Commentary by Joseph T Major on Robert A. Heinlein's STARMAN JONES

Opus #116; written February 2-28, 1953; 80,000 words


By 1953 it had become apparent that not all was well with the sensibilities of the Scribners editorial board. Nevertheless, Robert Heinlein persevered, seeing yet immense potentials in the juvenile market. In that year's item, Heinlein would begin at his old home and wander to the fringes of the universe in the first departure from the Solar System for his juveniles, displaying a curious conjunction of futuristic extrapolation and retrograde imagination in pursuit of cleverly concealed moral lessons. Alexei Panshin saw clearly the moral lesson contained in this plot of paradox, in which the hero finds himself playing a game of tag where everyone else is "it":

Starman Jones is one of Heinlein's most effective books. It shows a young man in a situation where anything he does is bound to put him in the wrong. That is a nice, difficult sort of problem, the sort science fiction really ought to be concerned with. Heinlein's solution is the most viable one that I can imagine: when all your choices are "wrong" ones, you pick the one you like best and live with its consequences.

Heinlein in Dimension, pp. 66-7

Max Jones did not, at first, think himself to be in a situation where anything he did would be bound to put him in the wrong. Rather, he thought he was stuck in a back country farm, but with a lifeline to the stars. This situation involves intricate plotting and background thoroughly intermixed. In spite of being in a tiny farm in the back of nowhere, Max has situational and family ties to the stars. Spaceships fly near his farm; and his uncle is, or perhaps I should say his late uncle was, a member of the astrogators' guild.

This last state of affairs is one of the more controversial parts of the book. This overpopulated Earth has a shortage of jobs. (Concerns about automation were common then back in the fifties and have reappeared from time to time.) What jobs that exist are strictly controlled by guilds, with membership being passed on by legacy. Panshin (among others) found it unusual that highly skilled positions should be so strangely recruited.

We will see that perhaps Heinlein was recalling the structure of some of the building craft unions, which practice similar policies. In Grumbles From the Grave, note that the Heinleins had been building their house in Colorado Springs in 1950 and 1951 [pp. 114-8], so he had recent experience with those organizations. Which hard-won experience would be used in another context in The Door Into Summer (1957), with comments about building material and skilled labor shortages. (As opposed to Heinlein's predictions in that book, within the limits of contemporary knowledge, of the ways and uses of PROM (Programmable Read-Only Memory) chips his "Thorsen tubes" and CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) his "Drafting Dan".)

Later we shall see ties to Between Planets (1951), connections of a technological nature. If these are more than mere coincidences, then the promise of the libertarian society offered at the end of that book has failed in its growth. Not that such was not a common theme in Heinlein's works; consider, for example, how The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1965, 1966) the book of the libertarian revolution, begins with its narrator complaining about taxes and bureaucracy.

Max would seem to be insulated from that job shortage, living as he does on a subsistence-level farm. But other problems can arise. Like when his stepmother remarried, to that no-good layabout (not a traveling salesman with other marriages under his belt?) Biff Montgomery, and daddy insisted on exercising his new parental privileges.

This did not go over well with the editor:

[Scribner's] wants some minor changes in the novel [Starman Jones] and hopes you won't mind making them. They are limited to the first chapter and the last. In the first chapter, [Dalgliesh] says the stepfather sounds like the conventional pulp-paper villain, since he comes in and wants to beat the boy the first night he is married to the boy's mother. . . .

Grumbles From the Grave, letter of March 24, 1953, p. 67

Heinlein counterprotested, and unlike with the earlier book Red Planet (1949) he succeeded in getting the change unchanged. Here, though, he was on firmer ground as the need for Biff Montgomery's behavior came from the plot, and the proposed revision would, he said, "require tacking on a couple of chapters, change the opening from fast to very slow, and in particular (this is what I hate most) change the crisis in the boy's life from a dramatic case of having the rug jerked out from under him in a matter of minutes into a situation in which he simply becomes increasingly annoyed with an unpleasant situation." [Grumbles From the Grave, p. 68]

Heinlein's choice of pacing here was correct. It might be noted that this new relationship is amplified with a number of small hints that Max's stepmother is not the most thoughtful of people, which serves to reinforce his need to act expeditiously. So run away Max does, with a goal in mind. His late uncle had promised to make him heir to his astrogator's position, so he decided to stake his claim.

Starman Jones is a prime type-example of Heinlein's style of presenting mentorship, as Panshin points out, though from the way the mentor here shows up one might not think so at first. Desperate for a place of his own, Max takes his only remaining asset, his late uncle's astrogation books, and flees. After a shocking close encounter of the sonic kind with a traveling ship, Max stumbles along the road until he reaches the hobo jungle, where hunger drives him into making a fortituous and rewarding contact.

Now Heinlein had touched on hobos previously, in Sixth Column [The Day After Tomorrow] (1941), in his mind his least successful book, due to its having been written to a plot given him by John W. Campbell (JWCjr had begun writing a story but had not been able to complete it). In the world of this book, one would think that with the economic dislocations described therein, there would be dispossessed wanderers. So there are; and Max is fortunate enough to find one ready to take him in.

"Since the first-stage Heinlein Individual is so often a sheep ripe for the shearing, Heinlein has almost always provided him with a mentor in the form of an older Heinlein Individual," says Panshin [Heinlein In Dimension, p. 170], and gives this as an explicit example along with a brief synopsis of the one plot thread. Since what he says, while complete and concise, doesn't do full justice to Heinlein's story (and it really shouldn't, since such a discussion is not directly germane to Panshin's argument in that context), you will just have to find his synopsis, or better yet, read on.

The man looked up. "Howdy. Draw up a chair."

"Howdy." Max sat down across the fire from the tramp. He was not even as well dressed as Max and he needed a shave. Nevertheless he wore his rags with a jaunty air and handled himself with a sparrow's cockiness.

Starman Jones, p. 26

This casual introduction is fraught with implications that Sam (for so he introduces himself) has depths that are not immediately obvious. Some of them come out right away. Max asks Sam how it was that Sam knew he was there, to which question Sam gives an at the time only curious explanation: "[You] were silhouetted against the sky. Don't ever do that, kid, or it may be the last thing you do." [p. 27]

Perhaps because of the emotional exhaustion due to his having had the rug jerked out from under him in a matter of minutes, Max proceeds to spill out his life story and fondest wish to this stranger. Fortunately, in this case he can depend on the kindness of strangers.

There are some serious problems with Max's plans of following his uncle's footsteps into the Astrogator's Guild, as Sam points out: "Getting to be an astrogator is almost as difficult as getting into the Plumber's Guild." [p. 30] (You see, the building experience did have long-term effects.) Not to mention the even more serious problem Max encountered next morning, when he woke up and found a couple of things missing, like the books and Sam.

Soon enough he meets up with them again, at the Guild Hall at Earthport. He was the second "Maximilian Jones" to come in that day, you see, and the first one didn't have fingerprints that matched. But the precious books are there, but not for Max. You see, the late Uncle Chet didn't indicate Max as his heir. So why should the Guild take in a new member? Restricting supply is what guilds are for. Heartbroken, a disappointed Max leaves, his future fled away.

Soon enough he meets up with Sam again, in the street outside the Guild Hall, and at first he wants to make what in retrospect would be a big mistake. Being a quick talker, Sam talks Max out of calling a policeman, and then proceeds to save Max from the possible ill effects of several other big mistakes. For example, in the dive where they go to eat, when Max goes for his substantial settlement from the Guild (the deposit on the books), Sam reacts: "'Don't flash a roll in here. Do you want to eat through a slit in your throat?'" [p. 52]

Besides the adult themes, such as labor union methods and tactics, we also have "adult" settings. This bar is more innocuous than others found later on in the book. One wonders how Miss Dalgleish objected to the opening of the book (which is nowhere near as grave as, say, "Hansel and Gretel") and let matters like this pass.

