Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Adventure classics -- When a space suit is your best friend

Have Space Suit -- Will Travel

by Robert A. Heinlein


“She asked me to suggest an artist,” Robert A. Heinlein wrote of an book editor, “then wrote me back that (my suggestion) was ‘too closely associated with a rather cheap magazine’ -- meaning John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. To prove her point she sent me tear sheets from the magazine. It so happened that the story she picked to send me was one of my stories. . . I wondered if she knew that my reputation had been gained in that same ‘cheap’ magazine. . . .”

It was 1949, and Heinlein had become the first writer of science fiction to break out of the ghetto of pulp magazines -- first in the pages of prestigious Saturday Evening Post, then with what his wife Virginia called “books for boys” -- a series of science fiction aimed at teen audiences that soon became the darling of librarians.

Heinlein wrote to his agent that he chuckled over the snobbishness of the editor, whose name Virginia diplomatically excised from the posthumous volume of her husband’s letters, Grumbles From the Grave.

The dichotomy -- pulp writer versus literary writer -- was among those that would dog Heinlein’s life, a series of plot twists and reversals worthy of one of his own novels.

Heinlein’s leap to Saturday Evening Post from the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, whose legendary editor John Campbell had nurtured his early career, would cost him Campbell’s friendship. A bout with tuberculosis would end his promising career as a naval officer -- but open one in writing. And his political views -- exactly how did he get from an Upton Sinclair brand of socialism to the far right of the spectrum?

His 1958 classic, Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, was the last (or by some counts next to last) entry in his “books for boys” series. It’s also the most fun, although his readers (or their parents) may have detected looming paranoia in Heinlein’s satire of the high school education of his hero, Clifford “Kip” Russell, whose classes include “applied English (the class had picked ‘slogan writing’ which was fun)” Kip tells his father.

(Heinlein’s paranoia had become the nation’s by that time. You had to have lived through the late 1950’s to appreciate the horror over the gap in scientific achievement Americans felt when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, the October before Have Space Suit -- Will Travel was published.)

Heinlein’s own technical skills (he earned a degree in engineering as a naval cadet) propel the story as Kip renovates the used but authentic space suit he wins in a -- wait for it -- slogan writing contest, is kidnapped by bad guy extraterrestrial “wormfaces”, and after multiple escapes and recaptures assists in the legal defense of Earth against an inter-galactic legal panel. (Are Earthlings too savage to live? The panel postpones a decision, although possibly it reconvened to render the “mostly harmless” verdict of last week’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

I’ve got to admit, as a twenty-first century reader I felt squeamish about Heinlein’s sexism. Despite Kip’s little girl prodigy sidekick Peewee and a maternal (but not exactly female) extraterrestrial he calls “The Mother Thing,” most 1950’s era sex roles were firmly in place.

And although, like any teenager with an immature frontal cortex, Kip thinks his biggest triumph is trumping the local soda shop bully back on Earth, the sequences of his hallucinatory, near-death discussions with the renovated space suit he dubbed “Oscar,” are among the most heroic sequences in fiction, either for young people or adults. May all of us have a friend as wise.

For more about Heinlein's legacy, see

(And about the movie version of Have Space Suite -- Will Travel. Rumors abound. I hate to say it, but this year’s Ender’s Game precludes any other big screen science fiction releases until next summer, if ever. I could be wrong, but not in this galaxy.)

(Next Wednesday -- Enough fun, games, and end of the planet! Margaret Atwood scares us to death with her perhaps not so distant dystopian vision, The Handmaid’s Tale.)

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