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Literature / Starman Jones

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Starman Jones is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein first published in 1953.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Almighty Janitor: The main character is a spaceship stable boy who turns out to have perfect memory. He ultimately ends up being promoted to captain.
  • Book Ends: The book begins with Max Jones lazing, one sunny evening after finishing his chores, on a slope overlooking the spaced rings of a magnetically levitated supersonic "ring train" waiting for the Tomahawk to shoot through. It ends with assistant astrogator Jones on the same slope waiting for the Tomahawk once more. It's set up so the first paragraph of the last chapter reads as though it was All Just a Dream but then provides a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue for the story.
  • Burial in Space: After Dr. Hendrix dies his body is set adrift in space, to wander the stars forever.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Fortunately everyone wants Max to succeed, so when he's suddenly elevated to The Captain he's given a lot of subtle advice on how to behave.
  • Destroy the Evidence: The officer who got them stranded attempts this, but fortunately Kelly insists on photographing everything first. Unfortunately he also disposes of the ship's log which they need to Now Do It Again, Backwards, so Max's memory becomes essential.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: By choice; at the end of the novel, Max has chosen a career in space as opposed to a comfortable life with upper class Ellie.
  • Disaster Democracy: The stranded passengers turned colonists are advised to write out a Mayflower-like compact straight off or they are not likely to survive.
  • Famous, Famous, Fictional: "Bees have cities, ants have cities, challawabs have cities." And from that same conversation: "Just like Robinson Crusoe, or Swiss Family Robinson—I can't keep those two straight. Or the first men on Venus."
  • Farmboy: Max Jones is literally one, working his dead father's Ozark Mountains farm to support his mother and himself at the start of the story.
  • Fictional Constellations: Several are referred to, including "the Albert Memorial", "the Hexagon", "the Jeep", and "the Ugly Duckling", all seen from the skies of Halcyon in the Nu Pegasi System. Spacemen don't actually navigate by them, but seeing familiar constellations (that is, familiarly alien) lets the crew know they're in a known star system.
    The stars seemed to crawl together, then instantly they were gone to be replaced without any lapse of time whatever by another, new and totally different starry universe.
    Hendrix straightened up and sighed, then looked up. "There's the Albert Memorial," he said quietly. "And there is the Hexagon. Well, Captain, it seems we made it again."
  • Fold the Page, Fold the Space: Max explains the "anomalies" that allow for interstellar travel by folding Ellie's scarf (which conveniently even has a stylized picture of the Solar System on it, allowing him to talk about the difference it makes in traveling from "Mars" to "Jupiter" with or without the scarf folded over).
  • Innocently Insensitive: When Max asks one of his mentors, Chief Computerman Kelly, why he isn't in the Astrogators Guild, Kelly gets sad and comments that he had a chance once but failed and "[n]ow I know my limitations."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sam robs Max of his books and ID and tries to pass himself off as Max to the Guild. Later he helps Max get into space and consistently aids him, eventually performing a Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Just One Man: Sam does a one-man mission to rescue Max and Ellie, because a larger force would be detected and wiped out. And he did this because Max is the only person who can save their lives, thanks to his Photographic Memory.
  • Living Gasbag: The floating gasbag aliens (which the humans call "hobgoblin balloons") are used by the centaur aliens as spies. They are capable of moving on their own, not just drifting on the wind.
  • The Navigator: Not just in space. After being rescued, Max is able to work out the direction back to camp at night because he can navigate by the stars.
  • Negative Space Wedgie: Averted. Although the characters do get lost during warp and end up on a fantastic planet, about half the book is spent just describing the advanced math and technology (and work shifts, and computering, and configuration of seats in the cockpit) behind space travel, and the disaster happens only because the characters make mathematical mistakes and are too proud to admit it and start over again.
  • Now Do It Again, Backwards: Starships travel by accelerating to near lightspeed and making a "transition" to a new location. During one transition a mistake is made and the ship ends up lost. The crew tries to get back by returning to the point where they appeared and making a transition which is the reverse of the original in the hope that it will take them home.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Turns out Ellie is a champion at 3D chess, which Max was supposedly teaching her.
  • Photographic Memory
  • Portal Network: Interstellar travel is done via "Horst congruencies", otherwise invisible, carefully plotted points in space where boosting the ship past light speed results in a "transition" to the corresponding congruency near your destination. (Screw up the astrogation by a whisker, and you wind up who knows where.)
