More RAH rereading

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.

17 thoughts on “More RAH rereading

  • December 1, 2009 at 8:28 pm
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    Bakery pies have been known to be tough, rubbery, and tasteless. More of Heinlein's 30s-rooted wiseguy writing.

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  • December 3, 2009 at 9:30 am
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    Haven't reread this one in decades, but I'm always charmed when my expectations are turned upside down. I remember it fondly.

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  • December 3, 2009 at 9:30 am
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    One thing I totally missed until I saw it pointed out just this year is that the stuff about "raising John Thomases" was a ribald pun Heinlein snuck past his straight-laced editor.

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  • December 3, 2009 at 9:30 am
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    One of Heinlein's favorite things about that book was getting the double entendre in John Thomas' name past the prissy editor he disliked so much.

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  • December 3, 2009 at 9:30 am
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    The Star Beast was the first science fiction I ever read. I had finished all the history and biography at elementary school library, so I figured with the past done, I should go to the future.

    Never regretted it.

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  • December 3, 2009 at 3:09 pm
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    I've never raised children myself, but I always suspected it couldn't be done the way Heinlein wrote. I was never the kind of person who would seek out Heinlein and ask him about this, but I often wondered…

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  • December 3, 2009 at 3:09 pm
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    the crust of a bakery pie

    Bakery pies have lots of crust compared to home made because crust is cheaper than filling.

    You young kids. I tell you.

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  • December 3, 2009 at 3:10 pm
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    I just took a look at the – PopSci?? can't recall – archived photo piece about RAH and Ginny's Bonny Doon home; I haven't done the math to figure out how old they were when they made that move, but the fact that the house was built with a nursery just about made me cry. I read all the Heinleins over the years and was always struck by the emphasis he placed on having children; how very sad that they never had the chance. (And I too have wondered what his parent-voices would've been like if he hadn't been working theoretically! The scenes in Time Enough For Love, where there are supposedly googuls of little kids somewhere off stage, and the whole business of keeping track of them requires ONE of the many parents SOMEtimes. What was the idea there, Lord of the Flies?)

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  • December 4, 2009 at 12:37 am
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    I've raised two (one of each gender) and Heinlein's parenting approach was nowhere near useful than simply encouraging the kids to read his books when they got old enough. My son loved "Citizen" and later "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and "Starship Troopers", while my daughter is a fan of "Puppet Masters". Made for some lively discussions when they were tweens and teens.

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  • December 4, 2009 at 12:37 am
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    "Most women are damn fools and children."

    Heinlein, like Mark Twain before him,
    thought that men were to blame for this;
    They wanted an angelic child, not a woman,
    and got what they deserved: Domineering
    Mother Goddesses. John Thomas managed to
    escape his mother, and strike a bargain
    between equals with his wife; Lucky man.

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  • December 4, 2009 at 12:37 am
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    A little hyperbole is always helpful to generate interest in a review. I appreciate your good use of it, but the only person who came near to bearing a torch was the small-town police chief who let bruised ego interfere with judgment. All the story showed was a neighbor who grossly exaggerated damage to her garden and drove away the "beast" by swinging a broom; a nonagenarian who endangered his neighborhood by discharging a lethal and probably illegal firearm within city limits, causing the terrified beast to flee though a couple his own greenhouses; and the ego-involved police chief. Heinlein knew about egomaniac police chiefs. He helped to cause a very corrupt one to be removed by working in the successful recall campaign of Mayor Frank Shaw of Los Angeles as described in Take Back Your Government!.

    If you feel you need another main character candidate to study, may I respectfully suggest the Princess who through her adolescence and for generations now has been raising her adopted pets?

    Diplomacy, making deals, conciliation, interest arbitration, pressure, and "status, power and gesture," are all the same to me if they’re all the same to you. It was downright fascinating when I first read it at age thirteen in 1955, and has gotten moreso in years since. Isn't the question of being the main agent of choices a major issue all adolescents must face? How many times can you count when circumstances rather than your wishes have been the main agent?

