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Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Published by Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Have Space Suit -- Will Travel was one of the first books by Robert A. Heinlein that I ever read. At the time I was pretty much oblivious to authorship, so I didn't take particular note of the name, or distinguish his work from that of several other writers from the same period that I read concurrently. I just knew the story made a big impression on me, and I kept thinking about it long after I finished reading it.

A lot of critics talk about how much Zeerust Have Space Suit -- Will Travel has accumulated in the years since it was written, but quite honestly, when I read it as a preteen, it really didn't seem all that dated. Maybe it was just a matter of problematical elements sliding past me because I didn't have a good Zeerust radar yet, but it still felt to me like something that could be in our future. At that time it hadn't been all that long since Gene Cernan left the lunar surface, closing out the Apollo moonshots, and it still seemed possible that we'd soon be returning to the Moon and establishing a permanent base like the one Kip wanted to go to.

And quite honestly I felt quite sympathetic with Kip's desire, since I felt it myself. Not long after reading Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, I had an assignment in art class to draw what I imagined myself doing in twenty years, and I drew a figure in an elaborate protective suit working in a laboratory with a window that provided a view of the lunar surface. I really thought that by the turn of the twenty-first century we'd have a sufficient research presence on the Moon that my drawing represented a plausible future me.

The small town setting of the novel's initial chapters was even familiar to me, although the drugstore where our family filled its perscriptions didn't have a soda fountain. I recognized the limited curriculum of its high school, the limited horizons of its inhabitants' imaginations, and the persistent hostility toward the intellectual ambitions of anyone who dared to dream beyond those bounds. Even Ace Quigley was a recognizable type, since I'd had to deal with the sort of people whose idea of fun was ridiculing and humiliating someone who couldn't answer back.

But then there were the extraordinary bits. Not just the moonbase which made Kip's dream of going to the Moon a lot closer than mine, but the hints that Kip's father was more than he seemed. When Kip announced his dream, his dad didn't try to talk him out of it or urge him to downsize it to something more realistic given the limited education available at Center High. No, he set forth to expand Kip's education so that Kip would have a realistic chance of getting into one of the prestigious engineering schools that would give him the degree that would put him in line for a slot in the space program, and particularly one on the moonbase. When Heinlein heroes and their mentors encounter problems, they look for possibilities instead of seeing obstacles.

However, as Kip is approaching graduation, he's beginning to see that things aren't so simple as just filling his head with the right knowledge. There's the matter of money, for starters. Unless he can land a full-ride scholarship, the money he's saved from his part-time job at the drugstore will run out before he's gotten very far. Sure, the money would stretch further at the state university, but their degree wouldn't have the cachet that would give him an edge in competing for the small number of slots for technical people on the Moon. (Apparently he's not living in Indiana, whose Purdue University has produced several astronauts, including Gus Grissom and Neil Armstrong). Now Kip's plans for attaining his dream seem a lot more fragile and unlikely to succeed.

And then Skyway Soap announces its competition to select a slogan, with the grand prize being an all-expenses-paid trip to the Moon. Suddenly Kip's dream seems a lot more attainable again. He just has to come up with a slogan so appealing that the judges will have to choose it.

Since the contest allows multiple entries, he decides to maximize his chances by coming up with as many slogans as possible, and to avoid duplicate effort by careful record-keeping on his submissions. Here we have another aspect of the Heinlein hero -- a logical and systematic approach to solving a problem.

And then the big day comes when the winner will be anounced. After some frightening moments when the local television station experiences technical difficulties (something that still happened fairly frequently when I was a kid, and almost always at the most inconvenient part of the program), they get a clear signal and see the announcement. He recognizes the slogan the judges have chosen, and eagerly checks his cardfile to verify. Yes, the winning slogan is indeed one that he sent in.

But wait, they're bringing the winner on stage right now -- a mousy little woman who seems to be quite overwhelmed by instant fame. It turns out that Kip was only one of several people who submitted the winning slogan, and the grand prize winner was determined by postmark. All subsequent winners would receive consolation prizes -- in Kip's case, a space suit. And not just a stage prop, but an actual working space suit that was used by one of the construction workers who built the space station (apparently a standard wheel in the sky station of the Fifties Future).

The next several chapters, in which Kip refurbishes the suit for an imagined trip to the Moon are fascinating reading. On one hand we have Kip's fond anthropomorphization of the space suit, to the point it becomes an imaginary friend named Oscar who offers companionship and advice. On the other there's the hard-nosed technical discussion of life-support in the space environment. Given that Heinlein was writing this novel in 1958, a year before Project Mercury began and a decade before the actual Apollo lunar landings, this material is a mixture of astonishingly good extrapolation and the laughably off-base. For instance Kip's fictional suit is made by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which actually made the suits used by the Mercury 7 -- but in Kip's world one wears it over regular clothes rather than the special air- or water-cooled undergarments that are actually worn under a space suit (there are numerous photos of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts suiting up which show them). Also Heinlein extrapolated the oxygen tank arrangements from SCUBA gear, with the connectors in the back, leading Kip to resolve in one crisis that those critical connectors should be on the front where the wearer can easily reach them. NASA never made that mistake in designing the actual moonwalker suits -- frex, if you look closely at the famous "visor shot" photo of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, you can see the connectors where the hoses from the PLSS backpack go into his suit, right there on the chest where they can easily be reached.

