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Literature / Space Cadet

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A Young Adult novel by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1948, following the adventures of Matt Dodson, a young man who joins the prestigious Space Patrol. As you might guess from the title, much of the novel follows his training, including rigorous physical and mental exams just to get in, then more training aboard the Patrol's university cum spaceship in orbit around Earth, and then finally his midshipman's cruise which leads to a crisis with the natives on Venus.


Provides Examples Of:

  • Artificial Outdoors Display: Hayworth Hall at the Earthside part of the academy has an enormous rotunda, with a midnight black ceiling with artificial stars in the actual constellations of the night sky, so that "the illusion of being outdoors at night was most persuasive". The illusion is further enhanced by the floor being a pit with a "bed of rock and sand", in which rests a crash-landed spaceship. Another cadet does point out the Kilroy Was Here didn't actually crash-land at this spot; the remains of the ship were relocated for the display.
  • Asteroid Thicket: Averted. The narration explicitly mentions how thin the belt really is and how unlikely a collision would be. But unlike in, say, Star Wars, the Triplex doesn't have the benefit of deflector shields, so even a small rock could do serious damage at the speed they're traveling. Thus, Captain Yancey sets up a radar watch to avoid collisions; if the duty officer saw a rock approaching on a possible collision course, the alarm would be sounded and a thruster fired. Also, the Pathfinder, the overdue ship they were searching for, had been holed by a fist-size meteor that, by bad luck, happened to puncture the inner airlock door just as the outer, armored door had opened to admit a spacewalking crewman.
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  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Bill Arensa, according to the narrator, can absorb a study spool in one playing, but has been in the Randolph an unusually long time due to a lot of demerits. Demerits could be due to misbehavior or failing to perform in some way, so this might be Brilliant But Poorly-Behaved.
  • The Captain: Captain Yancey of the Aes Triplex during Dodson's training cruise. Starts out as The Neidermeyer to the cadets but mellows to Veteran Instructor as the cruise progresses, giving informal leadership seminars in addition to the more formal studies each cadet is following.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Captain Yancey of the Aes Triplex would have preferred to take the repaired Pathfinder back to Earth himself but no one of higher authority was in communication to relieve him of command of his own ship, so he had to turn command of the Pathfinder over to his executive officer.
  • Cosmic Deadline: Heinlein wraps the plot in a short chapter at the end, not even describing the flight of the Astarte back to the human colonies.
  • Dan Browned: Unusual for Heinlein, he failed to account for some science. The narrator says that if the Randolph were not deliberately held in its relative position, it would slowly orbit Terra Station. But there is a thing known as a Hill sphere, which is the zone around a massive body within which satellites will tend to orbit it. Outside the sphere, the satellite will instead orbit whatever the body is orbiting. For example, anything more than about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth won't orbit it and will just independently orbit the sun. The Hill sphere of a space station orbiting Earth being negligible, a ship wouldn't orbit it.
  • Death from Above: One of the tasks of the Space Patrol is to maintain the orbiting nuclear weapons used to maintain peace on Earth.
  • Dude, Where's My Reward? The cadets are rather put out when they don't get any praise for their first successful mission, but then realize they've simply done what's expected of Patrolmen.
  • Explosive Decompression: Happened to the Pathfinder when its inner airlock door was holed by a meteor. Some compartments remained intact with airtight doors, but the crew had clustered around the entryway and all died. The one in the spacesuit entering the airlock had his suit punctured by a fragment from the collision and was killed too.
  • Fantastic Racism: Burke shows this. Oscar Jensen, who was born on Venus, treats the natives with respect. Which is just as well. Matt and Tex also show this with respect to the Venerians, not understanding how intelligent the creatures really are. They get better.
    • When Oscar accuses Matt and Tex of racism they reply by pointing out they're not prejudiced against an officer who is black. Oscar dismisses their objections as silly; of course they're not racist against the officer; he is human, after all.
  • Farmboy: Matt Dodson is from Iowa and implied to be one. Later on his apprentice cruise on the Aes Triplex, he is given "farmer" duties on the ship, that is, to take care of the hydroponic plants in the ship's air recycling section. He idly wonders if it wouldn't have been simpler to stay in Iowa and grow corn.
