Jo Walton on Heinlein's STARMAN JONES

Continuing her remarkable series of reviews of older sf novels on, Jo Walton today looks at Heinlein's Starman Jones (one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. and his juveniles are my favorite Heinlein altogether!), in a review entitled "Starman Jones, or how Robert A. Heinlein did plot on a good day."
It's easy to see the overview as a set of adventures, leaving Earth and going to other planets, getting promoted, but it all has one goal: getting to that position where Max's freak talent is the only thing that can save them, where he becomes captain and astrogates them home. Everything leads to that. It's climactic. You couldn't predict that is where it would end up (I think, I don't know, I first read this when I was twelve), but there aren't any false leads. And beyond that, the real story is Max learning lessons--from Sam, from Eldreth, from his experiences--and ending up back on that hillside with a job to go to. Both stories end up at the same point, and everything reinforces the theme not just of Max growing up but of him learning what it is to grow up and what he actually values. At the beginning he's a kid with a freak talent, at the end he's a man who has lied, told the truth, seen a friend die and brought his ship home. There are no false moves, everything goes towards that. And it's a great end. All his juveniles have great ends.

Now Heinlein, from what he said about how he worked, did all that entirely on instinct, sitting down and writing one word after another and doing what happens and where it's going purely by gut-feel. When he gave Eldreth the spider-monkey, he wasn't thinking "and later, it can rescue them from aliens" because he had no idea at that point that they'd get lost and end up on an alien planet. But when they got to the alien planet, he knew what he had and what he wanted to do because of the way it flowed. But it works like wyrd, where the beginning is wide open and it narrows in and in so that at the end there's only one place for it to go.

Starman Jones, or how Robert A. Heinlein did plot on a good day

Starman Jones (Amazon)


  1. one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. and his juveniles are my favorite Heinlein altogether!

    A snarky quibble, but did he write anything that wasn’t juvenalia? :D

  2. Oh, loved that book! Heinlein, along with Andre Norton, and Ben Bova (Rendezvous With Rama), taught me to love science fiction at an early age with books found in my school library.

  3. You know, Cory, in Heinlein’s dotty old age, he often said he’d like to destroy many of his juveniles. Good for all of us, then, that books are so difficult to ‘unpublish’ completely — it’s too hard to find every copy!

  4. @4 Well, yeah.

    But in this case I’d love to see an author take his only worthwhile stuff from the markt and become subsequently forgotten.

    Though Starman Jones is clearly related to his later works, with his strange fetish of copulating with young female relatives.

  5. Tom Hale – We must have been reading off the same list. My personal holy trinity was Heinlein, Andre Norton, and Asimov.

    “The Ramans do everything in threes.”

    1. I never would have pegged BB readers as Andre Norton readers. I’m glad to see that I was wrong.

  6. PeterBruells, “his strange fetish of copulating with young female relatives” is quite a bit overstated. I’ve read all the man’s work and see no such thread, though I can’t say he didn’t visit that and many other socially taboo subjects.

    You appear to be implying that Heinlein was a incestuous paedophile. If you want to diss the man why not just call him the gentlemanly horndog that he was?

    Apparently, RAH wanted to copulate with pretty much all young females, and some not so young, and personally I don’t see anything strange or fetishistic about that at all.

    1. I can verify from personal observation that Heinlein was an obnoxious horndog who couldn’t keep his hands to himself or his mouth shut in the presence of a woman.

  7. Takuan: That’s not the cover I remember from my copy of Galactic Derelict! Heretic!
    God, I wish my daughter could be persuaded to read those things, but she can’t. She does like books though, so I guess it’s all ok really…

  8. Let me throw another log on the flamewar by suggesting that, copulating with young female relatives does seem to be a recurring theme in Heinlein — but I don’t see any of it in “Starman Jones.”

    Also: Abortion gun control Mac. vs. Windows.

    – Mitch Wagner

  9. Now, see, Peter, THAT’s more like it.

    Well done Antinous! No beating around the bush from you!

  10. “Perhaps it is the vigorous imagination behind these stories that keeps Mr. Heinlein looking younger than his 78 years, despite his many illnesses. He walks with a cane, and takes medication for severe emphysema that keeps him awake late at night, working as he listens to the radio. Several years ago a blocked artery led to oxygen starvation in part of his brain, with a resulting decline in the quality of his work. The blockage was finally repaired by a new technique in brain surgery.

    “Mr. Heinlein says he realized he needed the operation when his wife and primary editor, Virginia, told him a new novel was a failure. He dotes on Virginia, whom he met while they were both in the Navy, and he credits her with his understanding of the market system. ‘She cured me. I’d gotten fed up with the New Deal by 1938, but I was still trying to save the world, suffering from that nasty itch that characterizes socialists — the sort of thing that makes them think that everything should be prevented or required.’ “The high quality of JOB: A COMEDY OF JUSTICE (1984) is evidence that the bypass was successful. And the author is undaunted by his ailments. Two years ago he went with Virginia on a Spartan cruise to the Antarctic, and last year the Heinleins went to the other end of the world, on a cruise that navigated the Northwest Passage.”

