Monday, January 23, 2017

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel

Talkin' 'bout Robert Heinlein's book by the same title. Personally I do not currently possess even a swim suit, much less a space suit, and I've proven myself shamefully sedentary.

Basically it's half Heinlein brilliance and half unnecessary concessions to an imagined audience - conceded by Heinlein or his editors, I couldn't begin to guess. The cuddly aliens are good and the ugly ones evil, natch. It suffers from a half-baked, highly cliched ending worthy of the unworthiest Hollywood hack. Aside from that, more than one chapter ends in some ridiculous, telegraphed cliffhanger or deus ex machina, evidence of its original serialization. In that, however, also lies the book's greatest strength: escalation.

There's this teenage boy, you see, from Anytown, U.S.A., very smart and hard-working and laudable and relatable and all that sells. Then, as the title suggests, he acquires a space suit (through means likely intended to cozy up to F&SF's advertisers, a soap jingle contest.) Then he ends up traveling to the moon. Then he travels further... and further... and further still. It's not like you don't see it coming despite the protagonist's artificially innocent sense of wonder but it was Heinlein's gift, as with many good authors, to make you want to pull back each new curtain, to flip each page thirsty to unveil every new vista grander and more mind-boggling than the last.

It comes across as not predictable but fitting, just as in Wells' The Time Machine you read of the time traveler skipping minutes ahead to test his machine and then days and then you can't wait to see the aeons fly by and you just know, it just fits so well, that by the end he will reach the end of all things, a perspective which dwarfs all human ambition to nothingness. Heinlein unfortunately shies away from an appropriately nihilistic ending but Have Spacesuit, Will Travel carries that same awe which must grip us medium-sized mammals at the inhuman scale of time and space. We've seen the spiral diagrams of the age of the universe with human time as a nail's breadth sliver of irrelevance; we've seen the infinitely regressing "Powers of Ten" documentary montages zooming out from pale blue dot to swarming insensible disco-lights among which even our galaxy gets lost. Heinlein manages to make it personal, not so much through the two heroes as through the common thread of the spacesuit in question, dusted off and patched up and donned yet again for each step of the journey, described in such painstaking detail that you can almost taste the chafed gaskets.

I'm having trouble classifying this as a juvenile or "young adult" book regardless of its official denomination. The protagonists are young. So what? Is a story about octogenarians only meant to be distributed in nursing homes? So it's got a painfully trite happy ending. Big deal. So do Great Expectations and The Odyssey, not to mention every single R-rated movie belched forth by Hollywood. Deus ex machina plot devices? Have you ever seen a TV drama? What exactly's supposed to condemn this as juvenile? Maybe it's all the arithmetic, the main character doing the math every other chapter to figure out how many thousands and millions of miles he's traveled. Yeah, that must be it.

Everyone knows mature stories are all about the feels. Math, engineering, science, transcendent intellectual inquiry, it's not like you actually find those in serious literature so they must be, ipso facto, juvenile.

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