Introduction: Exploring the Frontiers of Science Fiction
In this captivating bi-weekly series, we delve into the timeless realm of classic science fiction and fantasy literature. Join me, Alan Brown, as we embark on a literary odyssey, venturing into uncharted territories filled with soldiers, spacers, scientists, engineers, explorers, and adventurers. Prepare yourself for captivating tales brimming with alarums and excursions—a spectacle of battles, chases, clashes, and heart-pounding excitement.
Gateway to Infinite Possibilities
Science fiction has always been the gateway to boundless imagination—a world of endless potential awaiting our eager minds. These books hold a special place in our hearts, as they often serve as our first step into a universe of limitless possibilities. Experienced during our impressionable youth, these books leave an indelible mark on our souls, shaping our passion for exploration and discovery throughout our lives. As a child, one such gateway for me was the “juvenile” series by Robert A. Heinlein. Among them, the story that captivated me most began with a young boy collecting coupons from soap wrappers—a seemingly mundane act that thrust him into a cosmic adventure. Clad in his spacesuit, our young hero, Clifford “Kip” Russell, embarks on a perilous quest intertwined with the fate of humanity itself.
I vividly recall my first encounter with “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel,” though the exact edition eludes my memory. Perhaps it was a library copy, or maybe I stumbled upon it in a bookstore. Regardless, the book’s cover failed to entice me, depicting the protagonist donning his spacesuit against a backdrop of the Earth, while other characters floated around him in peculiar shades of green. Notably absent was the main female protagonist, as if the artist believed young boys would shy away from a book featuring a girl. Fortunately, we were spared the sight of her disembodied, greenish head. However, a truly remarkable cover emerged in the serialized version published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Alongside “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel,” I also immersed myself in two other Heinlein juveniles at that time: “Tunnel in the Sky” and “Citizen of the Galaxy.” While most childhood books fade from memory, these three left an indelible imprint on my mind—I could still recall the vibrant characters, captivating settings, and thrilling action.
About the Author and His Juvenile Series
Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988), an iconic figure in 20th-century science fiction, remains one of the genre’s most influential wordsmiths. Revered both within and beyond the science fiction community, Heinlein’s stories graced the pages of notable publications such as Astounding, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and even the Saturday Evening Post. He even co-wrote the script for George Pal’s renowned film, “Destination Moon.”
In 1947, Heinlein sold his novel “Rocket Ship Galileo” to Charles Scribner’s Sons. This marked the beginning of a series of twelve juvenile science fiction novels, specifically crafted for young boys. From 1947 to 1958, Heinlein gifted readers with a procession of captivating tales, including “Space Cadet,” “Red Planet,” “Farmer in the Sky,” “Between Planets,” “The Rolling Stones,” “Starman Jones,” “The Star Beast,” “Tunnel in the Sky,” “Time for the Stars,” “Citizen of the Galaxy,” and, of course, “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel.” Although immensely popular, Heinlein often clashed with his publisher regarding suitable subject matter for young readers. His stories boldly thrust young protagonists into adult situations, encompassing wars, revolutions, and cataclysms. However, his thirteenth book, “Starship Troopers,” proved too intense for Scribner’s and was subsequently published by another house. Unfettered by the constraints of the juvenile market, Heinlein went on to produce some of his finest literary works, including “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and “Glory Road.” While technically not part of the juvenile series, “Podkayne of Mars” carried forward a beloved non-SF female character created by Heinlein. Published in 1963 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, it arrived after the Scribner’s juvenile series had run its course.
While the juvenile series diverges from Heinlein’s more structured Future History, subtle similarities persist throughout. Recently, my son and I undertook the endeavor of reading all the juveniles we had missed. I discovered that many of these books presented rather grim settings. Although Heinlein envisioned humanity’s expansion into the Solar System and beyond, he frequently warned of the Malthusian threat of unchecked population growth, predicting that calamities and wars would inevitably intervene. He portrayed increasingly totalitarian governments and posited the frontiers as the sole realm where individual freedom could thrive. Moreover, these early works offered intriguing glimpses into his future tales. Notably, the enigmatic Martians in “Red Planet” shared striking resemblances to those encountered in “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
The social contexts prevalent in the juveniles can be jarring to contemporary readers. Clichéd family dynamics, with fathers assuming the role of breadwinners and household rulers, and mothers obedient, passive, and nurturing, clash with modern sensibilities. While the male protagonists clearly reach adolescence, they exhibit an indifference towards females more typical of pre-pubescent boys. It remains unclear whether these portrayals were publisher-imposed, as Heinlein himself held more liberal views on gender roles. Nonetheless, the juveniles excel in creating believable futures and populate their narratives with relatable characters. To young readers, the challenges faced by these protagonists serve as thrilling escapades, presenting models of self-reliance and empowerment. Consequently, these tales endure in our memories, long after “safer” entertainment aimed at youth fades away.
Have Spacesuit—Will Travel: An Extraordinary Journey Begins
Let us now embark on the mesmerizing journey of “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel,” which recently captivated me anew through a full cast audio rendition by Full Cast Audio. A senior at Centerville High School, our protagonist, Kip, yearns to travel to the moon. Despite humanity establishing orbital stations and lunar outposts, such aspirations remain easier said than done. With limited prospects of attending a prestigious college, Kip toils as a soda jerk at a local pharmacy. Realizing that only a chosen few, even those at the pinnacle of their respective fields, would ever set foot on the moon, Kip devises a unique method to fulfill his dream—a soap slogan contest promising a free lunar trip. Collecting wrappers for the contest, Kip becomes the target of ridicule from Ace Quiggle, the neighborhood bully.