  • The Friendly Texan: Matt is on his way to enlist at the Space Academy when "Tex" Jarman, another prospective space cadet, notices his preliminary acceptance letter and immediately befriends him. After the two arrive at Hayworth Hall, Tex just as easily befriends two other cadets (Oscar and Pete), and the four become a tight-knit group at the academy.
  • Future Imperfect: The rotunda of Hayworth Hall has the Kilroy Was Here (the first ship to Mars which crash landed on return killing all on board) set up as though it had crashed there. Dodson is asked who Kilroy was and after a bit of thought he replies he was a WW II admiral. Clear in context that it is Dodson's ignorance rather than faulty history though (Matt was thinking of Admiral 'Bull' Halsey').
  • The Great Repair: After their rocket sinks into the Venusian mud, the patrolmen discover the Venerians have the Astarte, the first spaceship sent to Venus and considered lost. They fix the Astarte so it can carry them back to the human colonies.
  • Hidden Purpose Test
    • Dodson has to pass a series of tests to get into the Space Patrol. One of them requires him to stand over a milk bottle and drop beans into the bottle with his eyes closed. Dodson ends up with only one bean in his bottle and sadly turns it in. He notices while standing in line that several people got many beans in their bottles, and after turning his in, he asks the examiner what would keep people from cheating by peeking. The examiner says, "Nothing at all", much to Dodson's disappointment. Then the book says about Dodson: "It did not occur to him that he might not know what was being tested." Dodson's roommate, Girard Burke, saw through the test, and reasoned that it was a secret test of intelligence (weeding out the people who couldn't resist cheating even though a high test score would be damning). He acknowledges that it wouldn't catch the people who didn't figure it out but were also too honest to cheat, but figured that other tests would catch those people. (In fact, he had it backwards; the school was looking for honesty, and there were other tests to catch the bright cynics.)
    • Matt is given a test with a lever and buttons and whatnot, and an instruction sheet on how to score points — a game of sorts. He looks over the instructions, tries to figure out what combinations will allow him to score, and presently approaches the examiner.
      Examiner: No questions, please.
      Matt: I don't have a question. I want to report something. There's something wrong with that test. Maybe the wrong instructions sheet was put in there. In any case, there is no possible way to make a score under the instructions that are in there.
      Examiner: Oh, come now! Are you sure of that?
      Matt: [hesitates, then says firmly] I'm sure of it. Want to see my proof?
      Examiner: No. Your name is Dodson? [glances at a timer, then writes on a chart] That's all.
      Matt: But—Don't I get a chance to make a score?
      Examiner: No questions, please! I've recorded your score. note 
    • The cadets are encouraged to take part in a series of debates on controversial topics. Burke, who's normally entirely willing to voice his cynical opinion on anything, surprises his classmates by remaining silent or only voicing mundane opinions. It's clear that Burke thinks the debates are a Hidden Purpose Test, but perhaps he also missed the point of what was being tested.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: When Tex Jarman gets drunk in public, Matt's instructor (who is sitting nearby) calls over Matt and warns him, "Go back and tell Jarman to quiet down before I have to come over and ask him what his name is."
  • Internal Homage: The scene where Matt's squad reports aboard the school ship PRS Randolph and met by a senior cadet is repeated later, with Matt as the senior.
  • Jerkass: Girard Burke during training, thinking that his influential father is enough to get him into the Patrol, but he Took a Level in Jerkass after he's kicked out (or resigns; he claims he did and no indication is given as to his truthfulness except for his generally weaselly character) and his father gives him command of his own rocket ship. He kidnaps the leader of a Venerian tribe to pressure her into giving him mining rights, then hides in the radio room when the outraged Venerians slaughter the rest of his crew.
  • Karma Houdini: Girard Burke is a partial example. He doesn't get the punishment he truly deserves for kidnapping the mother of many and getting his entire crew killed along with a number of natives (the only evidence against him is the protagonists' hearsay), but Matt does pound on him near the end of the book, and Oscar seems confident that they can get his license revoked and his passport lifted, which is pretty bad for someone whose job is in space.