Sam has a use for that roll, and it doesn't involve bilking Max out of it (well not altogether). If Max wants to go to the stars, well the means for doing so are all around him. That is, falsified identification, minor disguise, and other services that historically have been offered to people in trouble and needing to be someone else quickly. Such services are, of course, more readily available to someone with a lot of money on hand, and even to the guy paying the tab as well.

There is another useful talent involved, too. That money came, you will recall, from the Astrogator's Guild, as a refund of the deposit for their precious valuable books. As Sam continues his lessons, this time concentrating (with some envy?) on what a racket the Guild is running, Max unleashes his bombshell:

"I can't see that it did any good to take them away from me anyhow. I've read them, so I know what's in them."

"Sure you know. Maybe you even remember some of the methods. But you don't have all those columns of figures so you can look up the one you need when you need it. That's what they care about."

"But I do! I read them, I tell you." Max wrinkled his forehead, then began to recite: "'Page 272, Calculated Solutions of the Differential Equation of Motion by the Ricardo Assumption '" He began to reel off a series of seven-place figures. Sam listened in growing surprise, then stopped him.

"Kid, you really remember that? You weren't making it up?"

"Of course not, I read it."

"Well, I'll be a beat up. . . . Look, you're a page-at-a-glance reader? Is that it?"

"No, not exactly. I'm a pretty fast reader, but I do have to read it. But I don't forget. I never have been able to see how people forget. I can't forget anything."

Starman Jones, p. 53

The trend to eliminate degrading terms has in this case produced a useful result; people with such skills used to be called "idiot savants" and are now called "autistic savants". Autistic savants are, admittedly, usually unable to function normally in society and often mentally disabled as well (that's part of the definition of autism, which when used alone refers to a human condition worse even than the state of being to tell that July 7, 907 was a Thursday while July 7, 1907 was a Sunday and July 7, 2907 will also be a Thursday but not being able to tell what today is), but it is hard to call them "idiots" in the commonly understood sense of the term. Autistic savantry, rather, is the displaying in extreme of an ordinary human talent, such as the lightning calculation ability of Andrew Jackson Libby in "Misfit" (1939 Heinlein's second published story!) and Methuselah's Children (1941, 1958). (What Heinlein did with the character in "The Number of the Beast " (1977) scarcely bears mention.) Or eidetic memory, as so neatly and tersely defined and enacted by Max in the passage above.

Doing something useful with that talent has its own rewards. Having skimmed over a component of society he would later show in more detail in Citizen of the Galaxy (1959), Heinlein has concentrated on its results. The sheep ready for shearing has been carefully (and profitably) warded by his mentor for now, and is ready for the stars.


One of the ships that Uncle Chet had served on was the Asgard, which by a fortuitous happenstance is in port just now. That settlement money was well spent; a few credits in the right places created a couple of members of the Guild of Space Stewards, Cooks, and Purser's Clerks named Max Jones and Sam Anderson, ready to report on board the Asgard at the last moment, just coincidentally (sure) too late for any potentially embarrassing checks to be made.

Heinlein has overcome the usual disdain of naval officers for their merchant co-users here, displaying his customary attention to process and producing a plausible and well worked-out configuration for his merchant starship's crew structure and procedures. As he puts it: "The organization of starships derived in part from that of military vessels, in part from ocean liners of earlier days, and in part from the circumstances of interstellar travel." [p. 62]

The key point here is the division of the crew into navigations staff and ship staff the latter including engineers and stewards. Under this unique structure, the Captain and the First Officer are in charge in different fields and nearly equal. This parity and division will turn out to be even more relevant later on in this voyage. Max has also another barrier to surmount in the fulfillment of his wishes he's under the command of the Chief Ship's Steward, who is under the command of the Purser, who is under the command of the First Officer. All the astrogators are in the Captain's department.

It's the usual extrapolation of maritime procedures to space travel. This method can be questioned on the basis of "new conditions require new structures". The problem with that is: How "new" are those new conditions? The human demands of space travel are not all that different to the human demands of sea travel. (Breathable air does have to be supplied, but that's about it.)

All which is to say that Steward Max Jones would have to do the same things on the spaceship Asgard that he would have done on any of the ships of the sea that the Heinleins themselves would take in that year of publication [as recounted in Tramp Royale (1992)]. One of those procedures might well be termed "a tolerable level of disorder". Max's boss Chief Ship's Steward Giordano spends his time distilling vodka. This turns out to be a recognized, if illegal, privilege of the chief steward. As an example of this, while Max is learning some more of the ropes from his partner in crime, Sam recounts the story of a ship where the First Officer decided to clean up the act, disposing of the still and punishing the distiller:

"Didn't work out."

"Why not?"

"Use your head. Forces must balance, old son. For every market there is a supplier. That's the key to the nutshell. In a month there was a still in durn near every out-of-the-way compartment and the crew was so demoralized it wasn't fit to stuff vacuum. So the Captain had a talk with the First and things went back to normal."

Max thought it over. "Sam? Were you that steward?"

"Huh? What gave you that idea?"

"Well . . . You've been in space before; you no longer make any bones about it. I just thought well, you've never told me what your guild was, nor why you had to fake it to get back to space again. I suppose it's none of my business."

Sam's habitual cynical smile gave way to an expression of sadness. "Max, a lot of things can happen to a man when he thinks he has the world by the tail. Take the case of a friend of mine, name of Roberts. A sergeant in the Imperial Marines, good record, half a dozen star jumps, a combat decoration or two. A smart lad, boning to make warrant officer. But he missed his ship once hadn't been on Terra for some time and celebrated too much. Should have turned himself in right away, of course, taken his reduction in rank and lived it down. Trouble was he still had money in his pocket. By the time he was broke and sober it was too late. He never had the guts to go back and take his court martial and serve his sentence. Every man has his limits."

Max said presently, "You trying to say you used to be a marine?"

"Me? Of course not, I was speaking of this guy Richards, just to illustrate what can happen to a man when he's not looking. Let's talk of more pleasant things . . . ."

Starman Jones, pp. 64-5

There is a substantial assortment of profound implications in that off-hand conversation, some of them (one would think) even above the understanding of children. The idea that "forces must balance" and so on ultimately derives from Heinlein's basic beliefs, his desire not to dominate or be dominated. The jaded cynicism Sam exhibits here has been identified by Panshin as a characteristic of the second-stage Heinlein Individual, of which you will recall he considered Sam a prime archetype: "This stage is less eager, more cynical, more likely to make a wisecrack than to rush out to save the world. The cynicism, no doubt, is the result of the destroyed past illusions of a former first-stage Heinlein Individual." [Heinlein In Dimension, p. 170]

Sam is not being altruistic, for all that he is serving Max's ends very well by providing him with the protection he needs at this time. Rather, he has certain plans for his future, and is willing to explain and even share them. He lays his foundations well, pointing out to Max that in a year or so, but all too soon, he will be having the rug jerked out from under him again, when the Asgard comes to the end of its voyage and the tissue of deceits that got Max on board is pierced. Far better to sneak off and escape punishment, at the end of the voyage on Earth . . . or, as Sam is himself planning to do, on a colony planet.

The colony planets are looser societies than Earth, as colonies will be, lacking the surplus of labor and the elaborate structure of guilds on Earth that had condemned Max to a life of farm work. They also tolerate such desertion . . . and the Imperial government can't do anything about it, for to send one man after a deserter is to lose two. (Heinlein was to have the then Thorby Baslim-Krausa flirt with such thoughts of settlement at one point in Citizen of the Galaxy, a point where his life on the Finnish Free Trader family ship was betoo confining for his spirit; and in Friday (1982) Heinlein would have a brief climatic portrayal of such a means of settlement.) Such is the tempting prospect that Sam in gratitude offers to Max. But the cost would be the stars; and Max has not yet had his illusions destroyed.

