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Starman Jones

Starman Jones


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.


The Alien Structure on Mars

From Jupiter IV

I followed Jackie through the air-lock-style double doorway and into a round room about ten meters across.  Spaced evenly around the circular room were three bench-like structures protruding from the wall.  Two other doorways were located in the wall opposite the entrance.  Dr. Sharma stood near one of the benches.  He was slight of build, not as tall as me, and had snow white hair.  The smile on his face illuminated the room.

“I’ve seen pictures and virtual vids of this place, Dr. Sharma, but the real thing is still the real thing, isn’t it?”

“So it is, Augie.  I can’t tell you how glad we all are to have you here safe and sound.  I understand you are more than a little responsible for that, Captain LeCarte.”  He stepped forward and offered his hand to her.

“Maybe a little.  I just did what any pilot would.”  Jackie took his hand and shook it firmly.

“Yeah, just any old average super ace jet jockey with nerves of steel and lightning reflexes,” I said as I shook his hand in turn.  “Don’t let her kid you, Dr. Sharma.  She’s tops, by my reckoning.”

“Okay, guys, compliment accepted.  Thank and thank you again.” Jackie blushed visibly.  “Now, Dr. Sharma, please explain to this country girl what this place is.”

“I honestly don’t know, young lady.  They didn’t leave any pictures of themselves, and anything that wasn’t nailed down was taken by old T.A. Scott when he visited here in 1956.”

“Excuse me if it takes me a minute to get a hold of this.  I have always known, known for sure, mind you, that the story of this place and T.A. Scott was a hoax.  No different from all the other UFO myths and hoaxes that have been floating around since who knows when.  Now I am confronted with evidence my own eyes can see that what I thought was true was actually wrong.  Please, let me get my bearings.”

“Maybe I can help you understand these things a little better.  I want to show both of you something.”  Dr. Sharma had a small device in his hand, about the size of a handset phone.  He pushed a button, and the room filled with glowing images of stars, nebulae, and other stellar objects.  The overall pattern of the images was unfamiliar.

“This sure looks different in person than it did on virtual vid,” I said.

“Yes, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve never seen any of it before.  What are we looking at?” Jackie asked.

“Watch, Captain LeCarte,” Dr. Sharma said softly.

Almost imperceptibly, the points of light began to move.  They slowly formed into a disc with a large, glowing hub and two spiral arms that radiated out from its edges.  The image was tilted toward us such that we had a perspective view.  After many minutes, the shape was recognizable as a galaxy.

“It’s a holographic image of a spiral galaxy like ours,”  Jackie said.  “Where is the projector?”

“I don’t know,” Sharma responded. “As best I can tell, it is coming from this whole structure.”

“What does that thing in your hand do?” Jackie asked. “Isn’t that the control?”

“There is no control.  This just emits a very low-energy, long-wave radio transmission at a single frequency in all directions.  When it is on, the image forms.  I discovered it by accident twenty-five years ago.”

“How did you get the projection to change from that chaotic mess into an image of the Milky Way?” I asked.

“I didn’t.  I don’t believe that mess, as you called it, is what it appears to be.  I believe that is how the people who built this place saw the Milky Way.  Then, somehow, it changed into how we see it.  Honestly, Augie, to this day I’m not sure we are actually seeing this with our eyes.  We may only be seeing it in our brains.”

“This is wild!”  Jackie exclaimed.  “What are those green spots scattered around?”

“Dr. Sharma thinks they mark the locations of other outposts like this one.”  I had seen the virtual vids of the star map when we were doing the research for the drive.

“Notice how they are all located in the annulus of the galactic habitable zone?” he asked.

“You mean that washer-shaped ring around the Milky Way, where there is enough metal for Earth-like planets to form, yet not so much high-energy radiation and so forth that it would kill off the life forms?”  Jackie knew her stuff all right.

“That’s it, Captain.  Now keep watching.”  The image gradually grew and rotated until it appeared as though we were looking straight down on it.  Then it came closer until it exceeded the size of the room.  Soon we were looking at only one section of the ring.  Several of the green spots were located on stars in the ring.  The image got larger.  After what seemed like hours, we were looking down on a star system with planets.  As it grew, the inner planets resolved more distinctly, and two of them, the third and the fourth out from the star, had green spots on them.

