The Star Beast: A great story buried under a lot of politics

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein science fiction book reviewsThe Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein

The Star Beast (1954) is one of Robert A. Heinlein’s “juveniles.” When I was a kid in the late ‘70s / early ’80s, I loved these and can still remember where they were located in the library of my elementary school. My dad had some at home, too, and probably still does since I’ve never known him to throw out a book. I can’t say that I love all of Heinlein’s work — in fact, I absolutely loathe some of his novels for adults — but I can give him credit for inspiring my life-long love of science fiction, so I’ve enjoyed listening to the audio versions that Blackstone Audio had recently been producing.

The Star Beast is about a teenage boy named John Thomas Stuart (the eleventh) and his pet named Lummox, a six-ton eight-legged brontosaurus-like alien from an unknown race and planet. Despite his size, Lummox is sweet, loving and adorable. When he was a baby, Lummox was acquired by John Thomas’s great grandfather and has been passed down to the subsequent John Thomases for a couple of generations. The present John Thomas’s father was lost in space, so he lives with his mother, a cranky and irrational woman who doesn’t like having Lummox in her backyard. As the story opens, Lummox is sulking because John Thomas (Johnny) is spending the day with a girl named Betty. Feeling neglected and bored, Lummox works his way out of the fenced yard and unintentionally wreaks havoc throughout the neighborhood. Johnny and Lummox end up in court where Lummox may be taken away from the family or even sentenced to death. Johnny and Betty are determined to free Lummox.

There were parts of The Star Beast that I absolutely loved, especially the first scene when Lummox is feeling sorry for himself. Heinlein gives us Lummox’s thought process and it’s completely understandable and quite amusing. I suspect that most readers will fall in love with the huge beast in the very first paragraph. I did. Every scene that Lummox is in is entertaining.

Unfortunately, Lummox is not in every scene. There are a lot of things that happen to Lummox that we are told about in retrospect rather than shown. Many of these would have been a lot of fun to watch, especially if we had seen them from Lummox’s perspective (as we did in the first scene), so I was disappointed that we missed them.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhat are we watching instead? A large portion of the story follows the conversations of several bureaucrats, politicians, diplomats, and reporters (various types of people that Heinlein has no respect for). These scenes are talk-fests in which Heinlein explores some of his favorite political topics such as what is the government’s role in human affairs, which government departments should have jurisdiction in particular affairs, which laws are fair or unfair, when the public should and should not be informed about safety concerns, how policy should be made, how public servants should behave, etc. It is never fun when Heinlein gets up on his soap box. I lean libertarian, as Heinlein does, and I can’t stand it, so… there you go. The Star Beast also has a long courtroom scene that was supposed to be funny but nearly put me to sleep. However, there is an interesting discussion about language and idioms, and Heinlein provides a nice treatment of the problems of xenophobia and prejudice.

One thing I really do like about some of Heinlein’s juveniles is that the girls (but not the women) tend to be smart and independent. In this case, Betty, who Johnny calls “Slugger,” is probably the smartest and most rational character in the story, despite what Johnny says about females being illogical. (The other women, though, are idiots.) It’s also notable, for a SF book written in the early 1950’s, that one of the protagonists is a black man and another has a Russian name.

I loved the ending of The Star Beast. Lummox’s story is good one. Too bad we had to listen to all of the boring political discussions. I can’t imagine that Heinlein’s target audience will appreciate those. The Star Beast would have been a better novel if Heinlein had cut out at least half of the meetings and dialogue.

Paul Michael Garcia did a great job with the audio performance of The Star Beast. He always does. The audiobook is just under 9 hours long.

Originally published in 1954. Lummox has been the pet of the Stuart family for generations. With eight legs, a thick hide and huge (and growing) size, Lummox is nobody’s idea of man’s best friend. Nevertheless, John Stuart XI, descendant of the starman who originally brought Lummox back to Earth from a distant planet, loves him. John isn’t about to let the authorities take his pet away and, with his best friend Betty, determines to save Lummox even if it takes leaving the life he’s known forever. However, what John and Betty don’t realize is that the survival of the Earth itself may depend on the true nature of The Star Beast. An all-time great science fiction coming-of-age classic from seven-time Hugo winner and Dean of Science Fiction, Robert A. Heinlein.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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7 comments

  1. I remember loving Lummox, and Betty, and thinking the ending was a fine,fine thing. I think I skimmed this book pretty consistently, because I was bored by the governmental stuff. At the time, it seemed kind of cliche to me, but I think “soap box” is a better description.

  2. sandy ferber /

    I loved this book when I read it as a teen also, Kat. Your review makes me want to pick it up again….

  3. I tried to read this as a kid, but the sermonizing derailed it for me. I’ve actually never finished this book, come to think of it!

  4. Every time I see one of your Heinlein reviews, I always wonder what my kid self thought about all the politics–did I just glide right over it, did I find it dull? I have no memory at all, just remember loving them all, including this one. In fact, I’d been thinking of re-reading this one with my son since noticing it on my shelf a month or two ago. We both liked Tunnel in the Sky–him for the first time while a reread for me. He got bored with the politics of Red Planet, and I confess, I wasn’t crushed when he asked to drop listening to the book on our trip.

  5. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Heinlein spent all that time stuffing his juveniles (never liked that term, btw) with his libertarian politics, secretly hoping to inspire a new generation, and all those young readers just skimmed over it, thinking “get back to the cool stuff, darn it!”

    • Bill and Stuart, I have no memory of the politics from when I was a kid, either. HOWEVER, if asked my political affiliation, I would say “libertarian.” Of all the candidates running this year, I resonate most with Rand Paul. Soooooooo…… even though I don’t REMEMBER the politics, perhaps it did influence me. Nobody else in my family is a libertarian after all, and I have no close friends that publicly claim to be either.

  6. Heinlein is now doing backflips of joy . . .

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