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The Heinlein Juveniles

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Heinlein's Juveniles:

Still Contemporary After All These Years

1985 C. W. Sullivan III

by C. W. Sullivan III

This article first appeared in a special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 10.2 (1985) on science fiction for children and adolescents; it is reprinted here, with minimal corrections and updates, with the permission of the Children’s Literature Association and the author who had a hard time not rewriting the whole thing.

From Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) to Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958), Robert A. Heinlein wrote twelve novels, all published by Scribners, that were aimed at what we now call the YA market. In Dr. Johnson’s sense of the word, they are classics in their field (either the science fiction or the YA fiction field); they have stood the test of time. They appeared first in hardback—unusual in a field in which, until the 1950s or 1960s, almost all major works were published in magazines or in paperback; and during the 1950s, hardback copies of these novels could be found in school and public libraries all across the country. These novels later appeared in paperback and have remained available in that form to the present. Heinlein’s juvenile novels have been largely ignored by both science fiction critics and critics of children’s literature; but even a half century after they were written, these novels are still “contemporary” and are still among the best science fiction in the YA range.

The information sent back to Earth by various satellites has shown Mars and Venus to be incapable of supporting the sort of Martian life forms Heinlein describes in Red Planet (1949) or the Venerian life forms he describes in Between Planets (1951); and the modern reader’s experiences watching NASA launches makes the rocket launch in Rocket Ship Galileo painfully over-simplified. But by-and-large, surprisingly, the scientific theories and technological details in most of the novels have held up, partly because so much of the setting is so far in the future as to still be unchallenged by fact and partly because Heinlein’s speculations are solidly grounded in scientific and technological fact and precedent.

Even more surprising, the sociological aspects of these books have also stood up well over the years. Boys today may not be quite as innocent about girls as they appear to be in most of Heinlein’s juveniles (perhaps at the request of Scribner’s editor Alice Dalgliesh), but the various interpersonal relationships (boy-girl, parent-child, sibling-sibling) do still ring quite true. Today’s young readers may have to ask what a “soda jerk” is, but they will have no trouble understanding why Kip, the hero of Have Space Suit—Will Travel, tosses a chocolate milkshake all over his tormentor; nor will readers find anything unusual in the rivalry between identical twins, Tom and Pat Bartlett, in Time for the Stars (1956).

The third component of a Heinlein juvenile, and seldom just the sugar coating for science and technology, in the high level of action in almost every book. In Rocket Ship Galileo, Ross, Art, and Morrie help Art’s uncle, atomic scientist Donald Cargraves, build a rocket ship and fly it to the moon. There, they discover a Nazi stronghold (this was 1947) and thwart an attempt to resurrect the Reich. Jim Marlowe, in Red Planet, and Don Harvey, in Between Planets, participate in insurrections patterned after the American Revolution, a plot Heinlein would most fully exploit in his adult novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). And in Tunnel in the Sky (1955), Rod Walker is dropped on an unfamiliar planet, along with some of his schoolmates and students from other schools, and left there with minimal supplies; this is the final examination for his high school course, Advanced Survival. The students who are alive when the school returns for them have passed the course.

All of Heinlein’s juveniles have these three components: adventure, sociology, and science/technology; and although such labeling suggests that the three aspects are separate, such is not the case. In fact, they are quite carefully interrelated so that each is interdependent upon both of the others. The best analogy I can think of is that these three components resemble the legs of a three-legged stool; each leg or component is necessary for the whole construct to stand. In Red Planet, for example, the colonists’ rebellion against the Earth-based company for which they work is a result, in part, of the seasonal changes peculiar to Mars. In Farmer in the Sky (1950), Bill Lerner’s rite of passage is a direct result of his having emigrated to Ganymede to be a farmer. In Tunnel in the Sky, Rod Walker’s survival depends not only on his knowledge of various wilderness crafts, but also on his ability to organize a diverse group of people into a cohesive unit. And in Between Planets, Don Harvey’s seemingly random adventures on Venus are actually intertwined with the need to deliver certain scientific information concerning the manipulation of space, information that will help the rebels win the revolution.

To fully understand how these components work together, it is necessary to look, in some detail, at a single novel. Space Cadet (1948) may not be Heinlein’s best juvenile novel (that spot is usually reserved for Have Space Suit—Will Travel), but it is a solid contender for one of the top spots. The second novel he wrote for the juvenile market, it is a good example of how Heinlein weaves adventure, science/technology, and sociology together into a smoothly plotted whole.

From the very beginning, the YA reader will have no trouble recognizing both the characters and the setting. Today, perhaps even more than when it was written, Space Cadet may portray the dreams of its readers. The book opens with Matt Dodson, the main character, and a group of other “young men” reporting for their first day at Terra Base Station in Colorado for the initial stages of their training as Cadets in the Interplanetary Patrol. The schooling and the training flight that follows occupy approximately three-quarters of the book and are certainly based on Heinlein’s own experiences at the U.S. Naval Academy. It does not hurt the book’s credibility that Heinlein’s Patrol Academy is set in Colorado, the current home of the U.S. Air Force Academy, which graduated its first class in 1959, eleven years after Heinlein wrote Space Cadet.

