Retro Review: Have Space Suit Will Travel

13 May

In hindsight, it is clear that I had a far more favourable impression of Have Space Suit, Will Travel when I was a child than after my reread. Have Space Suit is one of the more innovative and wide-ranging of Heinlein’s juveniles, but it has its limits. The child reader may enjoy the story without noticing the unfortunate implications, for better or worse; the adult reader does not have that luxury. Indeed, Have Space Suit is perhaps the single one of Heinlein’s juveniles that has not aged well, at least for me.

Which is a shame, because it is a ripping good yarn.

The plot focuses around all-American teenager Kip Russell, who enters a competition to win a flight to the moon. Kip, having gone to considerable lengths to win his prize, is unamused to discover that he’s been beaten to the punch by someone who had the same idea (for an advertising jingle) first. However, for better or worse, Kip does win the runner-up prize; an old – and genuine – spacesuit. Being a bit of a tinkerer, in a way frankly alien to most children and teenagers these days, Kip promptly starts repairing the suit. A few months later, he is the proud possessor of a working space suit, which he names ‘Oscar.’ This makes him a figure of fun about the town, mainly by the local town bully.

Going out for a walk in his suit, Kip accidentally flags down a flying saucer. The craft in question is being flown by Peewee Reisfeld, an eleven-year-old genius/brat, and the Mother Thing, an alien of uncertain origins. Unfortunately for all three of them, Peewee and the Mother Thing are on the run … and Kip has accidentally given their enemies a chance to catch up with them. Kip gets snatched by the kidnappers, who turn out to be quislings working for a very hostile alien race. Kip promptly dubs them ‘wormfaces.’ The aliens have a base on the moon, which is where they kidnapped Peewee. They apparently want to use her to get to her father, a genius scientist.

Kip would be more thrilled to be on the moon if he wasn’t a prisoner and the three start planning a series of escapes. Each escape nearly works, but inevitably ends up with them in worse trouble (and the quislings turned into alien food) until Kip, though a daring adventure, manages to signal the Mother Thing’s people. The good news is that the Mother Thing’s people have no trouble whatsoever in handling the wormfaces, the bad news is that they want to put humanity on trial for being a grievously savage race … sorry, for being potentially dangerous. Kip and Peewee find themselves having to defend the human race in court, eventually convincing the aliens that humanity is a young race and will grow up in time.

The kids get sent back to Earth where, for once, they manage to convince the grown-ups that they had a real adventure. Kip wins a scholarship to MIT and the promise of further adventures to come … and he also scores one over the town bully.

I cannot help, but wonder if Have Space Suit is Heinlein’s tribute to Doc Smith. The pulpy aspects of the story are played up for all its worth, from a hero who is both extremely competent and oddly unsure of himself to alien super-technology and powerful mentalities as far above us as we are above ants. The solar system may be more modern – there are no intelligent races on Mars or Venus – but otherwise the story is vast, rather than focused. And yet, the story also includes a great deal of engineering detail. Heinlein’s space suit is extremely realistic, as are Kip’s calculations as he tries to work out where he is this time. Indeed, I’d say that Heinlein overdid it.

Kip himself is more average – or at least he thinks he is – than the standard hero of Heinlein’s juveniles. He does not have a brilliant mind, an eye for opportunity or a perfect memory. He is all too aware that he isn’t bright enough to go to college, let alone outer space. And yet, he is pretty much the unstoppable man. Kip never gives up, even when faced with alien overlords and super-powerful alien races. Given poor schooling – by this point, Heinlein was thoroughly sick of American schools – Kip learns on his own. His response to a challenge is to try to think of a way to overcome it. Unlike the collaborators, who give up when faced with the wormfaces, Kip keeps trying.

In some ways, Kip is an archetypical teenager from a bygone age. He is a tinkerer, constantly working to repair and improve his spacesuit; neither he nor his family has any real doubts about the wisdom of allowing a teenager to work with some very dangerous compounds, even explosives. In this sad age, it is very difficult to repair a personal computer – although the time of the tinkerer may be coming back – and anyone who experiments with a 1960s chemical set would be at risk of being arrested for domestic terrorism. Have Space Suit is often harder to follow because much of Kip’s life is alien to me. Heinlein would grow better, in the future, at presenting an alien time in a way I could understand.

Kip is contrasted with Ace – a typical small-town jackass/bully, whose role in the story is thankfully limited – and Peewee. The latter may be one of Heinlein’s better female characters, at least partly because she is still a child. And yet, Kip finds her very annoying at first, unsurprisingly. (He notes, fairly early on, that little girls who were geniuses should have the grace not to show it.) Peewee grows on both Kip and the reader as the story progresses, with Kip eventually coming to regard her as a little sister. This would probably not have worked so well if Peewee happened to be older.

Ace does little for the plot, besides providing a reason for Kip to contemplate homicide, but Heinlein does use him to illustrate a point that is often overlooked. After Ace is banned from the drugstore for heckling, Kip protests that Ace is harmless. His boss has other ideas:

“I wonder how harmless such people are? To what extent civilization is retarded by the laughing jackasses, the empty-minded belittlers?”

Heinlein does not draw this point out as much as I might wish, but it is fundamentally true. How many people go through life being harassed for being nerds? Or penalised for daring to try to climb out of the ethnic ghetto? Or simply for not fitting in? How many great minds have been lost to us because their owners simply gave up? Heinlein deserves credit for trying to teach us that lesson, again and again. And yet, we never seem to remember it.