  11. “Anonymous”, I do not want to “diss” the man. I consider him an imaginative author who wrote a lot of entertaining, sophomoric crap. His various fetishes don’t interest me – if fetishes turn me off, I simply don’t read the works.

    However, I confused “Starman Jones” with “Time for the Stars”. Even though I later read them in the original, it’s the German titles I remember and have to match to the stories. In this case I matched the wrong ones, sorry.

  12. Peter – No worries. I’m an enormous Heinlein fan, he is one of my literary heroes, but he was a human being with human flaws. He was also a man of his era, born in the Edwardian age, died 21 years ago. And he was a writer that grew up in the pulps.

    He did, indeed, seem to have something about men having sex with younger relatives — “Time for the Stars,” as you noted, as well as “Door Into Summer,” and several places in “Time Enough For Love.” At times the younger relative wasn’t related by blood, but adopted (“Time Enough for Love”), or the daughter of a close friend (“Door Into Summer”).

    Is this creepy to the present-day 2009 reader? You bet it is. Is it evidence that Heinlein was an actual child molester, or wanted to be one? You bet it is not. I recall reading a scholarly book about Heinlein which noted that Heinlein was strongly influenced by the popular fiction of the 19th Century, and “raise up a girl to be a wife” was a popular theme in the pop fiction of that era.

  13. However, at the same time, Heinlein had some very strong female characters. Podkayne, Wyoming Knott, the fierce (but a bit naïve) revolutionary, Margrethe from Job, faithful to her pagan beliefs.

    And I’d like to point also that in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the main character’s most beloved wife was his senior by decades, if I remember well, as they lived longer in Luna. What I think is simple that Heinlein was not limited by any of our social taboos, whether it is age or monogamy. I do not like a lot of what he wrote (specially the juveniles!), but I think he was one of the most free minds we have had in a long time.

  14. @Mitch Oh, I never mistook him for a pedophile. All the characters he described were clearly of reproductive age and I come from a society with age-of-consent rules which I (naturally, heh) consider saner than what’s the norm in the U.S. And, after all, he didn’t his characters’ interest to their direct or indirect descendants, but had at least one copulate with his mother, too.

    What I don’t like about his works is the extremely low range of characters – he’s got a very limited cast which tends to get on my nerves.

  15. Whereas you’ve identified something I like about Heinlein — I like his characters and the range doesn’t bother me — when I see the Old Man, or the Wiseacre Mentor-Sidekick, it’s like greeting an old friend who is wearing new clothes.

    Where are you from and what are the age of consent laws there?

    My chief problem with consent laws in the US is that they make no distinctions based on the age of the adult in the party. The law makes no distinction between an 18-year-old boy and a 48-year-old man when it comes to having sex with a 16-year-old girl.

    I myself am personally squicked by the thought of a guy in his 20s having a sexual relationship with a teen-ager — but I’ve talked to women who had that happen to them when they were in their teens, and they were fine with what had happened. It wasn’t even much of a big deal to them, no moreso than anybody else’s teen relationships.

    But getting back to Heinlein and his recurring incest theme: If I were arguing with a hypothetical person who was accusing Heinlein of actually advocating incest, I’d point out to that the Heinlein characters generally travel in time before they do the deed. The one exception I can think of is Lazarus Long and Dora, and in that case he was a virtually immortal man, already a thousand years old when he met her. None of these are situations you’re likely to meet up with in contemporary America or Europe.

    I’m reminded of a discussion I had with someone on a Doctor Who forum with someone who found the relationship with Rose objectonable. He was an old man, and she was a 19-year-old girl, and that’s wrong wrong wrong. Earlier Companions were fully grown adults and educated women, but not Rose. I tried to respond that the Doctor wasn’t just a human adult – he was 900 years old, and to him, a woman in her 40s and a 19-year-old woman might appear to be about the same. But then the person I was discussing the issue with began to rant about how Rose wasn’t just young, she was just a Cockney shopgirl, mere trash, and I realized I was talking to someone with Issues.

  16. @22 Germany. And it’s indeed “graded” over here – it’s patently absurd to protect 16-year-olds from each other.


    (Had to look up “to squick”. Nice work.)

    Well, the incest doesn’t bother me. It’s illegal over here, but shouldn’t be. Not my thing, though. But apart from “people don’t like it” I fail to see a reason to forbid it.

    Dr. Who: Well, with whom should he “shack up”, after all. (Or Lazarus Long, or Perry Rhodan or Atlan, for that matter). A 20 year old or a 80 year old – all will be hundreds of years younger anyway.

    I mean, “half-your-age-plus-seven” totally breaks down in these circumstances. Though I appreciate how neatly it fits our lowest age of consent.

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