Although a school might not sound like the setting for action/adventure, Heinlein’s Patrol Academy sites—Terra Base, where the preliminary testing takes place, the P.R.S. James Randolph, an orbiting ship in which most of a Cadet’s education takes place, and the various training ships—provide plenty of opportunity for action. Matt and his friends have to undergo several physical and psychological tests at Terra Base before they can be admitted to the Academy proper, the James Randolph. The physical testing—for acceleration endurance (g-force testing) and the like—is quite interesting, both for the equipment used and for the boy’s various reactions. And the psychological testing, in which the boys are tested for certain character traits (and through which Heinlein begins to articulate his own philosophy about winners and losers), is even more fascinating.

The “space adventure” that the public might expect from a science fiction novel does not appear until the last third of the book, when the boys are sent out on their training cruise. Matt and his best friend, “Tex” Jarman, are assigned to the P.R.S. Aes Triplex which is on its way to the asteroid belt to search for the missing P.R.S. Pathfinder. From this point on, the action accelerates quite rapidly. The Pathfinder is found, and with her, information that the asteroids in the belt might once have been a planet that destroyed itself “by artificial nuclear explosion.” The Pathfinder’s crew is dead due to a freak accident, and so half of the Triplex’s crew is detached to bring her home, leaving Matt and Tex with Captain Yancy, three other officers, and a fellow Cadet, Oscar Jensen. On the way home, the Triplex receives a distress call, and the three Cadets, supervised by one of the officers, respond; the officer is injured, and the Cadets carry on “in the tradition of the Patrol” to complete the mission successfully. These actions do not exist on their own here at the end of Space Cadet but, in fact, serve as a showcase for the things that the boys have learned in the earlier parts of the novel, things academic, scientific, and sociological.

Like all of Heinlein’s writings, but especially the juveniles and the later adult novels, Space Cadet has a strong sociological component. On a most obvious level, Heinlein draws on his knowledge of school societies to make the Academy a “real” place; there are bull sessions, roommate problems, anxieties about passing, shared food packages, and parties at the Academy just as there are at any school, especially a boarding school or college. Also, as Matt becomes more and more a Cadet, he finds, as do many of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes, that he has grown beyond his family and that there is an unbridgeable gulf between his perspective as a Cadet and his parents’ perspectives as ground-dwellers in Des Moines. His living and working in space is a part of it, but even more important, Matt realizes, is his membership in an international/interplanetary organization. He is no longer the boy he was when he left home. He becomes aware of this difference and, understanding it, is able to deal with a family that now seems somewhat provincial to him.

The society of the Academy also allows Heinlein to develop characters who do not succeed as well as Matt does. Bill Arensa, a bright student who has been in the Academy an unusually long time when Matt arrives, eventually drops out because he “has no wish to become a superman.” Bill does not want the responsibility of keeping Earth peaceful, a responsibility that could require him, in an extreme situation, to bomb his own country. Another Cadet, Girard Burke, is asked to resign. The reader has know for a long time that Burke, who is certainly mentally and physically capable, does not have the right attitude to be a Patrolman. He is, among other things, too skeptical of the ideals for which the Patrol stands. Burke resigns, goes into his father’s business, becomes an ship’s captain immediately, gets himself in trouble on Venus, and has to call on the Patrol to rescue him from his owns self-centered and stupid mistakes. Matt, Tex, and Oscar do rescue him and, with that action, prove the worth of the characteristics—perseverance, loyalty, intelligence, idealism, integrity, and courage—that Heinlein champions throughout Space Cadet and the other novels in the series.

As a novel in the series, Space Cadet is important because it contains the first of Heinlein’s interesting aliens, the Venerian natives. All of the Venerians with whom Matt and his friends come in contact are females. The group is headed by a female, the “mother,” and the others are her “daughters.” Matt finds himself being referred to as a “daughter” and his superior, Lt. Thurlow, referred to as his “mother.” And if the concept of a matrilineal/matriarchal society is not enough to challenge the YA reader, the “science” of the Venerians will be. It seems that they can make any liquid, from maple syrup to liquid oxygen, all without any advanced technological apparatus. As Oscar suggests, they may use a “catalyst chemistry” so sophisticated that they do not need heat and pressure (or the technological equipment that produces them) for even the most complex chemical reactions. Heinlein presents a group of aliens that the reader will like and see as highly intelligent; but at the same time, they are aliens whose sociological structure and scientific abilities should challenge some of the reader’s preconceived notions.