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: The title character takes a shortcut through a railroad tunnel. The danger is not that the train will actually hit him—it's a magnetically levitated supersonic "ring train"—the danger is that if he's still in the tunnel when a train comes through, the shockwave in the confined space will pulverize his insides and kill him.
    • He almost does meet this fate, but gets outside the tunnel in time so he's only (temporarily) deafened by the shockwave.
  • Recycled In Space: The story is basically Horatio Alger, Jr. IN SPACE!
  • Rest-and-Resupply Stop: As is common in science fiction universes where interstellar travel is accomplished by way of a portal network (the "Horst congruencies") there is a Rest-and-Resupply Stop on a planetary scale, in the form of Garson's Planet. Garson's Planet is bitterly cold, with an unbreathable methane atmosphere; it is "the least unpleasant" of the thirteen planets of its star, Theta Centauri. However, the Theta Centauri System is at the other end of the Solar System's sole Horst congruency...but there are half a dozen other congruencies accessible from Theta Centauri, and Garson's Planet has therefore become "the inevitable cross-roads for trade of the Solar Union". While parts of it are evidently rather high-class, the parts directly depicted in the novel tend to the seedy side, with lots of bars (complete with bar girls) and other "tawdry inducements for the stranger to part with cash".
  • Screw You, Elves!: In this case, centaurs are standing in for elves. The entire second half of the novel is a massive Take That! to the "horse people" part of Gulliver's Travels: the characters encounter a horse-man tribe while lost on a distant planet, and it turns out the horse-people see themselves as much more technologically and morally advanced than the humans. They're in tune with the land, they have a complicated hierarchical court system, and they won't have the filthy humans settle on their paradise planet. In true Heinlein fashion, the main characters slaughter them and somehow come out as moral victors.
    • It's simple, really: The humans only want to leave the planet and go home, while the horse-men want to eat the humans. With no apparent provocation other than existing.
  • Supporting Leader: Sam Anderson fits the trope perfectly.
  • Technology Marches On: Starship navigators use huge printed tables of 8-digit binary codes for navigation data, because the starship navigation computers have an 8-bit binary interface practically identical to the Altair 8800 computers that would come out in the early 1970's, 20 years or so after the book was written but a couple centuries before it was set. Also, personnel records were indexed with punch cards.
    • They aren't even using the computer for navigation as such, just as a general-purpose calculation aid. Special-purpose computers were already in use for similar tasks around the time the book was written, and decimal interfaces that automatically converted to binary for the machine's internals had existed for years.
      • Of course, the book hinges on the fact that the Guilds are all deliberately secretive about their proprietary knowledge. That alone could discourage "User-Friendly Interfaces".
  • Teleportation Misfire: A mis-jump (the result of a navigational error) causes a ship to become lost in space. The crew finally uses Now Do It Again, Backwards to get home.
  • Variant Chess: 3D chess, but with different types of spaceship taking the place of medieval figures.
  • You Are in Command Now: The eponymous character signs aboard the passenger liner Asgard as a steward (and has to forge papers to get that position). He gets a position as apprentice astrogator because of his ability and because the ship is badly short-handed in astrogation. At the end of the book he winds up as captain because the original captain, astrogator and assistant astrogator have all died and only an astrogator can hold command of a spaceship that is underway.
  • Zeerust: FTL Travel is accomplished with the help of books containing table after table of pre-computed values—-seemingly no electronic storage or look-up at all. The books didn't just contain look up tables for functions — they also contained the tables for converting between decimal and binary, as all the values had to be converted into binary before being entered into the computer by toggling switches to set the binary values, then reading the binary values from the display lights and converting them back into decimal to make them human-readable. This last is particularly strange, as computing devices that did decimal I/O with internal conversion for binary internals had existed for at least a decade when the novel was written.
    • Heinlein and computers always was... an odd combination, to say the least. He made an equally bizarre description of a computerized missile aiming in the Citizen of the Galaxy, and his description of the Gay Deceiver main computer is one of the highlights of Technology Marches On page. It is possible that he simply didn't really understand computers — and, anyway, he was consistently behind the curve: 1953 was the year the very first high level Programming Language, FORTRAN, was being readied for release by IBM, finally allowing programmers more or less natural communication with their machines.
    • Another odd thing is the need to look the binary values up in tables at all. As any programmer who really worked with binaries can attest, these combinations burn themselves into the memory very quickly — it's not unlike simply learning the new alphabet, actually. So with some experience a programmer could just cast a glance at the "blinkenlights", as they were called on the early computers, to immediately know the value without any conversion.