[Content Note: Intentionally exacting ethics, extensive quotation, casual discussion of nuclear warfare. Considerable spoilers for Space Cadet, but not in the way that you’d think.]
I’m probably going to regret trying to review Space Cadet because Heinlein is always about morality and writing about morality always frustrates me no end.
To be clear, it’s not morality that frustrates me, but writing about it, because I don’t have the time to dash off a three hundred page introduction to whatever idea it is that I’m trying to communicate. Learning to think in aesthetics was probably a mistake, because then you have to concretize and suddenly see that you’ve leapt over all the supporting framework.
If this seems a little dramatic for a slim YA novel, well, this book can be read on multiple levels. My initial reading, back in elementary school, mostly just took away the science fiction story of Matt Dodson joining the Patrol and his subsequent adventures as a cadet traveling the solar system.
Matt is a convenient character for this sort of story, because he has almost no defining features. He was raised in Iowa, North American Union, Terra. He struggles in mathematics but ultimately succeeds, enjoys playing space polo, studied Basic but not tensor calculus in high school, makes several friends and an enemy. Note that those friends have more features than him: “Tex” Jarman has a personality as big as his home state, Oscar from Venus tells us all about the Venerian culture and customs, Pete from Ganymede has an emotional episode of homesickness. Even the hate sink has a better-defined backstory. We’re intended to step easily into Matt’s shoes.
Heinlein, meanwhile, self-inserts into the various Patrol officers mentoring the young men as they attend Annapolis in space. The Patrol is not just a military organization, or a research organization, or a humanitarian organization. It’s all of these and more. Crafting boys into the sort of supermen who can keep the peace between the various nations of Terra and the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is no mean feat.
The first half of the novel is a standard Bildungsroman on the making of a spaceman. Consider this passage, during Matt’s orientation aboard the P.R.S. Randolph in geosynchronous orbit, where each cadet begins his education. Lieutenant Wong, Matt’s mentor, is explaining a cadet’s curriculum:
“Everything that can possibly be studied under hypno[sis] you will have to learn that way in order to leave time for the really important subjects.”
Matt nodded. “I see. Like astrogation.”
“No, no no! Not astrogation. A ten-year-old child could learn to pilot a spaceship if he had the talent for mathematics. That is kindergarten stuff, Dodson. The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. I know, from your tests, that you can soak up the math and physical sciences and technologies. Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.”
Matt was looking bug-eyed. “My gosh! How long does it take to learn all those things?”
“You’ll still be studying the day you retire. But even those subjects are not your education; they are simply the raw materials. Your real job is to learn how to think—and that means you must study several other subjects: epistemology, scientific methodology, semantics, structures of languages, patterns of ethics and morals, varieties of logics, motivational psychology, and so on. This school is based on the idea that a man who can think correctly will automatically behave morally—or what we call ‘morally.’ What is moral behavior for a Patrolman, Matt? You are called Matt, aren’t you? By your friends?”
“Yes, sir. Moral behavior for a Patrolman . . .”
“Yes, yes. Go on.”
“Well, I guess it means to do your duty, live up to your oath, that sort of thing.”
“Why should you?”
Matt kept quiet and looked stubborn.
“Why should you, when it may get you some messy way of dying? Never mind. Our prime purpose here is to see to it that you learn how your own mind works. If the result is a man who fits into the purposes of the Patrol because his own mind, when he knows how to use it, works that way—then fine! He is commissioned. If not, the we have to let him go.”
Matt remained silent until Wong finally said, “What’s eating on you, kid? Spill it.”
“Well—look here, sir. I’m perfectly willing to work hard to get my commission. But you make it sound like something beyond my control. First I have to study a lot of things I’ve never heard of. Then, when it’s all over, somebody decides my mind doesn’t work right. It seems to me that what this job calls for is a superman.”
“Like me.” Wong chuckled and flexed his arms. “Maybe so, Matt, but there aren’t any supermen, so we’ll have to do the best we can with young squirts like you. Come, now, let’s make up the list of spools you’ll need.”
Thus begins Matt’s theoretical education as a Patrolman. The process isn’t easy for him, and he struggles. That aspect of the story is far more relatable to me now that when I read this book as a kid, because I’ve been there. Honestly, if I could make 2013!me read a particular book, I’d probably ask myself to reread Space Cadet. It might just have bent the trajectory of my life a different direction.
Matt, too, struggles with trajectories—he’s so frustrated by the coursework in astrogation that he asks Lieutenant Wong for a transfer to the space marines. Wong refuses, saying that Matt is too far removed from the appropriate mindset:
“People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.
[. . .]
“The Patrol is meant to be made up exclusively of the professional type. In the space marines, every single man jack, from the generals to the privates, is or should be the sort who lives by pride and glory.”
“Oh . . .”