  • Lady Land: When translating, Oscar Jensen refers to himself and his colleagues as female because the Venerians expect a male to stay home. In fact, the root word in their language meaning "mother" is used for all positions of authority, with modifier and context giving it its current meaning. Given that, imagine Oscar trying to explain that he's male but is in charge.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: On their first once a month liberty to to Terra Station, Tex ends up ruining the outing for Matt and Oscar (and himself) by getting drunk. Matt, having bought a box of chocolate-coated cherries, gifts them to a hungover Tex in a bout of pity. However, Matt didn't think to get a pressure container, and Tex doesn't think to pack the box in his suit, so the cherries boil and explode all over Tex's spacesuit. He ends up on report for "gross untidiness in uniform" and has to clean up the mess, likely a laborious process.
  • Mildly Military: While the Space Patrol has a military-inspired rank structure, it isn't intended to fight wars, but rather to prevent them. Lieutenant Wong even says that "Strictly speaking, the Patrol isn't a military organization."
  • No One Gets Left Behind: The mission of the Aes Triplex along with several other Patrol ships was to search for the missing Pathfinder in the asteroid belt. They find it with all hands dead, but the cadets reflect that the Patrol would have brought them back alive if they hadn't been killed by a meteor puncture of the ship. Later, after the cadets and their superior officer are marooned on Venus, Jensen comments that the Patrol will eventually find them but they need to work towards their own rescue since that would be expected of them.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: To the point that the Space Patrol consists solely of officers, nineteen years before Star Trek: The Original Series. However, the Patrol is specifically backed up by a more military-oriented service (the Space Marines) who are largely composed of enlisted men.
  • One Riot, One Ranger: Burke is annoyed when the Space Patrol doesn't send a company of marines to put down the 'native uprising'. Of course, there is no uprising (and the Triplex was the only ship in position to respond on such short notice in any case).
  • Orbital Bombardment: Dodson serves a tour on-board a Patrol Ship whose prime mission is to coordinate such a bombardment via orbiting nuclear bombs. To keep the crew busy, they (including Dodson) perform routine maintenance on such bomb satellites.
  • The Paragon: John Ezra Dahlquist is one of "The Four" who are held up to be this and whose names are called at every roll call. His singlehanded thwarting of the "Revolt of the Colonels" at the cost to his own life early in the Patrol's history is cited as the ideal for Patrolmen. He is also literally Hero of Another Story since his Heroic Sacrifice is depicted in the short story The Long Watch published the next year by Heinlein.
  • Patron Saint: The patronage of St. Barbara is mentioned while persuading Matt that a certain accident was real and not a Secret Test to scare them off.
  • Planetary Romance: The Solar system and especially the depiction of a humid, heavily jungle and swampy Venus is in this tradition.
  • Retro Rocket: While there aren't any visuals in the book, all of the space rockets in the book are described as classic single-stage "tailsitters" in the vein of the trope, as opposed to the multistage designs that actually became the standard in the real world.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Burke tries to bribe Matt and his friends on Venus. They're not impressed.
  • Secret Test: During the selection process, Matt is given a test where he must drop beans into a small bottle at his feet - with his eyes closed. He's disappointed that he only managed to get one bean, where others had many more. Afterwards, the examiner heavily implies that what they're actually testing is trustworthiness; only the cadets that kept their eyes closed pass. His roommate Burke thinks it's actually a secret test of intelligence, to weed out the cadets who don't figure out that getting a good score would be proof that you cheated; he trusts that there'll be other tests to weed out the dull-but-honest candidates. Of course, he has it backwards—there are other ways to weed out the clever cynics. In fact, when Matt asks Cadet Sabatello about Burke's hypothesis that the rocket crash was staged to frighten off those easily scared, Sabatello asks who fed him that nonsense, Matt remains silent, and Sabatello doesn't push, saying it won't matter in the long run. Both interpretations are probably right, in a sense — cheating in such an obvious manner doesn't say much for one's ethics or intelligence.
  • Shattered World: The asteroid belt was formed by a planet shattering. The Pathfinder discovered evidence that the planet had been inhabited by an intelligent species which had destroyed their home in an nuclear war. This information was recovered by the Aes Triplex when they found the wrecked Pathfinder.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Matt and Captain Yancy end up as the finalists of the Aes Triplex's chess tournament.
