Starman Jones

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Starman Jones is a 1953 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein about a farm boy who wants to go to the stars. It was first published by Charles Scribner's Sons as part of the Heinlein juveniles series.

Plot summary[edit | hide | hide all]

Max Jones works the family farm in the Ozark Mountains. With his father dead and his stepmother remarrying a man he detests, Max runs away from home, taking his uncle's astrogation manuals.

Most occupations are tightly controlled by guilds with hereditary memberships. One such is the Astrogators Guild. Since his uncle had been a member and had no children, Max hopes that before he died, his uncle had named him his heir. He begins hitchhiking towards Earthport to find out. Along the way, he finds a friendly face in hobo Sam Anderson, who later alludes to being a deserter from the Imperial Marines. Sam feeds Max and offers advice, though he later departs with Max's valuable manuals.

At the guild's headquarters, Max is disappointed to find that he had not been named as an heir, but he is returned his uncle's substantial security deposit for his manuals. Max learns that Sam had tried to claim the deposit for himself.

By chance, he runs into an apologetic Sam. With Max's money, Sam is able to finagle them a one way job/trip aboard a starship using forged papers. Max signs on as a steward's mate third class, and then he absorbs the contents of the Stewards' Guild manual using his eidetic memory. Among his duties is caring for several animals, including passengers' pets. When passenger Eldreth "Ellie" Coburn visits her pet, an alien, semi-intelligent "spider puppy" that Max has befriended, she learns that he can play three-dimensional chess, and challenges him to a game. A champion player, she diplomatically lets him win. Meanwhile, Sam manages to rise to the position of master-at-arms.

When, through Ellie's machinations, the ship's officers discover that Max had learned astrogation from his uncle, Max is promoted to the command deck. Under the tutelage of Chief Astrogator Hendrix and Chief Computerman Kelly, he becomes a probationary apprentice chartsman, then a probationary astrogator. In a meeting with Hendrix, Max reluctantly admits to faking his record to get into space. Hendrix defers the matter until their return to Earth. The Asgard then departs for Halcyon, a human colony planet orbiting Nu Pegasi.

When Hendrix dies, the astrogation department is left dangerously shorthanded. The aging captain tries to take his place, but is not up to the task. When Max detects an error in his real-time calculations leading up to a transition, neither the captain nor Assistant Astrogator Simes believe him, and the ship becomes lost.

They locate a habitable world, and the passengers become colonists. Meanwhile, the crew continues to try to figure out where they are, and if they can get back to the Earth. Unfortunately, it turns out the planet is already inhabited by intelligent centaurs. Max and Ellie are captured, but Ellie's pet is able to guide Sam and a rescue party to them. They escape, though Sam is killed covering their retreat.

Upon his return, Max is informed that the captain has died. Simes tried to illegally take command and was killed by Sam, leaving Max as the only remaining astrogator. To make matters worse, Simes hid or destroyed the astrogation manuals.

Vastly outnumbered by the hostile natives, the humans are forced to attempt a perilous return to known space by reversing the erroneous transition. Max must not only pilot the ship, he must supply the missing astrogation tables from his eidetic memory. To add to his burdens, the remaining officers inform Max that he must take charge, as only an astrogator can be the captain. The pressure is immense, but Max succeeds and the ship returns to known space.

Max pays heavy fines for breaking their regulations, but becomes a member of the Astrogators Guild. However, he loses any chance for a relationship with Eldreth: she returns home to marry her boyfriend. Max accepts this with mixed feelings, but looks forward to his new career.

Literary significance and criticism[edit | hide]

This book is notable among the Heinlein juveniles in being the first to be set outside the solar system, but more significantly for its attempt to fold in, in a subtle way, the political commentary and social speculation that had suffused his earlier pulp fiction. Labor unions, which had been treated negatively in "The Roads Must Roll", are here subjected to even more severe and categorical criticism, where a significant portion of the plot revolves around Max's attempts to enter the closed guild system of the spacelines' officers and crew. This is constantly contrasted against the virtuous and free life of the mythologized yeoman farmer: Max starts out as a farm boy, intends to jump ship along with Sam to find freedom as a farmer on a freshly colonized planet, and near the end of the book is part of an abortive attempt to settle a previously undiscovered planet.

As in much of the popular fiction that Heinlein would have been familiar with in his youth (e.g., Tarzan and The Virginian), the theme is that the wilderness acts as a magnifying glass to amplify the inherent differences between the best and the worst of the human race. Max triumphs mainly because of his noble character. The same theme is seen to a lesser extent in the other characters, some of whom reveal their flaws (Simes and the Captain), and some of whom rise to the occasion (Sam, minor characters such as the rich Daiglers, and Ellie, who proves not only highly intelligent, but resourceful and fiercely independent).