Wong waited for it to sink in. “You can see it in the very uniforms; the Patrol wears the plainest of uniforms, the marines wear the gaudiest possible. In the Patrol all emphasis is on the oath, the responsibility to humanity. In the space marines the emphasis is on pride in their corps and its glorious history, loyalty to comrades, the ancient virtues of the soldier. I am not disparaging the marine when I say that he does not care a tinker’s damn for the political institutions of the Solar System; he cares only for his organization.
“But it’s not your style, Matt. I know more about you than you do yourself, because I have studied the results of your psychological tests. You will never make a marine.”
Rejected by Lieutenant Wong, Matt returns to astrogation, planning secretly to not return from his first leave.
The next chapter opens waiting for the rocket back to P.R.S. Randolph, wondering just when he changed his mind. The narrative alternates between the rocket flight and Matt’s vacation, illustrating the ways in which he is no longer a civilian:
Great-aunt Dora was the current family matriarch. She had been a very active woman, busy with church and social work. Now she was bed-fast and had been for three years. Matt called on her because his family obviously expected it. “She often complains to me that you don’t write to her, Matt, and—”
“But, Mother, I don’t have time to write to everyone!”
“Yes, yes, but she’s proud of you, Matt. She’ll want to ask you a thousand questions about everything. Be sure to wear your uniform—she’ll expect it.”
Aunt Dora had not asked a thousand questions; she had asked just one—why had he waited so long to come see her? Thereafter Matt found himself being informed, in detail, of the shortcomings of the new pastor, the marriage chances of several female relatives and connections, and the states of health of several older women, many of them unknown to him, including the details of operations and post-operative developments.
I’m glad I’ve never had that experience with my older relatives, though when Dad talks about his coworkers….
Yes, maybe that was it—it might have been the visit to Aunt Dora that convinced him that he was not ready to resign and remain in Des Moines. It could not have been Marianne.
Marianne was the girl who had made him promise to write regularly—and, in fact, he had, more regularly than she. But he had let her know that he was coming home and she had organized a picnic to welcome him back. It had been jolly. Matt had renewed old acquaintances and had enjoyed a certain amount of hero worship from the girls present. There had been a young man there, three or four years older than Matt, who seemed unattached. Gradually it dawned on Matt that Marianne treated the newcomer as her property.
It had not worried him. Marianne was the sort of girl who never would get clearly fixed in her mind the distinction between a planet and a star. He had not noticed this before, but it and similar matters had come up on the one date he had had alone with her.
And she had referred to his uniform as “cute.”
He began to understand, from Marianne, why most Patrol officers do not marry until their mid-thirties, after retirement.
This passage, and several like it, were why I decided to reread Space Cadet after all these years. The disconnect between specialist and layman grows too large and it becomes impossible to talk meaningfully about your work. So far, I’ve managed to keep Mom and Dad up to speed, but we’ll see how long that lasts.
Matt is in a much worse state, trying to describe missile maintenance to his parents, who neither understand orbital mechanics, nucleonics, nor the political motivations of the Patrol.
Nuclear weapons are kept in polar orbits, he explains, so that the entire planet is covered by the Patrol’s watchful eye. They are regularly serviced by ships—physically caught by a cadet, disarmed, and reeled in for inspection and repositioning. Matt casual mentions that J-3 will be passing over Des Moines in a few minutes, which gives his mother a fit of anxiety. “What if it should fall?” she demands.
Objects in orbit don’t fall, of course, as Matt explains—they would have to instantaneously lose 7,800 m/s of velocity to drop straight down. If the Patrol needed to nuke Des Moines that night, they would use a missile requiring a more moderate change of trajectory, like I-2 or H-1.
This doesn’t comfort her.
Matt’s father tries to argue that the Patrol would never bomb the North American Union, because the majority of Patrol officers are from North America. Matt refuses to commit, insisting later that the Patrol absolutely would. But he has doubts.
For the first few weeks after leave, Matt was too busy to fret. He had to get back into the treadmill, with more studying to do and less time to do it in. He was on the watch list for cadet officer of the watch now, and had more laboratory periods in electronics and nucleonics as well. Besides this he shared with the other oldsters the responsibility for bringing up the youngster cadets. Before leave his evenings had usually been free for study, now he coached youngsters in astrogation three nights a week.
He was beginning to think that he would have to give up space polo, when he found himself elected captain of [the deck’s] team. Then he was busier than ever. He hardly thought about abstract problems until his next session with Lieutenant Wong.
“Good afternoon,” his coach greeted him. “How’s your class in astrogation?”
“Oh, that—It seems funny to be teaching it instead of flunking it.”
“That’s why you’re stuck with it—you still remember what it was that used to stump you and why. How about atomics?”
“Well . . . I suppose I’ll get by, but I’ll never be an Einstein.”
