Thing’s people, the Vegans and later, the Tri-Galactic Counsel, are portrayed not without their warts. The good aliens have a solemn debate about whether to annihilate the human race as we might put down a mad dog, merely on the off chance that it might be a threat to them. More on this point later. But the fact that the Good Aliens have a not-so-nice side, and the bad humans have a not-so-bad side, gives the characters a three-dimensional verisimilitude.

Kip I now know from many other books and stories: he is Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. Instead of tangling with spies from Outer Mongolia (or wherever) Kip tangles with spies from Outer Space. Kip’s can-do attitude, his love of mechanics we see when fixing up his spacesuit, are simply All-American Boy stuff.

I note that most of his problems in the plot are technical problems, solved with a little brainpower and a lot of gumption: a screw-fitted air bottle does not have an adapter to a bayonette-and-snap joint air hose, and he must puzzle out how to share the air between suits during a daring escape attempt across the Lunar surface. How can he find his way across the lunar surface without a compass? How can be open a clasp-knife when his gauntlets do not have thumbnails? How can he find his way back to the airlock of a plutonian base in an earthquake while blind?

I was reminded quite strongly of an article I came across in FIRST THINGS, a book review of MAD SCIENTISTS CLUB, where Joseph Bottum lovingly describes the technical handimanship of a bygone day:

“For the American Science Boys, it was oscilloscopes and cathode rays, diodes and dynamos, capacitors and step-down transformers. Or the great mechanical words they got to use: axial force and momentum, vector and differential, tension and torsion ... In truth, all the classic American inventors lived in a Newtonian universe of fundamental laws that worked just fine, as long as you were willing to bash them a little with a ball-peen hammer when they didn’t quite fit, tie them back together with duct tape and baling wire when they came apart, and fill in the nicks with a scrape of putty and a dab of paint. But though they gave birth to the world of Apple PCs and Microsoft and the Internet, their computerized children seem to live instead in something more like a Cartesian universe—the mind-body distinction cleaner, the logic-puzzle elements come to the fore, the math side triumphing over the engineering side, the reality grown more virtual and less physical.”

Kip is one of those Science Boys. God Bless them, every one.

Other characters? Peewee is one of Heinlein’s only really likable (likeable to me) female characters, mainly because, young as she is, she can act like a person without acting like Heinlein’s notion of an admirable female, e.g. Jill Borman or Star the Sexy Space Empress. Heinlein’s notion of an admirable female, repeated ad nauseum in his writings, is an unpaid harlot, an oversexed minx who preaches Free Love, and preaches and preaches. Because Peewee is underage, we are thankfully spared scenes of her fornicating and telling us how foolish fidelity in marriage or self-control in the sexual appetite is. Instead, since this is a Juvenile book (written back in the day before Young Adult books were Young Softcore Porn books) the girl character is allowed to think, and talk, and sass the older boy, and shoot off her mouth, and be brave, and solve problems, and have a grand old time. In this book, Kip is in more than one scene merely an astonished Watson to Peewee’s Sherlock Holmes, because she knows what is going on. She set the course for the Lunar expedition, and rescues him from jail, for instance.

The Mother Thing I now recognize as a recurring character from SF. I saw her in THE MOON ERA by Jack Williamson. She represents the mystery and wonder of Outer Space if that mystery should be resolved in our favor. E.T. from the movie might have been a young one of her race. The hope is that the Beyond might hold, not terror or indifference, but something wonderful and lovely and filled with love is the most appealing hope that SF offers.

Plot? Again, nothing exceptional, just a series of events where Our Hero is more often a Jules Verne style witness and not a mover of the action. But again, everything is handled with an expert touch.
Kip spends most of his time in jail, either a prisoner of the Bad Aliens or a prisoner of the Good Aliens. The author did not bother to make up a reason why the Bad Aliens keep him alive, aside from a hint that “he might prove useful.” Useful for what, or what the Bad Alien plan is, also the author overlooks to invent. We know the aliens wanted to kidnap Peewee’s Dad, a famous scientist, and we know that they are Bent On The Conquest of Earth.

Well, maybe we do not need more than that for a juvenile SF yarn: INDIANA JONES never bothers to tell you why exactly the Nazis want the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, and there is certainly no mention of the invasion of Poland. As a grown up reader, however, I find that the lack of any reason to the Bad Alien actions (what little we see of them) detracts from verisimilitude.

We have a slowly building plot structure.

Boy wins space suit in soap contest. He spends a summer working on the suit the way boys used to work on Jalopies or model rockets. The action is in his backyard.

Then he stumbles across a Flying Saucer, gets kidnapped, and is stuck in a jail cell with Peewee.

Action now moves to the moon. We meet Good Alien and Bad Alien. Thrilling escape attempt across the lunar surface.

Action now moves to Pluto. Kip has to venture out onto Plutonian surface and nearly dies in order to trigger alien widget and invite rescue.

Action now moves to Vega: the habits and curiosities of the Vegan Good Aliens briefly mentioned.

Action now moves to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, and the human race is put on trial by the Three Galaxies. Not a trial of justice, but, rather, the Galactics are assessing whether the human race is too dangerous; and if it should prove dangerous, it must be exterminated. Mankind is spared, on the grounds that our wars are merely youthful exuberance we might outgrow.

Action now returns to Earth. Like the return of Odysseus, Kip is landed with rich gifts, including wonders of futuristic mathematics, and he manages to use political pull to win a scholarship, solving Kip’s main earthly problem.

