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Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Vincent di Fate

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Today we hear the term "space cadet" most often as a term of opprobrium for someone the speaker regards as needing to concentrate more on mundane things. However, when Heinlein coined the expression, he meant it in a literal sense, as an officer-in-training of a future space academy analogous to the US service academies. It's not a direct translation of Heinlein's own alma mater the US Naval Academy (which has also produced a number of astronauts, from America's first spaceman, Alan Shepard, to ISS Expedition 33 commander Sunita Williams), for the groundside school is only part of its physical plant. Cadets also serve on an teaching ship in orbit, the Randolph, in a system more reminiscent of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Royal Navy than Annapolis.

It's interesting to read this novel from the perspective of almost seven decades. When Heinlein wrote Space Cadet in 1948, Project Mercury was still a decade in the future (it would formally begin in 1959, and Shepard would make the first Mercury flight in Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961). As a result, Heinlein was working almost entirely from extrapolation based upon such things as Von Braun's articles in Colliers' Magazine. Thus we see atomic rockets that return to base to land vertically on their tailfins (vaguely like an Apollo Lunar Module landed, but in atmosphere) rather than splashing down in the ocean like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, or landing on a runway like a Space Shuttle orbiter. We see the traditional wheel in the sky space station, although our protagonist and his friends seldom get to visit it. Not bad writing so much as a story so encrusted with Zeerust it feels quaint and backward, but not yet charming the way some of the late-Victorian futures past have become, as witness the fascination of steampunk, the effort to recreate as alternate history the futures the Victorians imagined for themselves, using modern technological awareness.

In many ways the datedness of the planetary science is even more noticeable than the datedness of Heinlein's technological extrapolations. We can imagine that some of the space infrastructure he imagined is stuff we just haven't gotten to because we chose a different path, racing to the Moon on technology barely capable of the feat, then retrenching and spending the next four decades stuck in low Earth orbit, sending the Space Shuttle up and down on one routine mission after another and pretending we were going places. However, it's harder to pretend that Heinlein's planetary science is something that might have been if only things had gone a little differently. Although Heinlein was operating on the best available knowledge at the time (perhaps erring on the side of optimism in the interest of a good story), his images of Mars and Venus as habitable, the abodes of native intelligent life, and even the Moon as having once had intelligent natives before some catastrophe rendered it lifeless, would soon be dashed by the discoveries of the early flyby probes of the 1960's.

Although Heinlein does a wonderful job in imagining alien societies that really are alien and confound our assumptions (the Venerians have almost no taboos, except against eating in public, to the point that polite Venerians have tiny private booths for eating, comparable to the toilet stalls in a human public restroom, and their technology is based upon such different principles from humanity's that it's overlooked and they are assumed to be primitive savages), his future human societies are basically 1940's America with a few futuristic gadgets, but no real appreciation of the transformative and disruptive effects of technology. Of course there is the fact that he was writing for young people, under the tutelage of a very strict, even prudish, editor with whom he had extensive battles on several books. So it's quite possible that it's not so much a failure of imagination as the simple knowledge that trying to extrapolate major social change, particularly the sort that results in the rearrangement of social roles and divisions of labor that are regarded as timeless and non-negotiable, would run counter to what the editor regarded as "wholesome" and "uplifting" literature for young people.

In any case, we have a world where it's assumed that becoming a space cadet is a strictly masculine endeavor, and that girls should focus their energies on being good homemakers, the bedrock of polite society, since they don't have a good head for math or science or any of the things that a space cadet needs. Downright retrograde for today's reader, particularly when contrasted with the multiculturalism of the Patrol, which may involve the religious services of several faiths in the funeral of a single crew, and which even supports the cultures and rights of the native sophonts of the other inhabited worlds of the Solar System, as viz. the reaction of our protagonists to the attitudes and actions of the villainous Burke when he is told an area he wishes to mine for valuable radioactive ores is tabu under local Venerian custom.