  • Space Cadet: Still one of the better examples.
  • Space Cadet Academy
    • The PRS James Randolph, a spaceship that serves as the space academy.
    • Also Hayworth Hall, the Patrol's facilities at their main Earth base at Santa Barbara Field for final selection testing of candidates and for final polish of cadets before commissioning.
  • Space Marine
    • Matt briefly considers switching over to them when his training hits a rough spot, but his counselor talks him out of it.
    • The ship's surgeon on the Aes Triplex is from a Marine support branch and technically a Marine but comes across more like an Absent-Minded Professor than a Space Marine.
  • Space Police: What the Space Patrol's mandate essentially makes them, although exploring the solar system and investigating its mysteries is a highly-ranked secondary goal.
  • Space Station: The PRS James Randolph shares an orbit with Terra Station and is kept ten miles astern. The cadets are granted monthly leave and take a scooter over for R&R.
  • Sticky Shoes: In Earth orbit the Patrol training ship has a steel hull so the cadets can use the magnetic soles of their spacesuit boots for EVA.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The supposedly primitive Venerians have a superior knowledge of chemistry, to the extent that one of the characters says in astonishment, "They can do ANYTHING!" (they've just synthesized liquid oxygen for their rocket — and this from a species that doesn't use space travel or even metal)
  • Teen Genius: An aversion, unusual for Heinlein. Matt Dodson is smart but struggles with complex math and isn’t an instinctive leader. His friend Oscar is a bit closer to the Heinlein archetype.
  • Training from Hell: Mostly averted, aside from a scene when Matt is tested to see how he handles differing gravities and free fall. The cadets are kept working and studying at a pretty hard pace, which probably weeds out those who can't hack it.
  • Venus Is Wet: Venus is a humid, swampy jungle planet, with only the polar regions fit for permanent human colonization.
  • We Will All Fly in the Future: When Matt returns to Iowa on leave, the only thing that keeps him from personally flying his family back home from the station in the family helicopter is that his kid brother (implied to be a teenager with a learner's permit) immediately takes the controls.
  • Where It All Began: Lampshaded in-universe, when Matt and Tex return to the PRS Randolph:
    Matt and Tex showed their orders to the officer of the watch and left with him the inevitable copies. He gave them their rooming assignments—in Hog Alley, in a room with a different number but otherwise like the one they had had. "Seems like we never left it," remarked Tex, as he unpacked his jump bag.
    • They are subsequently given their next posting: Hayworth Hall, where they had their entrance examinations. Presumably, they'll be tasked with overseeing cadet candidates undergoing their own exams.
  • Who Watches the Watchmen?: This is the motto of the Naval Academy.
  • You Are in Command Now: The cadets have to handle the situation on Venus when their commanding officer is put in a coma.
  • Zeerust: As can be expected there's lots. Surprisingly averted early in the first chapter, as it opens with Matt talking with his dad on what a modern reader will recognize as a cell phone (though he does end the call quickly, because he's in a crowd!), even shipping it back home when he goes into orbit, since there of course would be no relay towers to pick up its signal.
    • Interestingly, Matthew's explanation of the atomic bomb rockets to his parents indicates that they are of the "gun type" design employed in the Little Boy atomic bomb. But an implosion bomb was tested even before Little Boy was used (the only advantage of the Little Boy design was that it was considered more dependable since the design is much simpler). In the real world, less than a hundred gun-type bombs were ever built, and the design is a historical curiosity today.
    • For that matter, the book itself unwittingly demonstrates that the whole notion of maintaining a network of orbiting bombs is absurdly impractical. The Space Patrol must keep a manned base on the moon, and keep a ship in orbit to coordinate the hypothetical attack, as well as carry out routine maintenance and course correction. Whereas in the real world, an engineer can open up an ICBM and fiddle with it quite easily.
    • The protagonist is picked up by a helicopter, which doesn't seem too strange until you realize it's a personal helicopter that his family fly themselves, their version of a family car. Earlier this Farm Boy recalls getting his 'copter license at the age of 12.