Review: Rocket Ship Galileo

3 Jun

It is actually quite hard to believe, in some ways, that Heinlein wrote Rocket Ship Galileo as it is quite different, in many ways, from his other juvenile books. It is quite evident, simply from a cursory look, that Heinlein was only just entering the juvenile market and he hadn’t figured out how to make such books actually work. It’s hard to see a logical progression from Rocket Ship Galileo to Space Cadet (his second juvenile) although this was probably not helped by me only reading Rocket Ship Galileo well after I’d read the others.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Rocket Ship Galileo works better than some of his other juvenile works.

Rocket Ship Galileo is set in the United States, probably somewhere around 1950. (There’s a reference to Roswell in the novel, which dates it after 1947.) Three teenage boys are experimenting with rockets when they are recruited by a scientist – who happens to be one of their uncles – to serve as his crew on an experimental rocket ship. After a brief struggle to convince their parents to allow them to go, they ready the ship for flight and set off to the moon. Their triumph at being the first men on the moon is rapidly spoilt when they discover they’re not the first after all … and their competitors are Nazis.

Nothing loathe, the boys turn the tables on their foes, capture the enemy base (built in the ruins of a long-gone lunar civilisation) and return to Earth, secure in the glory of having defeated a deadly threat and opened the stars to mankind.

Heinlein was not, at this point, the master he would later become. The three boys appear largely identical, save for one who carries a camera everywhere. And yet, they are recognisably teenage boys, from one moaning over how unfair it is that they will be penalised for an accident to another being unhappy that he didn’t get to do pilot training while his friend did. The scientist is a neat presentation of a scientist, although he is both more practical than most (he offers sensible advice to one of the boys) and dangerously irresponsible, in taking them on a lunar trip when they are unprepared for much of what they encounter (although no one would have really expected to run into Nazis.)

Indeed, the book can be dated by its attitude to such details. Written in 1947, between the Fall of Berlin and the moment when the Cold War became inevitable, it has an unusual view of the world, certainly when compared to Heinlein’s later books. In an era where fugitive Nazis were a potential threat – U-977 had sailed to Argentina after the end of the war, where it was speculated that she had landed escaped Nazi leaders before surrendering – Heinlein cannot be blamed for using them as his enemies. He avoids the trap of turning their relatively small lunar base into an immense threat, pointing out that even they have problems resupplying their redoubt. The book also features a UN Police, a relic of a time when even people like Heinlein believed the UN would turn into something worthwhile, and corporations being unwilling to risk investing money in the moon. You’d think they’d make back their investment by tourism alone. The existence of a lunar civilisation, albeit one that was already dead, was not disproved until later.

The plot, though, is more than a little cumbersome. There’s a brief plot involving spies that is dropped halfway through, never to be resurrected. Heinlein glossed over a lot of details that probably should have been mentioned. Building a rocket – and later equipping one – and obtaining atomics is apparently easy. The Nazis move from overwhelming threat to a much smaller threat, although this is lucky for the boys! One may think that this is their perceptions influencing events. The Nazis appeared more dangerous until they came to grips with them.

Heinlein did not win any diversity awards with this book. All four of the main characters and the bad guys are all male. The only woman of any note is one of the mothers, who points out to her husband that sons have to grow up sooner or later … and if they want to risk their lives, they have a right to risk their lives. Nor, for that matter, does Heinlein make any attempt to humanise the Nazis. He presents them as flat one-dimensional villains (including other things, one of the heroes relatives was forced to flee Germany) and rightly so.

It’s also a glimpse into the attitudes of a different time. Atomic power is treated with respect – the boys wear devices to warn them in case of an overdose – but not as a caged demon. The irrational fear of nuclear technology had yet to grip the Western psyche. No one seems concerned about the scientist launching an actual spacecraft, particularly one with an atomic drive. Nor does anyone care about the boys experimenting with rockets – something that would probably be frowned upon today – or even their age when the rocket takes off. The only person who does is a bureaucrat who is swiftly neutralised to keep him from interfering. In some ways, it was a better time … but then, not everyone would have agreed.

Most surprisingly of all, Heinlein praises American public education and schools. This is unique amongst Heinlein’s works, which rapidly grow dismissive of public education and praise characters who learn from their parents or on their own. But then, American – and western – education started a sharp decline shortly afterwards. Heinlein took note.

Oddly, it may well have had a greater influence on the genre than it seems. The ‘Nazis on the Moon’ plot may lead directly to Iron Sky, but I think it stopped along the way at W. A. Harbinson’s Projeckt Saucer books. (A rogue American genius helps the Nazis develop flying saucers, which are eventually based in Antarctica as part of a plot to take over the world.) How many others drew influence from this book?

Rocket Ship Galileo is nowhere near Heinlein’s best work. It has too many flaws, which Heinlein ironed out before he wrote his next juvenile. And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief – and knowledge – long enough to read, I think you’ll enjoy it.

One Response to “Review: Rocket Ship Galileo”

  1. Anarchymedes June 4, 2018 at 10:29 am #

    ‘Heinlein glossed over a lot of details that probably should have been mentioned.’
    And that, Chris, is the skill that you are yet to master, IMHO: glossing over the excessive details graciously, and saying more with fewer words. None of your novels that I’ve read needs to be over 100,000 words: in the old days, the limit for a sci-fi novel was 80,000-90,000 words (unless you were a well-known master of the genre whose books were guaranteed to be worthy of the expenses: then, of course, the publisher would make an exception for you). I know it’s not important for e-books, but still: repeating the same thing over and over again instead of saying it once and moving on; explaining away every episode, instead of letting the reader’s imagination fill the unavoidable gaps when multiple plotlines unfold at the same time… This kind of writing was more common in the 19th century, when the average reader’s imagination was not as vivid – and the knowledge not as extensive – as now. This makes me, for example, now and then just leaf through several pages of the book, cursing and muttering to myself, ‘Get to the f@#&ing point!’ Just as it was when I read the original Three Musketeers…
    I’m sorry if I come out rude or offensive, and I apologise in advance (besides, your Hyperspace Trap seems a lot better, having avoided at least some of these literary-space traps). Also, we’re not in the court of law, so I don’t want to get technical and dig up an example proving every point I try to make. On the other hand, you yourself have many times stressed the importance of feedback – so, here goes.
    And if you want an example of someone who has mastered these skills – that is, apart from the classics like Roger Zelazny and Alfred Bester – check out Marko Kloos and his Frontlines series.

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