Part of this problem may simply be the fact that time has left the story by, and what was once progressive, even transgressive, has become merely par for the course, such that the elements that were contemporary look all the more painful for their datedness. As a result, I have to question the suitability of this novel for contemporary youth of the age that would've been the original target group for it. On one hand, the Bildungsroman and coming-of-age elements of Matt Dodson's story are quite inspiring, as Matt and his friends grow from green recruits first trying to act the role of a Space Patrol cadet as they understand it to actual seasoned cadets, able to take on challenges with aplomb and consider it merely doing their duty, all in a day's work. We could use some more stories like that, with characters who don't whine and fret while they wait for someone in authority to come along and tell them what needs doing and how to do it. But because a story so obviously set in "the future" has so many dated social customs, it is apt to be confusing or off-putting to readers who haven't accumulated the necessary life experience to have a historical perspective of how social customs have changed.

But even if the dated social and cultural elements were to be glossed over or edited out (a very controversial issue, viz the enormous amount of flak Eric Flint took for removing a few references to cigarettes and smoking which he considered dated and distracting from Baen's reissue version of James H. Schmitz's Federation of the Hub stories) and the outdated planetary science were replaced by a more modern view of Mars, Venus and the Gallilean satellites of Jupiter, there's the very real problem of trying to present the world of Matt Dodson and his friends as our future, that is, a future we could still get to from here. Because quite honestly, right now our space program is pretty much stalled. There's all kinds of talk about returning to the Moon and making permanent settlements there, of sending crewed expeditions to Mars, all those things that were taken for granted as being in our immediate future even as recently as the 1970's when Apollo wound down -- but somehow there's never quite any willingness to actually spend the money to build the systems and send the missions out. There's endless quibbling about the dangers, about whether the money's well spent or would better by spent here on Earth, whatever it takes to stall until support dribbles away to nothing.

Many writers studying the history of the US space program, and particularly of the various proposed missions that were actually seriously considered and could've made us a serious spacefaring society of the sort we see in this novel have pointed at the Apollo 1 fire as the turning point at which the grand exuberance and vision died, when Congress became stingy about funding and unwilling to allow NASA to push the boundaries of the tried and true with a real pioneering spirit, except for robotic space probes. In this view, if only the Fire could've been averted, we might have been able to have those moonbases and wheel in the sky stations right now, instead of piddling along with an International Space Station that barely works and no replacement for the retired Space Shuttle.

However, even if that disaster was averted, it's almost certain that it would be only a matter of time before one or another mission would go wrong. Maybe Apollo 13 would be just enough worse that the crew wouldn't be able to pull together a solution and they all perish, or one of the Skylab missions goes wrong -- and because it happens even later, it comes as an even worse shock, because we've been given even more time to lull ourselves into thinking we have things in hand and forget that space is a very dangerous environment, and things will go wrong. Instead, might things have gone better if we'd had our first deadly space disaster earlier, before we became so proud of our safety record, and thus it could be seen as one of those things that happen when you're working in a very dangerous environment.

But as I consider Heinlein's imagined future, in which the early space pioneers were pretty much anonymous figures much like the various test pilots at Edwards and Pax River who pushed planes to their operational limits, and many of whom met horrific ends as aircraft with serious problems augured in, I wonder if the point at which our space program went into a dead end wasn't when we avoided disaster in Gemini VIII, or Faith 7, or Aurora 7 (all of which were very close calls that could easily have ended with Dead Astronauts). Maybe it was all the way back on April 9, 1959, when the Mercury 7 were first introduced to the world. By making astronauts celebrities and heroes and household names, not after their heroic accomplishments but just because they were slated to go on the missions that we hoped would result in such accomplishments, might we have made it impossible for the American public to react with anything but horror and outrage as soon as one of them was inevitably lost in action, such that we ended up making it impossible to truly push the boundaries and take the necessary risks to build a permanent presence in space?

If that were the case, it might well be one of the greatest ironies of humanity that our bright future was doomed before it even began, for the simple reason that we were so determined to do everything up front and in public, as a direct opposition to Soviet secrecy and their habits of announcing only their successes and covering up their disasters. It may well be one of those things we'll never be able to be sure about, but I do know this for sure -- when I read the future Heinlein imagined for us and compare it to the current state of the US space program, I'm left with a profound disappointment in what we have.

Review posted December 14, 2012.

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