Space Cadet by Robert A Heinlein
Originally published 1948, by Scribners.
ISBN: 978 1 897350 16 4
Review by Mark Yon
This is one of an ongoing series of rereads, as I work through the Virginia Editions of Heinlein’s novels.
Space Cadet was Heinlein’s second published novel, after Rocketship Galileo (reviewed here). It is seen as the second in Heinlein’s ‘juvenile novels’ that were written for a teenage and predominantly male readership.
These days the term Space Cadet is one of the most recognised in SF. The story is now easily summarised as ‘boy leaves home, goes into space, trains as a space cadet and becomes a spaceman’. This book in particular is perhaps better remembered as the inspiration for the television series, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.
Our hero is not Tom Corbett but Matthew (Matt) Brooks Dodson. Set in 2075, Matt is a farm-boy in Iowa who has always dreamed of travelling into space. When old enough, he applies to the Space Patrol. After entrance exams, he gets in and much of the book’s beginning is about Matt being away from home on the Earth-orbiting school, the PRS James Randolph, and being trained to cope with all the potential hazards of space. He becomes friends with William ‘Tex’ Jarman, Venerian Oscar Jensen, and Pierre (Pete) Armand from Ganymede, all worthwhile fellows, but gets on less well with Girard Burke, the haughty son of a wealthy spaceship builder.
Matt and his fellow trainees have to adapt to all sorts of crises – exams, zero gravity, education by hypnosis, meteorites in space, derelict spaceships, alien races – before being qualified to be space patrolmen.
Whilst on patrol Matt helps retrieve a derelict spaceship from the meteorite belt but then he and his colleagues are then sent to deal with a call for help on Venus.
OK: these days, the story isn’t that groundbreaking: even Harry Potter’s used something similar. But when first written it must have been quite exciting as a possible future for optimistic teenagers of the 1940’s and 1950’s. People genuinely thought after the devastation of WW2 that this was quite plausible. And here was Heinlein, showing the reader the way… at a time when no man-made satellites were in space, here was a tale thinking optimistically ahead, to a time when space travel was quite possible.
And Heinlein makes it sound as realistic as possible, using and explaining lots of scientific principles along the way to show how life would be different (and perhaps more exciting) in space. He was known for accuracy on such matters and the tales of Heinlein and his soon-to-be wife Virginia writing pages of calculations to make the story ‘just right’ deserve some credit. At times, this can come across as ‘info-dump’, though not as glaringly obvious as it could be. There are at times lists of the things that Matt and his fellow trainees have to be trained in, which can be quite clumsy but get their point across: you have to learn a lot to be a Space Patrolman.
The characters themselves are quite straightforward, as perhaps we might expect. Heinlein here was trying to extol the virtues of a disciplined, possibly military lifestyle, as his was when he was at Annapolis Naval Cadet School. This was a book designed to be an exciting read which also showed that ‘good guys get results’. Matt is the typical hero-figure, a likeable if rather idealistic moral character that makes his way via dint of good work. It’s clearly a YA book, as the prodigious use of “Gosh!” and “Golly!” shows.
Interestingly Heinlein’s politics here reflect ideas at the time, with the Space Patrol having a monopoly on nuclear weapons and being given powers by what we would now see as a World Government or the United Nations (which was created in 1945, just before the time of writing.) By having one multi-national, if not multi-planetary, force to govern with super-weapons, it removes the very real post-WW2 threat of individual countries using them for their own needs.
It also introduces the dilemma to Matt as to whether he could use atomic weapons on the United States if he had to. On Matt’s visit home to Earth, Matt’s father, in a wonderfully self-absorbed (some would say arrogant) manner, explains to the family that it would never happen in real life because ’For all practical purposes the other nations don’t count. A majority of the Patrol officers are from North America.’ (p103). Heinlein puts Matt in an interesting position whereby he, for the good of humanity, has to face that possibility, even when those outside the esprit of the corps do not. Heinlein’s view appears to be that the Patrol would do it, if they had to. Clearly, the politics here is ‘Starship-Trooper-light/lite’ but still here.
More subtly, Heinlein here was able to deal with issues of school life, such as bullying and corporal punishment, not to mention racism, because we have students here of other races, people of colour as well as of other planets. This would have been quite radical at the time. Less surprising is the relative non-inclusion of women/girls who, although they are mentioned occasionally, are generally seen as a distraction for these trainees. Whilst we would not be happy with such a choice today, it is perhaps understandable from a 1940’s perspective in that, like naval camp, girls didn’t go into space, and perhaps the publishers felt that such an inclusion would put off their target readership. Girls did read Heinlein, just not that many of them by comparison.
This doesn’t stop Heinlein playing with the genders a little, though. What Heinlein does that is most sneaky is make the Venerian leaders, scientists and medical staff that the crew meet all-female, as the males are allegedly kept separate, locked away somewhere else. It is the males who seemingly are less important on Venus. Talk about teenage boys seeing women as an alien species – here Heinlein achieves it, without making it obvious.
Sadly out of date, now, but acceptable at the time and consistent in Heinlein’s universe, was the depiction of Venus as a humid jungle-swamp planet, colonised despite considerable difficulties. When Matt and his fellow cadets are summoned to assist in a major crisis on Venus, their spaceship sinks into a sinkhole of mud and Matt and his team barely survive. They are clearly in a frontier-type environment, a point emphasised even more when they are captured by what would, in other pulp novels, probably be referred to as the indigenous natives. The similarities between this and the North American Indians of the United States is not a delicate one. However, eventually the Venerians are persuaded that the cadets are not there to mine their valuable radioactive ore and mean no harm, so are allowed to return to their colleagues.
The aliens themselves are interesting with Heinlein cleverly giving us hints about their culture and lifestyle as the cadet crew determine what to do in their captivity. Of course it does help that (rather conveniently) one of the cadets (Oscar) is from Venus and so can speak the local lingo. Things could’ve been much messier if there hadn’t been!
Although there are aspects that haven’t dated too well (we are looking a book over sixty years old!), I found this one to be much better than Rocketship Galileo. Heinlein was developing rapidly as a writer. Clearly knowing what was needed to keep his readership entertained, this is an exciting adventure tale that taps into all of the exciting possibilities of space that were inherent at the time of writing. Perhaps based on all the things that Heinlein admired as part of his own military training, it is also an optimistic view of the consequences of space exploration that we were supposed to have, through a student’s personal rite of passage, and is brave enough to tackle issues of culture and race at a time when such things were uncommon in fiction generally, never mind SF.
Whilst not entirely top-notch Heinlein, many of his themes recognised later are present (and will be revisited later in books such as Starship Troopers.) Whilst we may criticise it today for the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of the tale, there’s a lot here still to enjoy.
Mark Yon, August 2012