Robert Heinlein: Rocket Ship Galileo

Rocket Ship Galileo is Heinlein’s earliest novel length science fiction publication. Published by Scribner, it appeared in 1947 as a young adult book and it really shows. The short novel is a strange mix of Verne’ian hard science fiction, Boy’s Own adventure, and outright pulp ridiculousness. The novel follows the adventures of three boys, Art, Morrie, and Ross. Seemingly around the age of 14/15, these interchangeable kids are a mix of precocious scientific savants who spend their weekends indulging in a spot of full-sized rocketry, and whiny Holden Caulfield’s who ‘Gee Whillickers’ their way around the book driving too fast and being casually callous about phonies and rotters.

They are soon joined by Dr Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys (it really doesn’t matter which one, it’s not as if they have distinct personalities or anything) who is one of the ‘fathers of the atomic age’ and a truly patronising man whose attempts to talk ‘hip’ ring about as true as the boys’ parents attitudes towards their sons plans for space exploration. He is a scientist who has discovered a new way to fuel rocket engines using a thorium reactor. The good doctor uses the boys as cheap labour to install this reactor in the back of an off-the-peg spacecraft, and follows this by enlisting them as crew in a mission to the moon, seemingly all so he can become a fellow of the French Academy. The first two thirds of the book are taken up with the various preperations before the trip, and the final third is actually set on the moon. It is here in this last section that the story really becomes preposterous, and Morrie sets himself apart as the character that Cargraves is grooming the most.

Sarcasm aside, the plot to this novel is ludicrous, and the characters are paper thin and, frankly, annoying as hell. However, there is at least one aspect in which Heinlein really impresses in this novel, and that is his science. Having only read a few later Heinlein novels in which the science gives way to the fiction, it is nice to find Heinlein seriously working in the scientific fiction genre, in which the action is largely determined by a didatic drive to explain some of the basic principles of rocketry, electronics and space flight. This is hampered somewhat by the slapdash approach in which Heinlein doles out the seemingly random information. The science has been dropped in as the story demands, the lack of a learning curve showing off the erudition of Heinlein but making it pretty much useless to anyone who does not already know the basics of rocket science.

The plot, which initially starts slowly does rise to a crescendo of pulpy goodness, in fact being perhaps the earliest example of a particularly ridiculous trope that survives to this day in the form of some truly awful yet highly amusing and tongue in cheek B-movies. So kudos for that.

Overall this novel owes much to Jules Verne and the spirit of scientific progress prevalent in late 1940’s America and is a nice indication that Heinlein knew whereof he spoke in relation to actual scientific fiction, but beyond that the book is definitely a period piece and should be taken as such, preferably whilst bearing in mind that when written the moon was yet to be visited and the V2 rocket was still a bad recent memory. In truth, my absolutely favourite thing about this book was not the bizarre and genuinely unexpected twist but the brilliant cover art by Darrell Sweet for this 1977 Del Ray edition. They don’t paint ’em like that anymore, sadly.

~ by Snake Oil on December 5, 2011.

8 Responses to “Robert Heinlein: Rocket Ship Galileo”

  1. There’s still something fun about reading the old juveniles (remember, these were written for 11-14 year old boys) — I try not to let the datedness get in the way….

    The first edition cover is kind of cool :)

  2. I have just found out via that on the day I posted this, the cover artist Darrell Sweet passed away. Terribly sad news. They really, really don’t paint ’em like that anymore. R.I.P.

  3. I was sad to hear of Sweet’s recent passing. He did some covers back when I was a kid that I would stare at for what seemed like hours. Those books are still ones I treasure.

    I am curious if you’ve read any of the other Heinlein juveniles. They do all read like boys adventure stories and while I have yet to read this one I have really enjoyed those I have read. One thing that does impress me about his juveniles is that he does seem to make some effort to explain things that are either good science or Heinlein doing a good job of making them sound like good science. Although the books have a juvenile tone I often find things in them that indicate that he was not trying to talk down to kids but that instead he gave them credit for being able to understand interesting concepts.

  4. Haven’t read them yet, I’m trying to do his books in order of publication and I am on ‘Beyond the Horizon’ at the moment.
    It seemed to me that in this one he was giving good solid science, he was even picking apart Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ for making errors regarding trajectory, but he misses chances to give timely lessons. He mentions that it would be an easy thing to bombard the Earth from the Moon, but does not explain why.
    I find this a little baffling, but have to confess here that this may be because I am, perhaps, not Heinlein’s greatest fan. I am reading his stuff mainly because it has had such a huge influence on so many, but personally I find his plotting and characterization somewhat lacklustre and this may be influencing my opinions somewhat.

    • That makes sense. I’ll be interested to see how your thoughts go as you progress. I remember being pretty impressed by his discussions about astrogation and space flight in books like Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones. I was surprised that he would include stuff like that in books written for kids and am glad that he didn’t write down to them.

      I am also impressed with the way in which Heinlein wrote female characters. That is, before he devolved into the “juvenile” sex fantasies of his later works. Although his female characters never entirely shed gender roles, he wrote some strong and independent female characters. The mom and grandma in The Rolling Stones demonstrate this on occasion as does Podkayne in Podkayne of Mars and the young girl in both The Menace from Earth and The Star Beast. I also enjoyed how Heinlein examined the idea of the “threat” of women entering into traditional male dominated positions with his short story Delilah the Space Rigger.

      I’ve signed up to get your posts emailed to me and I look forward to seeing your progression through Heinlein’s juveniles. I have several I still need to read myself and maybe your reviews will help light that fire.

      • I look forward to reading these novels. I am aware that I am basing my opinion on the little I have read so far, so my mind is completely open to being changed on this score, or at the very least ameliorated slightly. He’s still a very good and talented writer, and his books are a long way from being unreadable, so I’m hoping the process will be an enjoyable one still.
        Thanks for signing up! I’m also considering joining your read of ‘foundation’. I have read the first one, loved, but bought the next two and never got round the them. You may be able to give me a kick up the bum to finish a series too!

      • If you enjoyed the first book I suspect you’d like the rest. The third one is a bit of a drop off, but not much in my opinion.

  5. […] of Earth orbit. As the second in the series, it is difficult not to compare the book the earlier Rocket Ship Galileo, so that is where I will […]

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