But the neatest part about this section of the novel is how Heinlein manages to keep the prose interesting even as he imparts all this technical information on a discipline that would soon be called astronautics, without it feeling like a chore to be slogged through. Maybe it's Kip's personal investment in knowing it, since his life is going to depend on this technology when he really gets to the Moon. Or maybe it's his enthusiasm for the process of reconditioning the old space suit, even when he knows that the logical, practical thing to do is return it for the redemption credit, which will go a heck of a long way to pay for his tuition (or would've in 1958 dollars).

And then he's out in a nearby open field with his fully reconditioned space suit, imagining he's on the lunar surface talking by radio with a coworker -- and a voice answers him. Not the voice loop he rigged to provide himself with an imaginary partner, but an actual human voice. A female one, and young.

And then he's snatched up by a spaceship of alien manufacture and the story goes from near-term hard science fiction to space opera. It seems that Earth is the subject of covert operations by an extrasolar intelligence. When Kip is taken to be interrogated by one of them, it proves to be a tentacle-mouthed nasty straight out of the nightmares of H. P. Lovecraft. But the Cthulhu Mythos was not included in Kip's intensive education, so he just calls this nasty alien "Wormface."

After a brief but ultimately futile flight across the lunar surface with Peewee (his nickname for the girl who called to him) and the friendly alien known as the Mother-Thing, Kip is hauled off to Pluto to the Wormfaces' main base. There he lays plans to escape and rescue his friends like any square-jawed hero should, only to discover he's completely outclassed. As it turns out, Peewee busts him out of the holding cell.

But Kip's not entirely without an opportunity for heroism. The Mother-Thing went outside to place a beacon and she hasn't returned. So Kip heads out to rescue her, only to discover that the bitter cold of Pluto's summer atmosphere is too much for a space suit designed for vacuum (this novel was written when almost nothing was known about Pluto beyond its orbit, so a lot of Heinlein's extrapolations of conditions there seem laughable now). By the time he returns to the Wormfaces' base with the Mother-Thing's frozen body, he's in agony.

But the Mother-Thing's beacon isn't limited to lightspeed, and her people are coming to the rescue. Thus begins a sojourn among the Vegans, whose medicine can heal Kip's horrific injuries. But it's not entirely a charity -- they want him in good shape for the trial of the Wormfaces.

This episode is one of the most ambiguous of Heinlein's writing. The court of the Three Galaxies speaks of law and justice, yet under their high-sounding words there's a feeling of profound arrogance not that dissimilar from the unabashed contempt of the Wormfaces for all other species. In fact there's a certain brutal honesty in the Wormfaces' attitudes, since they don't hide their mailed fist behind noble platitudes. They're nasty and they're proud of it.

It's possible that this part of the novel reflects a profound unease on Heinlein's part toward the United Nations and the whole concept of international law courts. He was a staunch believer in rule of law and due process, but in the framework of the US Constitution, not transnationalist progressivism. Certainly he did not portray the Three Galaxies' trial of humanity as a noble thing, and Kip's defiant response is shown as an act of heroic courage, not impudence. In any case, the novel ends happily, with suggestions of a bright future for humanity.

Given the reference to the construction of Luna City, one might wonder whether it is the same Luna City that was the principal location of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. However, that novel takes place in the same universe as Red Planet and The Rolling Stones, which arguably are in the same universe as Stranger in a Strange Land. There is never any mention of the distinctive Martians of that timeline -- in fact, the only mention of Mars in the entire novel is Kip's mnemonic for the planets when he's planning his escape from the Wormfaces' base on Pluto, although Kip's earlier thought about humanity not having reached the moons of Jupiter would suggest at least one crewed Mars expedition had occurred.

For that matter, given the extraordinary powers the Martians displayed in both Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, it seems unlikely that the Wormfaces would be operating so casually in the same system with them, or that the Three Galaxies never once mentioned them. But given that "Luna City" is a pretty generic name, it's possible that the usage is coincidence rather than an indication of shared continuity. Although Heinlein did make some efforts in his early Future History to create a self-consistent Secondary World, it appears that in his later novels he might use common elements in creating each, but did not necessarily treat them as belonging to a single self-consistent Secondary World.

Review posted December 22, 2011.

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