October 04, 2002

Starman Jones, Robert A. Heinlein

I've been avoiding Heinlein's juveniles for years because of bad experiences I had with them in elementary school. I tried reading two or three of them--of which this might or might not be one, I'm not sure--and every one of them seemed to begin with some poor kid in an intolerably painful clash with authority and no appeal. At the time, this was not something I was prepared to cope with. Those I've read in the last few years have done nothing to weaken that impression; in fact, I think it's truer than I realized. Fortunately I'm no longer twelve and can get past all that.

But all of Heinlein's work appears to be back in print these days, so on the strength of the Heinlein books I read on my recent trip to Vancouver I've decided to make the effort to pick up the rest of the set. Here's the first of the lot.

Starman Jones is the tale of Max Jones, a young kid in trouble. His dad is long dead, leaving him to run the farm and support his step-mother; his step-mother has married the town ne'er-do-well; his late uncle the Astrogator neglected to add his nephew's name to the rolls of the Astrogators' Guild. For Max lives in a future United States where all of the professions are controlled by hereditary guilds. He has the talents and many of the skills he needs to go to space, and no way to get there.

Of course these little problems are resolved satisfactorily, with a plethora of exciting adventures; but what struck me most is Heinlein's impression of what space flight would be like. (Note: Starman Jones was written in 1953.) The most important person on board ship is the Astrogator; it is his job to pilot the ship into the charted anomalies which provide quick transport around the galaxy. To do the job, the Astrogator must track the ship's position minute by minute as the ship approaches the anomaly; he must continually compute and apply course correction factors or the ship might be lost in space when it leaves the anomaly again. He has the help of a couple of chartsmen and a "computerman"; the chartsmen feed him numbers from a book of tables, and the computerman enters the result of the Astrogator's calculations into the ship's computer to perform the needed course corrections. That's right--the important calculations all take place in the Astrogator's head.

Even more interesting is the way in which they take sightings of the ship's position. They take photographs of the star field (real photographs, on photographic plates) and compare them with photographs on file or taken just previously.

It's as though you built a starship with all 1953 technology, except for the space drive.

I do have to given Heinlein credit; he's one of the few science fiction authors who gives the feeling that he really understands what computing orbits and trajectories is all about. And the mechanisms he describes would probably do the job. But man! Just thinking of relying on fallible human beings and brute force analog technology to do such accurate computation in real time makes me cringe.

It's a good book though; easily better than Red Planet.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 4, 2002 06:52 PM