Heinlein, SPACE CADET (1948)

I’m reviewing detailed notes of books I’ve read in recent years but not yet posted about, and boiling them down into summaries and comments more useful to readers than if I simply posted all the detailed notes. (And in truth, I rarely examine the detailed notes myself, years down the line; paragraph summaries like the one below are more useful. So I may be shifting my strategy…)

This 1948 novel was the second of the so-called “Heinlein juveniles,” what would today be called Young Adult novels, that Heinlein published beginning in 1947, running one a year for a dozen years, with one last one after another five years.


A young man joins the Interplanetary Patrol, its base in Colorado, where he undergoes training there and in orbit, then participates in two space missions, one to find a missing ship in the asteroid belt, the second to subdue an apparent native revolt on Venus.


This is a really good book, imaginative and clever and even moving, though it falls apart near the end with outrageous coincidences and implausible deus ex machinas (noted below with the exclamation points).

Brief Summary

In 2075, Matt Dodson arrives at Terra Base in Colorado to train to be a cadet in the Interplanetary Space Patrol. He meets other candidates; they undergo various tests; then are launched into orbit to the Terra Space Station. They’re educated via hypnosis and learn how to maneuver in free fall. He passes the tests for cadethood and departs for Moon Base, then leaves on a mission to the asteroid belt to find a missing ship, the Pathfinder; it’s found, its crew dead of a freak accident. They find evidence the asteroids was inhabited and destroyed by nuclear war. On the trip home they divert to Venus to check out reports of a native uprising, and as they land their ship tips over into the mud. They discover the skipper of an earlier ship, Burke, who caused the ruckus by kidnapping one of the aliens in his search for trans-uranium elements. The cadets negotiate with the local aliens and are shown an even earlier ship, from 1971 [a century before], presumed lost yet somehow preserved. They manage to get it working (!) with fuel and oxygen provided by the natives, who apparently can duplicate anything (!). They return to the cadet ship in Earth orbit, having only done what is expected of Patrolmen.

Notes and Quotes

First of all, as I’ve been rereading classic SF, both novels and story collections, in recent years, I often buy a new edition of each book, especially if the one I originally read years ago was a mass market paperback. Such paperbacks of the ‘60s and ‘70s were usually compressed affairs, with tiny print (compared to hardcovers) to keep the page counts down and thus cost low. For this book I found a 2005 Tor/Orb trade paperback edition, with a nice impressionistic cover illustration by Vincent di Fate. Unfortunately, the quality of the print itself was poor, as if offset; just slightly blurry. So I read the old Ace edition instead (left in photo) and so the page references here are to that. The two editions are virtually the same page count, but somehow they don’t quite align, so the page references here will only get you to within a page or two of the same passage in the Orb edition.

Remember this was published in 1948.

  • The cadets are international; Matt notices others in turbans and with black faces p8.4; they carry phones in their pockets, p8; they check in using thumb prints p11. Matt notices how cadets, having become accustomed to zero-gee, walk slightly crouched, p13.
  • Heinlein understands about variable thrust, p35, as rockets launch.
  • The candidates are told that not only will they be taught conventional subjects, which are simply raw materials. “You 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 logic, motivational psychology, and so on.” Good stuff! They then go on to discuss what it means to be moral. P72.
  • Aboard the cadet ship in orbit, the commodore observes that “Every military organization—with the Patrol no exception—suffered from an inherent vice. A military hierarchy automatically places a premium on conservative behavior and dull conformance with precedent; it tends to penalize original and imaginative thinking.” And so he holds discussion groups with theses that attack conventional values, like monotheism and motherly love, forcing them to examine their preconceived notions. (p101)
  • Later Matt is told there are basically three types of people, p111: “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 to ‘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 life.”
  • Visiting his family on leave he comes to realize he doesn’t speak their language anymore. His old girlfriend is the “sort of girl” who never quite understands the difference between a planet and a star; his mother is alarmed that one of the orbiting nuclear bombs might fall onto their house; his father doesn’t understand the international flavor of the patrol and presumes American control. Back in orbit, Matt worries he doesn’t have what it takes, and the counselor says “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat black-and-white answers.” (p126.4)
  • Out in space, discussion of perspectives: “We’ve [the Patrol] given the human race a hundred years of peace, and now there is no one left who remembers war. They’ve come to accept peace and comfort as the normal way of life. But it isn’t. The human animal has millions of years of danger and starving and death behind him; the past century is just a flicker of an eyelash in his history.” P142. And about the mysterious Martians and their ‘double-world’ idea: “If the [human] race manages to keep from blowing its top for a few million years, maybe we’ll begin to find out some things. So far, we don’t even know what questions to ask.” (We learn more about these Martians in the following year’s book, RED PLANET.)
  • Echoing the discussion of military hierarchies, p180: “Precedent is merely the assumption that somebody else, in the past with less information, nevertheless knows better than the man on the spot.” (This is the problem with the law, it seems to me; it is built to not correct itself.)
  • Later in the book they communicate with the Venusians (this at a time was Venus was presumed to be a swampland underneath its unbroken clouds). P194: “Matt was forced willy-nilly into the concepts of astronomy—and came up against a complete block. To Th’wing there was the world of water and swamp and occasional dry land; above that was the endless cloud. She knew the Sun, for her eyes, perceptive to infra-red, could see it, even though Matt could not, but she thought of it as a disc of light and warmth, not as a star. / As for other stars, none of her people had ever seen them and the idea did not exist. The notion of another planet was not ridiculous; it was simply incomprehensible.” The natives assume the incomprehensible terms the human use refer to religious beliefs.

As I reread Heinlein, I’m trying to be attentive not just to political and social opinions, but also the implied background. Thus here there are ties to Heinlein’s future history, with references to the atomic wars of a century ago, etc. And how this Federation, and the Patrol, is a peace-keeping organization, not any kind of military.

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