Action returns to backyard, full circle. Back in his home town Kips gets to throw a soda in the face of the boy who mocked him: close curtain.

The build up of the plot is one of the best aspects of the book: each time the action on one stage is done, a bigger stage opens up.

But we are not really here for the plot. In terms of plot-action, there is almost none: nothing the boy does successfully hinders the Bad Aliens, or noticeably contributes to the success of the Good Aliens. It is not a duel of wits.

We are really here for the lectures. You heard me. The big appeal of this book is the one thing all young writers are told to shy away from: long information-dumps about how a spacesuit works form the most interesting part of the book. It is like reading Melville to find out the details of Whaling Ships.

Heinlein is the master of the interesting SF lecture: he can describe the inner workings of a space suit helmet, and tell you how and why it works, or describe negative-pressure feedback, and keep you on the edge of your seat with your mouth open. Since the only scenes where Kip is an active participant involve suit work (first on the Moon, then on Pluto) the technical background is necessary to show the technical problems.

Any negatives to this book?

Only one small Heinlein touch betrays where my tastes have changed: In the scene where the Three Galaxies puts the Wormfaces on trial, Kip briefly wonders whether he should say something in the defense of his oppressors. He decides not to: the Wormfaces (he reasons) are utterly evil and vile, and there is no point in this universe to show mercy. A moment later the humans are on trial. The Roman soldier Kip admires with warm fellow feeling says pretty much what the Alien Wormfaces say, but now Kip’s heart expands with pride. When Kip finds he has nothing much to say in the defense of mankind, he decides to threaten the judges, boasting that the human race is so dangerous, that their attempts to execute us will fail, and then we will come kick their alien thoraxes from here to Fornax. This is exactly the type of back-talk we saw the Wormfaces two paragraphs before spout off that got their whole race killed.

Here we see major Heinlein split-personality syndrome in action. He cannot sensibly have both his humans and his Good Aliens act with the mercilessness he admires, since the logical thing to do (if his aliens are the badass hard-boiled eggs he wants humanity to be) is to wipe out humanity. Instead, Kip, the epitome of mankind, mouths off to them, and they DON’T act like us and do the logical thing, and wipe out the threat. The logical thing to do makes no sense with the plot, so plot logic flies out the window, and the Good Aliens show that same mercy Our Boy Hero (not so All-American after all) was not willing to show to his defeated foes earlier.

Klaatu in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL had a similar philosophy, but his was more sensible: at least his race gave an advanced warning.

The Heinlein philosophy, which is announced in STARSHIP TROOPERS and TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE and elsewhere, is that there is no right nor wrong to this universe: humanity must fight like famished wolves to wrestle territory away from any aliens foolish enough to cross us, and be ready to battle all comers to the finish.

This is something of the philosophy of a Hemmingway, or, if you like, Andrew Jackson sweeping Indians out of the South.

It is a pagan philosophy, which pauses to admire the godlike Achilles in his wrath, a worship of strength used to defend hearth and home. By itself, the philosophy is not unpalatable: it is the philosophy I would like my local beat cop and my friendly neighborhood marine platoon to have. It is a virile and manly philosophy, and, as such, is likely to appeal to boys and young men, not to grown men.

From the vantage of mature years, the philosophy strikes one as absurdly shallow: the Greeks knew how the sorrows of Achilles followed upon his wrath.

Frankly, I would rather have St. George or Sir Galahad or Trajan between my loved home and war’s desolation than Achilles or Alcibiades or General Sherman or any of the strong, hard-boiled eggs of history, and I think either the saint or the knight would be a good person to speak for mankind at the Trial of Humanity. The saint might mention mercy, for example.

In this case, the advanced Good Aliens of the Three Galaxies, using the same Jacksonian philosophy, expressly dismiss the idea that justice could be a concept different races share. They are ready and willing to destroy all mankind if mankind should prove a threat. They are acting in fashion Heinlein would applaud if humans were doing it. They are being brutal and realistic in the pursuit of their self-interest: fighting like famished wolves against all comers.

The logical defense, when confronted by brutal realism, would be to assume a posture of inoffensiveness; to plead that your race lacks the desire and ability to pose a threat to others. But this directly contradicts the pagan philosophy which praises strength as a prime good: your ability to form a threat, your ability to take the worst the heartless universe can throw at out, and dish it out just as manfully, is the core of this idea. The logic of the philosophy requires mankind spit defiance at the superior power of the Three Galaxies, and roar BRING IT ON! Which is basically what Kip does.

So the trial of mankind simply makes no sense to my adult eyes. Mankind is not being judged on whether it is good or bad, but whether it is a threat or not. The destruction of the Bad Alien planet, queens, drones, eggs and all (including their peace protestors and the patients in their hospitals), is carried out with the ruthlessness of a Richard Seaton in SKYLARK OF SPACE wiping out the Fenachrone. Logically, humanity should have been wiped out too. In a universe without justice, you spare the weak, not the nice. Was Heinlein’s point was that we were weaker than the Wormfaces, rather than nicer? That makes no sense. The pagan philosophy that worships strength is not one a weak race and a strong one can share. Only a philosophy of mercy can be shared between weak and strong.

Me, I would have put in a good word for the Wormfaces, even if they had just been trying to kill me, so that the Three Galaxies might take into account that humans can learn to show mercy. Mercy is a sociable sort of trait, and not a bad one to have in your neighbors.
This is one of Heinlein’s better juveniles, and I read it with almost as much pleasure as in my youth.
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