“That’s our own solar system.  But there are two of those spots.  One is on Earth.  Those are pretty good pictures by the way.”  She said this as the features of the various planetary systems resolved more clearly.

“I don’t think they are pictures, Captain.”

“What are they then?”

“I think we are looking — looking with our minds but looking nonetheless — at the actual solar system, right at this moment.”

“The planets are sure in the right places.”  I got out my phone and pulled up the solar system on the web.  “Jupiter’s Galilean moons are correct for this date and time.  Back last year, when you first showed me a recording of this thing, I had assumed this to be just a fancy 3-D video projection of some kind until you suggested that it was an actual image of real-time events.  That’s when the light went on for me.”

Jackie looked at Dr. Sharma, then at me. “Let me get this straight.  You guys are telling me that we are actually looking at the solar system from some point above it?  Then that means we were looking at the Milky Way from thousands of light years away just a few minutes ago.  How can that be?”

“That was my question when Dr. Sharma first mentioned his suspicions.  Answering those questions, at least some of them, led to the interval drive.  It’s what made me realize that ’t Hooft’s fifth dimension really existed and wasn’t just another mathematical parlor trick.”

“Mathematics is not a parlor trick, Augie,” Sharma rejoined.

“Sorry, sir; we can save that argument for another day.  But you are exactly right to ask that question, Jackie, because it is at the heart of the issue.  Once you know this thing can work and have vantage points thousands of light years apart almost simultaneously, you know that the old cosmic speed limit is out the window.  Then it is just a practical problem of figuring out how to do it.  Travel faster than light, I mean.”

“How do we know it isn’t just a projection of some artificially created image, like they would use in a virtual video?” Jackie asked.

“Another good question, Captain.  We figured that, based on the relative size of the Milky Way in the image at the beginning, we must have a vantage point about twenty-four thousand light years away.  We then located some known stellar objects about halfway between us.  We compared dozens of them.  What we saw in our telescopes, which was an image twelve thousand years old, was the same as what we saw in the projection.  As it moved closer, we kept up the comparisons and they continued to match until we get to the one that actually resolves the solar system.  As Augie pointed out, that one is today, right now in fact.  They were always the same.  It is like we are actually there: observing in person.”

Musgrave Station

Life on Mars in Mid-21st Century

Musgrave Station was the only settlement named for an astronaut.  The stations were traditionally named after astronomers or space scientists, usually ones who had some special interest in Mars, whereas the areographical features were named for astronauts.  Located inside a cave in Musgrave Ridge, the station was named for a 20th-century astronaut famous as a member of the team that had saved the Hubble Space Telescope.  Because Hubble was the most important astronomical instrument of its time, Musgrave got credit as both an astronomer and an astronaut.  For these reasons, the station and the ridge on which it was located had the same name.

As the rover approached, the first visible part of the station was the radio dish perched atop the ridge, with the long, semi-cylindrical shape of the hydroponic garden coming into view only as they grew nearer.  Like all Mars settlements, Musgrave was self-contained, at least in the short term, and the hydro garden helped in that regard by providing some of the food and oxygen for the Colony.  Even though the sunlight falling on Mars is only 40% as intense as that on Earth, it is sufficient to sustain plant life and power photosynthesis.

The next feature to emerge in their sight was the solar power array with its hundreds of panels that swiveled like sunflowers following the sun’s daily journey across the sky.  A robo could be seen servicing one of the panels.  The solar installation provided the electrical power necessary to run the station, was used to charge lithium ion batteries, and generated hydrogen and oxygen for the fuel cells that powered the station at night.  In the event of a general system failure, the station also had a small nuclear reactor that could provide survival power.

Although the settlement was self-sustaining, it was in theory only.  In practice, a colony of 34 people cannot function independently permanently.  There is simply not enough redundancy, either mechanical or human, to compensate for the inevitable malfunctions.  In fact, the entire Mars Colony of nearly 600 people, disbursed though they were, would be considered uninsurable by any self-respecting actuary.  The statistical universe is too small and the individual risks too numerous and large.  After an investment of $10 billion a year for nearly 40 years, Mars Colony was still hanging by its fingers.

