Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, Scribners 1953 hardcover and paperback.
I’m reading my way through many of the Heinlein juvenile SF novels. Last time it was The Rolling Stones, this time, Starman Jones. No, it’s not forgotten, none of Heinlein’s juvenile SF novels are, really, but I recommend them, some more, some less, so here we go.
The Story: (edited from the Wikipedia entry)
Max Jones works the family farm in the Ozark Mountains. When stepmother marries a man Max detests, with good reason after the man tries to beat him, Max runs away from home, taking his late uncle’s astrogation manuals. Since his uncle had been a member of the Astrogators’ Guild and had no children, Max hopes his uncle had named him his heir, thus providing him entry into the Guild. He begins hitchhiking towards Earthport to find out. Along the way, he finds a friendly face in hobo Sam Anderson, who tells him he had once been in the Imperial Marines, but had deserted. The next morning Sam, and the valuable manuals were gone.
At Guild’s headquarters, Max finds he had not been named as an heir, but he does receive his uncle’s substantial security deposit for his manuals. Max learns that Sam had returned the manuals and tried to claim the deposit for himself.
By chance, he runs into an apologetic Sam. With Max’s money, Sam is able to finagle them a one way job/trip aboard a starship using forged records of service as crewmen aboard other starships. Max signs on as a steward’s mate third class, and then he absorbs the contents of the Stewards’ Guild manual using his eidetic memory. Among his duties is caring for several animals, including passengers’ pets. When passenger Eldreth “Ellie” Coburn visits her pet, an alien, semi-intelligent “spider puppy” that Max has befriended, they discover they both play three-dimensional chess, and both are quite good. Meanwhile, Sam manages to rise to the position of master-at-arms.
When, through Ellie’s machinations, the ship’s officers discover that Max had learned astrogation from his uncle, Max is promoted to the command deck. Under the tutelage of Chief Astrogator Hendrix and Chief Computerman Kelly, he becomes a probationary apprentice chartsman, then a probationary astrogator. Later, in a meeting with Hendrix who Max has come to respect, Max reluctantly admits to faking his record to get into space. Hendrix defers the matter until their return to Earth. The Asgard then departs for Halcyon, a human colony planet orbiting Nu Pegasi.
When Hendrix dies, the astrogation department is left dangerously shorthanded. The aging captain tries to take his place, but is not up to the task. When Max detects an error in his real-time calculations leading up to a transition, neither the captain nor Assistant Astrogator Simes believe him, and the ship becomes lost.
They locate a habitable world, which Ellie names Charity, and the passengers become colonists. Meanwhile, the crew continues to try to figure out where they are and whether they can return to Earth. Unfortunately, it turns out the planet is already inhabited by hostile centaur-like sapients. Max and Ellie are captured, but Ellie’s pet is able to guide Sam to them. They escape, though Sam is killed covering their retreat.
Upon his return, Max is informed that the captain has died. Simes tried to take command illegally and was killed by Sam, leaving Max as the only remaining astrogator, and thus the only person who can take the ship back into space. To make matters worse, Simes hid or destroyed the astrogation manuals.
The humans are forced to attempt a perilous return to known space by reversing the erroneous transition. Max must pilot the ship; he must also supply the missing astrogation tables from his eidetic memory. To add to his burdens, the remaining officers inform Max that he must take command, as only an astrogator can be the captain. The pressure is immense. Can Max handle it?
J. Frances McComas, in 1954, called this one the best of the seven Heinlein juveniles available. Anthony Boucher and P. Schuyler Miller both praised it, Miller saying it ranked “close to the best in mainline science fiction.” The NY Times reviewer called it “superior science fiction.” Of the four I’ve read so far (more on that next week), I have to agree, this is the best of them. I recommend it. Next time: The Star Beast.