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.