A Kid’s Book with Teeth

Surely I’m not alone in my habit of re-reading books that I have loved. Somehow they get better with repetition, instead of becoming dreary and predictable. Perhaps that’s because the books I have loved tend to be the sort of books that can withstand re-reading—i.e., I don’t get all gaga about the latest Dan Brown thriller, but instead have a tendency to take more substantial items to heart.

That’s not to say that I make a yearly pilgrimmage through Madame Bovary or The Education of Henry Adams. I’m neither egghead nor litterateur. I have zero patience with “literary” novels— those jobbers that the English lit profs always seem to admire and everybody else ignores. I used to make the occasional stab at slogging through some of those, but the process was akin to my sometime forays into the music of Anton Webern or Pierre Boulez, dutiful attempts at self-improvement that offered neither reward nor enjoyment. Or improvement for that matter. So nuts to Thomas Pynchon and John Barth and Virginia Woolf. My choices are prosaic, even bourgeois, but they’re my choices and that’s all there is to it: James Michener’s Hawaii and Centennial and Chesapeake and The Source, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, many of the big Dickens novels such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son. The occasional science fiction classic such as the original Foundation series by Isaac Asimov or the Arthur C. Clarke standbys such as Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars.

One set of books you’d really think I would have cast adrift long ago are the “juvenile” novels by Robert Heinlein, products of his early career and stalwart companions of my teen years. The first of the series, Rocket Ship Galileo, has not withstood the test of time but was good enough to become a decent early 1950s flick (George Pal’s Destination Moon), and sold well enough to kick off an entire series of science fiction novels aimed at teenagers—well, to be absolutely clear about this, teenaged boys. Nobody questioned the science gender gap in those days, so it was assumed that the only target audience for such books would be males. The books are correspondingly male-oriented with a vengeance, although female heroines began to show up later in the series, particularly Podkayne of Mars. (Starman Jones contains a vividly engaging female character who eventually reveals herself as smarter than, and as scientifically savvy as, the eponymous hero.)

But to me, and probably to any kid who was floored then elevated by these books, it’s Space Cadet that wins the gold. Second in the series, it came out in 1948, sold well enough, and wound up exerting an extraordinary influence over subsequent science fiction writing. Anybody who has read Space Cadet knows all about Star Trek’s Star Fleet and Star Fleet Academy, both clear descendants of Space Cadet’s Space Patrol and its Academy. Both are essentially the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, just tweaked a bit with nuclear- and chemical-powered rockets (or Warp and Impulse drives) in the place of sail and steam.

I’ve re-read Space Cadet a number of times, but during a recent go-through I was newly impressed by Heinlein’s careful realization of an alternate future in which World War Three actually happened, and the Patrol stands at the vanguard of humanity’s slow crawl back to civilization. Heinlein doesn’t beat the reader over the head with any of it. In fact the implications were probably lost on most of the original readers, just as they were lost on me, given Heinlein’s skill at weaving background into narrative. Consider a scene in which cadets Matt Dodson and Oscar Jensen are enjoying a shore leave on Terra Station—a city-sized space station in geosynchronous orbit, used as a docking station for interplanetary craft and shuttles up and down to the surface.

“They took the slideway half around the Station, through crowds of gorgeously dressed and hurrying people, past rich and beckoning shops. Matt enjoyed it thoroughly. ‘They say,’ said Oscar, ‘that this is what the big cities used to be like, back before the Disorders.’ ‘It certainly doesn’t look like Des Moines.’”

An ordinary city street with shops and shoppers—but a novelty to our two cadets.

Or an earlier scene, in which Matt Dodson looks out of a viewport from orbit as an older cadet directs his gaze:

“‘Over there—see?—is the crater where Denver used to be. Now look south—that brown stretch is Texas; you can see the Gulf beyond it.’”

The crater where Denver used to be. Hmmmm…..

The Patrol is anything but a bunch of Dudley Do-Right do-gooders. It has resulted from a United Nations-ish resolution to protect humanity from itself via a chain of orbiting nuclear bombs, each capable of wiping out an entire city. (Ergo Denver.) The idea here is that any nation foolish enough to start up trouble again can be eradicated should it become necessary. That’s what the Patrol is for, and its officers are charged with the authority over those orbital bombs. Heinlein even implies that the Patrol is well-nigh autonomous.

Matt Dodson goes through a spiritual crisis concerning that very autonomy. The prospect of bombing his own home town unnerves him and brings him close to resigning from the academy. But his academic advisor sets him straight:

“If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called on to carry out the attack is equally slight—you might be away on Mars. Taking the two chances together you have something close to zero. But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Some of this should sound familiar. It’s the basic background to the entire Star Trek franchise, which postulates the idea of humanity hauling itself up out of a disastrous nuclear world war and reinventing itself, via a Federation that takes the power out of individual nations’s hands. Star Trek is a considerably more enlightened, to be sure. For example, its women are fully empowered and equal whereas Space Cadet contains precisely one female character, a scatterbrained 1950s sitcom housewife with the apparent intelligence of a marmoset. Space Cadet anticipates Star Trek by treating racial differences as trivial—white and black and brown and whatnot all commingle together without strain or stress. And of course Star Trek benefitted from advances in scientific knowledge during the 1950s. Some of Space Cadet’s science is outdated—Venus is a hot, swampy jungle planet with a breathable atmosphere. Nor does Space Cadet postulate faster-than-light travel.

Nevertheless, Space Cadet packs a lot of ideas into its breezily entertaining 200-ish pages. It’s worth reading just for the fun of it all, but underneath its gee-whiz mancave bonhomie lies a surprisingly sophisticated and all too plausible foundation. That we didn’t wind up with a “crater where Denver used to be” is one of the imponderables of the Cold War era. Of course books like Space Cadet and its spinoffs—the Tom Corbett books and TV series, Star Trek, some aspects of Star Wars—didn’t do anything to head off that grim and all-too-possible fate. But it reflected the thinking of the time, and took humanity’s worst nightmare as its starting point. Not bad for a book aimed at teens.

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