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



When The Young Atomic Engineers on Mars: or Secret of the Moon Corridors (1948) ended with the usual advert for the next book ("And they left their new space friends, ready for new wonders in the planetoid belt, in the adventure of The Young Atomic Engineers in the Asteroids: or The Mystery of the Broken Planet." [op. cit., p. 180]), our heroes had faced down a rival entrepreneur who had built a spaceship out of a packing crate. Out among the fragments of the broken planet, the opposition is of a different caliber.

The author, meanwhile, had been having troubles of his own:

. . . I am just about through with the series guide. I have decided that the general title will be "Robert A. Heinlein's Future History Volume #" with the volume number and the individual book title, then the assistant author's name in much smaller print. The deal I thought I had with Ron [Hubbard] to do the second and third volumes seems to have fallen through, as he says he wants to get clear on his current project. Stan [Stanley Mullen, author of the famous epic Kinsmen of the Dragon] has finished his first draft and I will polish it up in the next month or two.

Meanwhile, I am finishing the outline for The Young Atomic Engineers under the Clouds: or the Oceans of Venus. I have already changed the title of The Young Atomic Engineers In the Broken Planet: or the Pirates of the Asteroids because of Miss Dalgleish's objections and will not tolerate this kind of behavior again.

Grumbles from the Grave, pp. 118-9, letter of March 3, 1950

"Robert A. Heinlein's Future History Volume #1: Destination Moon (1950) was a fiasco which set back published science fiction for several years," says Alexei Panshin [Heinlein In Dimension, p. 50]. This melodramatic recounting of a first moon shot, with a crew member being sidelined by measles before takeoff, then lightning strikes on the spaceship as it takes off, an oxygen-tank explosion in mid-flight, and the ship having to be landed manually at the last minute to keep from ending up in a rock pile, followed by the commander playing a game of lunar golf, then going back to a financial scandal over the sale of special space stamps, is too ramshackle and preposterous to be for real. A real mission would be better organized. In an Earthside note, feminist critics have criticized the character of Maureen Johnson, the gorgeous red-haired mistress of lunar wheeler-dealer D. D. Harriman, as an "implausible super-woman".

At least this failure seems to have cured editors of the idea of taking the works of a successful writer and having a team of hacks write it up à la Captain Future. (Reportedly, a second volume titled Robert A. Heinlein's Future History Volume #2: The Sword and the Scepter actually got as far as the manuscript stage; it featured a band of condottieri guarding the plantations on Venus from "Logic of Empire", and was written by a former army officer who was later killed in a Ku Klux Klan-Communist Workers Party shootout.) Had it not been for Heinlein's successes with the Young Atomic Engineers books for Scribner's, his own career might have followed it.

Art, Morrie, Ross, and Uncle Don have had career crises of their own. After their upsetting welcome to Mars, they beat off Dolph Haertel and his sinister gaunt assistant Bill Atheling in a flurry of Bethé blasts and Diriac beeps. Success and new information emboldens them to take the new technology they found on Mars, or really the old Martian technology they found there, and use it to go to the asteroid belt. A cryptic hint from one of the Old Martians has led them to believe that the ruins of the broken planet might contain further clues to the mysteries of the First Interplanetary Empire:

Art remembered all too well the squeaky rasp that came from the Martian's inhuman vocal organs: "Man-son, man-son . . . . helter-skelter into the broken planet must you go, and helter-skelter from the broken planet will you flee . . . ."

The Young Atomic Engineers in the Asteroids, p. 16

(see also The Young Atomic Engineers on Mars, p. 160)

The pattern clearly laid out in the series was to gradually reveal the depths of the First Interplanetary Empire in a rising progression from book to book. Unfortunately, the infamous conflict over the publication of 1959's book, which dealt with the establishment of the Interplanetary Patrol and its Academy (reportedly to have been titled The Young Atomic Engineers at the Point: or the Star Voyager Academy), led to the withdrawal of the manuscript and apparently its destruction as well. This cliffhanger had left us all hanging.