“I’d be amazed if you were. How are you getting along otherwise?” Wong waited.
“All right, I guess. Do you know, Mr. Wong—when I went on leave I didn’t intend to come back.”
“I’d rather thought so. That space-marines notion was just your way of dodging around, trying to avoid your real problem.”
“Oh. Say, Mr. Wong—tell me straight. Are you a regular Patrol officer, or a psychiatrist?”
Wong almost grinned. “I’m a regular Patrol officer, Matt, but I’ve had the special training required for this job.”
“Uh, I see. What was it I was running away from?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Tell me about your leave, then. We’ve got all afternoon.”
“Yes, sir.” Matt meandered along, telling as much as he could remember. “So you see,” he concluded, “it was a lot of little things. I was home—but I was a stranger. We didn’t talk the same language.”
Wong chuckled. “I’m not laughing at you,” he apologized. “It isn’t funny. We all go through it—the discovery that there’s no way to go back. It’s part of growing up—but with spacemen it’s an especially acute and savage process.”
Matt nodded. “I’d already gotten that through my thick head. Whatever happens I won’t go back—not to stay. I might go into the merchant service, but I’ll stay in space.”
“You’re not likely to flunk out at this stage, Matt.”
“Maybe not, but I don’t know yet that the Patrol is the place for me. That’s what bothers me.”
“Well . . . can you tell me about it?”
Matt tried. He related the conversation with his father and his mother that had gotten them all upset. “It’s this: if it comes to a showdown, I’m expected to bomb my own hometown. I’m not sure it’s in me to do it. Maybe I don’t belong here.”
“Not likely to come up, Matt. Your father was right there.”
“That’s not the point. If a Patrol officer is loyal to his oath only when it’s no skin off his own nose, the whole system breaks down.”
Wong waited before replying. “If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your own hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called upon to carry out the attack is equally slight…But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”
Matt still looked troubled. “Not satisfied?” Wong went on. “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat, black-and-white answers. Suppose you relax and let me worry about whether or not you have what it takes. Oh, some day you’ll be caught in a squeeze with no one around to tell you the right answer. But I have to decide whether or not you can get the right answer when the problem comes along—and I don’t even know what your problem will be! How would you like to be in my boots?”
Matt grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn’t like it.
From thereon out, it’s a fairly standard science fiction story. If the last hundred page feel like an entirely different novel, well, the earlier drafts went in a rather different direction. In the final version, however, Matt is assigned to a ship, continuing his education while on search-and-assist in the asteroid belt, before being sent to Venus. There, Matt, Tex, and Oscar find themselves stranded, their commanding officer incapacitated, and must keep the peace with the local Venerians while rescuing themselves—exactly the sort of experience Lieutenant Wong was preparing Matt for. If only all college guidance counselors had the time and training to take such interest in their students’ psychological development!
What draws me to Space Cadet again after so many years is that it is not just a fun adventure in space (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s a vision of how to live as human beings.
This story was written immediately after the war, copyright 1948. The specter of fascism still hung over the western world, that Russia would be our geopolitical enemy for next forty years was still largely unthinkable.
Heinlein was looking ahead to a world of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Remember, Uncle Joe still didn’t have the bomb—if we’d acted quickly, the entire planet could have been a democracy (or a dictatorship). Even before America entered the war, Heinlein was thinking about the threat that nuclear weapons posed to world peace and world freedom.
In various forms, the Patrol was his fictional attempt to answer this problem. A quasi-military organization, with unlimited funds and unlimited firepower at its disposal, and each officer committed to the safety of every nation but his own. Lieutenant Wong is no accident: the Patrol’s multicultural character is made clear throughout the book. In a classic Heinlein twist, only after the boys are stranded on Venus do we learn that one of their commanders was of African descent.
(Those who mistakenly believe Sixth Column accurately represent Heinlein’s views on race should consider that he wrote this, for kids, at the same time.)
A decade before the beatniks, we’re told to stand up tall and proud in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and conduct ourselves as men.
Let’s do the responsible thing here and quote from William Patterson’s biography:
An incident witnessed on a family outing in Swope Park in 1912 stayed with [Heinlein] for the rest of his life. He would take it out of memory and turn it over in his mind again and again, examining it with wonder:
A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch—a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another younger man—the newspapers later said he was a tramp—stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.
Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife—but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself. Why did he do it? wondered little Bobby and then Adolescent Bobby—and so, repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it.
An artist works in images and articulates images even when he can’t necessarily articulate the meaning. This incident became a core image for [Heinlein], one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being. At the end he still could not articulate it. All he could say about it was: “This is how a man dies. This is how a man lives!” And that was enough.
This is what I love about Space Cadet, what I love about the Patrol, and what I love about Heinlein.
Maybe thinking with aesthetics isn’t so bad after all.