Having escaped a farm Max finds himself back doing farm work, feeding animals. Some are parts of ecological plans or economic realities; the discussion of the ecology of a colony planet found in Farmer In the Sky (1950) or the economics of colonization in Tunnel In the Sky (1955) while relevant is relegated to a sentence or two here.

Besides the various working livestock and ecological niche-inhabitors exports, Heinlein's favorite nonhumans are here: "There were cats in the Asgard, too, but most of them were free citizens and crewmen, charged with holding down the rats and mice that had gone into space along with mankind." [p. 61] The rest are pets and in cages, along with the dogs and some more exotic animals.

Max has been assigned to look after those caged animals, an ironic continuation of his hidden former life. It makes one think that somehow one of those payments that Sam made to get him and Max on board was to Chief Ship's Steward Giordano, who found it convenient to have on staff a farmer in the sky to do the toting and mucking out. But there is an exotic animal there, above and beyond the familiar farm creatures. As Heinlein excelled in creating notable exotic intelligent aliens, so did he display skill at inventing the remainder of an exotic fauna:

The only extra-terrestrial among Max's charges was a spider puppy from the terrestrian planet Hespera. On beginning his duties in the Asgard Max found the creature in one of the cages intended for cats; Max looked into it and a sad, little, rather simian face looked back at him. "Hello, Man."

Max knew that some spider puppies had been taught human speech, after a fashion, but it startled him; he jumped back. He then recovered and looked more closely. "Hello yourself," he answered. "My, but you are a fancy little fellow." The creature's fur was a deep, rich green on its back, giving way to orange on the sides and blending to warm cream color on its little round belly.

Starman Jones, p. 71

So Heinlein did occasionally make descriptions in terms of more than just function. Not that the function will not play its part in events to come, along with other exotic xenofauna of different intent.

This pet has an owner (one would hope it would have an owner) and she finally comes down to see her pet. Which, amusingly enough, turns out to be a "she" also, the name of "Mr. Chips" to the contrary. Twenty years before this book came out, Heinlein would have been pressured to have Max struggle against the class oppressor; today, forty years later, he would have found that his work now presented Max as the whitemale oppressor oppressing by sexism and speciesism (editors have got a lot more abrupt these days at politically correcting their writers, which is an interesting choice of priorities, as they certainly no longer bother to correct spelling, grammar, or continuity the way editors used to).

Max had not had positive views about Miss E. Coburn, the owner of "Mr." Chips, who had never come down to see this poor lonely creature. But it turns out that Eldreth "Ellie" Coburn had at first been physically unable to come, having been ill, and only lately able to overcome the social barrier that prevented her from coming down. This barrier, named Mrs. Dumont, had been heretofore convinced that the crew was not the proper sort of persons to meet. Max's feeling about that was that while some of the crew were rowdy, they would feel morally restrained from annoying a woman. (This seems almost comic given the current climate of opinion about such relationships, which is that they represent oppressive barriers imposed by prejudice and they must be backed up by force of law. This is illogical but the people calling for this are also opposed to logic.)

The next day Ellie has checked with Mrs. Dumont, who checked with the Captain, who rated Max as "utterly harmless". (Not "mostly harmless"?) To which assessment Max reveals: "Well, I'm an ax murderer by profession, but I'm on vacation." [p. 77]

From that typical bit of Heinleinian bright, brisk byplay the conversation smoothly segues into three-dimensional chess, and from there into the nature of space flight. Damon Knight particularly admired the science-fictional background Heinlein had created for this book's method of spaceflight: "[It] makes for the tautest, most-edge-of-the-seat control-room scenes ever written" [In Search of Wonder, p. 82] but this is getting ahead of the story. More to the current point, it seems perfectly natural at the time that the romantic scene between the Guy and the Gal should slip almost immediately into a discussion of high-order physics that just coincidentally informs the reader, who knows even less about how these things work than Ellie Coburn, how the space drive works. (Chalk one up for Heinlein.):

"The math of it is simple, but it's hard to talk about because you can't see it. Space our space may be crumpled up small enough to stuff into a coffee cup, all hundreds of thousands of light-years of it. A four-dimensional coffee cup, of course. . . . They used to think that nothing could go faster than light. Well, that was both right and wrong. It . . ."

"How can it be both?"

"That's one of the Horst anomalies. You can't go faster than light, not in our space. If you do, you burst out of it. But if you do it where space is folded back and congruent, you pop right back into our space again but it's a long way off. How far off depends on how it's folded. And that depends on the mass in the space, in a complicated fashion that can't be described in words but can be calculated."

"But suppose you can do it just anywhere?"

"That's what happened to the first ones who tried it. They didn't come back. And that's why surveys are dangerous; survey ships go poking through anomalies that have been calculated but never tried. That's also why astrogators get paid so much. They have to head the ship for a place you can't see and they have to put the ship there just under the speed of light and they have to give it the gun at just the right world point. . . ."

Starman Jones, pp. 79-80

Again, Heinlein's attitude towards mathematics, his criterion for human nature (i.e., the facility for rational abstract thought) comes to the fore. This is one of the frequent scenes in Heinlein's works where the protagonist becomes the author's mouthpiece. The plotting and structure of this book are such that this use of the method fits and is proper unlike later, where this habit would grow and expand out of all proportion to an overwhelming and often destructive magnitude.

Ellie takes to Max, and in return for his science lessons, Ellie recounts her tale of hardly woe but woeful nonetheless. Saddled with a widowered father, Ellie has become a wilful if realistic child, unwillingly packed off to boarding schools on Earth and expelled from them as a result of deliberate disruptive behavior. Perhaps from a tie of mutual problematic family life, Max feels attracted somewhat to her. Even though Sam, with an ear always to the ground (or perhaps some observation from a buried past), has an interesting biographical note about Ellie: "She didn't mention that she is the only daughter of His Supreme Excellency, General Sir John FitzGerald Coburn, O.B.E., K.B., O.S.U., and probably X.Y.Z., Imperial Ambassador to Hespera and Resident Commissioner Plentipotentiary?" [p. 83]

Socially important people get what they want. Perhaps there is some class-struggle feeling there; when Ellie wants to invite her new friend to play chess in the passenger lounge and Max points out the barriers of ship's custom and regulation, they have a spat, ending with their declaring her idealism and his nascent cynicism at the loss of his destroyed past illusions: "'Everybody is equal. Everybody! That's the law.' 'They are? Only from up top.'" [p. 85]

It looks like someone was passing on hints when they prepared that forged record, because Max's included a note stating that he had tried out for chartsman on one ship. This may have been no more than an explanation for Max's knowledge of navigational slang, actually picked up from Uncle Chet. But it did provide the leverage for Ellie to get her new friend into a position where she could invite him to the passengers' lounge, as astrogational crew could do when ship's stewards could not. After a brief interview with the Captain, Max is given that opportunity. Everybody is equal . . . from up top.

There are not surprisingly social strains incurred here. The ship's steward's staff naturally did not take to this upwards social mobility. Captain Blaine kept whatever he felt to himself for now. And the navigators? Perhaps we should meet them: "The control department of the Asgard consisted of two officers and five men Dr. Hendrix the Astrogator, his assistant astrogator Mr. Simes, Chief Computerman Kelly, Chartsman First Class Kovak, Chtsmn 2/c Smythe, and computermen Noguchi and Lundy, both second class." [p. 88]

There are a lot of implications in that description, from ethnic to hierarchical. Recall that it had been established that the structure of spaceship crew was partly military and note the "Chartsman First Class" and "Chtsmn 2/c" ratings perfectly military. This would seem to clash or at least not overly well align with the guild system; under a guild system one would expect there to be ratings more on the order of "Apprentice Chartsman", "Journeyman Chartsman", "Master Chartsman", and so on. There will be still more signs that the guild system is in a conflict with the practical realities of the greater galaxy. Notice also the mix of ethnic backgrounds displayed in that listing.

