Retro Review Space Cadet

4 May

It is not enough that you be skilful, clever, brave— The trustees of this awful power must each possess a meticulous sense of honour, self-discipline beyond all ambition, conceit, or avarice, respect for the liberties and dignity of all creatures, and an unyielding will to do justice and give mercy. He must be a true and gentle knight.

Space Cadet

It’s interesting to realise that Robert Heinlein was himself a naval man who attended the US Naval College, as it is genuinely striking just how much of his experiences were incorporated into Space Cadet. Indeed, rereading this book after reading biographies of Heinlein is something of an eye-opener. Heinlein may have gotten a lot wrong about the way politics and technology would develop, but he does manage to get across both the life of a student at a naval academy and the early years of an officer of a naval force. And it’s in space!

The plot is relatively simple. Matt Dodson, an American teenager, applies to join the Space Patrol (a combination of the USN and the Coast Guard). Going through a series of tests, some with hidden tricks to catch cheaters, he is eventually permitted to join as a cadet and go to the academy (actually, a spaceship which has been converted into a school). There, he meets three friends (one of whom, Oscar Jensen, was born on Venus, which is a later plot point) and a semi-rival, Girard Burke. For better or worse, perhaps for the worse, Matt finds himself rooming with Burke.

The cadets are pushed hard, until Burke either resigns or is asked to leave (the text doesn’t make it clear.) Matt and his three friends, however, are allowed to proceed onwards to the next level, actual service on an interstellar ship. After a short adventure where they stumble across the remains of another ship, lost in the asteroid belt, they are called to Venus by reports of a native (i.e. alien) uprising. Matt and co take a smaller ship to the foggy planet, but accidentally crash-land and are captured by the natives. There, they discover that Burke, their former comrade, was engaged in a little gunboat diplomacy that got his entire crew killed and himself captured.

Burke offers them a great deal of money if they keep his secret, summon the marines to put down the ‘uprising’ and parcel out the captured land. Instead, Matt and his friends make friends with the natives, patch up an old ship and head back into space. Burke is placed under arrest and the three patrolmen, now feeling like patrolmen, resume their duties.

Believe it or not, I think Space Cadet is perhaps my favourite of the Heinlein juveniles. It works well as a story for teenage boys while also including a great many bonuses for the more adult readers. It is clean and simple, yet has a number of underlying themes that stick in the mind. Heinlein-as-teacher is very clear in this work, where it isn’t clear in others.

And what makes it work, I think, is that Matt starts out as a recognisable character. He may come from a future world – an early section has him using a mobile phone to call home – but he’s still human. He’s as close to us as he would have been to the kids in Heinlein’s first audience. When he starts, he’s on the cusp of manhood; he’s eager and determined, but also naive and profoundly unsure of his abilities. The story is not so much space adventure as Matt and his friends growing into men.

Matt is contrasted with Burke, who is a cynical bounder of the worst sort. Burke is not a bully, in the sense he picks on Matt or the other cadets; Burke privately questions the purposes of the tests, assuming that everything is a test with a hidden purpose … in short, as a cadet, Burke undermines the other cadets. His view of the universe has no room for honour or even for basic common decency. (He sees a spaceship crash, when the cadets are being tested, and assumes that it’s part of the test.) Later, as the CO of an exploration ship, Burke schemes to deprive the natives of their mineral rights by kidnapping their queen, forcing her to sign a contract and then – presumably – using the contract as a figleaf of justification for a military operation. This was not, of course, uncommon in the days of the Wild West. Here, it has a happier outcome for the natives.

This is, in many ways, the start of a theme that runs through most of Heinlein’s books. Colonisation, in the classic sense, is wrong; exploiters, people who will steal from the natives, are evil. Normally, Heinlein tries to make us like someone before he uses them to make a point; this time, Heinlein goes to some trouble to make us dislike Burke to ensure that we do not side with him. It’s a curious moment when one remembers that the colonisation model that Heinlein condemns is not the European one, but the American one. Heinlein wants us to realise, I think, that the victims of such exploitation are human (or at least intelligent) too. It’s notable that Oscar, who grew up on Venus, actually treats the natives with respect … something that helps the cadets escape certain death.

