Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sci-Fi for Young Readers, Heinlein and Star Trek

Generations of science fiction fans began as children by viewing movies and television shows, but often the most fascinated and devoted fans add reading science fiction stories and novels.  I'd guess this starts to happen at age 11 or so, and is particularly intense in the early teen years.

My generation was especially fortunate in that there were several outstanding novel series created especially for young readers.  Sensing the potential market of the first baby boomer in the 1950s, at least three publishing houses started what were called science fiction juveniles.

 I know the least about the Ace series, all written by "Andre Norton" who in reality was Alice Mary Norton. The series I remember best was the Winston Science Fiction series--a total of 35 novels, issued at the rate of about 6 a year beginning in 1952.  Authors included Arthur C. Clarke (one of his earliest novels, Islands in the Sky), Ben Bova and Poul Anderson.  Lester Del Rey wrote nine of the novels, and the only nonfiction book in the series (Rockets Through Space.)

In his history The World of Science Fiction, Del Rey writes that the hardback books were published primarily for libraries, and that's where I discovered them--in the public library.  The titles I recall most clearly are Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, Rocket to Luna by Robert Marsten (one of crime novelist Ed McBain's pseudonyms) and Son of the Stars by Raymond F. Jones (who authored the novel This Island Earth, adapted for one of the better 1950s sci-fi films.)   I've since obtained and read several others.

This series is probably most famous for the dust cover art, especially by Alex Schomburg.  Ironically, young devotees like me who borrowed these books from the library often never saw the dust covers.  Instead however there was the eerie endpaper by Schomburg in every book of the series (see above), and I remember staring at it for hours, wondering what stories went with the various images.  That, and the unforgettable Winston Science Fiction Logo (left) alerted us to which books were part of the series.

But the first such series of juveniles was begun by Scribners in 1947--a dozen novels over the next decade plus, all written by Robert Heinlein. These three series, Del Rey writes, "seem to have started a whole generation toward becoming science fiction fans.  People still come up to me [in 1979] to declare that one of my juveniles was the first science fiction book they ever read."

They weren't literally my first--that was Spaceship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin, which was also the first book I took out of the library on my own card. (Unfortunately I couldn't finish it before it was due in two weeks, so I didn't read the whole novel until 40 years or so later.)  But the Winston series definitely made the biggest impression.  As for Heinlein's juveniles, I couldn't recall any specific titles that I read--but I do remember that he was one of the first--perhaps the very first--science fiction author I recognized from one book or story to another.

Several months ago I came across a school library reject copy of his Have Space Suit Will Travel (1958.)  It was fascinating to read, so I embarked on a campaign this spring and early summer to read them all.  There were still several in their original editions in the children's section of the university library--reading them that way was an additional thrill, and noting that they'd all been taken out several times each decade since first published.  The rest I found in two collections I purchased: To The Stars and Infinite Possibilities, both published by Simon & Schuster childrens division.

It turns out that Heinlein's juveniles are richly imagined science fiction stories for any age (some were first published in adult-oriented magazines)--with lots of elements that a Star Trek fan will recognize, perhaps as prototypes for features and technologies in Trek a decade or more later.

(In his book on Heinlein, H. Bruce Franklin quotes him as saying among the differences between his adult and juvenile books are that "the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don't mind big words...")

The first impressive element of the series is the consistency of the story universe.  Many take place in the solar system, with an interlocking history, and later in interstellar travel, with methods consistent from book to book.  In fact, the story universe is very similar if not identical to that in Heinlein's celebrated "future history" series of stories, collected in his The Past Through Tomorrow (1967.)

I'm not going to attempt a detailed summary or review of each book, but try to just give a sense of it while noting the possible relevance or relationships to Star Trek that struck me.

The first was Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947.  This is a near future tale--a 1950s perhaps, recognizable except that rockets are used to speed cargo from place to place on Earth.  It's also interesting in that it takes place next to an atomic bomb test site in New Mexico.  The Bomb is internationally controlled--an idea that was widely supported in the first few years after World War II.

