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The Star Beast by Robert A Heinlein

Cover art by Darrell K. Sweet

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel belongs roughly in the middle of the sequence of novels Heinlein wrote for Scribner's juvenile line. By this point Heinlein has established himself as a writer of merit, but he is still under firm editorial control. As a result, he is able to move into wider fictional vistas, and even to indulge in a little sociological extrapolation that challenges conventional social roles (viz. the character who's divorced her parents for some unspecified dysfunction and now lives with a government-approved adult guardian of her own choice), but it's clear that he still doesn't have free rein to indulge himself as would happen in some of his later, more regrettable novels.

Unlike the early juveniles, which took place entirely within the Solar System and were based upon fairly rigorous extrapolation of known astronomical facts (although since superseded, particularly the optimistic vision of a habitable and inhabited Venus, Mars and Galilean moons of Jupiter), The Star Beast takes place in a more distant future in which humanity has moved out into the stars. However, unlike the setting of Starman Jones, we do not have the oppressive social system based upon restrictive guilds that made life so difficult for the protagonist of that story.

Rather, we have a rather typical space opera future in which humans travel among the stars and interact with numerous alien species, some of whom ally with humanity and others who retain their own independent star-nations. It's not dissimilar from the setting that Heinlein would later use for Citizen of the Galaxy, his penultimate Scribner's juvenile, except in this novel humanity has possessed FTL travel for only a century and a half, whereas in Citizen of the Galaxy humans have been spreading among the stars for untold centuries, long enough for visually distinctive populations to develop on some planets.

And the fact that humans haven't been traveling among the stars -- or in space at all, for that matter -- will prove to be a very important plot element. Humans are still newcomers, for all that they've been busily organizing a Federation of allied planets who all pledge to the same sort of democratic ideals of free markets, free elections, and the fundamental right of every sophont to go about his or her business without meddlesome interference from government or neighborhood busybodies. At this point they may think they're pretty important, but they will soon discover that they know very little indeed about how the galaxy works.

However, the story starts with a very narrow and immediate problem, as we meet the titular Star Beast, known by the name of Lummox. He's a curious creature, but he also has a certain sense of propriety, of boundaries that he really shouldn't go trespassing -- but if something isn't clearly delineated as being out of bounds, he will deal with it as he sees fit. As in devouring the neighbor's aggressive dog, or tasting some interesting roses that he regards as not owned by anybody in particular.

And thus begins trouble, when the owner of that dog, a nosy neighbor of the sort Heinlein was wont to cast as a minor villain, becomes upset about it and sets off a chain of events that leads to Lummox running off. And when the authorities come to complain, they can't resolve it the obvious way because Lummox's human's off with a friend. By the time John Thomas Stuart XI comes home, everything's already in an uproar.

But he's not going to abandon a friend -- no Heinlein hero ever does something so low and base as sell out a friend. So off John Thomas heads in search of Lummox, hoping to calm him down enough to get him back home where everything will be fine again.

Except things aren't so simple, as we gain a new storyline -- Mr. Kiku, Permanent Undersecretary for Spatial Affairs. In Heinlein's tradition of slipping in members of various racial minorities that were usually ignored in the lily-white science fiction of the age, it's pretty clearly indicated that Mr. Kiku's not just born and raised in Africa, but of indigenous sub-Saharan African cultural origin as well. To put it bluntly, he's black. And furthermore, his holding a very responsible position in his society is presented as completely unremarkable, thus subtly informing the reader that in this future society, the racial and ethnic divisions of humanity have diminished in social importance and are now merely interesting differences between people. All done by inference, without any big lectures about identity politics, which may well be why Heinlein, like so many conservative writers, gets the real level of diversity in their stories underestimated, overlooked and outright denied.

Or maybe it's the fact that Mr. Kiku's most besetting failing is pretty much a science fictional version of racism. When we first meet him, he's in considerable distress because he needs to meet with a Rargyllian, a medusa humanoid whose head tentacles writhe and twist in a way that remind his hindbrain of snakes, no matter how much he tells himself they aren't. So he's reduced to having to take a pill, apparently some kind of sedative, in order to be able to face this entity with a reasonable semblance of aplomb.

Not to mention the little twist of humor in which he thinks of John Thomas Stuart's home town of Westville as "one of the native villages," thus inverting the common attitudes of white people towards indigenous peoples at the time this novel was written. At the time the inversion would've been a way of putting the shoe on the other foot, of seeing other people see us the way we see them and perhaps understanding why it's problematical. But now the expression is more apt to be seen as offensive by contemporary readers, rather than a sharp satire on the exoticizing of the Other.

