Kip is a young teenage boy obsessed with getting to the moon. It seems like an unreachable dream until one day a soap company announces a slogan competition with the grand prize of – you guessed it – a trip to the moon. I should state that the novel is set in the future, where mankind has already set up a base on the moon, and travel there is common. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that this is one possible future, from the point of view of the 1950s (when the book was written). Because it actually feels like you’re reading something set in the past. The effect is quite charming, really.
Kip goes to outrageous lengths to win the competition, and ends up coming runner-up. His prize? A genuine used space-suit. When he gets it home, he becomes obsessed with fixing all the faults with it, so that it works just like it did when it was originally up there on the moon. Heinlein goes into great detail on the scientific aspects of the suit. You might think this would make boring reading, but I found it quite stimulating – even more so, when you consider that the book was written when lunar landings hadn’t yet been attempted.
The weakness of the book, for me, comes a little later, from the point where Kip has his very own close encounter with an alien civilisation. The reader is treated to various bug-eyed and tentacled creatures that simply have no place in the imagination of anyone who thinks seriously about what real aliens might possibly be like. And the problem isn’t just the physical descriptions. The aliens’ characters are pretty one-dimensional. There’s the fuzzy, furry, friendly, caring face. The multi-tentacled, angry, evil, we-will-conquer-the-galaxy race. The emotionless, obstinate, we-are-in-charge race. I remember trying to read this novel about fifteen years ago, and as I recall, I stopped when all the creatures started to crawl out of the woodwork. This time I pushed on through, but was slightly disappointment at how the story evolved.
It’s not all bad. The best parts for me were scenes like Kip on board a spaceship trying to walk in low-gravity and slipping all over the place (again, this is made extra special because man had never been to the moon at the time of writing). This is the stuff that made the book interesting. The closing chapters are also fairly dramatic. The book visits the theme of Earth under the scrutiny of alien eyes, in a similar but not identical vein to one of its contemporary films, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Children are much more forgiving of one-dimensional bug-eyed aliens than adults, and I have to remember that this is a children’s book. I can see young science geeks loving it.