Sunday, December 10, 2017

Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars

Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars is one of his so-called juveniles, a genre we might now call middle grade or possibly young adult. This one dates from 1956. It's the first of his juveniles I've read.

Humans have explored and colonized Sol's existing planets and now it's time to think about exploring the rest of space. But the distances are long. How do ships stay in contact with each other or with Earth? How do they report what they find? The Long Range Foundation suspects that when identical twins say they each know what the other is thinking, it's more than metaphor. It turns out that, yes, ten percent of identical twins are actually telepathic and communicate instantaneously. Tom and Pat are one such pair of twins.

Tom tells his story as half of a communication team. After some complications, it's Tom who sets out with the spaceship, the Lewis and Clark, or, as she's familiarly known, the Elsie, and Pat who is left on Earth to receive reports and forward on news and new directives. The ship lands on a couple of candidate planets, one of which features the dinosaur-looking animal on the cover.

But in fact the encounters with alien lifeforms are not the real point of interest in the novel. Rather it's the tensions on board a ship that is isolated to its crew of two hundred, and the relationship between the travellers and those back home.

Two things struck me about this. Having just read an Ellery Queen mystery where psychology was an important motif, it was interesting to see it here, too. Of course, a psychologist would be important to make sure a crew of two hundred confined to one ship all got along, but the psychologist in this was treated as more all-wise and benevolent than I suspect any psychologist would get treated today. A skepticism about psychotherapy has appeared that just wasn't there in 1956.

The other thing that struck me about this is the melancholy tone. Tom, traveling at near the speed of light, ages much more slowly than do all of his friends and family back on Earth. The people around him die; it's a dangerous mission. Of course, melancholy and book-reading teenage boys--the presumed audience for this--are not exactly unrelated, but I was a little surprised to see it indulged. I thought they were supposed to like their adventure more pure...

Heinlein's politics are what they are, of course. It was a little odd to hear a sixteen year old boy grousing about those gummint bureaucrats, and suddenly I was aware of Heinlein as narrator rather than Tom, but mostly it was a story told well.


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