The robo that was servicing the solar array was an example of how automation had made colonization possible.  These tools serviced the other mechanical systems of the station, tended the hydro gardens, cleaned house, and did all of the heavy lifting and drudge work that was the inevitable by-product of civilization.  They were controlled by the station’s computer system, which in turn was linked to those systems in the other stations.  The aggregate of these systems created a management tool that was very effective in coordinating Colonial activities as well as avoiding wasted effort on the part of the Colony’s limited transportation and manufacturing capacity.  Because robo labor was in limited supply, although demand for labor on the part of the Colonists was theoretically unlimited, the management system balanced these economic forces using money—credit money—as the medium of exchange.  Any activity performed by a robo had to be billed to someone.  The robo that was repairing the solar array was being “paid” by the settlement, as the array’s electrical output was used by the settlement at large.  The settlement had an account with the Colony at large, which included all seven of the settlements, and the Colony had an account with the Mars Colonial Corporation.  If an individual Colonist spilled his milk on the floor of his parents’ apartment and a housekeeping robo cleaned it up, the cost of that activity was billed to the Colonists’ household account.  Because robos were very expensive, their time was costly as well, which in turn made it prohibitively expensive for a parent to have a robo clean up Junior’s mess.  The Colonists at Musgrave, like those of the Mars Colony as a whole, were a mixture of scientists and technicians, some of whom were employed by Mars Corporation, some by other corporations, universities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, and some as independent contractors.  While all were extremely well-paid professionals, because it was so expensive to ship things to Mars, as much as $25,000 per kilogram, the cost of living on Mars was equally high.  Compared to Mars, San Francisco or Tokyo would seem like tourist bargains.  Consequently, most Colonists had little money to spend on luxuries and chose to clean up their own messes, saving the robos for heavy and potentially profitable work.

Between Planets

Between Planets

The fifth of the Heinlein juveniles, Between Planets was copyrighted by Robert A. Heinlein in 1951 and published that same year by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. The book was illustrated by Clifford Geary. I mention this because I believe that in order to fully appreciate the early juveniles; you should see the illustrations as they were done for the original hardback books. These books are all out of print now, but are still available at independent bookstores, most easily online through abebooks. Many are old library editions, but are quite serviceable and will give you the full flavor of what the book was intended to do at the time it was published.

Since a substantial part of the plot depends on mystery and suspense, I will only present an outline. On Heinlein’s time line of future history this book occurs during a period when the solar system is fully settled and exploited. But the extra terrestrial colonies are chafing under the yoke of their Earth-side masters and there is talk of rebellion. This is the first of the juveniles in which Heinlein gives us a clear vision of what warfare would be like in such a time. Don Harvey, the main character, is a student at a boarding school in New Mexico and because the winds of war are rising, is called home by his parents, who are research scientists living on Mars. His repeatedly thwarted attempts to get to Mars are the main plot of the story. During Don’s journey, we are introduced to a host of interesting characters, including a giant saurian Venusian named Sir Isaac Newton, some other lesser but well drawn human characters, the comical “move-overs” shown in one of the illustrations and to Isobel Costello, the first prominent female character in this series of books. All of Heinlein’s subsequent books have significant female characters.

This is tough book. Don is continually faced with hard decisions, decisions for which there is no clear cut answer. There is a little more moral ambiguity in this book than in the earlier ones. Very often, Don is forced to trust his own instincts for what is right, rather than being able to reason out a solution and if there is an important theme here, it is that. Sometimes a certain action is the right thing to do, whether it seems logical or expedient at the time. Early in the story, for example, after first cooperating with police investigators he decides that this wrong. He then chooses to resist and even though he loses the fight, he feels better about it. His conscience knows that it is right to resist evil, especially when it is hard.

My son, who was about 17 at the time he read the book, informed me that I should write a book like this. I agree and if I had Heinlein’s talent for description and characterization, I would. If suspense, high adventure and intrigue are your cup of tea, then read this one!

