Heinlein's dystopian juvenile novels

On Tor.com, author Jo Walton takes a look at the dystopian backdrops in Robert A Heinlein's juvenile novels like Starman Jones and Citizen of the Galaxy. Heinlein's juveniles were his best work for my money, and I've always remembered them as being relentlessly upbeat, so it's startling to realize how many of them are set in failed or failing universes. As usual, Walton has smart things to say about this.
No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?
The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s Juveniles


  1. Re: Getting off earth… wasn’t the recent BBTV segment where Richard Branson mentions that Stephen Hawking inspired him to do this because The Hawkman says we (or some of us at least) gotta get off this ball of dirt to ensure the survival of the human race?

  2. Heinlein’s juveniles are generally about young people working hard and being smart, learning a lot, and in particular… beating horrendous odds. While the protagonists are often personally upbeat, the circumstances they’re in would certainly mostly qualify as dystopias. (When I read them at 10-12, if I’d had the understanding of the word dystopia I have now at 50, I would have classified them that way.)

    And the dystopias weren’t all about “Earth sucks”, they were about “wherever you are sucks”. Here are few non-Terrestrial Heinlein dystopias:
    Orphans of the Sky: generation starship
    Citizen of the Galaxy: interstellar empire far from Earth
    Tunnel in the Sky: high school students trapped on a distant planet

  3. Perhaps only tangentially related, there was some sort of study earlier this year about the relationship between the US economy and dystopian films (evidence and nice chart here. The relationship was asserted to be inverse, with booming economy bringing dystopia galore.

    I sincerely hope this doesn’t mean we’re hunkered down for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants spinoffs.

  4. Cory, I usually agree with you. But that comment you made in this here bitty, “earth sucks, better get into space fast” is not what Heinlein was saying. He believed in the un matched beauty of old Terra, and wrote endlessly on the subject. The commentary he was making in most those novels was that we must cherish what we have. The old lecher was a conservationist at heart. You only have to look at the Lazarus Long stories to understand that in all the space travel in which humanity embarks in the Future History, ultimately all that they are doing is trying to recreate the awesome beauty of the Green Hills of Earth.

    But any article about the Grand Master is welcome by me. He deserves all (and much more) recognition than he gets.

  5. Re: Spazzm@4.

    Couldn’t agree more. Bob H may have worried that things were going to hell in a handbasket in the 50s and 60s – and who can blame him? – but the future’s looking increasingly dystopic with each passing month.

    The point of the Heinlein Juveniles isn’t the dystopia itself – it’s succeeding despite it. It’s about overcoming odds through gumption and wit. You can’t have that kind of struggle if unicorns are farting rainbows over the Beer Volcano.

    To my mind, another important lesson is that we’ve been worried about Earth going to Hell for a long, long time. So looking to windward and keeping a sensible amount of concern for that may yet stave it off for a long, long time too.

    Important lessons, all.

  6. Didn’t the Mundane SF manifesto claim to be a reaction to SF that “encouraged” using up our world because we’d someday all live in space and be able to escape our ruined world? I think Mundanes might argue that Heinlein’s far-flung space fantasies subtly encouraged the dystopian futures they were presenting.

    I see the Mundane SF point, but I still think we can have our space opera cake and eat it too–meaning I think there has to be a middle ground between enjoying deep space fantasy and simultaneously understanding that we can’t just treat our home planet like a strip mine. In that sense, Heinlein’s juveniles could be seen as both–deep space adventures as well as cautionary tales.

  7. The link largely over-looks the didactic purpose of the juveniles. Heinlein himself said that they were written to prepare children for the future as much as possible. To emphasize math and science, or, failing that, hard work. They were an antidote for future shock. That the future might be grim is something to prepare for.

    They are actually about roles that you can fill in a future society. Even the fairly boring stuff, he makes exciting so the kids can dream (the whole point).

