Retro Review: Starman Jones

27 Mar

It is, of course, impossible to be sure, but I do wonder if Starman Jones influenced Star Wars.

Not the plot, of course, but the relationship between the three leads. Luke, Han and Leia have a great deal in common with Max Jones, Sam Anderson and Eldreth ‘Ellie’ Coburn; the naive farmboy, the lovable rogue and the somewhat spoilt princess. It’s easy to look at Starman Jones and see traits that would eventually flourish in Star Wars, although – as I will discuss later – most characters in the book are recognisable and familiar stereotypes. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Heinlein’s Starman Jones inspired a number of later SF books, including The Seafort Saga (young officer finds himself in command of a starship) and The War Against the Chtorr (humans wage war against an alien ecology). As always, SF owes a huge debt to Heinlein.

The basic plot is quite simple. Teenage Max Jones, a farmer living with his mother, is aghast to discover that he has a new stepfather who plans to sell the farm and keep the money. After a brief confrontation, Max runs away – taking his uncle’s old collection of spacer books with him. His uncle promised to nominate him for the guild of navigators – the only way to join is to be nominated by a family member – and going to space seems the best way to escape both his uncle and an increasingly crowded and stratified Earth. His escape takes on more urgency when he meets Sam Anderson, who tells him that there’s a good chance the farm can’t be sold without Max’s agreement. His stepfather will be looking for him the moment the penny drops. Sam is nice, it seems, but he robs Max of his books while Max sleeps.

Reaching the guildhall, Max is horrified to discover that his uncle forgot to nominate him after all and, without connections, he will never be a spacer. Outside, he runs into Sam again, who has a suggestion. They buy forged papers and board a starship as ordinary crewmen, with the ultimate aim of jumping ship on a distant colony. Max, reluctantly, agrees … and, through a series of misadventures (and some behind-the-scenes manipulations from Ellie), finds himself rising in the ranks until, after the senior officers are killed, finds himself taking command of the ship while she is lost in space and bringing her safely home. Upon return, the guild tacitly forgives him (and Sam, who died on the voyage) and Max ends the book resolving to fix the problem that puts birth and family connections ahead of merit.

Starman Jones is not an adventure story in the classic sense, although there is a great deal of adventure. It is the story of a naive young man being tossed into an unfamiliar situation and being forced to master it. Max’s growth as a character comes from his slow rise in the ranks, each one allowing him to learn new skills before moving to the next. Max sees himself as unchanging, but we see him changing. Starman Jones is about maturity, about accepting responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. The book remains popular because, at base, human nature doesn’t change.

Max is contrasted to Sam, who is very much a slippery rogue with a multiple-choice past (it’s revealed at the end that he served in the Imperial Marines, only to accidentally desert midway through his career). Sam’s first approach to any situation is to figure out how to exploit it for his own benefit, although – unlike some people I’ve met – Sam has an understanding of just how far he can go without crossing the line. (He takes control of the ship’s still, for example, but is careful not to let semi-unauthorised drinking get out of hand.) Sam’s good nature softens the character a little, although Heinlein doesn’t let us forget that Sam is a rogue even though he isn’t a bad guy. Max prospers, perhaps, because he is honest enough to confess to the impersonation when he’s caught out, something Sam is reluctant to do. The cynic in me wonders if this really would work out so well in the real world.

Max is also tempted by Ellie, a beautiful girl from a social class so far above him that she might as well be in orbit. Ellie is so ridiculously privileged that she literally has no conception of how lucky she is, or just how much harm her ‘helpful’ interventions could do Max in the long run. She doesn’t appear to have any malice in her, but … she can do a great deal of harm without it. I’m not one for listening when someone tells me to ‘check my privilege,’ but Ellie really does need to check hers.

And yet, Ellie is a more complex character than she seems. She even admits as much to Max, when they are both trapped and facing imminent death; she’s smarter than she lets on, because it’s safer for a girl not to appear too smart. (Given that she’s a heiress whose most likely fate is being married off to someone her father chooses, this may actually be true.) Her existence has been used as an excuse to attack the book, which is a classic case of ‘interrogating the text from the wrong perspective.’ Heinlein, writing for teenage boys, wanted them to know that teenage girls weren’t airheads, that someone who acted dumb might have good reason to pretend to be dumb. And that, to some extent, they were victims of their environment. Ellie would be a very different character these days, but I doubt she would be quite as likable.

