Back to the Future

Robert Heinlein’s work divides science-fiction readers. He was an unabashed patriot in that he supported his country, not necessarily conservative causes. His novel “Starship Troopers” has been bashed for its politically incorrect support for the military, while his attitudes toward sex and social groups in his later books trigger some readers’ squick meter. Bizarrely,”Strangers in a Strange Land” was a countercultural cult favorite and the word “grok” entered the slanguage of the 1960s.

“Space Cadet” presents none of these problems. This boys’ adventure — republished by Tor in hardbound — was published in 1948. It was one of Heinlein’s first books. Set several hundred years into the future, the solar system has been colonized on one of Jupiter’s moons and on Venus, where beneath the clouds the air is breathable and intelligent life was discovered. Keeping the peace is the Solar Patrol, whose atomic bombs circle the earth while its members continue exploring the planets, moons and asteroids.

“Space Cadet” follows the journey of Matthew Brooks of Des Moines, Iowa, and his friends Tex, Oscar and Pierre (from Texas, Venus and Jupiter’s moon), through their education at the Space Academy, finishing up with an adventure when their ship runs into trouble during a mission to Venus. Heinlein spends the first hundred pages moving them through this world — the patrol bears significant resemblance to the U.S. Navy — then puts them onboard a ship for about the next 50 pages before bringing in a story.

There are a couple sections that shows themes Heinlein will explore in future novels. There’s the wide gulf between the civilian and military worlds, that Matt discovers when he tries to explain how the atomic bombs circling the earth — ready to be dropped down the gravity well on any city that gets uppity — are maintained. This leads to some bizarre lines such as “Now, Catherine, you can’t imagine Matt bombing Des Moines, now can you? And that is what it amounts to. Tell her, Matt.”

So far adult readers, “Space Cadet” brings with it the charm of “Golden Age” science-fiction: the finned rockets, the elite space organization and a few aliens thrown into the mix. Heinlein nails portable phones, but computers are room-sized and rockets land on their tail. In his perfectly run Solar Patrol, he includes officers from all races (even a black officer is mentioned, but not seen), and yet the patrol is firmly phallocentric.

As for children, “Space Cadet” is pretty bland stuff. To children brought up on Harry Potter, video games and anime, “Space Cadet” is more likely to induce eye-rolling than a sense of wonder.

Score: 53
Genre: 15 “Space Cadet” is juvenile fiction. The boys are the heroes and they play a central role in the action. Heinlein also wanted to expose boys to the wonders of planetary science, so be prepared for paragraphs of undigestable chunks of exposition about elliptical orbits and planetary mechanics.
Realism: 9 Heinlein is effective in describing the feeling of being in space. He’s just not good at depicting anything else.
Character: 6 One boy’s pretty much the same as another, except for the villain. Same with all the officers.
Setting: 7 Not his strong suit in this one.
Theme: 5 The most obvious theme — the molding of a boy into a military man — was mostly ignored.
Style: 11 Direct unadorned prose is not a disadvantage. Beginning the story after page 100 is.
Bonus: 0 Of interest to Heinlein fans only.