    I never felt Heinlein was handicapped in writing about parents or children by having no children personally or that his parents characters would have been appreciatively different had he had one or more. He was raised in a large family, had his own parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts to observe, raising himself and their many children. Most of his brothers and sisters had children. His in-laws, friends and neighbors raised children as well. He observed them all. Do you know that the character of Clark Fries is based on the son of an Air Force Colonel he knew well while living in Colorado Springs? Ginny told me once the father spent far too much time working. Some children of his in-laws and brothers or sisters came to stay for varying periods with him and Leslyn or, later, him and Ginny. Keith Hubbard (Leslyn's sister) brought her two boys to visit when they returned to the United States after being rescued from captivity by the Japanese Army when ransomed out of Manila's San Tomas POW camp during World War II. Many years later his brother Rex's teenage daughter, Carolyn Heinlein Ayer, stayed with him and Ginny for at least one full summer. He had many of these children read and critique his juveniles before publication. Only a couple years after their visit, Robert asked Colin Hubbard, one of Keith's two boys, to read the first chapters of Rocket Ship Galileo to gage his reaction. Colin is one of the three boys to whom the book is dedicated. For another example, the two teenaged daughters of his Annapolis classmate Caleb Laning read and critiqued the manuscript of Have Spacesuit–Will Travel which Heinlein carried for that purpose while on a vacation that included Italy where Cal was stationed. The girls, known as Jill and Judy, are the "two Js" to whom, along with their parents, Beyond This Horizon (1948) was dedicated.

    I don't think Heinlein's parents or children lack verisimilitude by reason of childlessness. A certain healthy skepticism comes from reading The Star Beast, Podkayne of Mars, and the passages pertaining to Eleanor Johnson in Methuselah's Chidren.

    What about daughters? You didn't need Kiku to notice that Betty Sorenson's parents lost ownership of their daughter early on, as well, did you?

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  • December 4, 2009 at 12:37 am
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    Things lost in translation,
    from the past to the present.

    Diplomacy is carried out
    between equals; Kiku is
    trying to save the planet
    from destruction by a
    super-race.

    That super-race is the US
    in scales, with more legs.
    Re-read the description of
    their nature: Not good at
    other languages, perhaps
    because of the richness
    and complexity of their own.

    John Thomas does not come of age,
    he becomes a man, not a producing-
    consuming animal, a man; Free of
    his domineering mother, and equal
    partner with his wife, who had to
    give up her own Dominatrix dreams
    as part of their agreement; No more
    rolling the dice for her. She is
    also atypical; Not many women then
    or now would choose to follow their
    man on the Glory Road.

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  • December 4, 2009 at 12:37 am
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    I hate to brag…

    My wife and I raised our daughter much as Heinlein described. She's now studying Engineering at Cornell on a ROTC scholarship, is honest and hardworking, quite happy with life so far…

    (ok so I couldn't help but brag)

    But seriously Robert and Virginia would probably have been superb parents.

    John Marble

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  • December 5, 2009 at 3:43 pm
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    I have long wondered about the naming of John Thomas and the generations of John Thomases. I seem to recall the name John Thomas being a euphemism for a certain portion of the male anatomy. Does this naming date from this book or is Heinlein stating that his main character thinks with his genitals (or seems his own comfort/pleasure) and avoids the hard choices…

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  • December 8, 2009 at 3:08 am
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    "Having a real crust" is a term that my mother (born and raised in Glasgow c. 1920s) used to describe someone who was always ready to push their luck a bit further. I'm not sure what the derivation is. Possibly this old usage is what Heinlein was embellishing a bit.

    Cheers – Lars

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  • December 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm
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    R.H. is one of my favorite authors. I particularly liked _Take Back Your Government,_ but the core of my youth library was his juvie fiction. I read all of it I could lay my hands on.

    Bill

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  • February 24, 2010 at 6:51 pm
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    "On that last one – I've often wondered what was in Heinlein's past that made this such a common idea in his books."

    My strong impression from Bill Patterson's soon-to-be-released-from-Tor bio of RAH that his father was distant, cold, and that both his parents treated RAH's brother with great favoritism, and that Heinlein was almost never praised by his father.

    I think that's helpful in explaining that trope in Heinlein.

    "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?"

    No, no: crusty. As in cranky, snappish, waspish, a coot.

    Crusty: "If you describe someone, especially an old man, as crusty, you mean they are impatient and easily irritated. ADJ-GRADED usu ADJ n
    *
    Synonym
    grumpy
    *
    …a crusty old colonel."

    http://www.google.com/dictionary?aq=f&langpair=en|en&hl=en&q=crusty

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