© Robert A. Heinlein estate, illustration © Clifford N. Geary estate.
This was not a favorite of mine among the so-called “Heinlein Juveniles,” a series of science fiction novels he wrote specifically for younger readers. Rereading it now, I think I see why. First, it’s a very internal story. Two twin brothers, Tom and Pat, are tested along with many other twins and find they have the ability to communicate with each other telephathically, something they’d been doing without realizing it. This puts them in an elite group that can be used to communicators between starships and Earth, as telepathy has been found to be instantaneous at any distance, defying the speed of light.
There’s adventure in the trip, but a heavy price to pay as well. Because of Einstein’s discoveries about traveling near the speed of light, which the ships will do at peak travel, the one going on the ship will have a journey of perhaps a few years, while back on earth decades will pass, and the ship’s crew will return (if they return) to a very different world than they left. The entire story is told from Tom’s point of view, and at first he’s sure Pat will go on the ship, because Pat has always gotten the better of Tom when it comes to what they both want. Pat does go into training, but is injured, and at the last minute Tom goes on the voyage of discovery, as Earth tries to locate worlds that can be colonized.
The trip is somewhat claustrophobic, and I can see where Heinlein drew on his Annapolis cadet and Naval officer experiences for the group dynamics aboard the space vessel. Tom does not always get on well, even with others in his elite group of telepaths, and part of the story is about that. Then there’s the changes going on back home with his twin and Pat’s growing family. As the voyage goes on, Tom’s telepathy is found to pass on to Pat’s daughter and then her daughter. Other telepaths are not so lucky, facing a fading connection, or worse, the death of their partner.
When they finally get to a colony prospect, all seems rosy. Tom’s uncle is also on the ship, acting as an advisor to the teenager, but Uncle Steve is off the ship running security for a landing party when disaster strikes, as the planet proves to have inhabitants that are very smart and very dangerous. In the aftermath, Tom is forced to do some growing up fast.
The ideas in this book are terrific, but the tone is somewhat dark for Heinlein, and his main character Tom is often not a reliable witness to his own behavior, or doesn’t understand his own motivations. He’s shocked at one point to find out that most of the crew don’t like him, for instance. I can appreciate the author’s wise insights into human behavior much better now than I did as a young person myself. This really is a fine book about personal growth, and one with a unique perspective. It also brings Einstein’s theories to life in a way rarely seen anywhere. That said, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as many of the other Heinlein novels for younger readers. Tom seems to be pushed and manipulated into his career in space, and doesn’t really enjoy it that much, making it hard for me as a reader to enjoy reading about him.