Starman Jones, by Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein was one of the “big three” of science fiction following World War II. With Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke he helped advance the genre through the 1950s and 1960s. Heinlein was also the first sci-fi writer to obtain publication in general magazines starting with Saturday Evening Post.
There are some common themes in Heinlein. He was an Annapolis graduate and served as a naval officer until he was given a discharge after contracting tuberculosis. He was one of the earliest to conceive the naval allegory for space travel. He and wife Virginia were both engineers as well and were known for tinkering in their home building convenience devices. This technical expertise comes out in his writing compared to Asimov, who was a physicist (and maybe one of the great polymaths of the 20th century) and more interested in overcoming or working with known physics.
Heinlein wrote a series of “juvenilia” both as individual books and serials in magazines like Boy’s Life. Starman Jones fits into this category although it’s a worthwhile bildungsroman for anybody who wants a fun afternoon read.
The main character in the book and the narrator is Max Jones, a farm kid from the Ozarks (Heinlein was born in Missouri) whose life is turned upside down when his widowed mother marries a moonshiner. It’s always funny reading sci-fi written before about 1970 that still envision a future with farms operated on mule power, men who smoke pipes on spaceships, and data storage limited to punch tape and microfilm. Max escapes a beating on the day he meets his new stepfather. He sneaks into the house at night and recovers precious items, including a collection of books given to him by his “astrogator” uncle containing the data tables used by the Astrogator Guild of the Imperial Marines. He heads out on foot to the headquarters of the guild. The guild is one of many hereditary organizations operating space vessels. The uncle who gave Max the books never had children but had mentioned that he would recommend Max for apprenticeship in the guild.
Along the way Max meets a hobo named Sam Anderson who first robs him but then later becomes a father-figure/mentor. The only Heinlein book I’ve read that doesn’t have a character like this may be Stranger in a Strange Land, and that may be due to Valentine Michael Smith being that figure for the earth. There will always be a wise older character who has already condensed the knowledge for the theme Heinlein is working with and dispenses it with humor and slightly marred old saws. (“No sense crying over spilled milk after the horse is out of the barn.”) There are several of these characters through the book to help Max rise through the ranks as his skills and eidetic memory are recognized. He also meets a spunky girl who challenges him and is smarter than he is in some areas (because there’s always one in Heinlein, this may be a tribute to wife Virginia.)
Eventually one officer who doesn’t respect Max’s skills ignores advice from Max at a crucial moment of astrogation causing the ship to become lost. Max will eventually be vindicated, but only after life-threatening adventures on a strange planet.
It’s a fun book with a fun collection of oddball characters. It’s easy to lose yourself in cheering on Max and sharing his resentment at occasional bad treatment. It’s a Horatio Alger story with more humor, science, and advice than most. It’s a dated story about a boy with “pluck” who makes good and writing that isn’t that dated. It is definitely a book from its era, slightly chauvanistic but an easy-to-read book by one of the masters of the genre.