One other relevant point: "Captain Blaine was necessarily an astrogator himself, but skippers do not stand watches." [p. 89] The third watch officer is the computer operator, Mr. Kelly.

Each of the watch officers has his own set of risks for Max. With Chief Computerman Kelly it's being worked to death, but at least relevantly worked to death: "Max never touched a polish rag when Kelly was at control; he was kept too busy not merely helping but systematically studying everything in the room." [p. 91] As his understanding of the systems increases with experience, Max gradually comes to do more and more in actually plotting transitions.

With Assistant Astrogator Simes it's hostility. That bit about polishing refers to Max's customary duties under Mr. Simes, who seems to be straight out of the pages of Norman Dixon's On the Psychology of Military Incompetence with his insistence on "bull" at the expense of actually doing the job. Simes's character is clearly an ill omen for Max and the good ship Asgard how much so we'll see later.

With Astrogator Dr. Hendrix it's a matter of blowing his cover. During one transition Max had, to speed things up, entered the figure he already knew instead of waiting for Noguchi to call it out. This provoked suspicions, and Max found himself facing Dr. Hendrix. They ran a test, finding that Max already knew all the "ultra secrets" of the sacred guild of Astrogators. And other things, but then you already know how eidetic-memory autistic savants function. Curiously, instead of his favorite Shakespeare play "The Tempest", Heinlein chose to feature as a literary test for Max a quote from "A Winter's Tale" [pp. 96-7] but then Max was supposed to have not been interested in the play, to highlight his memorized it all the same. Dr. Hendrix is a practical man, another frontiersman not restrained by the constraints of civilized lands. This will have its effects later.

Meanwhile, Sam is getting himself into a position of authority, having in the reshuffle become Chief Master-at-Arms. This gives him a certain latitude, such as being able to go to dives at landfalls with apprentice chartsmen. Avoiding one such dive full of Imperial Marines (Sam doesn't want to associate with the starship troopers for some reason) they plunk into a spacemens' one. They must be used to people with odd cravings, as Max manages to survive having ordered a strawberry milkshake. (Doesn't get it, but he does survive.)

Having deposited his associate in a safe place, Sam goes out on a piece of his own business, leaving Max with an interesting solicitation, which he seems to be aware isn't quite one he should take up. Fortunately, before he has to commit himself there's an interruption. Mr. Simes the assistant astrogator appears, drunk as a lord when he is only an esquire. Considered as a drug alcohol is best known for lowering inhibitions and Mr. Simes lets it all hang out here, informing Max that he is in a lot of trouble. Right before he utters a word Miss Dalgleish would have had to cut out, everyone is saved by the fortuitous return of Sam. After a few minutes, the table has one fewer occupant, as Simes is suddenly solicited by another pro in the bar. (Bars, B-girls, bad language how did all these adult, or "adult", matters get into a juvenile book? Oh, right, the bad language didn't.)

Sam's shopping trip, for something to facilitate his planned relocation (or so it would seem; he rebuffs an inquiry by Max), was successful. That was about the only thing successful here, and so, sadder but wiser, Max concludes his first exciting trip to another world.


Before the next jump, Dr. Hendrix has Max demonstrate his unusual skill to a select audience consisting of Captain Blaine and the bridge crew. The demonstration is, in fact, a rehersal of a genuine jump, and Dr. Hendrix ends up grading it just like he would have graded a trainee. This makes Max wonder if that was what was really intended all along, but for now he's being left hanging.

The real thing, however, is more stressful. As Knight said, we have here "the tautest, most-edge-of-the-seat control-room scenes ever written", not to mention some of the most detailed. All those days and nights standing watch on the bridge of U.S.S. Lexington under the eyes of Ernie Jesus King himself rubbed off on sometime Lieutenant j.g. Heinlein, and he takes off from the background of those bridge watches to produce something special.

Too often in science fiction, most usually pulp or pulpish adventures (pulp paper magazines lie a-crumbling in the grave but the type of fiction they ran goes marching on), but unpleasantly frequently in more thought-out works, a function of a futuristic society will turn out to be nothing more than a similar one of contemporary society, lightly painted over. For example, the spaceport scene of Asimov's Foundation is basically a train station scene with the terms changed (Now leaving on Pad Nine for Kalgan, Korell, and Terminus . . .). Sort of like calling a rabbit hutch a "smeerp constraining field".

The bridge of the Asgard is indeed a "Worry Hole"; Dr. Hendrix ends up practically living there, correcting and calculating, figuring and shifting, calculating and recalculating. A good bit of worry; the consequences of a miscalculation could be devastating. Heinlein gave a lot of thought to how such a system might work.

By way of contrast, the lack of expectations in the computer field will surely be noted. Kelly says of his computer, "You can't possibly feed decimal figures into that spaghetti mill." [p. 93] This description would startle and astound the legions of hackers who have slaved at designing user friendly input-output interfaces (I will not use that word as a verb. It is a noun) to make it possible, for example, to shift the time-consuming task of converting decimal numbers to binary on to the machines. This too is just the sort of simple, repetitious process that can through boredom or exhaustion cause humans to err.

Evidently, back then, the wondrous miracle that complex calculations could be performed at all was enough for writers. This pattern was to continue for as long as computers were abstract, distant machines serviced by a select cadre, almost a priesthood. One could classify it as a pattern of "the road not taken" different research efforts on space travel and electronics gave different results. (But a side-result of space research has been more efficient electronics.)

For the less "bones beneath the skin" type, though, Heinlein also summed up the transition process in one bright, brisk metaphor: "Like searching at midnight in a dark cellar for a black cat that wasn't there." [p. 115]

This transition passes, and Dr. Hendrix, having been on the bridge for twenty hours straight after a long string of watch-and-watch watches (on for six hours, off for six, on again for six, and so on), retires to his cabin to recuperate for a week. Once he's feeling up to company again, Apprentice Chartsman Jones (so there were union-type job titles there) is ordered to report to the Astrogator's cabin:

"Apprentice Chartsman Jones reporting, sir."

Kelly was there, having coffee with the Astrogator. Hendrix acknowledged Max's salutation but left him standing. "Yes, Jones." He turned to Kelly. "Suppose you break the news."

"If you say so, sir." Kelly looked uncomfortable. "Well, Jones, it's like this you don't really belong in my guild."

Max was so shocked that he could not answer. He was about to say that he had thought he had understood he hadn't known But he got nothing out; Kelly continued, "The fact is, you ought to buck for astrogator. The Doctor and I have been talking it over."

The buzzing in his head got worse. He became aware that Dr. Hendrix was repeating, "Well, Jones? Do you want to try it? Or don't you?"

Max managed to say, "Yes. Yes, sir."

Starman Jones, p. 117

That trouble Max feared, though, is still lying under the surface. The forged background, careful though it might have been, will not stand up. Max had noted that Kelly seemed to be rather circumspect about the greater spacing universe out there, and it turned out that Max had failed to recognize a place he should have known, going by his record. As for the Astrogator himself, it seems the dates didn't match up; Max, supposedly trained by Uncle Chet at home, went into space a year before Chet retired.

