The tag-line for this book reads “Max was just a hillbilly . . . until he became STARMAN JONES”. Is that not amazing?
The rest of the book — the innards, I mean — is pretty good as well, although with all Heinlein it reads as terribly dated. Starman Jones was first published in 1953, which is not so much the issue; there are many books much older than that that read as period pieces and don’t feel stale. But Heinlein was a science fiction writer, of course, and the future he wrote is not the one that we’ve ended up with.
There are two basic things whose importance he never seemed to anticipate: computers and women. Granted, it would be difficult to anticipate the way that computers would shape our lives, writing in the early 1950s. And maybe it would be hard to anticipate how women’s social/political/etc. roles would expand during the next handful of decades. But in any case, Heinlein’s fiction — Starman Jones being no exception — tends to come across to me as impossibly passé. I still enjoy it, quite a bit, but it doesn’t feel real.
There are no female starship pilots in Heinlein novels. There are no female soldiers, or doctors, or politicians, or anything really. If there’s a woman on a ship, you can bet that she’s either a passenger or a secretary. Most of his novels are as near to all-male as it’s possible to get without including at least some women as window dressing and/or spacemen’s main squeezes. Starman Jones is no exception and is full of snippets like this:
Once when Ellie had fought him to a draw Max said, “You know, Ellie, you play this game awfully well — for a girl.”
“Thank you too much.”
“No, I mean it. I suppose girls are probably as intelligent as men, but most of them don’t act like it. I think it’s because they don’t have to. If a girl is pretty, she doesn’t have to think. Of course, if she can’t get by on her looks, then –” (210)
Charming, no? Of course, she turns out to be her planet’s 3D chess champion, and whips him soundly before marrying the other man, but still. It’s in there.
There are other gems of the time, too. Like this:
“Aye aye, Captain.” Kelly sat down at the console, Max took the Captain’s seat, feeling self-conscious. He wished that he had learned to smoke a pipe — it looked right to have the Captain sit back, relaxed and smoking his pipe, while the ship maneuvered.” (236-7)
Yup. Smoking his pipe on his spaceship. Like Popeye.
Walther abruptly changed the subject. “That phenomenal trick of memory you do — computing without tables or reference books. Can you do it all the time?”
“Uh? Why, yes.”
“Do you know all the tables? Or just some of them?”
“I know all the standard tables and manuals that are what an astrogator calls his ‘working tools.'” Max started to tell about his uncle, Walther interrupted gently,
“If you please, sir. I’m glad to hear it. I’m very glad to hear it. Because the only such books in this ship are the ones in your head.” (229)
Books! Imagine! The computers in this novel seem to essentially function as giant calculators, into which digits are punched by techs reading out of manuals. Nothing is digital; everything is “on tape” or on microfiche or on paper. It’s wacky.
Aside from the twitch-enducing future-historical anomalies, Starman Jones is a pretty enjoyable book. It’s not the best that Heinlein’s written, but it’s definitely passable. The plot is unremarkable — kid from the sticks sneaks aboard starship, has adventures, becomes Captain — but doesn’t feel formulaic. If you’re interested in science fiction, especially in the stuff coming out of its golden age, you may well enjoy Starman Jones.