Indeed, Space Cadet also includes an antiracist message that seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Heinlein was less subtle at this point, it should be noted; the characters make a point of saying that a senior officer’s skin colour (black) doesn’t matter to them, although they’re comparing him to the aliens. And yet, it is clear that the Patrol is a multiracial as well as multinational organisation. (That said, it is also men-only. Women are barely mentioned within the text.)

Heinlein touches on many other issues of importance to young men. The importance of honour, for example, is contrasted with shameless money-grubbing. Matt is told that you can’t buy men of honour, just as Matt himself refuses Burke’s massive bribe. The patrol is held together by honour. It can’t function any other way. There are also moments drawn directly from Heinlein’s own experience as a naval cadet, including a sad moment when Matt goes home … only to discover that he no longer fits into his hometown. The gulf between him and his family (and former friends) is simply too large.

The recent biography of Heinlein suggests that Space Cadet was originally conceived as a sequel, of sorts, to Solution Unsatisfactory, which was written before nuclear bombs were recognised as a threat. Instead, the Patrol of that story deployed radioactive dust against its enemies; later, it launched a de facto coup against the world governments on the grounds that it was the only way to keep a greater threat from devastating the planet. (Panshin has some interesting commentary on that story which is well worth a read.) Matt – originally – would have ended up bombing his hometown. There are moments of acknowledgement to the original plot, if indeed that was the original plot, in the story, but overall the second version works far better. It certainly lacks the grimness that would have weakened the original version.

In some ways, Space Cadet can be seen as a precursor to Starship Troopers. They both cover the transition of a callow youth to a mature officer, but Space Cadet is relatively simplistic while Starship Troopers is as much or more a philosophical work as it is an adventure novel. Space Cadet barely touches on politics, for better or worse. Keeping one’s officer corps out of politics would, of course, be highly desirable.

Overall, I stand by my original judgement. Space Cadet may be outdated – the tech is a mixture of surprisingly accurate and laughably wrong, while the solar system is a far more exciting and inhabited place than reality – but the underlying themes of the story are still relevant today …

… And besides, it’s a fun little read.

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5 Responses to “Retro Review Space Cadet”

  1. The Other Sean May 4, 2018 at 3:06 pm #

    I missed Space Cadet, probably because I’ve never encountered a new or used copy in bookstores or libraries when I was on my big Heinlein kick in high school. Based on this review, I think I might try to track it down.

    On another note, I believe it is properly the United States Naval Academy (USNA).

  2. Ben Sevier May 4, 2018 at 3:57 pm #

    Yes, the official name is United States Naval Academy, or to military people, usually Annapolis (or Canoe U., and other less complementary names), just as the United States Military Academy (Army) is referred to by the town it is in, West Point (or Hudson High and other names…)

  3. William Ameling May 4, 2018 at 8:13 pm #

    It is an interPLANETARY ship NOT an interSTELLAR ship.

  4. Dani May 4, 2018 at 10:21 pm #

    There is a passing reference to the Patrol in “Farmer in the Sky”, in which a knowledgeable character comments that the Patrol is too weak to withstand the pending collapse. It seems reasonable to infer that this is the Patrol to which he refers.

  5. William Ameling May 5, 2018 at 6:46 am #

    Except the newest ships in Farmer are a LOT more powerful (in terms of the tech they use, which is more like the ships we see in Time for the Stars, or an early version of it) than the ships we see in Space Cadet. Plus if Venus was habitable, they would not be trying so hard to colonize a moon of Jupiter. Venus as we see it in Space Cadet, would be a much more attractive candidate for human colonization. For that matter, if Humans could colonize Mars, that would be more attractive than a moon of Jupiter, which makes wonder why they are not colonizing Mars in Farmer in the Sky. Plus what the status of Mars is in Space Cadet.

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