Feel like a Space Cadet

Posted in Reviews, Travel at 16:15 by RjZ

Robert Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land (haven’t read it) and Starship Troopers (at least I’ve seen it), is one of the founding fathers of science fiction. I occasionally read science fiction, and this book was sitting on my table waiting for me to return it, so it’s about time I gave it a try.

Space Cadet was first published in 1948 and it shows, but only just barely. Heinlein’s predictions about the future are a bit optimistic at some times and pessimistic others. He predicts widespread planetary space travel by 2075 (and quite a bit would have long occurred, according to the history described). That doesn’t seem likely today. He seems to have missed out on robots and wasn’t able to get past tape for memory and chemical and nuclear propulsion.

What he does do is pack this book, literally about a space cadet (not the colloquial version of that phrase we have today, but rather, a military cadet, in space) with loads of charming detail on life in space. The quick read is mostly a coming-of-age story, and has some interesting ideas that apply to travelers of any kind, whether they make their way to Venus and Mars, or just Europe and India. The process of traveling opens your experience up to things unimaginable to those who’ve remained home.

When young cadet Dodson returns home for leave, his family gives him detailed descriptions of “the marriage chances of several female relatives.” “Everyone asked him to tell about…what it feels like to go out into space. But somehow, they had not actually seemed very interested.” I’ve had this very same experience. (Actually, I haven’t been in space.) I visit my parents, who seem genuinely excited to hear about what I am doing and where I’ve been, but I barely get a chance to tell them before I am interrupted with observations about the house, or the new restaurant and the big breakfasts they serve there.

I understand that feeling of disconnection Dodson feels. Fortunately, I got over it. It’s not a bad thing. Actually, I want to hear about the house. I don’t go places for the sole purpose of telling my parents or anyone else about the trip. People who haven’t been the same places or done the same things as you have are different, for lack of the same experiences. We are the sum of our experiences, and I want to hear about yours as much as tell you about mine. That way, we’ll have plenty to talk about!


  1. Rachel Robson said,

    April 22, 2006 at 19:05

    I’m amused by sentences like “[Future protagonist guy was told all about] the marriage chances of several female relatives” in a book set in 2075. Lots of Golden Age of SciFi writers, like Heinlein and (one of my favorites) Ray Bradbury, make this charming mistake all the time: they make stunningly accurate predictions about future technology, and then assume that future social arrangements will be the same as they are when the story is actually written. Thus, getting married will be every bit as big of a concern for the young ladies of 2075 as it is for the young ladies of 1948. Or, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” mom & dad and their two kids live in a suburban home with all sorts of futuristic techie appliances–so that no human ever has to do the dishes, or cook, or mop the floors, or do laundry–and yet only dad has a paying job, and mom spends her days playing bridge.

    Anyway, I think it’s funny and kind of cute that many science fiction writers can be *so* imaginative in foreseeing future technology–and at the same time, so unimaginative as to think that social arrangements are immutable.

  2. Penelope said,

    April 25, 2006 at 8:34

    Some sci-fi writers come up with amazing ideas about social changes, too. You’ll recall that the first African American woman to play a featured role in a TV series, as well as one half of the first interracial kiss on American TV, was Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek. Of course, she also spent the show in up-to-there minidresses, while the other ship’s officers got to wear warmer and more practical outfits, but progress comes slowly, even in the future. Social arrangements do change in future scenarios, but it is interesting that they change far more slowly than do technology, politics, or even biology. (Strange creatures? Sure! Cyborgs? Of course! Genetic engineering? No problem! Same-sex love? That’s unnatural!)

    As for Heinlein in particular, I’ve been trying for years to decide whether his view of the immutable-over-centuries place of women is cute or terrifying. Yes, he’s known for championing sexual freedom, but his “progressive” ideas actually come across as a male fantasy in which all women are sex toys. (I haven’t read Space Cadet, but I expect that Dodson is beyond being interested in marriage because he’s living the life of Captain Kirk.) Heinlein’s world is as socially advanced as any James Bond movie.

    The best exemple of this is his recurring character Jubal Harshaw, shown most prominently in Stranger in a Strange Land. He is progressive (for his future time!) for requiring that all of the many women who work for him be brilliantly intelligent, but they still dress and act like Playboy Bunnies. Jubal is a philosophizing Hugh Hefner, much like Rachel’s and my high school debate coach (though I pray that that guy was joking most of the time. I assume he was, since he’s not in jail yet.) and Heinlein’s famous fan, Charles Manson.

    Now that I think of it, sci-fi writers have a very difficult time imagining a better society as far as gender roles and true sexual freedom (Heinlein is also known for ripping on homosexuals as “just wrong.”) go. The most famous feminist sci-fi novel I know of, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, doesn’t attempt to imagine a time when people aren’t expected to just settle for somebody and get married, or when pumping out grandchildren for one’s parents isn’t the main meaning of life. Atwood takes the old rules to the worst possible extreme.

    Why is it so difficult to imagine a more socially fair and honest world? Or, for that matter, to imagine a world in which one waited for real love or learned to create meaning for one’s self? I suppose it would make for a boring story. Sigh.

  3. Aaron said,

    May 15, 2006 at 5:32

    The most memorable part
    of Starship Troopers for me
    was the part in which
    he discusses a planet
    that doesn’t get enough radiation.

    Because the genes
    don’t mutate enough
    the population stagnates.

    No robots, no explosions
    and probably not even
    very good science
    but it was a factor
    I hadn’t considered.

    The writing style
    of Golden Age Sci-Fi
    usually falls flat
    in a decent conclusion
    but the ideas
    they come up with
    can be interesting.

    It’s probably why Vonnegut
    used Kilgore Trout
    a Sci-Fi writer as a device
    in his novels.

    We never read
    an excerpt from
    the writer,
    just the set-up,
    the “what if?”
    if you will.

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