The story involves an elder engineer and a group of inventive boys who use a castoff freight rocket to build the first rocket ship that travels to the moon.  Despite the Andy Hardy premise, this first part of the novel is the most realistic.  Once they get to the moon they encounter Nazis, and the remnants of a vanished lunar civilization, or at least an elaborate presence by some extraterrestrial space travelers.

Heinlein slips in some of what Gene Roddenberry would call "comment." For instance, that it took an old man and some boys to go to the moon because big business couldn't figure out how to make the trip profitable, and that the Nazis got to the moon by re-engineering a rocket they bought in Detroit.  That the danger of the racial supremacy advocated by the Nazis wasn't over, and could yet be spread more powerfully, is the moral center of the novel.  (As Franklin notes, that one of the boys is Jewish is not a coincidence.)

The next in the series is probably the best known--and the one that Gene Roddenberry is on the record as having read: Space Cadet (1948.)  It concerns the education and training of a group of cadets in the Space Patrol, and includes the first extraterrestrial character in the series, a large and very intelligent, peaceful aquatic being from Venus.  Taking aliens seriously as individuals and as a culture is an important theme, related to the Space Patrol's attitudes against racial and national prejudices.

 Apart from spawning the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet  television series and its imitators in the 1950s, it contains forerunners of key elements of the Star Trek universe: a united Earth government, a Space Patrol and a Solar Federation.   In her book Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation Yvonne Fern quotes GR as saying "Space Cadet is a very humane book. It deal with not only the problems of science--about space travel and technology and so on--but of the need we have to act in a conscious responsible manner with all this technology...It made a great impression on me...That book had such a profound influence on me, as did Bob. There are so many, many ideas that we shared.   He wrote many of them down before I did, but they were--have always been in my heart."  Space Cadet was the subject of their actual last conversation, the day before GR's stroke.

Red Planet (1949) is one of two of these books I have a vague recollection of reading before, both from the text and from Clifford Geary's illustrations.  By now the theme of a boy's coming of age is established in the series, and this time it is a "colonial boy on Mars" according to the subtitle.  The plot involves the revolt of colonists against the predatory corporation on Earth that has sent a tyrannical overlord.

  Of special interest are the indigenous Martians, and the fact that an early encounter with them (referred to in several of these books) was so disastrous that a strict non-interference policy--even an ethic--was established. (A ritual of sharing water is introduced, which will recur in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.) The Martians appear mysterious, but turn out to be a very ancient race that had attained interstellar travel but simply abandoned it. They may now exist on more than one plane or dimension.  This, too, is a Trek theme, especially in TNG, and it is expressed by a doctor: "I don't like to put words to it but I can tell you this: I've lived long enough to know that man does not live by bread alone and that the cadaver I perform an autopsy on is not the man himself.  The most wildly impossible philosophy of all is materialism."

Farmer in the Sky (1951) is a bit like a Willa Cather novel about the hardships of families settling the Great Plains, but this time it's Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. The backdrop is a severely overpopulated Earth where food is rationed. Farm colonies like those on Ganymede take some of the population pressure and add to the food supply.  But this is also an early description of what's now called terraforming--and it involves very early mentions of two concepts that wouldn't become well known for decades--the Greenhouse Effect, and the science of ecology.

In this case, a greenhouse effect is created by a heat trapping technology on Ganymede to make it habitable.  Among the subjects that our young hero must learn in order to farm there is ecology, which is described in some detail, and its essence provided in one sentence: "The trouble with ecology is that you never know where to start because everything affects everything else."

Between Planets (1952) is an especially exciting novel in an increasingly dark story universe.  Now the strife and decadence on Earth suggested in the past two novels is reaching the point of war.  The Solar Federation is not mentioned--instead it's the Terran Federation, an oppressive force.  We're more in Kim Stanley Robinson territory now, or Firefly.  We meet the young hero in New Mexico, follow him as he attempts to join his parents on Mars before the war starts, but is diverted to Venus, where he becomes a kind of guerrilla fighter.  His Terran father married a second-generation Venus colonial when they met on Mars, and our hero eventually concludes that he belongs on no particular planet--his home is in space.