Have Space Suit, like most of the juveniles, manages to sneak a great deal of social commentary into its text. Kip’s father has very clear views on the value of ‘modern’ schooling – valueless. I’d like to say that the assignment that prompts Kip’s father to tell Kip to learn on his own is fictional, but I’ve seen stupider essay questions in more modern schoolrooms. How is a ‘family council’ organised indeed? Kip’s school isn’t as bad as modern schools, or even the schools Heinlein would portray later, but it is a complete failure at its role. Ace proves that as much as Kip himself.

It also has an early round of ‘fake news,’ when Kip is invited to go on television. His answers are cut off and replaced with a set of canned answers, which are promptly mocked by the gullible townspeople … who believe that Kip actually said them. It’s an interesting lesson on just how easy it was, even then, to misrepresent someone … and how hard it can be to recover one’s reputation.

But perhaps the most important lesson is that while might doesn’t make right, it does tend to determine what actually happens. I never liked the Mother-Thing, not least because Peewee sang her praises in a manner that reminded me of the Demon Headmaster, and her people are cold judgemental monsters. (Peewee calls them bullies and she’s right.) They have no moral right to pass judgement on either the wormfaces or humanity, a point the wormfaces themselves make, but the simple fact is that they have the power. Might, as Heinlein would write later, has settled more questions than anything else in recorded history. The idea that white settlers were wrong to push the Native Americans to the brink of genocide is a relatively new one. Indeed, the West is perhaps the only civilisation that questions itself on that score.

And yet, as Kip notes, there are some threats that simply have to be removed:

That was my chance to be noble. We humans were [the wormfaces’] victims; we were in a position to speak up, point out that from their standpoint they hadn’t done anything wrong, and ask mercy-if they would promise to behave in the future. Well, I didn’t. I’ve heard all the usual Sweetness and Light that kids get pushed at them-how they should always forgive, how there’s some good in the worst of us, etc. But when I see a black widow, I step on it; I don’t plead with it to be a good little spider and please stop poisoning people. A black widow spider can’t help it-but that’s the point.”

It’s striking, looking back at the book as an adult, just how much values dissonance there actually is. Kip experimenting with explosives is, in many ways, the least of it; the drugstore owner and doctor who casually hand out pills that wouldn’t be available today (at least not without a prescription) is strikingly out of place. Kip’s father – who seems to have a somewhat variable background – is noted as having been a university professor who married his best student, not something that would go unremarked today. And while Kip’s mother doesn’t appear much in the text, there is no suggestion that she continued her studies after getting married. (A more charitable view of the facts is that they met at university, then married later.) Indeed, Peewee’s father hints that Kip and Peewee will start a relationship when they’re older. It isn’t something I can imagine any decent father doing, although – to be fair – the text does imply that he’s somewhat neglectful. What sort of man sends his daughter to the moon on her own?

And yet, despite those issues, Have Space Suit is still a fun little story, a testament to the depths of Heinlein’s imagination, a glimpse into a vanished world, an ode to the idealised American teenager …

… And a fitting homage to the pulp fiction of Heinlein’s era.

6 Responses to “Retro Review: Have Space Suit Will Travel”

  1. Ann May 14, 2018 at 5:23 am #

    Fortunately I read it as a young teen and not again. I do recall it being a bit preachy.

  2. Juan Suros May 14, 2018 at 6:44 am #

    I think you may be missing a beat on Kip here. I never read the book as saying that Kip wasn’t bright enough to go to college. It seemed more that his eccentric father never pushed it and he never thought his family could afford it. This is combined with the message, from Kip’s father’s mouth, that the educational system is teaching and ranking students on nothing interesting or important.
    Then at the end of the book we get the twist where Peewee’s dad, a prominent and politically connected scientist, reveals that Kip’s father is a super genius who married his most brilliant student, so he isn’t surprised that Kip is smarter than his own bright daughter (Peewee).
    I also liked the”Father-thing” and the discussion of “baby things”, who show up for two seconds each but hint at a full alien culture with remarkable economy of writing.

  3. William Ameling May 14, 2018 at 8:09 am #

    Actually, I think he was fairly far down the runner up list which also took into account when the suggestion was made, and he made LOTS of suggestions (hundreds at least).

    Actually his father was an extremely high level genius in a lot of demand in his field (before he retired) and thought the the normal school system was not teaching his son enough. We also found out at the end of the book that his father had bought an college education policy for him when he was fairly young. His father also retired in order to raise his son in a more normal manner than the way he was getting as a young child. In addition his Mother was his Father’s best student and very intelligent as well.

  4. Dani May 14, 2018 at 11:12 pm #

    The examples of values given in the review would not – and presumably did not – disturb readers sixty years ago, so the problem is that they will disturb someone reading the book today. But, from a modern perspective, the values in books from a century or two ago are further removed from today’s – and we enjoy the best of those books. Perhaps the problem is less that the values in HSWT haven’t aged well and more that they are at the core of the novel, so it is harder for the reader to just focus on the story.

    To put it another way, if someone set out to rewrite Heinlein’s novels so as to appeal to modern readers, HSWT might be one of the books that doesn’t make the transition.

    • chrishanger May 20, 2018 at 7:52 pm #

      It probably could. But it would be a brave man who tried


  5. Bill May 21, 2018 at 5:48 am #

    I think I have read all of Heinlein’s books, to me “Friday” was one of his best.

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