Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Step to the Stars

Lester del Rey Step to the Stars (1954)
I suspect Step to the Stars was written for a juvenile audience; either that or Lester del Rey avoided making too many assumptions about the reading age of his fans. This is not, by the way, either a criticism, faint praise, or necessarily a concern which should inhibit anyone's enjoyment of this book.

Step to the Stars adopted a hard science-fiction approach to describing the construction of the world's first space station back when such ambitious ideas still seemed fresh and practical. Nothing described here was beyond the limits of 1950s technology, although much of the space program proved more difficult and considerably more expensive than del Rey envisioned. For something written during an era of bug-eyed monsters, Step to the Stars is surprisingly restrained and, crucially, perhaps a little more accessible than the likes of Asimov or Heinlein, keeping its physics within the limits of stuff that was probably taught in the average high school science class - centrifugal force, escape velocity, gravity and so on. Most peculiar of all, its subject is essentially a building site in space with astronauts floating around wondering what to do, having the foreman mumble that Hank could use a hand over by the solar panels and so on; and its central character is a promising young engineer called Jim whose talent is recognised when he makes a good job of fixing some important space guy's car. It's implausible in view of what we've learned since, but it's difficult to dislike such an amiable narrative.

Most impressive of all is the time spent proselytising for the good sense of America putting the first orbital station into space so as to leap ahead in the arm's race. As an argument it's absolutely convincing regardless of personal opinion, suggesting the author had a genuine fear of the eastern block and all that other stuff that terrified Americans in the 1950s; yet not once souring the tone with any obvious McCarthyite tendencies. So it's all the more effective when del Rey explains, quite unexpected, that the people of Communist countries are human too, and maybe having great big fuck-off sized missiles pointing at them isn't such a great idea, and perhaps we all need to do some growing up before we take all our political baggage beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

For a kid's book, or at least something that reads like a kid's book, and for a narrative spelt out in primary colours, Step to the Stars carries a surprisingly sophisticated message which remains as relevant now as I'm sure it seemed then. If more children's authors could strike such a fine balance between keeping it breezy without any dumbing down or reducing complex arguments to homilies, maybe we'd have a slightly more literate society.

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