Memory is a peculiar attribute of consciousness. Who we are, and what we know, is based on memory, but our memories are so damn faulty. I first read Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones back in the 8th grade, which was 1964-65, making me about twelve or thirteen. That’s as good as my memory gets. I wish I was one of those people like Isaac Asimov, who could say, on November 17th, 1964, a Tuesday, I was visiting my school library when I discovered a green book called Starman Jones – and it changed my life. Well, I can’t. I do know I discovered Red Planet first among the Heinlein juveniles, but I haven’t the slightest idea in what order I read the next eleven. I doesn’t matter, but I wish I knew. I think remembering all the details would have saved me from a life of absentminded existence.
I do have a few artifacts from the past that help verify my memory. Below is a scan of a hardback copy I bought with my first paycheck of my first hourly job. The book is signed by me 2/8/68. I had gotten a job at the Winn-Dixie Kwik-Chek in Coconut Grove, Florida in November of 1967, when I turned 16. I ordered all twelve Heinlein juvenile titles directly from the publishers and it took about six weeks to get them. Next to my signature in this edition are three tick marks, meaning I had read it three times, but I stopped making those tick marks decades ago.
I am sure I discovered Heinlein in the 8th grade because my 8th grade English teacher had put Heinlein on an approved reading list we could use for extra credit. I had discovered a few classic science fiction books by then on my own, like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but I had not yet discovered the genre of science fiction. I am 59 now and it’s extremely hard to imagine my 12 year-old self. I’d give anything to have perfect memory of being 12 and reading this book for the first time. I do know I was seriously into Heinlein by the Gemini space mission years and dreamed of growing up and becoming an astronaut.
I bring all this up because I recently listened to an audiobook edition of Starman Jones. This is the second time I listened to the story, and I’m quite confident I read Starman Jones at least four times between 1964 and 1992. For me, the book holds up extremely well. And in the Classic Science Fiction book club I’m in, we’re reading it for our December selection. Several people are reading it for the first time, and I get the impression they like it. [Here’s Carl’s review.]
Maybe Starman Jones will become a science fiction classic. It’s among my Top 10 favorite Heinlein stories, and I consider it one of the Top 25 science fiction books of all time – but that’s my prejudice nostalgia talking.
Can I make an objective case why I think Starman Jones is a great science fiction novel? Why does a book first published in 1953 for boys deserved to still be read by people of all ages in 2010? Does it have qualities like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens that make them readable and loved so long after they were first published? Austen and Dickens wrote two of the greatest love stories of all time, and I’m afraid Max and Ellie are no Pip and Estella. Max Jones is more like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, a young man who gets to travel very far from home.
Starman Jones is for anyone who daydreams of exotic adventures. Starman Jones is for readers who want to escape their mundane life and see the universe. That’s the key, I didn’t say, “See the world.” The quintessential science fiction novel is about going to the planets or the stars. Max Jones is an Ozark farm boy in the future that has an eidetic memory and has memorized his Uncle’s astrogation manuals – the mathematics for navigating in space. Many of the book club members got into science fiction because of seeing Star Wars when they were nine. Luke Skywalker was also a farm boy that wanted to go into space, and he had his own special hidden talent too.
I think those overlapping story aspects reveal qualities that go into great science fiction.
I wish I could remember what being Jimmy Harris was like in 1964 – because being Jim Harris of 2010 isn’t the same. Back then I was naïve enough to believe I would actually go into space like Max. Now, I can only read books and judge them for their ability to help me forget that I didn’t grow up to live the life of the romantic fiction of my youth. Why has the Harry Potter books become so successful with young and old alike? I think we all want to be 11 again, and live in a world where we can find Platform 9 3/4. Kid readers don’t know that magic doesn’t exist – us old farts don’t care that it doesn’t.
Starman Jones has that quality that makes readers believe in the magic of space travel. At 59 I know I would hate being an astronaut, so I’m not reading Starman Jones for the same reason I loved it as age 12. But this revelation might point to why Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations are great books in the same way. When we’re young, reading those books make us want to find love and romance in our real lives, but when we’re older, we read those books differently. We know we’re too old for new love and romance, travel and adventure, except through books. We understand why Dickens made up the story about Pip and Estella. (Dickens wrote Great Expectations while he was an old man chasing a very young woman chaperoned by her mother.)
A great classic has to sell the future as a possibly reality to fuel our youthful dreams, but it is also has to satisfy us late in life as a substitute for waning love and adventure as a dying fantasy we embrace to fuel our wilting spirits. I wish I could perfectly remember who I wanted to be when I was young, but then I wish my younger self could have experienced what I became – in other words, if I could have only known then what I know now. If I did, would I have known when I first read Starman Jones what it would eventually mean to the 59 year old me? Could a wise young me have thought, “This is the fantasy of my life.”
JWH – 12/7/10