RogerBW's Blog

The Star Beast, Robert A. Heinlein 04 November 2015

1954 science fiction juvenile. Lummox is the Stuart family pet, brought back a hundred years ago from who-knows-where by great-grandfather the space explorer. He's large, and occasionally hazardous to property, but basically docile. But now he's gone on a rampage, and the forces of law and order want him put down…

This is a book of several intertwining stories. The main and obvious one is essentially boy-and-his-dog rural Americana: Lummox has caused property damage, Mom doesn't like having him around, and John Thomas Stuart has to fight to keep him from being killed. (Actually it's his girlfriend Betty Sorenson who does most of the fighting.) When that fails, they go on the run. The "dog" can chew through steel bars and is immune to bullets, and there are various bits of decent world-building in the background, but the core shape of the narrative could have been told in almost any era.

Not quite so the second thread, which deals with Mr Kiku, the Undersecretary at the Department of Space, and the bureaucracy he runs (not to say how he handles the Secretary, who's a politician rather than a specialist): first dealing with the complaints about a rampaging alien monster, later coping with some tremendously powerful but unknown aliens who assert that one of their number is being held prisoner on Earth.

The combination of these two is fairly obvious, and leads to the third thread, the negotation with the aliens. They want their missing leader back. But while John Thomas Stuart has been raising his pet Lummox, Lummox has been raising pet John Thomas Stuarts, and doesn't plan to stop now.

Sure, in some ways it's very conservative science fiction: male and female roles have changed slightly, but nothing like as much as they had twenty years later in the real world. Men still wear hats, and newspapers are the most important former of public opinion. Messages sent around an office building go by pneumatic tube. But this was written before Sputnik, and as with any historical fiction I think it's important to read it with the best approximation one can manage of the mindset of the time, from which it looks rather more revolutionary: a black man from Kenya is in charge of a major government department, and Betty has divorced herself from her parents even though she's still underage.

Characterisation is fairly thin, with Mr Kiku coming off best, and John Thomas's mother being the most two-dimensional of the characters with significant narrative time; she has to be an Obstacle, so she is, and a late attempt to explain her attitude doesn't make her in the slightest sympathetic or even particularly plausible.

The stories sometimes lurch into each other (the final chapters of political manoeuvres in particular don't seem to mesh well with the pet-raising that's been going on before), but this is still a highly enjoyable book. One shouldn't expect a masterwork, but unless one is going in determined to dislike Heinlein this is a pleasant and occasionally thought-provoking experience.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:14pm on 04 November 2015

    Science fiction tends, for obvious reasons, to concentrate on the changes rather than the continuities of its history. There is plenty that someone jumped forward in time from the 1950s would recognise in an American Midwestern community today. The same churches, familiar brand names, political parties that have a clear ancestry from the ones they knew back then.

    But there would be so much changed. Would the surface differences or what lies under the surface be more disturbing to our displaced person? Depends how deep he wants to look, I suppose.

    One of the better episodes of the mostly lamentable TORCHWOOD dealt with the theme. I particularly remember with pleasure the moment two of the temporal refugees discovered what you're supposed to do with tea bags.

    And yeah, THE STAR BEAST is amusing. I liked Mr Kiku sending the Secretary back to sender with a note that says he is impossible to work with. That's how Sir Humphrey wanted to be able to act.

    And I recall a line about how the jest the gods always like to play on mortals is to tell them how different they are from each other. Or something like that...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:21pm on 04 November 2015

    To my perception the biggest stumbling-block with historical writing about the future is not getting changes wrong (e.g. we do have fast travel, but it doesn't look like that); it's not forecasting changes that didn't happen (e.g. space travel); it's failing to forecast changes that do happen (e.g. the decline of newspapers, the total change in expectations of gender roles). That throws me out of suspension of disbelief much more than the other two, and it's one of the reasons I try to wear an historical mindset while reading a book like this.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 02:05pm on 04 November 2015

    Well, yes but I try to be philosophical and reflect on the things we're not even seeing yet that will be blatantly obvious to later generations.

    Somewhere, there is some lone observer who has seen the stuff that will transform the next two or three generations. But he's not being listened to and would be shocked by the reverence later scholars will attach to his name. He will probably die in poverty and depression.

    (Note lingering sexism in the last paragraph.)

    In a couple of generations people will be astonished at the prejudice against transgendered people. "How could they say they weren't really of the gender they chose to be?" And a weary historian will point out that complete rebuilding of a human body wouldn't be possible for another twenty three years and watch as the young people wince as he describes what could be done back in the primitive days of the 21st century.

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