Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book Review: Rocket Ship Galileo

Heinlein's first published novel, published in 1947, was 'Rocket Ship Galileo'.  It, like many of his earlier novels, is often put in the 'juvenile' section of the library.  This is not really accurate; the book is far closer to 'Harry Potter' than 'Hardy Boys'.

The science involved is almost as laughable as the science in the Jules Verne story 'From the Earth to the Moon'.  One professor and three teenagers throw together an atomic rocket on a shoestring budget, and it works perfectly, taking them all the way to the moon on the first attempt.  In order to enjoy it, you must forget everything you know about modern science as it relates to space travel and nuclear reactors.  But if you think of it as a fantasy book, you can have a lot of fun reading it.

Actually, Heinlein really did try to get the science right.  There are several good passages about the scientific method and the philosophy of science and mathematics.  He does make an attempt to show the radiation dangers of a nuclear reactor.  The problem is that very few people really knew the proper science back then.  At the time, no author really understood just how difficult and expensive it would be to escape the Earth's gravity well and make a working space suit.

As in many Heinlein books, there is a big plot twist.  The plot twist is ridiculous, incredible, laughable, pure pulp sci-fi, and exactly what the story needed.  It basically forces you to shut off your critical analysis of the book and just go along for the ride.

This book is definitely a product of its time, and it is not for everyone.  Still, I can think of much worse things to hand to a teenager who is interested in science and fun stories.


E said...


Finished this yesterday. I was prepared for meeting ETs or running the ship into the sun, but I was NOT expecting the last remnants of the Third Reich. Jeez! I had to check the publication date when I saw that, and yeah, that explained it.

One definitely has to suspend disbelief especially for some of the 'science' and terminology. e.g. Drowned in vacuum. Uhhh..... scuse me, but the name vacuum implies the absence of matter. One needs to be enveloped by matter to be 'drowned,' and have unoxygenated matter filling the lungs to die. And this was only one of the lesser errors (yet one of the harder ones to let go past. Maybe because it was in the last few chapters and nearing the end of my 'let sh*t slide' rope?)

I thought it was a neat twist that the last-minute freak-out by Cargraves, leading him to allow Morrie to land the ship instead of the automated system was apparently the exact thing that saved them from being obliterated before even setting foot on the moon's surface as it broke them out of the Nazi's projected radar trajectory.

Richard Bruns said...

Actually, bring drowned in vacuum is a fairly accurate description of what happens. When you are exposed to hard vacuum, all of the air is forced out of your lungs, and then your blood pressure forces fluid from your body into your lungs. It may seem odd to call this drowning, but you will die with your lungs full of liquid.