Starman Jones, Then and Now

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

13 thoughts on “Starman Jones, Then and Now”

  1. Fantastic and interesting thoughts on Starman Jones. Love these original hardback covers on Heinlein’s books.

    I like the comparisons between Luke and Max. Hadn’t even made the farmer connection. I do think both stories explore some universal themes that not only reach in an fuel our imaginations as children but can also inspire and entertain us as adults. Themes of fulfilling destiny, of venturing out into a bigger world, or universe…themes of friendship and love, of connection.

    “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’m not at the point in my life, and hope to never be, where I’ll agree with that statement. At least not entirely. While I do agree that fiction that will last a lifetime should be able to entertain and engage us regardless of our age, I’m not so sure about the whole ‘waning love’ or ‘wilting spirit’ thing. Sure, I bought into the idea as a child that we would be traveling into space, but not to the point that I am sorely distraught that it isn’t a reality. When I read books like Starman Jones I still get a sense of wonder. I still daydream about space travel and love gazing at the stars. I don’t believe that fiction is a sublimation for unfulfilled dreams, I believe it is a way for us to keep imagining and dreaming and exploring in our minds the same way that we are allowed and expected to do as children. I’ve never bought into the idea that dreaming is only for the young.

    Do we see these kind of stories differently as adults? Of course. But does it have to only be from a jaded viewpoint (which isn’t necessarily what you are saying, my thoughts are just moving this way)? I don’t think so. Isn’t it okay as an adult to just give yourself permission to let go and have some fun imagining? That is one of the great joys of fiction, in my opinion.

    1. I think I was too vague about how I felt about Starman Jones as a kid and as an adult. You and I have argued over my using the term escapism for science fiction. My embracing science fiction as escapism coincides with the best and worst period of my life. My dad had his first heart attack in 1964 and after two more and a stroke died in 1969. I lived in seven houses in three states and went to six schools during those five years. My parents were horrible drunks that fought like crazy. Around the time I read Starman Jones for the first time my mother took me and my sister on a drunk driving adventure that nearly got us killed several times. My life was as harsh as Max’s in the story. Heinlein was my escape from my life. Max was escaping his childhood life in the book, and I was escaping mine by reading it.

      Luckily I’ve had a successful and stable adulthood, but as I’m getting older and having health problems, and have watched a whole generation of family on my side and my wife’s side die, I’m again needing escape. Especially since we’re living in an political and economic nightmare time. I’m again using science fiction as an escape, or literary drug to boost my spirits.

  2. Well that is just a terrible thing to know that you went through and although it probably means very little please let me say how sorry I am first of all that you lost your father so early in life and for all the other things you went through. I think it is great that you had something like science fiction to use as an escape.

    I guess where I come in as far as my opinion is that I don’t define ‘escape’ or ‘escapism’ as a bad thing generally. I only think that ‘escape’ through literature, television, film, etc. is a bad thing if a person is using it like a drug or alcohol to completely check on on life, to the point that responsibilities are not taken care of, etc. If literature is an ‘escape’ that has a positive result, I don’t see that as a bad thing. And I sometimes get the impression that you do, although I could be completely wrong in my interpretation of what you write.

    In the extras on the LOTR DVD’s the Tolkien scholars talk about Tolkien’s view of ‘escape’ through literature in the light that he too had a very positive view of the idea. That some literature can and should be used to escape ‘to’ something, not ‘from’ something, but that also some things in life should be ‘escaped’ from…for example the bad things you were going through at the time. I would think literature helped you during those times, and didn’t harm you, so that is a good escape in my opinion.

    It is an interesting topic that I could go on and on and on about, but the bottom line is that I have never seen reading books, in particular SF, which is far and away my favorite genre of books to read, as a negative thing in any way shape or form. It doesn’t mean that I don’t turn to books for a pick me up, or to forget about the ugliness of life for awhile. I most certainly do. But I see that as a good thing, as a way to be inspired, gain perspective, and quite honestly just take a well deserved break that I believe is psychologically, spiritually, and physically/mentally healthy for humans to do.