Even when Mr. Kiku's first appraised of the commotion the Lummox has caused, he doesn't think of it as anything extraordinary. After all, it's not unknown for space travelers to bring critters home from other worlds, never mind they know that smuggling is a serious matter, strictly forbidden. Probably dealing with it will be a purely pro forma matter, identifying and removing the creature.

No sooner than he's received a report on the almost comical failures of one after another attempt to carry out the order to destroy the alien beast as a dangerous monster, he meets with his Rargyllian informant and learns a very disturbing piece of information -- a spaceship is approaching Earth, crewed by a previously unknown species that call themselves the Hroshii. They've come to rescue one of their own -- and when Mr. Kiku insists that Earth does not have the missing Hroshia, he's told that's most unfortunate.

For it seems the Hroshii are not inclined to accept no as an answer, and they are willing to use force to get what they want. So technologically advanced are they that this single ship can wreak terrific destruction, whether as a means of communicating through pain, or as an act of vengeance if their demands are refused. And proud as humanity may be about their technological achievements, they are nothing compared to the technology of the Hroshii. Any attempts at resistance will be crushed.

Except there's one huge problem. Humanity has never had any contact with the Hroshii before. There are no records of a human starship visiting their far distant capital, far beyond the exert of human exploration. Which means that it's impossible for humanity to return what they do not have -- and the Hroshii will not accept the possibility that they could be wrong, that they could be condemning an innocent planet to immolation.

On the other hand, that troublesome Lummox bears a certain resemblance to the descriptions he's received of the Hroshii, albeit several times larger. Further complicating any simple identification, he has no arms, no means of manipulating his environment, which has been one of the most important reasons for discounting the possibility that he might be intelligent.

And in any case, he's gone. He escaped from the reservoir the local safety officials were using as a pen to hold him in, and young Mr. Stuart has also disappeared. Of course as readers we're privy to both storylines, so we get to see our protagonists fleeing together, and John Thomas's mounting concern as Lummox develops two strange growths on its back. Could the stress of captivity have led poor Lummox to develop some alien version of cancer?

The further they flee, the bigger and nastier-looking those growths become. It looks like there's something inside them, maybe lumpy tumors, or some kind of body parts migrating out of place the way the intestines can migrate into a hernia in a human.

And then one of them bursts open, and out comes an arm. Not exactly a human one, for it has two elbows and seven digits -- two thumbs and five fingers, the middle one almost like a tentacle. It's only a matter of time before the other one follows suit.

If the reader's been paying close attention, he or she will see the surprise Heinlein's setting up in terms of alien biology. It appears that Lummox's people only develop their hands when they reach a certain point in their growth curve, rather like human women develop breasts at puberty -- or maybe more equivalent to the metamorphosis of some insects. In any case, it's most definitely aliens being alien, very unlike humans at a biological level. And if their biology is so different, might their psychology not also be quite different?

And thus we get Heinlein's final surprising reversal of roles. Not only is Lummox no wild beast, no stupid pet, but she in fact regards herself as having raised a succession of John Thomases as quasi-pets. And this noble scion of the ruling house of a most advanced and powerful alien species wishes to take her current pet with her as she returns to her long-lost homeward, to continue her well-nigh immortal life after this brief interlude on an alien world. Suddenly all our assumptions, particularly our humanocentric ones, are upended and we have to look at the universe from a new perspective in which we aren't the most important creatures in it.

Whenever one reads Heinlein, the question comes up of where a given work belongs in his imagined futures. A number of his stories share such obvious common features that it's clear they belong to a single fictional continuity, particularly those stories and novels which belong to his Future History (although some critics have suggested that there are in fact two different Future Histories that run in rough parallel), but other novels seem to be complete stand-alones, unconnected to any other work.

One of the early John Thomas Stuarts is said to have died on the first mission to the Moon, which pretty much excludes it from the Future History in which D D Harriman's pilot Leslie LeCroix successfully went and returned, leading the way to cheap spaceflight and the wealthy regularly vacationing on the Moon. If one regards the continuity of Red Planet, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and The Rolling Stones as a separate continuity, it's possible that this novel also belongs in it, since none of those novels gives much information about the early days of lunar exploration, unless one assumes that they belong to the same Future History as Harriman, etc. However, the Old Martians' psychic powers probably put them in a class comparable to the Hroshii, so the fact that there's no mention of encounters with them militates against such a connection.

Thus the status of The Star Beast within the larger framework of Heinlein's interconnected works must necessarily be ambiguous. Maybe it belongs in the same continuity as some of his earlier work, just further down the line. Or maybe it's a one-off he wrote because his fertile imagination came up with it. In the absence of definitive Word of God on the matter, all speculation is just that.

Review posted February 1, 2013.

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