I was a bit of an awkward kid growing up. I played sports but I wasn’t the most athletically gifted kid – physically fitness came a good bit later down the road. I was the type of kid who had a few friends who I was loyal but otherwise flew under the radar at school. I wasn’t unpopular or even unhappy, but no one really went out of their way to hang out. Instead, I tended to spend a lot of time in the library checking out books. I liked books like Encyclopedia Brown and Lassie – but in the sixth grade, I discovered a book which changed my life and started my life-long love of Science Fiction. It was called Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein.
Have Space Suit Will Travel was a young adult book written by one of the acknowledged masters of science fiction in 1958. Heinlein himself was a fascinating character, a graduate of the Naval Academy who served on an aircraft carrier in the 1930s and then worked as a civilian engineer supporting Naval Aviation during WWII. Extremely prolific and always trying out new things, he had amazing range. This is the guy who wrote Starship Troopers, beloved by the military – and also wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, a provocative book adored by the counter-culture movement in the sixties.
I loved all of Heinlein’s books but his young adult books – with Space Suit being my favorite – were the works of his I enjoyed the most. Space Suit is about a teenage guy named Kip Russell, a budding engineer, who wins a decommissioned space suit in a contest. He restores it and then one night he is abducted by an alien and taken to the moon where with the help of a young human girl, he escapes. This starts a series of adventures which of course eventually leads to Kip having to save the world.
The world of Space Suit and the rest of Heinlein’s YA is quintessential 50’s science fiction. It is full of lantern-jawed heroes, beautiful women scientists, precocious children, and certainly lots of ray guns and rocket ships. They are unabashedly patriotic and a complete throwback to the mythic ideal of the 1940s-50s Americana. Good versus Evil and absolutely no shades of gray required.
For me though, Space Suit was a life changing event. I really admired Kip – his resourcefulness, his bravery, and his good-hearted nature. Honestly, he was my first literary hero. I ended up checking out every Heinlein book in my school’s library that year and read them all. It was the very first time I can recall ever losing myself in another world, a world which to this day I wish I could exist.
I’m not sure how well the book would sit with the younger crowd nowadays. I recently reread it in on a long afternoon and it really feels like an artifact from a different era. But honestly, Heinlein’s books nowadays read more like a science fiction version of Aesop’s Fables. It you are looking for a series of science fiction books to give to your kids which are good clean fun yet preach lessons about hard work, loyalty, honor, patriotism and compassion – you could hardly do worse than these treasures.