    1. I’ve been thinking about it Carl, and have been planning my comments. I’m glad you want to continue the topic.

      Books are like drugs, they are very easy to abuse. As a kid I needed to escape to a happier place to deal with my family problems, but I overdosed on science fiction. Some science fiction is inspirational, but too much is literary heroin.

      Even now I’m reading too much science fiction. Because of the book clubs I’ve gotten caught up in trying to read all the books, and although it’s a lot of fun, I’m neglecting to do a lot of other important and fun things in my life.

      I have an addictive nature, probably inherited from my parents. I can’t just eat three cookies, I’ll go on a binge and eat a bag of cookies each night. I can’t just read one science fiction book a month, but instead try to read them all the time.

      Since I’ve gotten caught up in the book clubs I’ve neglected my blogging. I haven’t been reading all my favorite blogs and commenting, and I’m not pursuing computers, photography, or other hobbies. I’ve also been neglecting my social life. I can really get hooked on SF.

      So, I think there are two kinds of escapism. The first is constructive. Being able to imagine another world is creative, living in a fantasy all the time is just addictive behavior.

      I think you’re probably a lot more well adjusted than I am, so Carl, you don’t see the sinister side of just having a little fun.

  3. Well, your reply of has had me thinking the last couple of days and I wanted to mull it over before responding. First off, it is apparent from reading my comments and your responses that on this topic, both now AND in the past when we’ve broached it that I have been misinterpreting your words, at least to some degree.

    Let me explain.

    I believe that I was reacting so strongly to what you wrote because I was envisioning that you were becoming like some people I’ve met, both in person and online over the years, who seem to reach what they consider a certain maturity level and begin to doubt the value of fiction and the role that fiction can play in one’s life, both for entertainment and inspirational purposes. I was afraid you were starting down that road, a road to discounting fiction, reading fiction, etc. Those thoughts combined with my strong reaction to people who believe (and have every right to believe) that all science fiction should be forward looking and that there is no place for ‘good old fashioned space opera’ were what formed my perception of what you were saying.

    Having read your latest comment, I am not seeing things in that same light and I do honestly see your point and not only agree but can relate, at least on some level.

    I won’t presume to say that your need for escapism is anything like my own. You went through a lot of trauma as a young man that I have never been through and can only relate to because of the many people I have worked with over the years who have went through similar trauma. I also won’t dispute your ideas about addiction, especially as it comes to your own feelings about your own addictive nature, so please don’t misinterpret what I am about to say to think that I am discounting your experience.

    You are completely correct in your assertion that there is constructive and destructive escapism. You are wrong about my being ‘well adjusted’, at least in comparison with your own experiences with reading fiction, particularly science fiction, being an addiction. I have experienced similar addictions and still do. And to be honest with you my own experience, far from scientific, is that this is a pattern with males.

    Again, not scientifically proven, but all of the men that I have ever been close to as friends have had that same kind of addiction. It may not be with reading, but it does manifest itself in that kind of obsession to the detriment of other areas. For example, I struggle mightily to maintain a balance in my life. If I were to graph out a typical year what I believe I would see, as would you and anyone else, is a cyclical succession of obsessions that grip me feverishly only to be replaced by another obsession later on. This time of year, EVERY YEAR, I become feverishly passionate about science fiction. I devour books, I buy more books than any other time of year, I CRAVE buying books more than any other time of year, and I faithfully visit sf/f related websites, engage in conversations, etc. Then it passes, only to be replaced by an obsession with video gaming, or a different type of literature, or with films, etc. Again, I am not trying to say that our situations are the same. I do think there is a similarity that makes me see more clearly exactly what you are saying.

    I am a creative person who likes to experiment with photography, who dabbles in found art stuff (or at least does a lot of planning) and who wants to be more balanced in my approach to fitness, spirituality, etc. If I am ‘well adjusted’ at all is in the fact that I don’t let the reading, etc. stop me from spending time with my family, being a productive employee, or being there for my friends. However, I do believe I let myself slide into that addiction mentality in a way that devours time I could spend being more active.

    That doesn’t change the way I feel about reading and the value of reading, particularly science fiction which is my first love and has always been my favorite literature. I see such a tremendous value in it. I have deep and abiding friendships that are built on the solid foundation of a shared love of reading. Reading is the sole reason I have met such interesting people online and had not only worthwhile communications but also the kind of small talk beneficial to keep a balanced perspective on life.

