311. Boys at Work: Starman Jones

By at Wk atwOn August 2 through 4, 2016, I wrote posts on what I called apprenticeship literature. This is another in that series.

I discovered Heinlein’s juveniles after I had already been reading science fiction for a few years. I was past their target age, but those books are good novels as well as good juveniles and I still enjoy reading them.

Most of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes were young men who found their way to maturity through work, but they were not apprentices. Have Spacesuit Will Travel comes to mind. Kip worked hard to win and then restore his spacesuit, but he did it on his own. His distant father was no help at all.

The twin Tom in Time for the Stars gets his berth through an accident of genetics.
Although he works his way to the stars, and has a relationship with a wise elder, it isn’t really an apprenticeship since he is doing a new job that no one has done before.

Max in Starman Jones is also an anomaly with an eidetic memory, but the book is essentially about a young man working his way up through the ranks. In fact, Max works his way up two separate ranks.

In this future, work in space is controlled by hereditary guilds. Max, a near orphan, has an uncle who is an astrogator. The uncle has died, but not before leaving his astrogation manuals with Max. Max memorizes them. When conditions at his step-parent’s home become intolerable, Max head out, hoping that his uncle has declared him his heir.

He meets up with Sam, a mostly honest – by his own standards – con man. This is a stock character for Heinlein. When Max finds out that his uncle has not named him, shutting him out of space, Sam procures false papers and gets them both berths on the Asgard, in the steward’s guild.

Max is almost pathologically honest. He agonizes over the decision to deceive, then worries about what he has done for the rest of the book. Still, his need to go to space outweighs his honesty. Sam, the con-man-with-a-heart-of-gold, becomes Max’s first mentor, showing him how to survive in a world so closed down that honesty is not enough. Max learns from Sam, but his innate honesty keeps him from being like him.

On board ship, Max’s eidetic memory lets him quickly absorb the steward’s manual. Don’t we all wish it were that easy? He is put in charge of the animals on board, which puts him in contact with a young passenger who learns of his past and uses her influence to get him moved into the astrogation department. There his early training by his uncle is honed by the Chief Astrogator, and he begins to move up the ranks. He has to admit that he came on board by fraud; the issue is tabled pending their return to Earth, but the knowledge of his coming punishment hangs over Max’s head.

Unexpected events plunge the ship into danger and Max is called upon to save the day. I won’t tell you how. Even though the book was published 64 years ago, if you haven’t read it, you deserve my silence on climactic events.

They don’t all die – you could have guessed that much – and Max makes it back to Earth where he has to pay a heavy fine for his false papers, and ends up a junior officer on another ship. He has found a place in space.

Self-reliance, and technical competence make Max a typical Heinlein hero. Add naiveté and clumsiness with girls, and he becomes a typical Heinlein juvenile hero. Heinlein’s young men always work, and always have some kind of older mentor. Starman Jones is the novel where these two factors come together to fully become apprentice literature.

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