Review: The Star Beast

5 Jun

So be yourself, Knothead, and have the courage to make your own mess of your life. Don’t imitate somebody else’s mess.

-The Star Beast

I was actually reluctant to pick up The Star Beast again for the reread, although my memory of the book from when I first read it was nowhere near good enough to write a review. The Star Beast was my favourite Heinlein, back when I was a kid, and I didn’t want to have those pleasant memories tainted by a reread that would reveal issues I missed when I was younger and less cynical. Thankfully, The Star Beast is Heinlein at the top of his game, a story that is alternatively humorous and deadly serious; a story that, in so many ways, pleases both adults and children alike. If you never read any other books by Heinlein, read The Star Beast.

In what appears, at first, to be present-day America, a young boy – John Thomas – lives with his widowed mother and Lummox, an alien pet of unknown origins. (Apparently, Lummox was smuggled onto Earth by John’s grandfather, a deep-space explorer who later vanished somewhere in the interstellar gulf.) Unfortunately, Lummox eats practically anything, ranging from a pet dog and prize roses to iron, steel and a car. To add insult to injury, ‘he’ is effectively indestructible. After Lummox’s latest hungry rampage, the townspeople want the beast destroyed before it can do more damage. John finds himself doing battle in court, aided by his girlfriend Betty, knowing that he might have to sell Lummox to the zoo before the beast can be killed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a harassed UN bureaucrat – Mr. Kiku – finds himself confronted with a demand from a powerful alien race, passed through an alien interpreter-intermediary. The aliens believe that Earth is harbouring a missing princess from their world and they want her back, or else. They threaten to destroy the planet if the princess is not found and, as far as anyone can tell, they are perfectly capable of backing up that threat. Every alien race seems to be scared of them.

Eventually, the two plotlines converge. Lummox is revealed to be the alien princess, just in time to keep her from being killed by angry locals. The UN is ready to return her to her people, but there’s a hitch. Lummox has been enjoying raising human children and wants her latest pets, John and Betty – referred to rather explicitly as a breeding pair – to accompany her. And so, once diplomatic relations are established and there is a hasty marriage, John and Betty find themselves on their way to the alien homeworld. It is, for all four of the main characters, a happy ending.

It really is astonishing to see just how much Heinlein crammed into a relatively short book, almost all of it focused around growing up and accepting responsibility. John Thomas accepts responsibility for Lummox and steps out of his mother’s shade, Betty accepts responsibility for John and Lummox accepts her responsibility to her people (although both Betty and Lummox scheme to get what they want out of the deal.) Even Mr. Kiku, who is an adult when the story opens, has his moments, successfully overcoming his horror of an alien ambassador’s snake-like form.

Indeed, the story shows all of humanity growing up. Humanity is a young race, despite it’s apparent importance in the local sector (shades of Babylon 5) and it still has problems with racism and xenophobia, although human-on-human racism appears to have been left in the past with the discovery of actual aliens. The KKK has been replaced with the Keep Earth Human League, which is one of the groups demanding that Lummox be destroyed. Heinlein neatly undermines racist agreements by allowing them to be made (rather than silenced) then pointing out the problems:

““Order, please,” Greenberg said mildly. “We have here another petition [for Lummox’s destruction], but for different reasons.” He held up the one submitted by the Keep Earth Human League. “This court finds itself unable to follow the alleged reasoning. Petition denied.””

The core of the story rests on the three human characters: John, Betty and Mr. Kiku. John is a solid, steadfast boy, the idealised American teenage boy. He isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but he has a hard core of honour and true devotion to his friends. It is his misfortune that he spent most of his life without a father figure, leading to endless conflicts with his mother and the development of a mild form of misogyny. (This is far from uncommon: men who have to deal with an overbearing female figure, in their youth, often develop misogynist traits that can be quite hard to overcome.) He likes Betty, but he is unwilling to allow her to lead him by the nose too far. And he isn’t actually wrong in his arguments. He knows what he wants – which isn’t what his mother wants for him – and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. This stubbornness sometimes gets him in trouble:

He had pointed out that he could not get the courses he wanted at State U. Betty had insisted that he could and had looked up references to prove her point. He had rebutted by saying that it was not the name of a course that mattered, but who taught it. The discussion had fallen to pieces when she had refused to concede that he was an authority.”