But Dr. Hendrix is more concerned with necessity and ability than with the restrictions of guild rules. This is a strain inherent in that system. (Panshin's questioning of that system "(That, by the way, causes me to wonder if astrogators' jobs would ever be handled by a guild system. Plumbing and trucking jobs, yes, but jobs involving advanced mathematics?)" [Heinlein In Dimension, pp. 67-8] is relevant here, and is a serious weakness of the system that Dr. Hendrix seems to be noting, if mildly and all against the rules, here.)

The promotion incurs new stresses. Mr. Simes demonstrates again his basic personality flaw, informing Max that while he is doomed to fail, Simes is too realistic to go against the wishes of the big bosses. Ellie is all too ecstatic about the wonderful promotion Max got. (Do you think she has a crush?) The problems of social performance give Max more worries than he really deserves.

About the only person unaffected by it all is Dr. Hendrix, who seems to be making his own implicit judgments on it all by gradually giving Max greater and greater responsibilities in the next few jumps. Things seem to be going well . . . . until Hendrix suddenly dies. The funeral scene [pp. 140-3] has its own power to move the reader.

Unfortunately, the aftermath isn't so good for the living. Mr. Simes takes charge, moving into the Astrogator's cabin and relegating Max to a subordinate position on watch. Captain Blaine steps in, but Max observes that his skills aren't what they had been.

This turns out to be crucial in the next transition, where they both seem to be a bit off. But Kelly and then Max notice something, and finally Simes is forced to a realization: "He went below to tell Blaine that the Asgard had come out in unknown space was lost." [p. 150]


Last time, when we left our heroes they were in prize predicaments indeed. Sam Anderson, our second lead, had been suspended from his position as ship's master-at-arms for having indulged too openly in one of the privileges of his position, namely having had a gambling establishment with a house percentage just a little too much in the house's favor. Restricted to the ship, his dream of desertion to some paradisical frontier planet seemed to have gone a-glimmering.

Meanwhile, Max Jones, our principal protagonist, had found that getting his wishes to come true meant that his terrible secrets had to be uncovered. While he had had the best forged papers that money could buy, he couldn't forge a background that completely. In being raised to the dream of his life, a position as astrogator, it could not but be revealed that he lacked all the little knowledges of life that such a veteran steward as those forged papers had been issued to would have learned. The full rigors of the guild system could strike back all the harsher at one who had so flagrantly evaded them.

However, having these retributions come down in full force on them would require that the good ship Asgard be in human space, and as it so happens she is lost. This is not a way to be saved.

And how did this dire predicament come to pass? It all stems back to the several failings of the senior astrogational staff of the Asgard. Captain Blaine, master of the ship, is getting old; his powers are waning, but he is not up to acknowledging that. Mr. Simes, the new Astrogator, is a textbook case from On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, being as proud of his high professional skills as he is deficient in their finer points. Now Dr. Hendrix, the old Astrogator, had been profoundly competent, capable of withstanding the immense physical and mental strains of a transition. But he had died. (Perhaps that withstanding was not quite so stanch, or perhaps it was more battered than appearances would seem.)

So, when the Asgard made her transition, Mr. Simes had been letting things slip in the navigational calculations. Captain Blaine finally took notice, right at the crucial moment, and made a correction. Those waning powers failed there, though; he made the correction, but with the wrong sign. And now the Asgard is lost in space.

Those around an incompetent will be affected by him. Some incompetents pull down the level of their surroundings, but only if they get into power. So far Mr. Simes hadn't, which meant that Chief Computerman Kelly could note his little lapses of action at crucial moments, and take steps to make sure they would be noted (and long remembered) by others. Kelly's foresight will turn out to be immensely valuable later but we're getting ahead of our story.

More to Max's immediate concerns, Mr. Simes had shown in this case another trait of the incompetent, a desire for strong caste restrictions. Simes had opposed Max's promotion. But when the crucial moment came up, Simes had showed yet another trait of such, which can be best described as toadying, if not brown-nosing: "Simes laughed again. 'Do I look like a fool? The Captain says yes, the Astrogator says yes should I stick my neck out? . . . .'" [p. 125] Here we an example of the Heinlein stock villain type the Nasty Young Weasel "Sneaky" Weems that Panshin so deplored [Heinlein In Dimension, p. 130 Starman Jones is one of Panshin's examples].

(During his Navy days, Lieutenant j.g. Heinlein must surely been taking notice of certain types. It's also clear that Professor Major Dixon missed a splendid literary presentation of his theses.)

At least there's one consolation in the whole mess. After tasking Max with the awful burden of hiding the films with the dirty secret of the errors, Chief Computerman Kelly winds up with this happy note:

"One thing I forgot to tell you, Max. We happened to come out pretty close to a star and a G-type at that."

"Oh." Max considered it. "Not one we know?"

"Of course not, or I would have said so. Haven't sized it yet, but figuring normal range in the G's we could reach it in not less than four weeks, not more than a year, at high boost. Thought you'd like to know."

"Well, yes. Thanks. But I can't see that it makes much difference."

"No? Doesn't it seem like a good idea to have a Sol-type star, with maybe Earth-type planets around it, not far off?"

"Well . . ."

"It does to me. The Adam-and-Eve business is rugged at best and we might be in for a long stay."

Starman Jones, pp. 155-6

SF Cliché Number One but more so than any SF writer, except maybe James Blish, Heinlein could rework a cliché and make it fresh.

Knowing all these things does not give Max the background with which to deny the inevitable rumors convincingly; that he got on his own. Uncle Chet had once said that the only thing faster than light is the speed with which a story can spread through a ship. Max comfortingly repeats these words of wisdom to his tablemates in the lounge, part of a neat pattern of evasion and duplicity. He never lies, yet he can conceal the unhappy truth from the unhappy passengers.

Only to get topped almost right away by an even more beautifully evasive statement from the First Officer: "Max had listened in open-mouthed admiration. He came from country where the 'whopper' was a respected literary art and it seemed to him that he had never heard a lie told with more grace, never seen one interwoven with truth with such skill, in his life. Piece by piece, it was impossible to say that anything the First Officer had said was untrue; taken as a whole it was a flat statement that the Asgard was not lost a lie if ever he heard one." [p. 159] Here the author inserts himself into the story, more appositely and skillfully than he would do in later works.

The next watch leads to another confrontation with Simes. As might be guessed from his type, he is bent on "bull", on the meticulous following of regulations to enhance his status. Max faces him down, playing chicken. By demanding the right to revert to his previous guild, Max puts Simes on the spot or at the very least, in a crux caused by a shortage of skilled astrogators, Captain Blaine not filling in under this emergency. Rather than spend the watches relieving himself (Chief Computerman Kelly having declined to get him out of the hole he had dug for himself) Simes relents.

It's not the passengers who seem disturbed about being lost, it's the crew. Of course, they had a better understanding of the situation. Staggering into his cabin, Max finds it already occupied, by newly reappointed Chief Master-at-Arms Sam. There having been an officially-denied disturbance last watch, as Max deduced from the battered appearance of one of the chartsmen and non-appearance of another, he asks for the inside story from Sam:

"I've seen ships where it would have been regarded as healthy exercise to settle your dinner. Some of the lads got scared and that made them lap up happy water. Then a couple with big mouths and no forehead got the inspiration that it was their right to talk to the Captain about it. Being sheep, they had to go in a flock. If they had run into an officer, he could have sent them back to bed with no trouble. But my unfortunate predecessor happened to run into them and told them to disperse. Which they didn't. He's not the diplomatic type, I'm afraid. So he hollered 'Hey, Rube!' in his quaint idiom and the fun began."

"But where do you figure? You came to help him?"

"Hardly. I was standing at a safe distance, enjoying the festivities, when I noticed [First Officer] Mr. Walther's bedroom slippers coming down the ladder. Whereupon I waded in and was prominent in the ending. The way to win a medal, Max, is to make sure the general is watching, then act."

