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...What Was Set Before Him

Starman Jones
Robert A. Heinlein
This is just about my favourite of Heinlein's "juveniles". Like other SF authors of the era (particularly Andre Norton), Heinlein realised that the audience he was aiming at would, aside from being younger than the audience he reached through magazines like "Astounding", be just about as literate and as quick to accept and comprehend new ideas as the audience for his "adul" works.

So, like Norton (and Edward Eager, to mention another) his sole concessions to the "juvenile" nature of the market were the age of his protagonists and a tendency to slightly less complex language -- not writing down, just speaking a bit more plainly. He assumed that his audience would be familiar with things that, perhaps, the general audience would not -- the discussions of the implications for a "truck" of negative-lift streamlining and an anti-gravity field that varies by an inverse-cube law in this book are a classic example of that.

The story here, of a young man's passage into adulthood, is one that Heinlein has told many times in many guises, but i think that this may be the most poignant (except possibly for the relativity-separated twins of "Time for the Stars"), as Max Jones must be, essentially, orphaned twice along the way to that maturity.

Heinlein postulates a time when unions/guilds so totally control work qualifications that if you're not a guild member, you can't work. Max Jones, whose father has died, has nothing more to look forward to than a life on a back-country farm with his mother and her jerk of a new husband. That is -- he has nothing to look forward to unless he can persuade the Astrogators' Guild, of which his uncle was a member, to accept him as an apprentice.

Taking his uncle's working manuals, Max sets out to hitch-hike to Guild HQ and sign up.

Of course, that doesn't work -- along the way he meets Sam -- the only name he'll give -- who attempts to, in essence, steal Max's identity and get himself appointed a Guild Apprentice. But the Guild will accept neither.

So Sam -- convincing Max that he wants to get off Earth just as badly as Max does and that, with his connections and Max's money (a legacy from his uncle via the Guild), they can get faked papers and get into space. And they do -- as members of the Stewards' Guild.

To this point, a description of the book reads like a lot of other formula juvenile adventure books; but it's the details woven into the story that make the difference -- like the story Sam tells casually about this fellow he knew who wound up accidentally deserting the Imperial Marines... a story that sounds a lot like a first person narrative, though Sam denies it.

By a series of unforeseen events, Max is allowed to become an astrogator after all, becomes an officer, and eventually he is the *only* astrogator surviving after a seemingly-hospitable planet upon which the ship lands turns hostile...

But he and one of the passengers have been taken prisoner by the nasty centauroids who rule the world...

Max Jones is a brave young man who does all that is asked of him and answers the call whenever he is needed. His friend Sam is a probable deserter, a card cheat, a con man and a brawler.

But it's Sam, the man who "...ate what was set before him" that you will remember forever after you read this book.