Betty, by contrast, is a great deal smarter than John. She’s certainly a great deal more imaginative. She cheerfully sets herself up as Lummox and John’s defender when they are forced to go to court and comes very close to winning the case, until her case is (accidentally) spoilt by Lummox himself. (Ironically, as one of the adults notes, it might have been better for all concerned if Betty had lost, as there were already plans to take Lummox to safety.) But then, Betty has no reason to trust adults. She divorced her parents – we aren’t told why, but John found the reasoning convincing – and fights like a tiger for her cause. In many ways, she is the most competent female character in Heinlein’s juveniles. Where John is straightforward, Betty is cunning and perfectly capable of working her way around a problem until she finds a way to overcome it. She also has a talent for cutting to the heart of the matter that most teenagers lack, as well as an eye for a good man. It’s clear she’s interested in John – and they marry at the end of the book – well before John himself realises this.

Mr. Kiku is older and wiser than the two teenagers, although he is a bureaucrat (a rare positive presentation of bureaucrats by an author who tended to regard them as pointless parasites). He is from Kenya and, while his race is never clearly stated, it’s clear from text evidence that he’s black. At one point, he mulls that he no longer has to worry about racism because the racists now have aliens to hate; at another, he tells the story of how his distant ancestors thought they could destroy the invaders, until they ran up against an ‘outside context problem’ in the form of machine guns. Mr. Kiku spends most of his time trying to keep his superiors happy while smoothing out interstellar diplomatic problems and looking for a successor. He is the first person to wonder if there is a connection between Lummox and the missing princess, although – for what seem like valid reasons – it looks unlikely at the start.

Indeed, Mr. Kiku may be the smartest person in the book. At one point, he offers good advice to John, Betty and John’s mother, ranging from dryly advising them never to take anything written in a newspaper at face value to telling John’s mother that her son is already rebelling against her and, the more she tries to mould him, the more he will resist. At another, he resists the suggestion that the government should pay attention to a proto-SJW mob, pointing out that giving in to the mob and paying Danegeld means that they will never get rid of them:

Any organization calling itself “The Friends of This or That” always consisted of someone with an axe to grind, plus the usual assortment of prominent custard heads and professional stuffed shirts. But such groups could be a nuisance . . . therefore never grant them the Danegeld they demanded.”

Much of the book’s humour rests in the courtroom antics, as various ‘concerned personages’ push for Lummox’s destruction. The use of a lie detector reveals that one old biddy – a Mrs Grundy-type – provided exaggerated and dramatised testimony, allowing Betty to make a case that many of the petitioners are motivated by spite. (Heinlein was all too aware of the flaws of small-town America, even though he also idealised it.) And yet, other petitioners raise a serious point: if Lummox is not responsible for his actions, if John Thomas is not responsible, if no one is responsible … then who pays? Who compensates the people who have suffered real and serious losses because of Lummox? And can you reasonably blame them for wanting Lummox gone if his mere presence is a liability?

Heinlein was careful to ensure that no one, with the possible exception of the spiteful Mrs. Donahue, is presented as acting from malice. Being unaware of certain pieces of data, data they have no reason to possess, they draw the wrong conclusions. Their narratives are flawed, but not – based on what they knew at the time – wrong. The people who want Lummox gone have good reasons, even the KEHL. And John’s mother, presented as an overbearing harpy, only wants what is best for her son. She goes about it very poorly, in a manner that will either drive John away or crush him, but she isn’t motivated by malice.

That said, the book also presents a contrast between childish and adult views of the world. John sees the issue in simple terms, issues of right and wrong; John’s mother – and most of the other adults – see things as being more complex (like the issue of who pays for the damages, mentioned above.) Mr. Kiku does his level best to keep his superiors from becoming too involved in diplomatic matters, fearing that they will be influenced by emotions (and others who are emotional) and thus make resolving diplomatic issues impossible. This has an uneasy resonance in our world, where people demand quick solutions and refuse to accept that some matters are more complicated than they appear and, therefore, don’t have simple answers.