Although Kip fails to emerge victorious in the contest, another prize soon finds its way into his hands—a surplus spacesuit in functional condition. Driven by his lifelong passion for tinkering, Kip is captivated by the suit, resolving to restore it to its former glory. Heinlein’s masterful storytelling ensures that this restoration process does not become a mere exposition. Instead, we experience it through Kip’s eyes, relishing the adventure and discovery as he unveils the suit’s secrets.
After meticulously restoring, mastering, and even christening the suit “Oscar,” Kip realizes that keeping it would serve no practical purpose. He decides to sell it to fund his college education. But before parting ways, Kip takes the suit for a final spin under the night sky, traversing the nearby fields. During this solitary excursion, Kip uses his radio to conduct imaginary calls, only to be astonished when a young girl named Peewee responds. Coincidentally, Peewee is in desperate need of help, her voice crackling through the radio’s speakers. Unbeknownst to Kip, extraterrestrial forces loom nearby—ships piloted by malevolent aliens, aided by two renegade humans—who have kidnapped Peewee, daughter of a renowned scientist, to leverage her father’s influence. Miraculously, a being known as the “Mother Thing” tries to rescue Peewee but ends up as another captive. The Moon becomes the unlikely backdrop for Kip’s ultimate aspiration, albeit in a manner he could never have fathomed. Escaping their confinement, Kip and Peewee encounter an abandoned ship, the Mother Thing, and their trusty spacesuits. Kip ingeniously makes room for the Mother Thing within his suit, and together they embark on a perilous journey to the nearest human outpost—a breathtaking episode that ranks among the most riveting in science fiction literature. Heinlein’s achievement shines brighter when we realize that at the time of writing, the notion of spacesuits and moon exploration resided solely in the minds of engineers and scientists. Kip and Peewee face countless challenges, employing adhesive tape and ingenuity to overcome incompatible gas bottles with screw-jointed bayonets. These valiant efforts, however, prove futile as they are recaptured, whisked away to Pluto—the Wormfaces’ primary stronghold within the Solar System. There, Kip and Oscar confront trials making their earlier lunar expedition seem like a leisurely stroll.
With each subsequent stage of the story, Heinlein propels us into increasingly bizarre and wondrous situations. Unburdened by the constraints of a fixed future history, Heinlein reshapes humanity’s position in the universe, leaving readers disoriented, even dizzy, with the revelations contained within these pages. While science fiction often unveils strange and marvelous worlds, “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel” stands apart as one of the earliest works that shattered my perceptions, leaving me awestruck.
On Chivalry and Its Manifestations
I wholeheartedly endorse introducing young readers to “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel.” However, it is vital to accompany this experience with a thoughtful discussion on gender roles. As mentioned earlier, the Heinlein juveniles often present archaic portrayals of these roles, which had already begun to fade even during the books’ inception. Kip’s passive mother, for instance, fades into the background, reduced to a mere backdrop rather than a fully realized character. While Peewee exhibits extraordinary agency, occasional statements imply that such behavior is unbecoming of a young girl. In contrast, Kip personifies the virtues traditionally associated with masculinity, diligently fulfilling his role as a chivalrous knight. Encountering Peewee, he instinctively takes it upon himself to protect her at all costs, even if it means sacrificing his life. However, in Heinlein’s intricate tapestry, Kip’s internal musings often incorporate tales of knights and heroes, evidencing his deep-seated reverence for these archetypes. Yet, concerning chauvinistic attitudes, only a few pages after pledging to lay down his life for Peewee, Kip threatens her with corporal punishment. Grappling with these conflicting portrayals highlights a challenge facing older tales—how do we separate the sexism embedded in these concepts from the enduring virtues that still hold value in our society? How do we reconcile principles like “women and children first” in a world where women stand side by side with men on the battlefield?
We must continue to introduce stories like “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel” to young minds. However, we also need to engage in vital conversations, confronting the concepts that remain relevant while leaving behind the baggage of discriminatory attitudes. Contemporary authors face a similar challenge—how can they portray heroic virtues and sacrifice without perpetuating sexist notions? One exemplary model is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, which brilliantly disconnects these elements from gender and biological form. By doing so, Leckie breathes new life into these cherished ideals, and her protagonist, Breq, stands as a testament to the most admirable characters in literature. We must furnish future generations with alternative paradigms for these positive qualities—ones that transcend the limitations of the past.
Concluding Thoughts: A Roller Coaster of Literary Brilliance
Before drawing this discussion to a close, I must share my recent experience of rediscovering the wonder of “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel” through Full Cast Audio’s mesmerizing rendition. Combining aspects of audio drama and audiobook narration, this format features a full cast of actors, enhancing your immersion in the story while preserving the essence of reading the original text. Bruce Coville and the talented team at Full Cast Audio have brought all of Heinlein’s juveniles to life in this extraordinary format, resulting in a truly exceptional listening experience. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all.
“Have Spacesuit—Will Travel” will forever hold a special place in my heart. It commences within the bounds of an ordinary world, focusing on the seemingly mundane topic of spacesuit engineering. Yet, it gradually propels readers into increasingly exotic realms, exploring the very essence of humanity and the nature of civilization itself. Rarely have literature’s realms witnessed a journey as enchanting as this one.
Now, my dear friend, it is your turn to share your thoughts. What did you think of “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel” or Heinlein’s other juveniles? And how do you perceive the role of chivalry within the ever-evolving tapestry of our changing world?
Alan Brown, a devoted science fiction aficionado for over five decades, harbors a profound love for narratives that intertwine science, military exploits, exploration, and adventure.