The Rolling Stones
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Scribner's: New York, 1952
illustrated by Clifford Geary
276 pages

as Tramp Space Ship (abridged): Boys' Life, Sept-Oct-Nov-Dec 1952

various British editions as Space Family Stone
for instance — Gollancz: London, 1978

with an introduction by William H. Patterson, Jr.
Baen: New York, 2009

collected in —
To the Stars
September 2008

Family transport for the Mighty Room

Near the beginning of The Rolling Stones, the Stone family is more or less maneuvered by its twin teenage boys Castor and Pollux into window-shopping for used spaceships on sale at Luna City, with the possibility of buying one. In fact, the exploring spirit is not hidden very deeply within any of them.

Mr. Stone's face brightened; he reached for his pouch and slung it over his shoulder. "And now, let's go look at some spaceships!"


As the four left the apartment and stepped on the slideway that would take them to the pressure lift to the surface Pollux said to his grandmother, "Hazel, what does 'Geronimo' mean?"

"Ancient Druid phrase meaning, 'Let's get out of here even if we have to walk.' So pick up your feet."

Luna City & the Stone family

The passage above wraps up Chapter 3. Before we get to that point, Heinlein has shown us: the twins negotiating for spaceships at a Luna City spaceship lot; short-cutting home through a big industrial chemical-engineering complex; hitching a ride on a company tractor; a human traffic jam at a tube station at the spaceport (most of these scenes are in Lunar vacuum); and then meeting the rest of the Stone family. All very matter of fact; but this is the not-too-distant future, this is Luna — and we're just beginning.

Theirs is a thoroughly literate family, not incidentally. Treasure Island and Ivanhoe, Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors, and even Homer are casually entered into the conversation. Meanwhile, the twins keep angling toward the spaceship idea, their father resisting with an old workshop catch-phrase which his elderly mother quickly twists:

"Don't 'Father' me! I can tell a hawk from a handsaw."

"Anybody can," Grandmother Hazel commented. "The Hawk class is a purely commercial type while the Hanshaw runabout is a sport job. Come to think about it, boys, a Hanshaw might be better than a Douglas. I like its fractional controls and —"

"Hazel!" snapped her son. "Quit encouraging the boys. And quit showing off. You're not the only engineer in the family."

"I'm the only good one," she answered smugly.

A beloved novel, & fun with titles

The Rolling Stones is the sixth novel of Robert A. Heinlein's "juvenile" science fiction for Scribner's. It's an excellent and widely beloved novel, read by me many times over the years.

It's hard to empathize with Heinlein's editor at Scribner's, Alice Dalgliesh, who wanted to censor this bright and wholesome novel. But so she tried, and Heinlein fended her off as best she could. Some of the letters are in Heinlein's Grumbles from the Grave.

So what is in here? As with others in the Scribner's line, Heinlein enjoys teasing but quite appropriate chapter titles, giving The Rolling Stones a distinctive and even fabulous Contents page that is entertaining in itself. The chapters:

  1. The Unheavenly Twins
  2. A Case for Dramatic License
  3. The Second-Hand Market
  4. Aspects of Domestic Engineering
  5. Bicycles & Blast-Off
  6. Ballistics & Buster
  7. In the Gravity Well
  8. The Mighty Room
  9. Assets Recoverable
  10. Phobos Port
  11. "Welcome to Mars!"
  12. Free Enterprise
  13. Caveat Vendor
  14. Flat Cats Factorial
  15. "Inter Jovem et Martem Planetam Interposui"
  16. Rock City
  17. Flat Cats Financial
  18. The Worm in the Mud
  19. The Endless Trail
An enterprising approach to the Solar System

We might divide these chapter headings into: People, Places, and Problems — which covers a lot of the human condition. But that's the point. Our people are the Stone family, living in Luna to begin with, but venturing across the Solar System, becoming effectively residents of the System, the Mighty Room.

In the family, The Unheavenly Twins are brothers Castor and Pollux Stone, almost-grown young men, inventive and entrepreneurial, who want to buy some kind of used space ship and become merchant adventurers. Their prosaic but brilliant idea is bicycles: take Lunar sand cycles to Mars for resale.

The Flat Cats are neat creatures: the only real aliens we see, but contributing quite usefully to the plot. (They are the apparent inspiration for the Tribbles in Star Trek. And like the telepathic Partner-cats in Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon", surely they are at some deep level a creative ancestor to my own aircats.)

Moving & living in the Mighty Room

Luna City could be a comfortable middle-American city under a dome, while Marsport looks more like a desert boom-town. It is in the long orbits in space — our Mighty Room — and among the Asteroids that The Rolling Stones truly comes alive. This is the Stone family's home.

There are plenty of diversions, at once practically appropriate to the Space Era and emotionally evocative of the High Frontier: no one does this more naturally than Robert Heinlein. But these support the major theme that Space is our natural habitat.

Really, the book is about transportation: its means and ends. Space can be used and enjoyed by moving in it. Heinlein follows a brief theory of technological stages with a couple of pages indicting internal-combustion automobiles, and then on to overhauling a spaceship and its critical components. The sand bicycles are a stroke of genius, as Castor and Pollux would be first to tell you. Heinlein always is clear that space is not just exotic adventure, it's ships that must be paid for, skills that must be learned, and simple disasters that must be thought through and bravely handled by the people doing the far-traveling.

The Rolling Stones is a wonderful novel about the naturally beautiful Solar System as Heinlein sensitively feels it, about traveling and working and living in space, as Heinlein hardheadedly constructs it. This is the High Frontier. A glorious adventure. And, if we refuse to fall flat on our faces, we are just beginning.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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