Max grinned. "Somehow I hadn't figured you for the hero type."

"Heaven forbid! But it worked out. . . ."

Starman Jones, p. 166

However, as it happened Max had an outside perspective on this event, courtesy of his steward:

"Your friend Sam Anderson was sure in the thick of it. . . . Oh you got me wrong, M-Mr. Jones. He settled it. I never see a man who could use his hands like that. He'd grab two of 'em . . . clop! their heads would come together. Then he would grab two more."

Starman Jones, p. 161

Here we have the disillusioned cynicism of the second-stage Heinlein Individual contrasting with the active nature of that character. Not to mention the bright, brisk manner of speech inherent in the character. Moreover, we see Max's progression through the course of development of the Heinlein Individual, as may be seen by his flip dismissal "Somehow I hadn't figured you for the hero type," even though he already had a different view. Quite a lot in one section, and one that advances the plot at that, while developing the characters. This is no small accomplishment for a short conversation. Many writers seem unable to do this, so much so that their books are filled with long inactive passages which the experienced reader will write off as "character development."

This useful reinstatement still doesn't get them unlost, though; Sam's dream of relocation, while now acceptable, seems hardly worth it under the circumstances. Since that nearby star happens to have planets in the habitable zone, that dream of relocation is now possible, though not quite as Sam had planned it. The passengers come to accept that they are lost (well, most of them accept it) without the turmoil that had to be suppressed among the crew. The problem is with Captain Blaine more than anything; rumor among the passengers has it that "the Captain was constantly at his desk, working out a new and remarkable way to get the ship back to where it belonged." [p. 168]

One could wish. Captain Blaine has been shut up in his cabin ever since that transition. Perhaps he had noticed the sign of [the] error after all just too late to do anything about it.


Astronomers, more so now even than when Heinlein wrote this, have taken to speculating on their field of study. Now the bulk of such theories, as with the various speculations on the events of the first 10-34 second of the universe's existence, are inherently incapable of proof. But there are some for which proof can conceivably be obtained. One such is the theory that all stars of the same order of magnitude as the Sun have planets. Now in the world of Starman Jones this theory can be actually tested. And, so far, it has proved valid.

To use this habitable planet they have to get there. Getting into orbit is not much of a problem, though as you might expect Simes did it all himself, forbidding Max to do anything. Captain Blaine is still in his melancholy seclusion. All this leaves Max with is looking the place over, like the passengers. Like one passenger in particular:

They hung in parking orbit while their possible future home was examined from the control room and stared at endlessly from the lounge. It was in the lounge that Ellie tracked Max down. . . . "Where have you been?"

"Working." He reached out and caressed Chipsie; the spider puppy leaped to his shoulders and started searching him.

"Hmmmph! You don't work all the time. Do you know that I sent nine notes to your room this past week?"

Max knew. He had saved them but he had not answered. "Sorry."

"Sorry he says. Never mind Max, tell me all about it." She turned and looked out. "What have they named it? Is there anybody on it? Where are we going to land? When are we going to land? Max, aren't you excited?"

Starman Jones, p. 169

One of those questions of Ellie's she ends up answering herself, by deciding to name the planet "Charity" and then through force of repetition and personality making that the accepted name. The other questions she has raised here will have their own answers; the explication of those answers will form much of the rest of the plot.

(And this in turn touches on a signal failing of Heinlein's. In this period of his writing, he was fully capable of creating worthy female characters as supporting characters; Ellie is no less assertive, capable, and compent than, for example, Kelly, and later on we shall see her be put to the test in a crisis and pass. Yet when he tried to handle women as first-person narrators he produced Puddin' and Podkayne (admittedly bracketing this period). A study of this matter would be rewarding; what's been done so far on that topic is so one-dimensional it ends up detracting from the comprehension of the books.)

"When are we going to land?" Ellie had asked, and the next day they did. Captain Blaine finally comes out of his cabin to oversee the landing and it's not a pretty sight: "In place of his habitual cheerful expression was one that Max had trouble tagging until he recalled that he had seen it on horses, on horses too old to work but still working head bent, eyes dull, mute and resigned against a fate both inescapable and unbearable." [p. 171]

(An interesting corollary of this striking descriptive literary figure is that Max must be personally acquainted with the use of draft animals. It hardly seems to fit in with the technological level of the rest of the story. Such disparaties appeared often in Heinlein's work, such as the food shortages but far-flung travel of Farmer In the Sky (1950).

On the other hand, the use of such a comparison would seem to be based more on the author's personal experience, which indicates a different kind of problem; the author might be having trouble making the distinction between himself and his characters. Such a lapse has been frequently charged against Heinlein. There is another way to put it, though; as Damon Knight said "Heinlein's greatest asset is this same perennial hero essentially he's Heinlein himself, and Heinlein likes himself." [In Search of Wonder, p. 80]. However you choose to express it, this is the down side of that attitude.)

Now it's time to face up to the gravity of the situation. The search for recognizable stars (or, technically, for recognizable stellar spectra) has come up empty. The Asgard must be quite far from explored space. While returning is still theoretically possible, right now it looks far more likely that Kelly's suggestion is going to be their way of life. Now all they have to do is to explain it to the passengers, and all are called to the lounge to accept the current reality:

The Captain went to his table and sat down; the First Officer glanced at him, then cleared his throat loudly. "Quiet, please."

He went on, "I've called you together because Captain Blaine has something he wants to say to you." He stopped and stepped back respectfully.

Captain Blaine slowly stood us, looked uncertainly around. Max saw him square his thin shoulders and lift his head. "Men," he said, his voice suddenly firm and strong. "My guests and friends " he went on, his voice sinking. There was a hush in the lounge, Max could hear the Captain's labored breathing. He again asserted control of himself and continued, "I have brought you . . . I have brought you as far as I can . . ." His voice trailed off. He looked at them for a long moment, his mouth trembling. It seemed impossible for him to continue. The crowd started to stir.

But he did continue and they immediately quieted. "I have something else to say," he began, then paused. This pause was longer, when he broke it his voice was a whisper. "I'm sorry. God keep you all." He turned and started for the door.

Starman Jones, p. 173

First Officer Walther resumes directing the meeting and finally officially admits what they've all come to accept; they're lost and have no easy way to return. There are two courses of action they must now undertake, simultaneously, and dissonant courses at that; while the passengers and what crew can be spared are building a colony, the ship must be kept in commission ready to go, if need be. Resources are at hand remember the various livestock? and the passengers seem to be remarkably practical.

Outside the ship there's a whole new world, to use an abused cliché, with a whole new fauna. Overhead, air jellyfish drift by, and on the land below marsupalian centuaroids gallop away when seen, while there are other animals that won't even be seen. The climate is mild, the nights are spectacular there is a superabundance of bright comets, with attendant meteors to give close-in fireworks too. Charity seems to be being charitable to her new inhabitants.

So much so that a one-time farmboy really ought to be getting his hands dirty. However . . . Max quickly finds out that he can't be spared. It's not as if he doesn't have a significant other lined up, or that he doesn't have skills that would be useful there; no astrogator can be permitted to leave the ship. They may yet take off again.

Well, not permanently. Ellie has been toiling and moiling down with the rest of them and appreciates a break, especially with Max along. She's "not marrying anyone this season," but pretty clearly has someone in mind. Max reminds her of someone else, though; and the reason she's here to boot (something about having broken out of schools on Earth three times to get to him).

Still, the new and intriguing fauna of Charity is worth closer examination, and Ellie proceeds to do so. Then their examination of a herd of centaurs turns out to be a little longer and closer than either of them had been planning on:

The large centaur reached into its pouch, hauled out something, swung it around its head like a gaucho's throwing rope. "Ellie!"

