This science fiction/adventure novel by Robert A. Heinlein is written for kids ages 12 and above. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
In a futuristic society, the Long Range Foundation plans to launch a search into deep space for Earth-like planets. They recruit scientists, military personnel and sets of twins. The twins have the ability to communicate via mental telepathy. One twin will leave on a starship, while the other twin remains on Earth to receive and send information. Pat and Tom, two teens, are recruited. Pat, the more dominant twin, maneuvers to go into Space. During training he has a skiing accident, which leaves him paralyzed. To ensure that he will receive the best medical care, Pat demands that Tom go on the mission.
On the first night of Tom's training, he meets Alfred, who asks Tom to call him Uncle Alfred. After take off, Tom discovers that his Uncle Steve, a military man and space traveler, is also on the Elsie. (The Elsie is the nickname for the Lewis and Clark — the spaceship). Uncle Steve advises Tom about how to live on a spaceship. Scientists study how Tom and the other communicators use their telepathy. Pat has surgery on his back, and Tom experiences some of the trauma.
The Vasco da Gama, one of the other ships, suddenly disappears. Tom becomes depressed. The Elsie's psychiatrist tells Tom that neither he nor Pat wanted to go on the mission and suggests that Tom get to know himself by writing in a journal. The novel, though not in a journal format, is Tom's journal. Tom and Pru, another twin on the ship, begin a romance, but she ends it abruptly when her twin on Earth doesn't like him. Tom discovers that he can also mind-read Uncle Alfred and Uncle Alfred's contact on Earth. As the Elsie approaches light speed, the telepaths have difficulty communicating with their earthly contacts. Communication resumes when the ship's speed slows. Tom discovers he can telepath with his niece. (As the journey continues, Tom's principal contact changes from his twin to his niece to his grandniece and to his great-grandniece.)
Those on the ship discover a planet, which they name Constance. Though it has large carnivorous lizards, one of which eats a crew member, the planet is recommended for colonization. Following the Elsie's visit to Constance, a plague breaks out onboard and 32 people die. The mission continues and finds a watery planet that they name Elysia. They encounter intelligent, well-armed sea creatures. The creatures treat the Elsie as an invader and drown the landing groups.
In a staff meeting, Tom voices concern to the new captain about continuing the mission with the Elsie's numbers now so diminished. When Captain Urqhardt learns later that Tom has discussed his concerns with others, he puts Tom under arrest. Tom struggles with submitting to this authority figure but decides that obedience is essential aboard the ship, even when the authority figure may be wrong. Urqhardt dismisses the charges against Tom and orders him to the transmission room. Coded communications go back and forth between Earth and the ship.
Mr. Whipple arrives from Earth in a greater-than-light-speed ship and declares their mission cancelled. Faster ships will carry on the search. Discoveries made from studying telepathic communication have made those ships possible. The Elsie is refitted and returns to Earth in a few hours.
In space, Tom has been away about four years; on Earth, 71 years have passed. Pat insists Tom take over the business they jointly own. Tom refuses. Tom and his great-grandniece (his brother's great-granddaughter) marry.
Tom's dad says the child quota tax is against the will of God. Uncle Alfred believes in a loving, merciful God. His being on the mission will provide monetarily for his grandniece, and he believes God has provided this opportunity. He says that getting into heaven requires more than just doing good deeds, but he doesn't say what the more is. He believes his capacity to telepath with his grandniece is a gift from God. When Uncle Steve tries to help his nephews grasp how their mother feels about her sons' involvement in the mission, he makes references to Bible stories: Solomon and the disputed baby and the lost sheep parable. The Elsie holds a memorial service with a sermon and a prayer after one of the spaceships disappears. Dr. Devereaux, the ship's psychiatrist, says that he may or may not have a private view on a person having a soul, but he does not wish to commit himself professionally. Tom says you should pray that a leader is correct even when you don't agree; it is the leader who must make the decision.
The boys' parents are depicted as loving, hard-working and principled. They are involved with their teenage sons, though the boys try to keep them in the dark as much as possible. The parents thoughtfully make the decision about the boys signing up for the mission. Though Tom's father is uncomfortable, he does what he believes is right and gives Tom "the talk" about women before Tom leaves home. However, the parents favor Pat and turn a blind eye to his selfish and manipulative actions. His father rebuffs Tom's attempt to show him that Pat has unfairly taken the opportunity to be the twin who goes into space.
Uncle Steve lets them know that he is wise to Pat's schemes and that they do not always lead to success. He advises the twins to respect their father's ability to come to a good decision and stop trying to manipulate him. Uncle Steve sets aside his own desires for the good of others. Though he wants a beer, he changes his mind when teenage Pat also tries to order a beer. On the Elsie, the experienced Uncle Steve helps Tom grasp the requirements of shipboard life. He talks with Tom about courage and models respect for authority. Tom remembers and leans on his uncle's wisdom after his uncle's death.