(The extensive program of posthumous publication has not in fact produced any more complete works of Heinlein fiction; only unsold nonfiction books such as the recent Mr. Heinlein Builds His Dream House (1994). Perhaps the complaints about the handmaid's tale of an orgy in the Prophet's palace in the revised "If This Goes On " (1940, 1953, 1992) seem to have eliminated any such idea from further consideration. Isobel Burton may yet have been reborn.)

Heinlein was following the example of his old pal E. E. "Doc" Smith here, without the anticlimaxes as Kim Kinnison thought he had wiped out each final outpost of Boskonia only to find a new one in time for the next book. By way of contrast, for example, the discovery of the First Interplanetary Empire library in The Young Atomic Engineers at the Inmost Orbit: or The Big Sun of Mercury (1954) advances the metaplot, but not too far, once they discover that the library had been purged of all technical books because of partisan considerations (the presentation in that book of the purge-engendering ideology of "Clariocentrism", the idea that all knowledge came from the ideas of the natives of the planet Clarion, but that this had been suppressed by envious ritalin-challenged Venusians, is mercilessly expounded, though these "donations to Clarion" make the aliens appear to be petty and far more absurd than humans could ever be).

The flight out into the void progresses without major incident. Having the construction of the latest ship be interrupted by Terran delays had been a staple of the series ever since the struggle to get the original rocket ship Galileo to the Moon in The Young Atomic Engineers (1947), and having the obstructionist be a midwestern Senator at least gives it a different feel. This conflict has been resolved now in some ways, and in some ways left hanging: "Morrie would never again be able to drink milk without its leaving an ugly mental aftertaste," [p. 47] for example.

Their first discovery is anomalous, an asteroid with an eccentric orbit taking it inside the Martian orbit, and in a triumph of Heinlein's research it receives a masculine name. It's only after their rendezvous with Rama that things start getting uncomfortable. The radio starts beeping, when there's no one to call. Or is there? The result turns out to be disquieting, but without these plots there wouldn't be a plot, and the readers would be left riding a new wave of incoherence.

The asteroid belt seems to be as crowded as the planets (much less the Moon) were, and this odd Russian Leonid Naumov on the good ship Vil'yam Genrykovich Fischer (obviously sticking to the then still popular belief that all the Soviet rocket scientists were Germans; had he but known Chief Designer Korolev would have been outraged) is by some outrageous coincidence the closest of friends of Uncle Don's:

"Sure you remember me, Don," Naumov said. "From the Project? STAR? Of course you do. Going around after Feynman and picking up the papers . . . "

"Yes, yes. This is no time to go raking over old days. Can you see us on the radar?"

"Sure. No problem, boychik. I've got Volodya Shatalov here, the best navigator around. Kto?" The radio fell dead for a moment, then the speaker crackled again. "We have you on screen, and we'll match vectors in a moment. It'll be just like old times . . ." A hiss of static washed over Naumov's voice.

Uncle Don laid down the microphone very carefully. "I wish I knew what all was going on."

The Young Atomic Engineers in the Asteroids, pp. 118-9

The Galileo Seven is in a tight fix, what with curious Soviets poaching on their new asteroid find. Heinlein's concern about the "other side" had not reached the levels it was to do after his 1960 trip to the Soviet Union. It is a relief, though, to get away from the cliched Nazis of the earlier works, even if his reactionary fever-dreams seem to have been his choice of replacement.

Heinlein was often criticized for an alleged "business-first" attitude. Maybe so, though the frequent outbursts against Big Business from "Let There Be Light" (1940) on would make any reasonable person think otherwise. (And maybe that says something there.) Of course, entrepreneurship is not quite the same thing, and a far more favorable portrayal of businessmen, or at least starting-up businessmen, is to be found in The Young Atomic Engineers in Business: or The Solar System Mining Corporation (1952). But the readers presumably didn't know at the time that the young atomic engineers would be selling shares of stock to Harvard dropouts from Seattle.

And in this pulpish locus of peril, this science fiction chronicle will be:

Continued Next Issue