He reached her just as it let go. The thing struck them, wound around and held them. Ellie screamed and Max struggled to tear it loose but they were held like Laocoön.

Another line came flying through the air, clung to them. And another.

Mr. Chips had followed Ellie. Now she skittered away, crying. She stopped at the edge of the clearing and shrilled: "Max! Ellie! Come back. Please back!"

Starman Jones, p. 189


For someone as suddenly cast into dire peril as as she has been, Ellie is remarkably collected, more so than Max. She accepts responsibility for their situation, apologizes, and dissuades him from wasting strength in ineffectual macho attempts to break the centaurs' ropes. As they say in typical Heinleinan banter: ". . . .I wish I could get at my knife." "I'm glad you can't. This calls for diplomacy." [p. 190]

Diplomacy requires the ability to communicate, and the centaurs don't particularly seem capable of communicating (or, you could say with equal correctness, the humans; it's all in the point of view). They seem more interested in getting somewhere.

The first night, for all that Mr. Chips had been squalling "Please back!", she followed them. Ellie had a long talk with her and persuaded her of the importance of going back to the ship. With, of course, the note from Ellie and Max informing them of the circumstances of this unwanted First Contact.

This First Contact seems at first interesting, if grossly annoying. They get a first-hand close-up look at the aliens, both the centaurs and the less-than-human humanoids (and marsupials at that) accompanying them. Which themselves aren't a pretty sight; what would you expect when their ears, which aren't at all oversized, stick up over their heads? In such ominous company, they proceed to the centaur place of judgment.

At least, that's what Max presumes when they find themselves in a long line of centaurs approaching one more senior-seeming centaur, who is being addressed at length by each centaur or group of centaurs, after which he/she/it will utter one brief comment, which seems to be accepted as a resolution.

The upsetting part comes when a sorely-afflicted centaur presents a petition of sorts. This provokes a summoning of the humanoids, who watch with some interest as the centaurs produce a merciful end to their fellow's sufferings. And then the humanoids get lunch.

Max was already disturbed by having seen what seemed to be a butcher shop, with carcasses which he only characterized as not being centaur. (Shades of the butcher shop in Farnham's Freehold (1964) at least Farnham could be disturbed that his species was being eaten as well as eating.) What goes around comes around which does not make his prospects at being in this system any happier.

But they seem to be only objects of interest, first during the initial investigation, which ends up with them being sent off, and afterwards. Leashed up in a clearing and the object of curious investigation by little centaurs, for now all seems stable, if not well. There's always the prospect of the future, though.

Which probably was just as well (for Miss Dalgleish, too) that they were tethered up to where they could just reach out hands and touch. (How they handled other matters, of the sort that for example get edited out of editions for juveniles of Gulliver's Travels, also isn't mentioned here.) For now, they are being fed and looked at.

This leaves Ellie with nothing to do but play three-dee chess. This turns out to be one of her true loves (she claims to have learned chess before she could read, which sounds like only a slight exaggeration) and she is trying to bring Max up to a level where he can at least give her a good game. They can't play memory chess, since having the advantage of an eidetic memory he can always "remember" positions to his advantage. Of course, since he had thought that he had had the advantage when he offered to play in the first place, this relationship has its own questions and concerns.

Stumbling through one of those apologetic conversations that turns out to be more embarassing than the original offense (and is even more embarassing now than when it was written) Max learns even more about Ellie "'I guess I don't understand women.' 'That's an understatement.'" is the conclusion of their conversation [p. 211].

Heinlein's aliens have been one of his strong points, and here we have not just an alien race, but an alien ecology an entire interrelated system of different species functioning as a whole. Quite a whole, and quite systematic. It is a problem of this book that we can not see all the action of this system, but have to be told of it through various of the characters. The requrements of the plot and the standardized book length of the era would, I think, militate against it.

It is a commentary on Heinlein's personality, standards, and writing style that having gone to all the trouble to create this system, he did not then fall in love with it and try to show that the centaurs and their fellow species were really misunderstood. The length of the book, the times, and most importantly Heinlein's own personality all militated against such a decision, though. Also, when writers do go through that course of creation and affection, all too often the rest of the work suffers, seemingly in consequence. The history of science fiction is littered with books of majestic system-building that are not novels, that lack story and character. (With some writers, it seems to be a fetish with which to display their political views.)

But going back to the clash of character; the other witnesses to Max and Ellie's conversation were all the more surprising. Sam turns up that night to save the day he'd been watching all along that day. Mr. Chips came back, but without the note. There were other delays at the ship; finally Sam got the idea that if Chipsie couldn't have been a messenger girl at least she could be a nonnative guide. Which she was, just in time to free the now important prisoners.

How important? Well, the colony wasn't quite as successful as it had first seemed it might. The centaurs were getting closer as were other things, that burrowed. Max and Ellie's experience had been extreme, but hardly unique. The village had to be abandoned, uninhabitable, but not before a graveyard had to be started. As Sam puts it: "Those polo ponies have this place organized." [p. 215]

Whereas the humans are now less so. Captain Blaine has died, of grief one would have concluded from his appearance; whether naturally or with the help of the former contents of the empty container of sleeping pills Sam found in his cabin hardly matters. (And was it self-help or not?) The next event in this grim saga was Mr. Simes's trying to go one step further along the course he had begun when Dr. Hendrix died, moving into the Captain's cabin from the Astrogator's.

There were some concerns that First Officer Mr. Walther had about this and other matters, formed from his own observations and the observations of others (You will recall that Kelly had had his questions in the matter). This was a little much and perhaps it was time for the First Officer to see him and try to settle things. Fortunately he had taken Sam along, as the situation suddenly became violent. Sam sums the affair up in two different meanings of the term:

"That was another matter. Simes seemed to feel that he was crown prince, but the First wouldn't stand for it. Something about some films the Chief Computerman had. Anyhow, he tried to get tough with Walther and I sort of broke his neck. There wasn't time to be gentle," Sam added hastily. "Simes pulled a gun."

Starman Jones, p. 219

They can't stay. So they need an astrogator. Hence this rescue.

Of course to be rescued, you have to get there and back again. Were it not for another facet of Max's eidetic memory, they would have to wait for daylight, or blunder about helplessly in the forest. Instead, they gain vital kilometers of separation from the centaur encampment in the night, getting to the edge of the clearing where the Asgard had landed.

But, as Sam said, those polo ponies have this place organized. Or something has the place organized; the drifting air jellyfish they now call hobgoblins have been acting more like reconnaissance balloons. Sam had already picked one off during the escape. Ellie had lost a shoe during the night, in the scramble across the rough country; she isn't complaining, but it's still holding them up. And, as Sam puts it, "[Four] legs run faster than two legs." [p. 216] So they have to wait out the day, too close to the Asgard for true peace of mind (and unwilling to appreciate the beautiful ecological system they have found).

Waiting has its own problems. Like when another hobgoblin comes along and Sam picks it off. Make that "hobgoblins" and the survivor went for help. There's nothing to do but make a run for it. Now they're in for it. The cavalry comes riding over the hill, and it's not to the rescue. They can't make it to the Asgard before the centaurs get them. Or they can't all make it:

. . Sam yelled, "Beat it, kids! Into the ship." He stopped.

Max stopped, too, while shouting "Run, Ellie!"

Sam snarled, "Run for it, I said! What can you do? Without a gun?"

Max hesitated, torn by an unbearable decision. He saw that Ellie had stopped. Sam glanced back, then backhanded Max across the mouth. "Get moving! Get her inside!"

Max moved, gathering Ellie in one arm and urging her on. Behind them Sam Anderson turned to face his death . . . dropping to one knee and steadying his pistol over his left forearm in precisely the form approved by the manual.