The secondary characters are fleshed out just enough to make them familiar. The Captain is a classic kindly old man, losing his facilities without being willing to admit it; Simes, the resentful astrogator, is not up to the job, knows he’s not up to the job and hates Max for threatening his position. We’ve all met someone like Simes, someone who owes his position to connections rather than dumb luck, someone who is more interested in covering his ass than doing his job, someone who tries to push us down because he fears what we might do if given a chance. Simes is, in his own way, as universal as Harry Potter’s Umbridge. And we all hate him.

It’s interesting to note that most of the characters get what they deserve, although Heinlein doesn’t make it too specific. Max gets to be a spacer, with the prospect of a more formal command in his future; Sam gets a hero’s death, with the slate wiped clean; Ellie gets to marry the man she wants, rather than someone her father picks. The Captain, on the other hand, chooses suicide rather than live with his failure; Simes is killed during a desperate bid to cover up his role in the disaster. And Max’s mother and stepfather, we are told, vanished after taking their share of the money, with Max wryly reflecting that his mother will probably put her shiftless husband to work. (Although a man willing to threaten a teenage boy he barely knows with a belting probably won’t have any qualms about beating his wife either.) Heinlein tries to show us, I think, that virtue is rewarded. The cynic in me disagrees.

Heinlein’s vision of the future, as always, is a mixed bag. Socially, Earth is now a very rigid structure (although it still has room for some family farms) and moving up the ladder is very difficult. (Probably one of the reasons Ellie is so unaware of the realities of life.) Technically, it reads oddly: the starship is both ultra-advanced and very primitive, the guild using logbooks and chart tables rather than computers to navigate (although I suppose one could argue that the guild has a vested interest in preventing the development of anything that might threaten its power.) They have monorails and mag-trains, yet also horse-powered ploughs. And yet, there is enough familiar in the world for us to understand it. Technology does not seem to have changed the world.

On a wider scale, Heinlein is quick to force us to challenge our assumptions. It would not be easy to play Robinson Crusoe and set up a colony in uncharted space, something he would later touch upon in his deconstruction of survivalist fantasies in Farnham’s Freehold. The world they land on might not be quite as unpleasant as some of the worlds Heinlein would show us in Methuselah’s Children, but it is still unrelentingly hostile to human life. They rapidly discover that trying to get back home is safer than staying on a world that wants to kill them.

The concept of a guild being a good thing is also deconstructed, brutally, in a manner that could easily be related to everything from unions to HR diversity quotas. Unions and suchlike are good ideas, as long as they don’t get out of control; they often turn sour when forced to cope with new technology or an influx of talented newcomers, losing sight of what is important as long-established members fight for their positions. The starship is stuck with Simes because Simes is a member of the guild, while the far more talented Max is locked out through not being a member of the guild.

This is a valid point that has even greater relevance in our day. Fundamentally, it does not matter if the person holding a job is white or black, male or female, straight or gay or anything else that can be used to draw a line between two different people. The only thing that matters is can they do the job? Losing sight of that leads, eventually, to absurdity and complete loss of respect. Most people regard Human Resources as the enemy now, with good reason. Heinlein was making the same point that Nick Cole would make later, in Safe Space Suit, without the personal jabs that spoil the story’s point.

Indeed, it also raises another question. It’s easy to condemn Max for making bad judgements, at least at the start, and committing criminal acts … but what choice does he have? The world is stacked against him, unfairly; he is sentenced to remain where he is, forever, simply for not having the right connections. Why should he feel any respect for a fundamentally unfair society? And why should he honour its laws when it is self-evidently true that they do not work? This society fails on a personal level, because it punishes Max for an accident of birth, but it also fails on a more general level when it allows incompetents into high places … also because of an accident of birth. But then, this is true of our society too; promotion on the grounds of anything but merit is fundamentally wrong and, frankly, dangerous.