    You talk about your blogging and the neglect of it and I struggle on both sides with blogging. Sometimes I blog and visit blogs to the detriment of other things…again, not keeping a balance…and other times I am so wrapped up in other things, and feel a bit of lethargy about the whole thing, and don’t visit friend’s blogs for weeks. And I struggle with the fact that I there is no way humanly possible to maintain the kind of blog visiting relationships with the number of folks that I do. And other people cannot do it either.

    I go back and forth sometimes between feeling hurt and then seeing reality when “friends” don’t visit my blog for a long time, don’t comment on posts where I know they have a true interest, etc. But then I look at my own life and see how busy I am and I completely understand. Then that whole guilt/obligation mentality kicks in and I have to take a step back and get a dose of reality.

    I kind of got a bit off track for a bit and want to get back to addictions/obsessions and the male persona. Do you see this with other men? I have friends who pour themselves into some idea they are passionate about, then pour themselves into the next idea, and so on. They are always obsessing about something or other and that is all they can talk about. I have other friends who do this strictly with the kind of fiction they are reading and I am much the same way myself. In other ways I am like you in that I could easily find myself reading science fiction to the exclusion of all else, especially if there was an audience for what I had to say about my reading that would fuel more reading.

    One saving grace for me, and also a source of frustration, is that when I get in “sci fi mode” the engagement of conversation on my blog often drops down to “hearing crickets” level. It saves me because I don’t stay obsessed with just one area of literature, and yet I, like everyone else, sometimes wish I could have more in-depth, engaged conversations with people about the literature I am most passionate about.

    That is why I am so glad you invited me to the book club. I am hoping it will meet that need for me. I am also hoping that being committed to the club will help curb my own obsessive, on again/off again nature with science fiction by encouraging me to read novels and/or short stories throughout the year.

    Only time will tell, but that is what I hope happens.

    I sincerely hope nothing I do pushes you to read more sf to the exclusion of other passions that you have and I hope we both find a bit more balance in our lives in regards to our passions and our duties. I want a balanced life. Not a dull life, don’t get me wrong, but a life where I am equally passionate for active things, like exercise, art, photography, as I am for passive things like reading, gaming, and tv/film.

  4. A wonderful post! I read Starman Jones in 8th grade as well — I didn’t appreciate it as much as some of the other sci-f works I read that same year (for example, Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky or Del Rey’s Mutiny on the Moon — hehehe)….

    Science fiction in general is “for anyone who daydreams of exotic adventures.”

    I’ve just discovered your wonderful blog — the sci-fi entries are particularly enlightening and fun to read! thanks!

  5. I was just talking about Starman Jones the other day because a friend of mine finally tracked down a copy and is reading it. I just saw an audio copy of it in the young adult section of my local library but unfortunately it wasn’t one of the full audio casts like several of Heinlein’s juveniles. I’d love to have a Full Cast Audio version of this.

  6. I haven’t (yet) been hooked on audio books in general…. I rather read the withered old paperbacks with their delightful musty smells and cool covers 😉

    1. I don’t give up the old dusty books because I listen to audio books. Each has their own virtues. Books inputted through your ears rather than your eyes hits the brain differently. For my favorite books I want both experiences. And if someone makes a movie of a book, that’s another way to experience it.

  7. I know what you mean, and most of the time I would rather do that as well. But I do drive a decent amount of time for work and get tired of always listening to the news or the same old songs over and over again and occasionally a good audio book turns out to be a grand way to use that time. And the Full Cast Audio productions of Heinlein’s juveniles have proven to be very well done. I also like to listen to authors (those who are good readers) read their work, after I’ve read the novel myself generally, because I always get a little something different out of the story listening to their own inflection, tone, etc.

    1. Yeah, I don’t drive that often — thank goodness! I might be more inclined if I did.

      And I agree (in principle) with you James…. However, many of my favorite sci-fi works haven’t been made into audio books — too my knowledge — yet… Silverberg’s The World Inside, John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar… things like that…

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