It’s interesting to see how Heinlein blurred our world, one that would be recognisable to a teenager from his era, with a futuristic universe. It isn’t quite as oddly alien as the universe of Have Space Suit, Will Travel or flat-out futuristic as Citizen of the Galaxy: indeed, in many ways, The Star Beast escapes most values dissonance. The small-town America blends well with the interstellar travel and the existence of aliens. The world of The Star Beast is familiar enough to be comforting, even with fifty years of hindsight, and different enough to be fantastic. Heinlein also got quite a few things right about the future, including celebrity politicians and spokespeople and mass campaigns that predated Cecil the Lion by decades.

Yet, at the same time, it has some odd moments. When Betty suggests that she and John (and Lummox) go camping together:

John Thomas looked at her reprovingly. “And get me talked about all over town? No, thanks.”

“Don’t be prissy. We’re here now, aren’t we?”

“This is an emergency.”

“You and your nice-nice reputation!”

“Well, somebody ought to watch such things. Mum says that boys had to start worrying when girls quit. She says things used to be different.”

Heinlein was well aware, of course, that girls had to watch their reputations. A girl of his era who got pregnant out of wedlock would be in deep trouble, something he would explore in most of his later books. It’s an interesting switch here, one that – again – has an uneasy echo in our society. Mike Pence was roundly mocked for the ‘Pence Rule’ – never be alone with a woman who isn’t your wife – and he was accused of making life harder for professional women, but in the wake of #METOO it’s clear Pence will have the last laugh.

The Star Beast also touches, briefly, upon cultural differences, both human and alien. It is hard to get a picture of Lummox from her race, because they don’t have photographs (which is unfortunate, as the near-destruction of Earth could have been averted if someone had a photograph to work from.) Her race, indeed, has a massive superiority complex and an isolationist streak, one that may be about to end. Meanwhile, on Earth, Betty responds to Mr. Kiku’s arranged marriage with horror. Slavery, she calls it. (And her reaction makes you wonder precisely what her parents did to force her to divorce them.)

In many ways, I would recommend The Star Beast to anyone worried about toxic masculinity, as Heinlein captured the male mindset – particularly in its teenage form – very well. John reacts badly to people pushing him to do things, from his mother to the police chief to a zookeeper who wants to buy Lummox. They might have right on their side, but it weighs poorly against emotion. Loyalty to friends is a strongly male virtue, one that is highly prized; John could not sell Lummox, or let him be destroyed, without feeling as if he’d done something terribly wrong. The absence of a father figure in his life doesn’t really help, although John doesn’t go really off the rails. And yet, he feels pushed into a final desperate bid to save his friend even though cold logic should tell him it’s useless. John is a hero because he keeps trying. He never gives up.

There are many lessons in The Star Beast, from the importance of standing up for one’s friends (John, Betty and Lummox all stand up for each other) to the importance of standing your ground diplomatically and the need to be aware of cultural issues that may lead to outright war. And as these issues are timeless, the book is timeless too. It is a fun read that will leave you with much to ponder, as well as being clean.

Like I said, this is the best of Heinlein’s juveniles. Go read it.


5 Responses to “Review: The Star Beast”

  1. MishaBurnett June 5, 2018 at 1:29 pm #

    This is one of my favorite novels, still. I have the audiobook and it’s one of my go-to listens when I’m feeling out of sorts. I do find it interesting that you don’t mention Serge Greenberg, who is a great character. The Greenberg/Kiku relationship is another variation of the same theme as the others.

    • George Phillies June 5, 2018 at 9:35 pm #

      I have the vague impression form the conversation you quoted that in this future it is the boy’s reputation, not the girl’s reputation, that is in danger if they go camping together. Heinlein makes this very understated.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 5, 2018 at 9:49 pm #


        On the other hand, in RAH’s time (especially for small towns) his reputation would be just as endangered as hers. So it could be argued that he’s reminding her that his reputation would be in danger even if she’s ignoring the danger to her reputation.

        While guys at that time had a bit more sexual freedom than girls, there would still be something said if a guy was known to have gone out alone with a girl.

        “Who knows what that healthy teen-aged boy was up to with that girl”. 😉

    • chrishanger June 18, 2018 at 8:01 am #

      Good point. I’ll add it to the book.


  2. Charles Harris June 7, 2018 at 12:51 am #

    One of my favorites also, although I’ve read reviews that rate it as inferior Heinlein. I think it also shows Heinlein’s tendency of idealize women 😉 Heinlein women are not good preparation for the real world.

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