Robert Heinlein: Space Cadet
Space Cadet was Heinlein’s third published novel, and is the second in his series of ‘Juvenile’ works (not juvenilia, but what we would now call Young Adult). It revolves around the experiences of a young North American boy from Des Moines, Matt Dodson, who enrols to become a member of the Patrol, an elite peacekeeping force whose task is to maintain peace on earth and in the wider solar system by use of negotiation and orbiting atomic weapons. The novel follows his progress through the academy as he learns to become a spaceman, and on his first missions out of Earth orbit. As the second in the series, it is difficult not to compare the book with the earlier Rocket Ship Galileo, so that is where I will begin.
Space Cadet is by far the stronger book. Whereas Rocket Ship had a similar cast of four boys all attempting to become spacemen, the three youngsters in Space Cadet are very well differentiated. Matt is protagonist and as such is more of a sympathetic everyman character, whilst his companion ‘Tex’, hailing shockingly enough from Texas, is a confident, slightly unruly character full of tall tales about the exploits of his Uncle Brodie, and the other lead, Oscar, is Venutian, and has difficulties with culture shock and homesickness. This is a breath of fresh air from Heinlein, where beforehand his characters were, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable, here they are well rounded and likeable.
Most of the book is taken up with their progress through Space Academy, and much of the detail and feeling is drawn from Heinlein’s own time as a cadet in the Naval Academy at Annapolis in the 1920’s. Because of this, it feels very real and is richly detailed. This section, where Matt is constantly learning, also begs comparisons with Rocket Ship Galileo. In the earlier book, the scientific descriptions and expositions were thrown in almost at random and at great detriment to the story and pacing, here they are timely and relevant, and add greatly to the feeling of realism for both the experience of Matt at the academy, and for the world building.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the world building in general. Heinlein has set up a massive system to support the progress of one young man through his education, and only hints at this creation in a wonderfully subtle way. The idea that humanity is kept in check by the constant threat of atomic force from space, yet all nations contribute to the upkeep of this system by funding the Patrol through their taxes, is a very interesting one and is only noted once or twice. Once when Matt has an argument with his parents about it, proving that his allegiance has become to the Patrol rather than to his original nationality (interestingly, this is an instance of a character in the book becoming purposely estranged from his own society), and again when it is briefly mentioned that the Patrol is both the object of many Earther’s ire and a highly glorified and respected institution at one and the same time. Aside from the brilliantly thought through concept, this shows an increased respect from Heinlein for his readers. Instead of towing one simple line, such as ‘Nazi’s are bastards’, it is recognised that even young readers can understand ideological dichotomies on a bare-bones basis.
A wonderfully thought through book that is both atmospheric, informative, and entertaining. ‘Space Cadet’ has given me my first glimpse of Heinlein as a seriously good SF writer, as both Rocket Ship Galileo and Beyond This Horizon were both distinctly sub-par in my opinion, and I look forward with renewed eagerness to reading more of his work.