Overall, Starman Jones remains one of the most significant of Heinlein’s works; a loveable and relatable protagonist, a supporting cast that feels real even though a number are little more than stereotypes, a clean read (there is no sex in the book) and a realistic – and small – victory, with the promise of more to come. It was, and remains, highly recommended.

15 Responses to “Retro Review: Starman Jones”

  1. sam57l0 March 27, 2018 at 9:45 pm #

    Given that it was written in ’52 or early ’53, it seems to me plausible to navigate by reading and setting the numbers into a computer. I had a computer class in the ’76-’78 time frame, using punch cards in an IBM 370. (Drop a deck of cards; try to get them back in order…)
    I reread most of the juveniles a few years back (Podkane of Mars for the first time), and RAH was projecting overpopulation and rather strict governments in many/most of them.

    • Charles Harris March 28, 2018 at 9:06 pm #

      Computers were pretty much missed by everyone writing science fiction back in the day. Computers and the digital world — smart phones, kindles, the internet, etc. — have been the most significant developments of my lifetime. Them and Borlaug : -)

    • sam57l0 March 30, 2018 at 4:58 am #

      I just watched “The Magnetic Monster”, released in ’53. There are shots of punched paper tape used to make punch cards for the M.A.N.I.A.C. computer.

  2. Michael Whitehosue March 27, 2018 at 9:56 pm #

    Chris, I like and enjoy these reviews. Thank you. I usually agree with or at least understand how you arrive at your insights. I remember reading many of Heinlein’s books growing up because they, and Andre Norton in her many guises, were some of the only SF in the young readers’ section of the library. In the 50’s and 60’s, young readers were not allowed access to the entire library. The other fiction and SF being too adult, too advanced or too controversial for our young minds to comprehend. I often thought that it might do some adults some good to read these young readers books. Perhaps as life lessons, since they hadn’t learned the lessons otherwise.

    As a college freshman, I did a book report on “Stranger in a strange land”. The Professor had previously told me that Ian Fleming was not an example of contemporary fiction. So I chose this one. Many students were running around college, “groking and water brothering” and seeming, to me at least, to have missed the whole point of the book. To me, it was using Science Fiction as a social commentary and to poke fun at contemporary society without offending too many people and few realizing it. All the “groking and water brothering” being illustrative of his success.

    The Professor then told me that Science Fiction was not contemporary fiction either. Picking up the Professor’s gauntlet, for that and the following semester’s class, I proceeded to pick off the wall novels to not satisfy his thirst for contemporary fiction book reports. In fairness to this Professor, despite the criticism of my choice of books, my book reports were actually graded fairly based on their grammar, composition and content. I think the lowest I got on one was a B+.

    In any case, thank you again for your insights.
    Michael

  3. Pyo March 27, 2018 at 10:02 pm #

    “This is a valid point that has even greater relevance in our day. Fundamentally, it does not matter if the person holding a job is white or black, male or female, straight or gay or anything else that can be used to draw a line between two different people.”
    (…)
    “Why should he feel any respect for a fundamentally unfair society? And why should he honour its laws when it is self-evidently true that they do not work?”

    These short political, um, jabs just don’t work as part of a blog/book review format. Maybe if they were presented more clearly as just opinions?

    Essentially, switch those paragraphs around and you’ll see what the argument for current work related measures “nowadays” actually is. Society is unfair. Various measures on different like quotas and unions, but also specific educational programs and whatnot were introduced to fix this unfairness.

    It’s not the other way around; as implied here. Apparently too easy to forget these days. And slippery slope comparisons to some sort of oligarchic, guild-organized dystopia frankly mean very little in the context; it’s not the same thing in any way at all ^^;

    • chrishanger March 27, 2018 at 10:16 pm #

      This is part of a long-term project to write a short book on Heinlein and his importance to the modern world, so commenting on lessons for US is part of it . Hopefully, that makes sense.

      Chris

      • Ann March 28, 2018 at 12:25 am #

        Like much earlier SF dated by what it lacks more than what it has.
        Research using Gini has indicated such a society would have a very high degree of young male violence as they discover their inability to scale the power/wealth pyramid. When acceptable means are blocked they turn to unacceptable means to attain status. .