This novel is noted (and acknowledged) for introducing the concept of "pay it forward," which Heinlein championed.

The Rolling Stones (1952) is more lighthearted, and follows the adventures of an unusually gifted family as they bolt from Luna to explore the solar system, with a final suggestion that they might join the new expedition to the stars.  For Trek fans, this novel introduces cuddly little beings that reproduce like crazy called flat cats, though they sound like tribbles to me.

 Otherwise, the Space Patrol is mentioned again, the theory that the asteroids are fragments of a lost planet is mentioned once more.  Heinlein also adopts the Biblical phrase "stranger in a strange land" which of course he'll put to bigger use later on.

With Starman Jones (1953) we leave the solar system and enter an era of regular interstellar travel.  But its version of warp drive is a lot more perilous--warp is achieved only when a starship enters a specific point in space where space is "folded back" and at a specific speed and time, all of which depend on exact calculations by the ship's astrogators (a term soon used in the classic film Forbidden Planet.)

Tell me where you've heard this plot before: a young farm boy escapes an abusive stepfather, cheats his way aboard a starship and in one fateful voyage becomes its captain, saving the ship.  Kind of a JJA Star Trek perhaps?  Beyond this, there are a number of precedents set for the starship Enterprise: a ship with a detailed chain of command and crew structure that is explicitly Navy (rather than, say, Air Force.)  Also three-dimensional chess is played aboard this starship as well.

Otherwise there's more of a Star Wars quality to the main spaceship port, with its dock row of honky tonks and cheap hotels.  And there's a class wrinkle, somewhat reminiscent of old Doctor Who stories, in which being an astrogater is a trade, governed by a hereditary guild.  I also think this is the other Heinlein juvie I may have read before.

The Star Beast (1954) is about a huge animal of seemingly dull intelligence that is kept as a pet by a young man on Earth.  It turns out to be a interstellar youngster of an intelligent race, who considers the young man a pet project.  The theme is very Trek, beginning with "Devil in the Dark": alien does not mean evil, or stupid or expendable.  An interesting twist is the observation that racism has diminished on Earth as xenophobia towards creatures of other planets has replaced it.

But the handling of these themes is at time almost satirical, as officials try to cope with the influx of "xenists"--thousands of creatures from other planets, with their governments, treaties and diplomats.  Officials try not to intervene in local disputes--they "can't go around wiping the noses of all our xenic visitors...even those that have noses."

In Tunnel in the Sky (1955) we're back with harsh frontier conditions, this time with a group of young people star-gated  to an unknown planet as a survival test.  But something happens to the stargate and what was supposed to be a few weeks becomes indefinite.  Competing groups have to come together to survive in a sometimes harsh environment, with predators and natural cycles that threaten them.

Franklin suggests this book may be a reaction to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which appeared the year before.  In that novel, a group of school boys marooned on an island turn into violent tribal beasts.  Though there are conflicts and some violence in Heinlein's novel, the young people--notably including young women--form a working society, which includes couples marrying.  When rescued, most return to civilization, though the main hero leads another group into the unknown.  Star Trek did some survival episodes, but beyond that there's the general Trek theme of working together to solve problems for the common good.

Time For the Stars (1956) is another starship voyage that takes Heinlein's universe even farther into the future, with a little melancholy future shock at the end.  The structure of command etc. is again emphasized, but this time practical social dynamics are explored.  It's suggested that a starship community of about 200 is best for the mental and physical health of all, even if the ship could run with a crew of ten.  Something like the Prime Directive has been extended to interstellar space--observation only of intelligent species, with (again) reference to "the horrible mistake that had been made with Mars."