Max's eidetic memory does save the day at the end of the book, but earlier, Hendrix explicitly tells Max that his unusual memory was much less important than careful hard work at astrogation. Max ends the book having learned valuable lessons about life. While he gains from having broken guild rules, he also accepts the consequences of his actions.

Heinlein makes a special distinction in the book between Max's eidetic memory, and the perhaps more well-known photographic memory. He has Max explain that he cannot simply glance at something and have it memorized; as in the case of the astrogation and Stewards' Guild manuals, he must actually read them as would anyone else, but then the knowledge is perfectly retained in his memory.

The book has a strong feeling of verisimilitude because so much of it is based on Heinlein's real-life experiences. Heinlein, who intended as a young man to become an astronomer, describes Max as a boy who can tell time by looking at the position of the stars in the sky, and who becomes an astrogator. Heinlein had also been a U.S. naval officer.

Another outstanding quality of the book is its superior architecture. A common criticism of Heinlein's novels is that they are episodic, or have weak or rushed endings. Starman Jones has a smooth and logical progression as we watch Max grow from a hillbilly farmer through many stages to a mature young man. The storyline is genre bildungsroman.

The technology of the story reflects the era in which it was written. The book depicts a civilization that travels between star systems with the aid of electronic computers, but they have to be programmed on the spot, and elementary computing operations, such as calculating trigonometric functions and logarithms, and converting between decimal and binary numbers, must be done by looking up values in books of tables. The binary numbers are input using switches, with the results showing as binary values using lights. Heinlein, writing in the days when computers were big, clunky, and rare, did not fully explore their potential in this story, which he did in later stories.

The transitions that transport a ship from one star system to another are effected by holding the ship at just under light speed until it reaches precisely the right location and then accelerating it over, causing it to reappear at a congruent location that may be hundreds of light years away in ordinary space. The idea of congruence, nicely explained by Max using a folded scarf, is sound mathematics (though it is not known physics).

Heinlein's reply to Gulliver's Travels[edit | hide]

The later part, taking place on the planet of the centaurs—intelligent, horselike carnivores who dominate all other fauna on the planet including deformed human-like creatures—is evidently intended as Heinlein's commentary on and antithesis to the fourth part of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

In the original, Gulliver is stranded in a country dominated by civilised horses, the Houyhnhnms, finds them much superior to humans, and identifies European humans with the degenerate Yahoos which the Houyhnhnms in his view justifiably dominate. The experience leaves Gulliver permanently misanthropic, even on his return to England feeling a yearning for the civilised Houyhnhnms and having nothing but contempt and loathing for the uncouth yahoos around him (including himself).

Heinlein, to the contrary, has little good to say of the cruel centaurs, who not only butcher and eat their yahoos (and would like to add the Earth variety to their menu) but also practice systematic euthanasia towards old and weak members of their own species. While the planet's local humans are just as degenerate and subservient as Swift's yahoos, which they strongly resemble, Max and his fellow Earth humans are brave and resourceful, at their best in fighting the centaurs.

Clearly, Swift's idea of having another species domesticate mankind was anathema to Heinlein (who did not hesitate to point out weaknesses of both human and alien characters in his works), and this part of the book expresses his vociferous rebuttal.

Tropes used in Starman Jones include:

  • Almighty Janitor: Max, as described above.
  • Disaster Democracy: The stranded-passengers-turned-colonists are advised to write out a Mayflower-like compact straight off or they are not likely to survive.
  • Negative Space Wedgie: Averted: The disaster happens only because the characters make mathematical mistakes and are too proud to admit it and start over again.
  • Portal Network: Interstellar travel is done via "Horst congruencies": otherwise-invisible, carefully-plotted points in space where boosting the ship past light speed results in a "transition" to the corresponding congruency near your destination. Screw up the astrogation by a whisker, and you wind up who knows where.
  • Random Teleportation: The misjump that causes the Asgard to become lost in space. They use Now Do It Again Backwards to get home ... with some difficulty.
  • Screw You, Centaurs: As described above.
  • Supporting Leader: Sam, as described above.
  • You Are in Command Now: Max, as described above.
  • Zeerust: FTL Travel is accomplished with the help of books containing table after table of pre-computed values - seemingly no electronic storage or look-up at all. The books didn't just contain look up tables for functions - they also contained the tables for converting between decimal and binary, as all the values had to be converted into binary before being entered into the computer by toggling switches to set the binary values, then reading the binary values from the display lights and converting them back into decimal to make them human-readable. This last is particularly strange, as computing devices that did decimal I/O with internal conversion for binary internals had existed for at least a decade when the novel was written.