In 1977, I was already aware of science fiction and had a keen interest in anything to do with space or the NASA space program. I was watching Doctor Who on a semi-regular basis, repeats of Star Trek were a favourite, and Space: 1999 was a treat. Then that summer my uncle braved the queue with me in tow, and I was treated to my first big screen science fiction adventure, Star Wars. Needless to say, I was hooked and was now a firm fan of science fiction in all its forms. I had yet to discover the joy of reading science fiction but that changed immediately after seeing Star Wars.
Fortunately, I lived quite close to our local library; fortunately they had a relatively good selection of science fiction novels available. As I perused the various titles two caught my eye; Starman Jones and Space Cadet both by Robert A. Heinlein. I was allowed to sign both out and singled out Space Cadet as the first ‘real’ science fiction book I would ever read.
I recall enjoying Space Cadet immensely, devouring it and Starman Jones in rapid succession. In the passing years my memory of the two books remains warm, and I have often recommend new readers of science fiction to try these books. Recently, though, I began to wonder if either were as good as I remember them. To that end I decided to read Space Cadet once more, so I could affirm that this was still a book new readers will enjoy.
On 1 July 2085, young Matthew Dodson reports to the Interplanetary Patrol base in Colorado for testing to be admitted to the Academy to become a Patrolman. Immediate upon arrival he meets ‘Tex’ Jarman, a fellow candidate, and shortly thereafter Oscar Jensen and Pierre Armand. These and other characters move in and out of the story as we follow Matt’s progress.
The first few chapters are taken up with the rigorous testing of the many potential candidates. We know how tough it is to qualify for the Academy since we are shown that there are fewer candidates remaining as the initial mess groups are consolidated with each meal. We follow Matt as he is put through various trials; none of which leave Matt or the other candidates confident of their chances. However, no matter what test is given, Matt and his friends are eventually passed as fit and sworn into the Academy.
There is little time for celebration, however, as they are quickly transferred to the school ship P.R.S. James Randolf. Aboard the Randolf Matt quickly realises that he has misjudged his abilities and is put on an almost remedial course of education to get him up to speed with the rest the cadets. Between hypno-tape education and various avenues of coursework, both theoretical and practical, Matt is nearly ground down to the point where he almost quits. Fortunately for him, he receives timely words and help from Lieutenant Wong, his primary teacher. With Mr. Wong’s help Matt comes to terms with his shortcomings and eventually make up for them.
Finally, after months of training, Matt is passed as fit for temporary duty and assigned to the Patrol Rocket Ship Aes Triplex. Aboard the Aes Triplex Matt continues his training under the watchful eye of Captain Yancey. The Aes Triplex is sent on a search and rescue mission to find the lost ship P.R.S. Pathfinder. The Aes Triplex and her crew find the Pathfinder but no one is left alive after a terrible accident.
The Pathfinder is repaired and the crew is split up. Matt remains on the Aes Triplex to continue on their regular patrol course, but this is interrupted when they are sent on a mission to Venus to deal with a possible uprising of the native people.
Published in 1948, Space Cadet is one of Heinlein’s juvenile novels and is quite an achievement for its time. Not only did Heinlein envision a mainly unified Earth, he also envisioned an astronaut service and something as mundane as a mobile phone. He expanded and extrapolated the very new rocket technology at the time to give readers a realistic idea of space travel.
The plot is aimed squarely at young boys, though, following the tradition that women would be kept out of the military and harm’s way. The book takes the characters through lots of tough spots with letting them use ingenuity to get out of them. Matt Dodson is meant to take the reader along with him to experience what it might be like to become a member of the Space Patrol and in this Heinlein succeeds. I remember feeling just as tense as Matt did during his difficulties and then elation as he overcame them as I had been the one to do so. As Matt grows and changes, so do we.
A point where Space Cadet fails a modern reader is the way Heinlein treats women. There simply aren’t any outside of Matt’s mother, who is portrayed in a one dimensional and frankly ridiculous manner even by the standards of that time. Since the book is aimed at boys, those of us who read it at a young age probably didn’t realise or appreciate it. I know I didn’t, I was interested in the space adventure and nothing else.
Heinlein also tackles racism in an oblique way. He clearly wrote, from his viewpoint, with the stance that all ‘men’ are equal but could not think of a less offensive way of describing a person of colour than ‘black as a spade’. Also, when dealing with the Venerian natives he attempts to show that, despite our best efforts, it can be difficult to overcome ingrained prejudices of which we might not even be aware. It’s not done with any subtlety or cleverness but Heinlein at least makes the effort.
What did I think of Space Cadet now, after forty-four years between readings? I have to say I still enjoyed Matt’s journey from a groundhog to fully fledged spaceman. Sure, much of the technological details are out-of-date or wildly inaccurate, but they already were when I read the book the first time. What remains is the kernel of excitement of facing a great new adventure in the effort to help humanity further advance itself and expand ever outward into the stars.
There is an optimistic naivety to Space Cadet that is still charming more than seventy years after it was first published. The idea that if we work hard enough we can and will reach the stars, saving mankind in the process. It’s the kind of naivety lacking in today’s more sophisticated and grittier science fiction. Maybe this is inevitable as we mature technologically but there may come a time, I hope in the not very far future, where a new technology is developed or scientific breakthrough that will lead to this sort of wild speculation and hope again.
Will I continue to recommend Space Cadet to new readers? Unequivocally, yes. Despite the flaws that have become apparent in the intervening years, at its core Space Cadet offers a good space adventure for new readers. There is little to no violence to speak of and the problems the characters face are difficult, sometimes life-threatening, yet they use their brains and their training to overcome them. Heinlein also took care not to make his protagonists über-men, they are flawed and often make mistakes dealing with the consequences of their choices.
Space Cadet made me a life-long fan of Robert A. Heinlein and his stories and novels rarely let me down. For new readers of science fiction of any age they could do worse than to read Space Cadet or any of Heinlein’s juvenile series of books. Forty-four years on it was great to discover that I could still lose myself in what might be called a ‘basic’ space adventure. I hope that if you try Space Cadet for yourself that you enjoy it as much as I did and still do.