 The new wrinkle in this novel is that the crew includes telepaths, whose job it is to communicate with other telepaths in other ships of the fleet and back on Earth, faster and more reliably than more conventional forms of communication.  Telepathy of various kinds is of course accepted as a human ability, as well as a common ability in other species in Star Trek, especially the 24th century series.  But what this novel treats that Star Trek ignores is the relativity of time involved in space travel, as one twin on the ship ages by months while the twin on earth he communicates with by telepathy becomes an old man.

Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) is the least "juvie" of the series.  It's epic in its reach across the galaxy, and mythic in its story.  Slavery is once again openly part of trade, and the novel's young hero starts out as an orphan slave who turns out to be of something like royal birth--but of a galactic corporation centered on Earth.  Gradually he learns that this corporation he inherits is itself engaged in the slave trade.  Several of the novels have complicated politics and sociologies, but this is the most complex of all, as our hero experiences a variety of classes of several cultures.  All with the forward momentum of the story.  I suppose there are some resemblances to the cultures explored over the years in Deep Space Nine, but Trek never really attempted anything this epic.  

  And now I come full circle to the last novel of the series, and the one I started with: Have Space Suit--Will Travel (1958.)  Gene Roddenberry was already writing for the TV western Have Gun, Will Travel when this novel appeared.  The story involves an adolescent boy and slightly younger girl of the near future, both kidnapped to the moon, and eventually involved in interstellar interspecies skulduggery.  There's a lot of intriguing technical detail to start, but what's most interesting from a Star Trek point of view is the final big scene: in it, an alliance of superior extraterrestrials places the human race on trial.  Our two young heroes are representatives, along with a soldier of ancient Rome and a Neanderthal.  The court concludes that humanity is a savage race, becoming a menace to the galaxy.

The human's ET advocate argues that humanity is still in its childhood and should be permitted time to develop.  That argument wins the day, temporarily.  It's pretty striking that this is almost literally what happens in TNG's inaugural episode "Encounter at Farpoint."  Q puts humanity on trial for being a savage child race, a menace to the galaxy.  But as authors Wagner and Lundeen point out in their book Deep Space and Sacred Time, humanity on trial in some sense by a more advanced alien species is how each of the first four Trek series begin (at least if you consider "The Cage" as the TOS pilot.)

Gene Roddenberry's own attitude was that 20th century humanity is in its adolescence.  His hope was that by the 24th century it would finally be mature.  Not perfect, still prey to the tensions between body and spirit, mind and heart, but at least more grown up.

Historically, Robert Heinlein is known as an enthusiastic proponent of space travel, not only in these juvenile novels but in stories that appeared in non-science fiction magazines, and in scripts for movies such as Destination Moon.  Franklin, who takes issue with Heinlein's politics at times, credits him as "perhaps more than any other single person, responsible for the popularization in America of the concepts of space travel and for the commitment to undertake it."

As a writer, Heinlein was a controversial and somewhat self-contradictory author, who changed ideologies over time and sometimes from book to book.  But his juveniles are sophisticated and on the whole positive fictions that comport pretty well with the basis of the Star Trek story universe.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Thank you for writing this post -- I think I'm going to check some of these books out.

While I love sci-fi television, I missed out on literary sci-fi. After a few attempts in my early teens, I decided I didn't like the genre and was more interested in the literary possibilities of this world than the possiblities of imaginary worlds. However, recently, I've been reading some of the classics of sci-fi and fantasy -- Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Rings and Earthsea -- and it has struck me that I made up my mind a little to hastily. There's something about the sci-fi/fantasy of the '50s and '60s that really draws me in. I had considered trying some Heinlein (with Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers as possible options) but I was hesitating because I've heard some bad things. But I didn't know about the juvenile books -- maybe I'll like them better.

I really appreciate the way that your blog puts Star Trek into a larger context. Like many Trekkies, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek but sometimes miss what it is referencing. (Case in point: I just read "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," by John Le Carre, and found out that the DS9 episode "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges" wasn't as original as I thought it was these last 14 years!)