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REVIEW: Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

REVIEW SUMMARY: The classic formula of juvenile science fiction still works.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Young Matt Dodson joins the Interplanetary Patrol in hopes of graduating to Space Cadet.


PROS: Skillful, terse writing made the story zip along; positive messages for young readers and enjoyable space adventure for all ages.

CONS: Some corny dialogue; needed a stronger antagonist; dated science may put off those who dislike such things.

BOTTOM LINE: Chock full of the tasty flavor of yesteryears’ science fiction.

I have this irrational fear that all books, no matter how enjoyable, will be swept away by the tides of time as they fall out of print. Sure, there are a small handful of memorable titles that that remain on bookstore shelves years after year, but anyone who is looking for older titles is relegated to used bookstores and garage sales. Fortunately for a select few titles, the reprint publishing market is alive and kicking. One classic title that recently saw the light of day again is Robert A. Heinlein’s Space Cadet.

In the classic Heinlein-juvenile formula, Space Cadet is a coming-of-age tale. Matt Dodson has recently been accepted to train with Interplanetary Patrol, the non-military peacekeepers of the galaxy. Matt and several of his peers must endure the rigors of training to become members of the elite corps. Ultimately, a rescue mission on Venus is destined to change Matt’s life forever.

Back when “young adult” novels were still called “juvenile”, Heinlein made a name for himself as the master of that formula. This was Heinlein’s second juvenile novel to be published (in 1948; Rocket Ship Galileo was the first in 1947). But the “juvenile” label is ultimately meaningless here. Space Cadet is easily enjoyed by adults and kids alike.

In practice, the juvenile label is nothing more of an indicator that this is a coming-of-age story. Young Matt starts the novel as the typical kid; starry-eyed and hopeful, eager to learn and ready to take on the world. Training throws at him one obstacle after another. Matt must rise to each individual challenge to pass muster. Along the way he grows by learning some cold, hard lessons about life like “you can’t go home again” and the importance of responsibility. This is the typical formula for classic juvenile novels and one Heinlein helped define. While today’s “young adult” titles often deal with very mature themes, Space Cadet is a safe book for parents who want to give their kids some good, clean fun and positive role models.

Most of Matt’s buddies are equally determined to make the grade. “Tex” is a fellow Terran who is very fond of telling family stories – mostly about the wild adventures of his Uncle Bodie. Oscar lived on Venus before training but also possesses the will to succeed. One exception to the display of positive messages is via the antagonist, Burke, who offers a too-minor counterbalance to the other do-gooders. I would have liked a stronger “villain”.

Although some of the dialogue between the young characters was a bit corny, Heinlein’s skillful writing is clear and easy on the digestion, making this a quick read. Several of the scenes are very well done and evoke a sense of wonder: the space walk, flight training, etc. The final scenes of the book were quite exciting as Matt and friends embark on a rescue mission to Venus. Upon landing, they encounter the amphibious natives to which Heinlein gives an interesting culture. Their local customs are another obstacle that the boys must face if they are ever to return home.

There are no earth-shattering concepts to be found here, this is a sense-of-wonder adventure for past generations. To some, the technology and terms might appear dated. (Note, however, that “slidewalks” are inherently cool and anyone who says differently is just wrong. :)) But if references to things like “the colonial edition of the Sears and Montgomery catalog” are entertainment-killers for you, then you might want to brace yourself. Personally, I find classic science fiction to hold a certain amount of charm. It gives you a feel for what evoked sense of wonder decades ago. It shows what “predictions” came true (here, incoming cadets had personal mobile phones!) and which ones were off the mark. Then again, if you like classic science fiction, the recent re-issue of Space Cadet is a great chance to experience the tasty flavor of yesteryear.

[Online extra for Space Cadet readers: Take the Space Cadet quiz! (I scored 9 out of 10 and without using a cheatsheet.)]

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. If you can find it, look for Heinlein’s “Grumbles from the Grave”. A lot of the book deals with his experiences with one particular editor that was running the YA line that Heinlein contributed too. Despite the fact that his books sold the best, got all sorts of praise, etc., she gave him nothing but grief. The break finally came when she rejected “Starship Troopers” and he took it to a new publisher and ended the relationship.

    Take a look, BTW, for the posting “Rocket Ship Galileo” on my site. Recognize that model?

  2. Well, he showed that editor! According to RAH expert James Gifford: “…Starship Troopers was written as a juvenile, rejected by Scribner’s, and published by Putnam as an adult novel.”

    And, cool model link!

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