Science and technology, of course, run throughout the book. Heinlein begins in the first pages with casual references to portable telephones, personal helicopters (instead of cars), hydraulic beds, and travel to Ganymede (which he makes sound no more difficult than a trans-continental flight). When the Cadets go into space, up to the orbiting James Randolph, the reader learns about escape velocity, orbits, free-fall dining, and a variety of day-to-day activities done differently in space than they were on the ground. And on the training cruise, there are discussions concerning the kind and amount of supplies to be carried on a deep space voyage, shipboard ecology and gardens which not only grow food but exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, navigation in the asteroid belt, and “Hohmann orbits,” for getting home by the most efficient if not the most rapid route.

There is also flashier technology in Space Cadet. There are rockets of various kinds and sizes, from interplanetary explorers to the little shuttles that run between the James Randolph and the Space Station. The James Randolph is not directly described, but because the Cadets call it home for so long, the reader does learn a lot about it. The Space Station is nearby, also. But most of these are expected; they are the “stuff” of science fiction. Heinlein handles the science and technology very well, and it is this detail that helps make the book believable and, because so much of it accords with what the reader has learned from, NASA and elsewhere, helps keep Space Cadet contemporary.

Space Cadet would probably be a memorable novel even if Heinlein had written no other juvenile books; but he did, and Space Cadet has its place within the juveniles which, in turn, have their place within Heinlein’s Future History series. The twelve novels in the juvenile series chronicle the expansion of the human race. Rocket Ship Galileo depicts men getting to the moon. The next five novels, from Space Cadet to The Rolling Stones (1952), see Earth’s people expand throughout the solar system; and the five novels after that, from Starman Jones (1953) to Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), are set, at least in part, in far-flung solar systems throughout the Galaxy. The last juvenile, Have Space Suit—Will Travel, recapitulates and surpasses the other books in the series as Kip Russell travels first to the moon, then to Pluto, then to a planet in Vega’s system, and finally to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; he eventually coming home by a circular route! In addition, the juvenile series is a part of Heinlein’s Future History, a set of time lines on which Heinlein has chronologically located not only his own pieces of fiction, but also important historical events, scientific discoveries, and the like that “will happen” in the future.

This complex future orientation does not prevent Heinlein’s novels from speaking directly to today’s young reader. All of the books feature young people, primarily young men—but a surprising number of strong female characters, growing up and going through the process of separating themselves from their sometimes ununderstanding families, discovering their own identities, successfully dealing with rites of passage, and by the story’s end, entering the adult world as mature and capable people. The future setting will certainly not prevent the YA reader from identifying with the young protagonists; in fact, that future setting may allow Heinlein to present the problems of growing up in a clearer and more dramatic way than such problems might be presented in a realistic YA novel with a contemporary setting.

The future setting also allows Heinlein to challenge YA readers in ways that they are not challenged in contemporary realistic fiction. Heinlein’s futures are cogently extrapolated and, as a result, almost require but certainly challenge the reader to think critically about what the future might be like. In addition, Heinlein presents specific scientific, technological, sociological, moral or ethical, and humanistic situations which will not only intrigue but challenge the reader’s attitudes—about space travel, alien societies, the over-populated future, the nature of time, and so on. And for the best readers, Heinlein drops in casual references that look like items from a trivia game. He uses Latin phrases, mentions a variety of names from literature and history, refers to historical events, and quotes philosophers; he seldom explains these bits and pieces, relying, rather, on the reader to know—or find out—what he, Heinlein, is talking about. For average readers, Heinlein tells a good story; for better readers, Heinlein has challenges; and for the best readers, there is a kind of shared inside knowledge, a delight the reader feels when Heinlein makes a passing reference to Schiaperelli and the reader knows, without Heinlein’s ever explaining, who Schiaperelli was.

What is true of Space Cadet is true, in general, of Heinlein’s other juveniles also. He puts three components—action, sociology, and science/technology—together in a very pleasing way and with a writing style that neither patronizes nor puzzles the YA reader. As Alexei Panshin says in Heinlein in Dimension (1968), what is “amazing about his writing [is] his ability to write for, say, ten pages, as he does on space suits in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, without losing or even seriously slowing his story” (Advent, 89). With all of this going on in these books, it is no wonder that Heinlein’s juveniles still enthrall the YA readers discovering them for the first time and enchant the older readers, like myself, who discovered them first in the 1950s. The publication dates do not matter; Heinlein’s juveniles are still contemporary after all these years.

C. W. Sullivan III is Distinguished Research Professor of English at East Carolina University and the editor of, among other collections, Science Fiction for Young Readers (Greenwood 1993) and Young Adult Science Fiction (Greenwood 1999). Sullivan has written several other essays on Heinlein’s juveniles since this one was originally published. For his Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy (Greenwood 1989) and The Mabinogi: A Book of Essays (Garland 1996), Sullivan was made a full member of the Welsh Academy.

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The Heinlein Society was founded by Virginia Heinlein on behalf of her husband, science fiction author Robert Anson Heinlein, to "pay forward" the legacy of Robert A. Heinlein to future generations of "Heinlein's Children."