Colonial Scout (An Excerpt)

Colonial Scout

By Doug Turnbull

 Traveling on Mars is a lot easier than you’d think, if the only thing you knew about it was from what you saw on virtual vids. In those stories, there are always landslides, deadly accidents, dangerous criminals, life-threatening mechanical failures and of course, Martians. In the end, the hero comes through with some amazing and completely unrealistic gimmick at just the last second to save the day. The reality is actually pretty routine stuff, and as long as you’re careful and follow procedures, none of those other things will happen. By the way, if there ever were any Martians, they were probably bacteria.

We were an hour into an estimated three and a half hour rover trip from Lowell Station to a cave located in Levchenko Ridge. I had plotted the course, and the autopilot was taking us on the fifty-five kilometer journey using topographical maps prepared from photos taken by the orbiting satellites. My job was to sit back and make sure the autopilot did everything it should. It always did. This was a Scout outing, and as the Scout with the most seniority on Mars, I was in charge.

“Saiyed forgot his multi-purpose knife,” Rocky said.

“Did not, Rocky — my kid sister must have taken it out of my pack. I remember putting it in last night.”

“You should have checked your stuff before you left home, Sy,” I said, mentally noting that I should have made everybody check their stuff before we left Lowell. “I’ll loan you my spare.” I handed my extra pocket knife back to Rocky, seated in the passenger area of the rover with four younger Scouts. She in turn passed it to Saiyed.

“Sorry, Augie,” Saiyed said. “Thanks for the loaner. I’ll do better next time.”

“Everybody else looks okay, Augie,” Rocky said.

Rocio Kimura was my second-in-command and the second most experienced Scout, after me, in the whole troop. Rocio got her nickname a couple of years Mars (one year Mars equals two Earth years) before when some wise guy made fun of her in exercise class and she punched him in the nose. After that, she was forever Rocky.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones was copyrighted in 1952 by Robert A. Heinlein and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York in that same year. Like several of the Heinlein juveniles, this book is beautifully illustrated by Clifford Geary. The Rolling Stones novel is a departure from the earlier juveniles in that the main characters are the entire Stone family. Instead of a single teenaged male character, this story is populated by Roger Stone, a retired engineer and current writer of Science Fiction teleplays; his mother, Hazel Meade Stone; Edith Stone, MD, Roger’s wife and the mother of their four children. These children include Meade, their teenage daughter, Lowell, also known as Buster, a pre-school aged son, and Castor and Pollux, their young teen twins who are geniuses but otherwise normal young fellows.

The plot of the story is fairly straightforward: The Stone family purchases a used spaceship, which they christen The Rolling Stone, and proceed to take a tour of the solar system. Starting on their home world of Luna, the Rolling Stone proceeds on a two year journey to Mars and then on to the asteroid belt. The twins, who are the entrepreneurial members of the family, use this opportunity to attempt to turn a profit by carrying trade goods in the hold of the family ship. Their venture into interplanetary trade is the source of considerable family conflict and humor as they run afoul of the Martian tariff laws, and acquire a Martian Flat cat, which rapidly reproduces itself until its offspring threaten to devour all of their ship’s stores. I have long suspected that the famous Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” was borrowed from this novel.

The characters of the Stone family are well drawn and likeable. Hazel Stone is a hero on Luna’s battle for independence and is the unofficial matriarch of the family, while Roger, a former mayor of Luna City, believes that he is the head of the family. The four children are all talented, strong and willful. As a practicing physician and mother, Edith is a quiet but steadying influence on a family of volatile personalities.

As always, Heinlein makes sure that the science of the story is right. The orbits and trajectories they follow on their journeys to Mars from the moon and on to the asteroids are all accurate and quite feasible, given the conditions set forth in the story. The nuclear propulsion system described in the book, while not within our capabilities today, is certainly not of a design inconceivable in the future. The need for a balanced internal ecology, with oxygen generating and food producing plants aboard the spacecraft, was ahead of its time. The systems as postulated in the story are still not fully realized even in our only long duration, extra-terrestrial vehicle of today: the International Space Station.

If family fun is your style, this book is a gem. The action is swift, non-stop and the dialog is witty and very funny. While the Stones are eccentric, they are refreshingly free of pathology. The values of education, of honesty, of courage and of family loyalty are all stressed in this story. I whole heartily recommend it both for young readers and for family reading.

Blog up and running

My new blog is now functional. We will be discussing a variety of subjects relating to space travel, science fiction, aliens and any other topic that seems relevant.