Starman Jones, pp. 220-1


When Sam was telling the story of that Marine named Roberts or Richards, who had stayed over leave one time and never quite faced up to the consequences [p. 65], it had looked like he was engaging in covert autobiography. In fact one might have guessed it from one of the first things he ever said to Max: "You were silhouetted against the sky. Don't ever do that, kid, or it may be the last thing you do." [p. 27] When they started out together, Sam was thinking like a soldier then, and he was thinking and doing so even to the end.

This is, perhaps, the most extreme example of the Heinlein Individual mentoring process that Heinlein has portrayed; the only comparison would be that with Baslim in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957). Usually the mentoring is nothing more than teaching. But in this case we encounter another thesis of Heinlein's, the idea of being able to love something so much that you are willing to lose it.

The highest standard of morality, in Heinlein's view, is being willing to risk life, and if need be give it up, in the defense of society. It was that principle that brought him, and that he brought, out of the Naval Academy. In its extreme manifestation it engendered Starship Troopers (1959). But here there is grief by the living for the dead.

Max barely has time to begin grieving for Sam, though; there is another burden for him to bear. With a minimum pause to just barely assume some sort of physical presentability, Max is hustled before the First Officer, the Chief Engineer, and the Purser. They want to know how much he knows, for he has yet another task, far more than just astrogating the Asgard: "You must be Captain," [p. 224] Mr. Walther tells him, and then proceeds to tell him why. It's not only a question of command, it's a question of authority.

A ship is more than just a physical structure, it is a metaphysical form; a community. A community requires rules and patterns, order and discipline; real discipline, not the strict allegiance to "bull" that people like Mr. Simes care for. The forms, the social forms of human order and action, not the paper forms of clerk's work, must be filled; there must be a captain, an authority figure to bear the burdens and pay the prices of authority.

Max is properly appreciative of his lack of actual experience in such matters, and endeavors to demur, to try to shift off the full burden of that position out of deference to the greater actual experience of the other officers. That won't do:

Max felt his heart pounding, his head was aching steadily. Walther looked at him grimly and said, "Well?"

"I'll take it." He added, "I don't see what else I can do."

Starman Jones, p. 226

"'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way.'" (The Fellowship of the Ring)

The others depart so Captain Jones can confer with his First Officer. Mr. Walther proceeds to confirm and expand several of Max's views and observations. It seems that the entire bridge crew shared Max's opinions of the late Mr. Simes's abilities or lack thereof, sufficiently not to want to go into space under his command. When he usurped the appurtenances of command, the First Officer took steps to correct his untoward assumption, with results you should be aware of.

Unfortunately, there was one other little problem in connection with that. Mr. Simes had taken steps to make his assumption of command a necessity, even in the event that that arrogant kid Jones somehow came back; he had hidden all the manuals, hidden them so well that a stem-to-stern search of the Asgard could not find them. Eidetic memory must now prove its worth. The obvious parallel is with Heinlein's second published story, "Misfit" (Astounding, November 1939), where Andrew Jackson Libby uses his type of autistic savantry, enhanced calculating abilities, to save the day when the system breaks down.

But before he can put his memory to the test, Max must pass a different sort of test. That evening, at dinner in the lounge, the new Captain must announce to the passengers and crew his assumption of authority and his intent for the use of that authority:

Max stood up. He looked around, swallowed, tried to speak, and couldn't. Then, as effectively as if it had been a dramatic pause and not desperation, he picked up his water tumbler and took a sip. "Guests and fellow crewmen," he said, "we can't stay here. You know that. I have been told that our Surgeon calls the system we are up against here 'symbiotic enslavement' like dog to man, only more so, and apparently covering the whole animal kingdom on this planet. Well, men aren't meant for slavery, symbiotic or any sort. But we are too few to win out now, so we must leave."

He stopped for another sip and Ellie caught his eye, encouraging him. "Perhaps someday other men will come back better prepared. As for us, I am going to try to take the Asgard back through the . . . uh, 'hole' you might call it, where we came out. It's a chancy thing. No one is forced to come along but it is the only possible way to get home. . . ."

Starman Jones, pp. 231-2

Here Heinlein reiterates one of his basic themes, the supremely fundamental basis of freedom to human nature. By comparison with other species or by the action of the Captain, this theme is elucidated in action and reinforced in thought.

There is one final human custom to perform before the Asgard can take leave of the uncharitable planet Charity. The next morning, Max takes Mr. Walther, Ship's Steward Giordano, and an armed escort out to do one final service.

Engineering had hurriedly prepared the marker, a pointed slab of stainless metal. Max looked at it before he placed it and thought about the inscription. "Greater love hath no man"? no, he had decided that Sam wouldn't like that, with his cynical contempt of all sentimentality. He had considered, "He played the cards he was dealt" but that didn't fit Sam either; if Sam didn't like the cards, he sometimes slipped in a whole new deck. No, this was more Sam's style; he shoved it into the ground and read it:





"He ate what was set before him."

Starman Jones, p. 234

So it is with the Heinlein Individual.

As the only astrogator at all on the Asgard, Max has to pull a triple shift. If an ordinary transition had been a great strain on Dr. Hendrix, this one will be an even greater strain on Max, with no relief, going back through an unknown congruency.

Being under strain can be almost too much. With all the pressure on him, Max is working almost too hard. He's already been sleeping in the control room; now that the transition is on them we have one of those edge-of-the-seat transitions made infinitely more perilous by this being an unknown one. The slightest lack of confidence in his memory and he would call off the transition. The slightest lack of confidence is forthcoming, with potentially catastrophic results. Then:

At that bad moment a feeling came over him that someone was standing behind his chair, resting hands on his shoulders quieting him, soothing him. He began clearly and sharply to call off figures to Kovak.

Starman Jones, p. 246

And with a pop the Asgard finds herself in the Nu Pegasi system, ready to go back to Halcyon or on to Nova Terra, the next stop.


Max liked this time of day, this time of year.

Starman Jones, p. 9

Max liked this time of day, this time of year.

Starman Jones, p. 250

It is intentional that the first and last chapters of this book begin with the same sentence, with Max in the same place doing the same thing. One of Heinlein's standard plot structures was the spiral; the hero moves from point to point, but the points are related. (See Panshin's Heinlein In Dimension, pp. 134-5.) Max ends up the story in the same place where he began it, but everything has changed.

In some ways Heinlein wanted to scant this: "I kept that last chapter short because the story actually ends with the next to the last chapter, i.e., the character change is complete." [Grumbles from the Grave, letter of March 25, 1953, p. 69] The return to the beginning emphasizes the change.

Scribners' editor Miss Dalgleish had been worried about the problem of Max's offenses [Grumbles from the Grave, letter of March 24, 1953, p. 67]. This had been addressed earlier in the book:

". . . . But I don't want to duck out of paying for it, either."

Walther nodded. "That sounds like a healthy attitude. Captain, no code is perfect. A man must conform with judgment and commonsense, not with blind obedience. I've broken rules; some violations I paid for, some I didn't. This mistake you made could have turned you into a moralistic prig, a 'Regulation Charlie' determined to walk the straight and narrow and to see that everyone else obeyed the letter of the law. Or it could have made you a permanent infant who thinks rules are for everyone but him. It doesn't seem to have had either effect; I think it has matured you."

Starman Jones, p. 243

Mature enough to accept Ellie's getting married to her true love (to wind that plot element up). And mature enough to ponder that little bit of mysticism, the ghostly presence of Max's Old Ones: "I had the notion that Doc was standing over me, the way he used to, checking what I did. Then everything was all right." "Yes, he was here. I was sure he would be." [p. 247] As Heinlein said of another book: "[The] theme of this story is that death is the only destination for all of us and that the only long-range hope for any adult lies in the young and that this double realization constitutes growing up . . . ."