Since Citizen of the Galaxy held up so well, I reread The Star Beast over the weekend. IMO, the years have been less kind to this tale.
[Warning: spoilers ahead.]
John Thomas — the most recent iteration in a series of John Thomases — was left Lummox, the titular star beast, by his father. Who was left the beast by his father. And so on, back at least a century to the John Thomas who smuggled the young lummox off of his (or her, depending) planet of origin. The Lummox has grown from housecat size to dumptruck size over the years and has begun innocently causing property damage in John Thomas’ hometown. The population does all but carry fiery torches over to the kid’s house after Lummox’s most recent escape. So begins the plot.
While The Star Beast is ostensibly a coming of age story, it is more about the use of diplomacy. Mr Kiku* and his cohort Sergei Greenberg spend most of the book negotiating with the rest of Lummox’s race in order to keep the Earth from being blown up by them. The passages about the Beast and John Thomas are interesting — but it feels like Heinlein really goes off on one of his giddy didactic tears when he gets into the gritty details of status, power and gesture.
It’s hard to say who the main character really is. John Thomas is the one who is leaving home – but he never seems to be the agent of his choices. He reacts against his overbearing mother**, is manipulated by his girlfriend*** and is ultimately rescued by the Lummox. Mr Kiku, who is the agent of all of his own actions, feels more like the protagonist but hasn’t changed in any substantial ways by the time the story ends.
Some of Heinlein’s pet themes show up here, of course. Like how every culture has language that describes xenophobia. How brains are frequently more effective than brawn. How parents do not own their children or, as Mr. Kiku points out, that “sons are lost from the beginning.”****
On that last one – I’ve often wondered what was in Heinlein’s past that made this such a common idea in his books. Does it turn up just because of his audience for the juveniles or is there something else going on? I also wonder what his parent characters would have looked like had he had children. But that is an unanswerable question, sadly.
The Star Beast, like most Heinlein, is an enjoyable read and, unlike the recent US edition of Citizen of the Galaxy, my 1984 Del Rey edition has been proofread, which makes the reading that much easier. The plot clips along nicely, even if the author is a little too enamored with trying to teach us everything he knows about making a deal. What’s harder to figure out is what (and who) the story is about.
* Mr Kiku’s job: “Anything and everything outside of the Earth’s ionosphere was Mr. Kiku’s responsibility and worry. Anything which concerned the relationships between Earth and any part of the explored universe was also his responsibility. Even affairs which were superficially strictly Earthside were also his concern, if they affected or were in any way affected by anything which was extra-terrestrial, interplanetary, or interstellar in nature — a very wide range indeed.”
** A telling exchange:
“…take off your shoe, dear. I want to measure your foot.”
Baffled, [John Thomas] started to remove his shoe. Suddenly he stopped. “Mum, I wish you wouldn’t knit socks for me.”
“What, dear? But mother enjoys doing it for you.”
“Yes, but … look, I don’t like handknit socks. They make creases on the soles of my feet…I’ve showed you often enough!”
“Don’t be silly! How could soft wool do your feet any harm? And think what you’d have to pay for real wool, real handwork, if you bought it. Most boys would be grateful.”
“But I don’t like it, I tell you!”
She sighed. “Sometimes, dear, I don’t know what to do with you, I really don’t.”
*** At the end of the book she is described as having the “morals of a snapping turtle and the crust of a bakery pie.” I still can’t figure out what that last bit means. She’s light and flakey?
**** Which makes one ask: What about daughters? It’s a spot where it’s clear how much society has changed since Heinlein’s day — and how much it hasn’t.