The other adults on the Elsie are also generally cooperative, congenial and hardworking. Uncle Alfred, an elderly African-American and one of the telepaths, is a saintly man who believes in God and His provision. His faith gives him peace even when he is unable to make contact with his beloved grandniece. A sensitive man, he seeks out the lonely Tom when Tom first arrives for training. Uncle Alfred gives the sermon during the service for the lost ship. He is one of the "chaperones" who informally watches over the romantic doings of younger ship members. When the captain refuses to allow the telepaths to be part of the reconnaissance team to Constance, Uncle Alfred helps to avert a strike. He proposes a variation to the captain's orders that the captain accepts. Speaking with the captain, Uncle Alfred is frank, but respectful. The captain loses his temper, but apologizes. Uncle Alfred enjoys Tom's company and friendship. When Tom discovers that he can also telepath with Uncle Alfred and his grandniece, Uncle Alfred welcomes this new development.
Captain Swenson takes responsibility for the well-being of those on the Elsie. He insists that they take classes when off-duty to escape the boredom. He investigates problems among personnel and takes action such as moving Tom's immature roommate into another stateroom. He tells the crew to stop name-calling and to show respect for the telepaths. He decides who will attempt to rescue the group under attack on Elysia, and he leads that unsuccessful attempt.
Captain Urqhardt seems foolishly stubborn when he first takes command, but he is misjudged. Though his mannerisms are brusque, he does hear and respect other points of view.
Science and scientific methods are highly respected. Ship crews and the number of people assigned are chosen based on scientific models. Creatures on other planets are said to have evolved, though Tom does not believe that the universe's creation is accidental. Einstein's theory of relativity is accepted. At the end of the book it is proven. Tom returns 71 Earth years later, but he has only aged four years. The ship's psychiatrist psychoanalyzes Tom and his relationship with his brother. The interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind are discussed (from a secular and 1950s point of view).
Twins and other people with close associations read minds. Dr. Arnault states that potentially everyone is capable of mental telepathy. When Pat has surgery on his back, Tom "feels" the knife in his own back and experiences surgical shock. When Tom is examined later, he has two painful marks on his back. Dr. Devereaux explains that the incisions made during the operation on his twin were identical. He refers to the incisions as stigmatas.
Hypnosis and drugs are used to keep some mind-reading pairs in contact. The scientists' study of telepathy leads to new discoveries in physics.
The reason given for the space mission is the over-population of Earth. Tom's parents already have three children before he and his twin are born. His parents pay a yearly tax for having given birth to two more children than the government's quota of three. Excessive population, Uncle Steve states, is the root cause of war.
Uncle Steve believes he is lucky and that he will survive dangerous situations. However, he also knows that exploring strange places is hazardous, and he believes that if a person keeps on, he will eventually die on an adventure. He prefers that to dying in bed of old age. Steve is killed on Elysia.
Not all reports of UFOs are considered legitimate, but some reports are believed to be sightings of ships from other planets scouting Earth for possible colonization.
There is no strong profanity. Milder profanities such as deuce and variations of darn are used occasionally. There is also name-calling such as brats, lard head, little wart and codger.
A crew member fights off a large, carnivorous lizard-like creature. He saves two other members of the Elsie from getting killed, but he is killed. This scene is only a paragraph long. Its focus is on courage in the face of grave danger, not the gory details. Sea creatures on Elysia herd members of the landing party into the ocean and pull them and boatloads of other ship members into the depths. The Elsie attempts a helicopter rescue of the besieged landing troops still on the island. The sea creatures attack the helicopter and its members. Except for one, all are dragged beneath the waters. The scene is described in detail.
Tom says he and Pat were unplanned children. Tom says he and Pat were unplanned children. Tom wants to kiss Maudie (who has been more Pat's girlfriend than Tom's); but Tom doesn't because via mental telepathy, Pat tells him to kiss her. Maudie kisses Tom "goodbye" when he leaves for the space mission. Before he leaves, Tom's father gives him a talk about sex. (The text does not give specifics.) Tom notes his father's embarrassment and tells him that he already learned most of it in school. He smugly refrains from telling his father what he learned in school was unnecessary because he already knew it. His father ends the talk by saying that Tom's been brought up well and therefore won't make many mistakes. He tells him to consider whether a girl would be suitable to bring home to meet his family.
There are dances and other opportunities for socializing. One couple meets and marries while onboard. Romance on the ship is carefully, though informally, chaperoned. Tom begins a romance with Pru, another telepath. They work together and spend leisure time together. Sparks are said to ignite when their hands brush against each other. One night Tom kisses her, but she breaks away abruptly explaining that her twin on Earth does not like him. Pru ends the romance. After that Tom doesn't have a special girl. When the ship's telepaths temporarily lose contact with their earthly counterparts, Pru, free from her sister's domination, kisses someone else. Tom remarks that at that point she would have kissed almost anyone.
When Tom returns to Earth, he marries his great grandniece. He implies that this is fine since they are genetically distant.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
Notes: Pat and Tom speak sarcastically of others. Both boys have cheated on tests in school. Pat tells lies in Tom's presence, and Tom goes along with the lies. Pat is an opportunist who takes advantage of people and their vulnerabilities.
Heinlein wrote a number of books for juveniles. This book is one of them. During his long career he also wrote novels that were intended for adults. Several of his books for this audience explore sexual themes and/or espouse his attitude toward organized religion.
This novel was first published in 1956. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled against school segregation. In late 1955 the African-American community in Montgomery, Ala., began the bus boycott that would last until December 1956. Heinlein's depiction of a color-blind friendship between Uncle Alfred, an African-American, and Tom, a young Caucasian male, was not a common motif in literature before that time.
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