Adventures in Bookland: Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein
So, it’s 1977. We’ve landed on the moon and come home again, twiddled our thumbs, looked around and decided, er, that’s it. I’d watched, in befuddled amazement, as a group of lads not much older than me had appeared on TV with Bill Grundy and swore on live TV (it’s hard to believe, but I’d gone through my entire time at primary school without hearing a single four-letter word, although the first day at my secondary school was sufficient to introduce me to all the common ones). There were only three channels on TV, and most of the day was taken up with the test card:
It was a different world. But I was reading about a new world, a world that still seemed brave and new and, through the peculiar and particular genius of Robert Heinlein, quite, quite possible. 1977 seems already a world away, but Heinlein wrote Space Cadet in 1948. In it, the future had arrived, and it had done so so completely that it did not even need to be explained. People had phones that they could carry around and make calls from – anywhere. The Interplanetary Patrol has imposed peace on all the planets of the solar system. And these planets teemed with life; beneath Venus’s clouds were seas and marshes and Venusians; austere Martians co-existed with brash Terran colonists, barely noticing their presence. The future had arrived and it was all a whole lot better than the world of 1977. Although Heinlein was in many things astonishingly prescient, there was one area where he, and all the golden age SF writers, failed utterly. In Space Cadet, Heinlein even dated the first Moon landing to 1975, only six years out. But neither he nor anyone else had anticipated was that, having got to the Moon, we would stop.
My two earliest memories of the wider world outside my family and immediate experience were Neil Armstrong’s, ‘One small step’ and the spreading green ripples through the jungles of Vietnam, as B52s dropped strings of bombs onto the country below. The Interplanetary Patrol, a self-denying, self-sacrificing corps of nuclear-armed police, seemed to my thirteen-year-old self, the perfect solution to the problems of the world: even now I can remember the impact of the hero’s realisation that, yes, the Patrol would drop the bomb on his own home town if required to do so and he would regard them as right in doing so. This is the sort of sacrifice that appeals to a boy struggling towards adulthood, and Heinlein’s juvenile novels are great manuals for a certain sort of boyhood – one that I wished to have. Space Cadet is one of the best, in particular because it is free of one his character tropes, the garrulous father figure. All the characters here are boys, growing into men, and Heinlein does a great job of portraying that within the quasi-naval context of the Patrol. All in all, Space Cadet contains almost all Heinlein’s virtues as a writer and none of the vices that later infected his work.
Oh, and the price back in 1977? 75p. Here’s the cover of my copy: the paper has yellowed but it’s still in good condition.