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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, May 04, 2015

Rocketship Galileo (by Robert A. Heinlein) - a brief review

As I mentioned the other day, I am currently starting a program of reading/re-reading a whole bunch of books by Robert A. Heinlein, and I'll review some of them here as we go.

Rocketship Galileo does not merit a lengthy review, but it is notable for being the first of the Scribner juveniles, written by Heinlein in the 1940s and 1950s. It was published in 1947 - obviously not long after World War II, V2 rocket attacks against England, the Nazi Holocaust, the Manhattan Project, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of these momentous events were in the immediate historical background - and, indeed, at the forefront of consciousness - for Heinlein's original readers. Conversely, 1947 was well before any meaningful space program by the United States (or even the USSR's dramatic launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957).

Accordingly, Rocketship Galileo is the product of a special time in recent human history, making it dated for contemporary readers. Most notably, perhaps, it hugely underestimates the cost and complexity of real-world efforts to send spacecraft to the Moon, despite Heinlein's efforts to portray a private space program with considerable circumstantial detail and thus a degree of verisimilitude.

In essence, the story is of a successful moon journey arising from the work of a distinguished (though still relatively young) scientist, Don Cargraves, who enlists the help of three teenage boys (they seem to be about 17 or 18) to help him design, build, and fly his nuclear-powered rocketship. On the Moon they discover that a military base has already been set up by a group of Nazis, who have equipped themselves with nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system. These bad guys plan to blackmail the earth's nations to surrender and accept Nazi rule.

Obvious themes include the fear of nuclear war (together with an embrace of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, such as powering electricity grids and space vehicles, e.g. the heroes' eponymous rocketship). Since the bad guys are out-and-out ruthless, totalitarian fanatics, there is no complexity here when it comes to good versus evil. I don't imagine that I'd have much - or anything at all - to say about Rocketship Galileo in my forthcoming book on science fiction and the moral imagination. There's nothing especially subtle or innovative about the book's moral positions apart from the strong interest in nuclear war and its potential for catastrophe.

Nonetheless, whatever its faults, however dated it might be, and however incredible its premise might seem (the idea that a small group of teenage boys could get together with the uncle of one of them to develop a successful space program), the novel is elegantly crafted. Heinlein displays his expertise in moving the action along at just the right pace to make unbelievable events seem somewhat believable, without cheating by solving problems offstage.

There is also a careful balance in giving credit to Cargraves but also to each of the three boys. Cargraves has to be shown as heroic (putting ourselves in the shoes of Heinlein's adolescent male readers, he is the cool, adventurous, smart uncle we might have wished we had back in 1947), while also being dependent, to an extent, on the much younger Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller, and Morrie Abrams. Each of them is given a chance to shine as they overcome odds, battle and outwit evildoers, and ultimately become heroes.

While Cargraves is brilliant, resourceful, physically strong and courageous, and otherwise impressive, he makes mistakes and has limitations. Most obviously, he soon realises that he is too staid and adult - and that he lacks the required youthful reflexes and nervelessness - to pilot the rocketship as well as needed. At crucial moments, he hands that over to Morrie. In all, the book praises and encourages (and offers some guidance to) the sorts of teens who were headed for engineering careers and were keen on fooling around with home science experiments and hot rods.

Again, it is a book from another, albeit recent, era: for one thing, a contemporary novel along comparable lines would not be so overwhelmingly aimed at adolescent males; we could surely expect female characters among the Galileo's crew. For what it is, however, and read with an imaginative sense of its time, audience, and original context, this remains a fine story. Rocketship Galileo still creates some sense of realism, and certainly a satisfying level of suspense and intrigue. Although it is not one of Heinlein's most revered works, it began his run of SF juveniles from Scribner's with evident storytelling skills and considerable cunning in the way it addressed its audience. There was better to come, but this was a sufficiently auspicious start.

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