Anyone who reads science fiction with more than a passing interest will have heard of Robert Heinlein, grandmaster of the genre and writer of such classics as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. More obscure are the dozen or so novels he penned for teens, many of which were published as serials in magazines such as Boy Life.
Have Spacesuit – Will Travel is the best of these, though all of them are worth reading. Heinlein doesn’t write down to younger readers. His ideas, which are the focal point of any good science fiction story, are just as developed in his works for teens as are those in his adult novels. Absent, thankfully, are the sometimes crude sexual references that mar his adult works. If it weren’t for a thinly veiled humanistic worldview, Heinlein’s juveniles might be considered harmless. Indeed, one gets the idea that a pro-military and anti-communist Heinlein would have hated many of the current manifestations of political correctness.
This comes out in the opening chapter of Have Space Suit. What? A father who isn’t a drunk? Teaching his son self-reliance? Unmasking the shortcomings of the public school system? I have no doubt that such a first chapter would never make it into print through traditional channels today.
Ultimately, however, the novel is not about public schools or responsible fathers or even self-reliance; it is about a boy named Kip whose yearning for space travel is unexpectedly fulfilled when–don’t laugh–he is kidnapped by aliens.
The plot is not nearly as goofy as it sounds, nor is it captured well by the cover artwork, which only seems to confirm the book as an empty adventure story. On the contrary, the novel’s climax is so simple and so intriguing that it has been stolen more than once by Hollywood.
In the next few months I will periodically cover several of Heinlein’s books for young readers. Good reading material for teens seems, ironically, to be growing more scarce even as the number of published books increases.