Starman Jones was copyrighted in 1953 by Robert A. Heinlein and published that same year by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. The sixth of the Heinlein Juveniles, it is the last one to be fully illustrated by Clifford Geary.
It is also the first of his juveniles to postulate interstellar travel. All of the earlier books confined travel within the solar system. The protagonist, Maximilian Jones, or Max as he is known, comes from unspecified hill country, possibly the Ozarks, where he is living with his widowed stepmother. When she remarries, Max leaves and through a series of misadventures, during which he meets and eventually teams up with a hobo named Sam, Max signs on as an ordinary crewman aboard the starship Asgard. Because he possesses a unique ability and through a series of unlikely events that only Heinlein could make believable, Max lands a job as a ship’s officer serving on the bridge. His adventures aboard the Asgard constitute the main body of the story and I’ll allow the reader to enjoy them.
As a novel, Starman Jones works on several levels. First it can be read as a simple adventure story and it works quite well as just that. The book can also be read as a coming of age story: Max starts out a boy and finishes as a man. And it can be read for the deeper human and sometimes political themes underlying the story. For example, the Asgard encounters an alien civilization organized along totalitarian lines. The ruthless brutality and exploitative character of the alien system is, I believe, an allegory for the communist and fascist societies of the 20th century during which Heinlein was writing.
This is the first of the juveniles to fully develop a strong female character. Eldreth Coburn is the well to do daughter of a planetary governor and a passenger aboard the Asgard. During the course of the voyage, Max and Ellie become good friends and there is a hint of romance, at least on her part. A very intelligent and strong willed young woman, she does a skillful job of concealing those traits in the male dominated society set forth in the story. For example, she allows Max to teach her how to play chess. He wins all of their matches until late in the book when he discovers that she is a master chess player and could take him anytime and every time if she chose to do so. When Max and Ellie are captured by hostile natives on a planet misnamed Charity, Ellie proves both courageous and resourceful. Nearly all of Heinlein’s later juveniles as well as his adult books have such strong and likeable female characters. Prescient as he was about future technological innovation, he also foresaw women taking a more equal role in future society.
Starman Jones is also the last book to be fully illustrated. As in the previous books, Clifford Geary’s cover art and white on black interior drawings appear deceptively simple. However, the illustrations have a hidden complexity that conveys very subtly the sense that we are visiting a world very different than our own. Geary was a great talent and a fine artist, but I know of only one other book, a children’s book, that he illustrated. About this time, young adult fiction followed the already established pattern of adult fiction: that of not being illustrated. No doubt the intellectual rationale was that by not having suggestive pictures the narrative would better stimulate young imaginations. But I also have no doubt that there was an economic motive: at that time, illustrations significantly increased the cost of producing books. Hence, there were no more pictures. This is a trend I would like to see reversed and I am doing just that with my own stories.
This is a great book and while longer than Heinlein’s previous juveniles, it is a page turner and a fast read. The action flows naturally and carries the reader along with it. Although the science is farther afield than that of his earlier books, the space-time anomalies that allow for interstellar travel are analogous to the wormholes that are currently postulated; and those are based on conjectures put forth by Albert Einstein. Written with scientific rigor as well as universal human themes such as love, envy, jealousy and self-sacrifice, this book is all Heinlein all the time.