      • chrishanger March 30, 2018 at 5:53 pm #

        Possibly. I’d be surprised if the state in The Handmaid’s Tale survived for more than a generation, under the circumstances.

        Chris

      • Pyo March 28, 2018 at 10:59 am #

        I get that, but basically (among other things) I’d say you are doing three things:

        1. Describe what’s there, how it’s done and what you think of it.

        That’s the least controversial. Few would deny which character it’s about or what they are doing …

        2. Describe the messages the author put into the novel

        Like the guild thing. It’s clearly there. Whether it was actually a statement on guilds or not, well, there might be some debate, but the conclusion comes directly from the text, so, again, not much controversy.

        3. Draw some comparisons to modern issues that go beyond 2

        And that’s where 2-3 sentences just don’t work too well. It’s too much “I have this opinion and see it in the text here”, not “This novel got me thinking about it and I concluded from this that …”

        If, for example, I’d be of the opinion that slavery isn’t all that bad I could pick “Daughter of the Empire”, have a heroine that likes (or at least doesn’t object to) slavery, and a society that seems to function decently with slaves in it, and point out that the authors clearly made that point there.

        Except that of course they didn’t; it’s just part of the fantasy setting and not any political-sociological message in any sense and I obviously read the novel through my personal lens and used it as some sort of justification for my opinion.

        In the space of a book where you can make a clearly argument and distinction between reviewing a novel and how that in your opinion has anything to do with current political issue I’m sure it can be done in an interesting way, but in a short-ish blog post it just feels way too simplified, especially for complex issues like these.

        Anyway, that’s what I was trying to say. Possibly.

    • Dale Dietzman April 9, 2018 at 7:37 pm #

      I will give you my slant on this, taken from a lifetime where Heinlein sensitized me to many issues as a youngster, so I have paid attention where many do not along the way. Quite simply EVERY EFFORT by government directly or by “HR” as government’s proxy to “fix” precieved past injustices only creates present and future injustices. The past is the past folks. Every one of us has slaves in our ancestry, it it just a question of which ones and where. And if we succumb to the “victim” mentality we are still slaves to this day. People without the buy in to “I am a victim” can and do rise as far as their own abilities can take them, witness General/Secretary of State Colin Powell. He rose on his personal merit, not on having had the “skids greased” for him.

  4. PhilippeO March 28, 2018 at 4:05 am #

    But how do you judge merit ?

    Simes probably can do 90% of his job, While Max is ‘unproven’. I suppose family recommendation original goal would have new member apprenticed to older member and gain skills. Without emergency or war, judging someone merit is extremely difficult.

    Test ? written or practical ? very easily influenced by test-maker prejudice and its real-world application is doubtful.

    Recommendation ? in practice quickly generate to ‘good old boy’ club and nepotism.

    Time in jobs ? punch-clocker and those skilled at office politics would win.

    • Pyo March 28, 2018 at 11:03 am #

      Also interesting that even in real-life militaries and military-like organizations don’t actually operate on “that much merit” anyway. Sure, it’s not 19th century – be a noble or you aren’t allowed to be an officer – but if you are a mediocre officer, but have spent 25 years in the military, you’ll be in charge over the guy who is brilliant but has only been around for 5 years.

      It’s merely a matter of seniority, and that’s often an accepted principle for hierarchies (also in companies and whatnot). Not without reasons, of course, experience matters, but it’s also not the same as picking purely because of skill.

      “Age doesn’t make you better, it only makes you older.” Or something like that.

      • Jensebaum March 28, 2018 at 6:07 pm #

        The last sentence of your comment reminds me of a quote from the James Bond movie Skyfall.

        Q: “Age is no guaranty of efficiency.”
        007: “And youth is no guanranty of innovation.”

        That exchange stuck with me, I think it’s pretty spot-on.

    • chrishanger March 30, 2018 at 5:54 pm #

      I’d say the 10% he couldn’t do (not mentoring promising young officers) was bad enough to merit his sacking.

      That said, I’d get rid of the family link altogether. Everyone enters on an even footing.

      Chris

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