02 October 2008

Got Time for the Stars?

Time for the Stars (1956)By Robert A. Heinlein

I’m approaching the writing of another young adult science-fiction novel next month (for National Novel Writing Month). I’ve written two previous to this, but this marks my first return to genre in a couple of years, as my last two completed novels were YA fantasy and horror respectively. This means that October will be a month when I do some muscle-stretching to get back into the YA SF mindset, and that means reading from some of the past masters of this literary art form. (I’ll read some classic horror and weird tales as well—we live in October Country, after all.)

One of the legends of the YA SF novel (many people would say the legend, although I think Andre Norton gives him real competition for that title) is Robert A. Heinlein. Before writing any YA novel, I like to leap back to the “juveniles” he wrote throughout the 1950s and watch him at work. I don’t pretend to write like Heinlein, and my novels have little in common with his in style, character, or themes (the latter is damned impossible since Heinlein and I stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum) but I always learn from his tone and his respect for his audience of younger readers. Adult Heinlein fans love the juvies as much as his “mature” novels, and that’s a heavy statement considering he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.

My “Heinlein prep novel” this time is Time for the Stars. The quick concept: time-dilation with psychic twins. I’ve dealt with the odd link between twins before in my earlier unsuccessful attempt at YA horror, Stillwood, so I have a weakness for the topic. Time-dilation plays an important part of many SF novels, such as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.

The central conceit of Time for the Stars is that a psychic communication between twins happens at near simultaneous speed regardless of the distance between the subjects. Consequently, linked twins can sends communications between each other faster than colonial spaceships could send radio signals back to Earth. The Long Range Federation selects psychic twins to participate in a massive colonization expedition across multiple near-light speed ships. One twin goes on the voyage, while the other remains on Earth to receive communications. However, because of time-dilation due to traveling close to the speed of light, the twin aboard the ship will age slower with respect to the twin on Earth. (This twin paradox is a thought experiment in special relativity. Here’s a long scientific explanation which I won’t pretend to fully grasp.)

The first-person narrator, Tom Bartlett, is selected to take the voyage to Tau Ceti aboard the Lewis and Clark, while his twin Pat remains at home. As usual with a Heinlein juvenile, the author isn’t much interested in the “plot,” but the ideas. For most authors, the arrival and adventure on Planet Constance around Tau Ceti and the disastrous occurrences on the planet Elysia would take up the majority of the book—the “adventure” part of the “boys’ adventure” genre—but here it only arrives near the conclusion, and the sequences aren’t about the exploration of the dangers found on it, but the process aboard ship of making decisions. The dangerous fauna of Planet Constance gets a brief mention, although the “behemoths” of Elysia receive a bit more examination. This is where Heinlein and I split apart in stylistics; I’m much more aligned with the constant threat and action of Andre Norton’s novels from the period, like Plague Ship and Time Traders. An encounter with a Tau Ceti beast would take up a whole chapter for Norton; for Heinlein, such a beast is but a detail in the realtistic aspects of space exploration and the politics involved. The fiasco of Elysia are used to highlight the difficult decisions the Lewis and Clark crew have to make about the continuation of their mission.

I sound critical, but actually I have no problem at all with Heinlein’s approach, which is mostly riveting in its naturalism and daring considering his intended audience. I enjoy Heinlein’s technological, sociological, and philosophical approach to his juveniles; it’s just that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy writing one of them. The level of stasis with long conversations and the attention to tech-specs would drive me bonkers, and a giant monster would need to abruptly attack.

I found one aspect of Time for the Stars disappointing: the emotional heart of the story—the twin who grows old while the other stays young—is largely absent. Heinlein’s concern is the mechanics of the situation: how do these ships continue to operate as the link between their psychics becomes more tenuous with the age gap? I expected a more bittersweet rumination on aging, but Heinlein instead inserts a few shocking sections where he suggests that the twins do not love each other at all and do not realize it. That’s ballsy for a juvenile novel, but I still think that Time for the Stars feels a touch chilly around its heart. Also, the “climax” of the novel isn’t much of one; the lesser of the juveniles tend to feel anticlimactic.

Heinlein keeps the juveniles incredibly chaste, which was a requirement for the boys’ book market of them; apparently, the young teens who read these novels didn’t want any “icky girl stuff” like romantic interests in their 1950s adventures. Funny, today they would demand it. In a departure from the usual, Heinlein actually lets his hero Tom get to first base with a girl in Time for the Stars, which surprised me (a kiss! wow!) but the girl immediately draws away and the rest of the relationship gets nixed. This is about as romantic as the juveniles get.

On the scale of the Heinlein juveniles I’ve read, I’d place Time for the Stars high over Rocket Ship Galileo (although I think this first juvie is underrated and doesn’t deserve the negative reputation it has), Space Cadet, and a notch over Between Planets and Tunnel in the Sky, but significantly beneath Star Beast, Starman Jones, and the topper, Have Space Suit—Will Travel. It hits near the dead-center, but still makes most YA SF and much adult SF look sketchy. Heinlein wasn’t given the first Grand Master Award for talking down to his audience or slouching through his writing contracts.

For more information, go to this lengthy article on Time for the Stars. (Caution: Spoilers at the Speed of Thought.)