    Colonist (Red Planet)
    Non-Terrestrial Agriculture (Farmer in the Sky)
    Diplomacy (Between Planets)
    Pioneer (Tunnel In The Sky)
    Spy (Citizen of the Galaxy)
    Space Pilot (Starman Jones)
    Explorer (Time For the Stars)
    Solider (Starship Troopers)
    Interplanetary Economic (The Rolling Stones)
    Military Officer (Space Cadet)
    First Contact Diplomacy (Have Space Suit–Will Travel)
    Rule of Law, Lawyer (The Star Beast)

    (A lack of this didactic purpose can be seen in the childish Rocket Ship Galileo and the unfocused Podkayne of Mars.)

  8. I really started with Podkanye of Mars. It didn’t strike me as a commentary on Earth, but really just about Podkanye’s adventure. Maybe it was unfocused, it’s been about 35 years since I read it.

  9. Sorry, I meant to qualify that Podkanye is unfocused as to a career. Unless luxury liner passenger and unwilling babysitter is going to be considered an aspirational career. ;-)

  10. I <3 Heinlein, even if he did use his novels as a medium for pushing his social credit ideologies.

  11. Are these novels any more dystopianin their backgrounds than the average SF novel? I mean – in fiction you need conflict and adversity, so…

  12. Podkayne was about a girl. And girls, in Heinlein’s earlier works, didn’t have careers, usually. They had a job until they married. Which was of course a typical attitude for his generation. To his credit they were still outspoken, intelligent, and resourceful.

    And it seems to me there’s something deeper. Consider this: they were written for teenagers. How many teenagers think life with their parents is wonderful and have no wish to move out? That’s correct. None. All teenagers everywhere are living in their own dystopia, and are looking to get out.

  13. What I chiefly remember from Heinlein’s juvenile dystopias is the recurrent theme of complacent, condescending parent figures who try unsuccessfully to constrain and infantilize Heinlein’s capable adolescents: “Tunnel in the Sky” has them, and the final section of “Citizen of the Galaxy” does too. The same idea is touched on in passing in the movie of “Starship Troopers”, but I can’t remember if it’s in the original novel.

    Heinlein expressing a deep-rooted personal obsession, or just a piece of savvy marketing? After all what young reader isn’t going to like a story where grown-ups are lazy and stupid, and it’s up to the kids to sort things out.

  14. I’m reading that very book (same cover art too) to my daughter right now. She loved ‘Red Planet’ (Willis!) and I’m amazed at the perspicacity of some of this eight year-old’s questions when it come to Heinlein’s preachier bits.

    Instilling a touch of libertarianism in today’s youth is not such a bad thing I think, and by that I mean you should read these book TO your kids don’t just hand them off.

  15. Citizen of the Galaxy was one of those great little novels I read when I was young. It’s hard to come by as of late. Some of Heinlein’s and other sci-fi writers are elusive when looking to read some of their bodies of work. Thank god for second hand book shops and Ebay. There are times when you can hit pay dirt in these shops.

  16. Starman Jones was my NUMBER ONE favourite book when I was a kid. Obviously the idea of a youngster saving the day against the odds was always a good theme for a kids’ story. The dystopian aspect was just a ruse to engineer our hero’s achievements. My copy certainly didnt have such a garish cover. As I went on to become a navigator (of sea ships rather than space ships) you can see why this was an attractive story to me.

  17. I loved the kiddie Heinleins. I was especially partial to The Starbeast. How many children’s stories have a protagonist who is actually a prince or princess. What fun when it was the protagonist’s pet who turned out to be royalty, and female to boot!

    Yeah Lummox! You go girl!

  18. What is – How can I say it – amazing to me is that all of the above comments were written on my birthday, and, I’m not that hipped on conincidence, but on his one, a lot. I wa 5 on the day Hiroshima Burned… and my first comment notwithstanding, I’ve read the future during my early life and have seen all the incredible what ifs come to fruition. Most certainly,, Heinline and all the other Golden Age authors, seriously considered the world and created the conditions for Science and Engineering to make true, the dreams of ‘Science’ Fiction, in a most ordinary, everyday fact accomplished with elegance and marvelous creativity. ‘Ain’t it Great”, as obnoxious as Asimov was to early authors, he sure had a great parallel with Heinline. They both wrote, into the future and its here. Space the final Frontier; I Robot(s), the final evolution, Airborne Lasers, the final ‘Blaster Cannon’… Beena fascinating 70 years, looking forward to more..

Comments are closed.