Starman Jones by Robert A Heinlein is a 1953 juvenile science fiction book. Back when I was young I used to read a lot of books and this is among my favorites. I still re-read it to this day once in a while. I used to get lost in Heinlein’s books and pretend I was the lead character. This is a great book and a great read of earlier times when all we could do was imagine the future.
The Story :
Max Jones works the family farm in the Ozark Mountains. With his father dead and his stepmother marrying again to a man he detests, Max runs away from home, taking his late uncle’s astrogation manuals.
Most occupations are tightly controlled by guilds with hereditary memberships. Since his uncle had been a member of the Astrogators’ Guild and had had no children, Max hopes that before he died, his uncle had named him his heir. He begins hitchhiking towards Earthport to find out. Along the way, he finds a friendly face in hobo Sam Anderson, who later alludes to being a deserter from the Imperial Marines. Sam feeds Max and offers advice, though he later departs with Max’s valuable manuals.
At the guild’s headquarters, Max is disappointed to find that he had not been named as an heir, but he is returned his uncle’s substantial security deposit for his manuals. Max learns that Sam had returned the manuals and tried to claim the deposit for himself.
By chance, he runs into an apologetic Sam. With Max’s money, Sam is able to finagle them a one way job/trip aboard a starship using forged records of their service as crewmen aboard other starships. Max signs on as a steward’s mate third class, and then he absorbs the contents of the Stewards’ Guild manual using his eidetic memory. Among his duties is caring for several animals, including passengers’ pets. When passenger Eldreth “Ellie” Coburn visits her pet, an alien, semi-intelligent “spider puppy” that Max has befriended, she learns that he can play three-dimensional chess, and challenges him to a game. A champion player, she diplomatically lets him win. Meanwhile, Sam manages to rise to the position of master-at-arms.
When, through Ellie’s machinations, the ship’s officers discover that Max had learned astrogation from his uncle, Max is promoted to the command deck. Under the tutelage of Chief Astrogator Hendrix and Chief Computerman Kelly, he becomes a probationary apprentice chartsman, then a probationary astrogator. In a meeting with Hendrix, Max reluctantly admits to faking his record to get into space. Hendrix defers the matter until their return to Earth. The Asgard then departs for Halcyon, a human colony planet orbiting Nu Pegasi.
When Hendrix dies, the astrogation department is left dangerously shorthanded. The aging captain tries to take his place, but is not up to the task. When Max detects an error in his real-time calculations leading up to a transition, neither the captain nor Assistant Astrogator Simes believe him, and the ship becomes lost.
They locate a habitable world, which Ellie names Charity, and the passengers become colonists. Meanwhile, the crew continues to try to figure out where they are and whether they can return to Earth. Unfortunately, it turns out the planet is already inhabited by hostile centaur-like sapients. Max and Ellie are captured, but Ellie’s pet is able to guide Sam to them. They escape, though Sam is killed covering their retreat.
Upon his return, Max is informed that the captain has died. Simes tried to take command illegally and was killed by Sam, leaving Max as the only remaining astrogator. To make matters worse, Simes hid or destroyed the astrogation manuals.
Vastly outnumbered by the natives, the humans are forced to attempt a perilous return to known space by reversing the erroneous transition. Max must pilot the ship; he must also supply the missing astrogation tables from his eidetic memory. To add to his burdens, the remaining officers inform Max that he must take command, as only an astrogator can be the captain. The pressure is immense, but Max succeeds and the ship returns to known space.
Max pays heavy fines for breaking its regulations, but becomes a member of the Astrogators’ Guild, and is assigned as an assistant astrogator aboard the starship Elizabeth Regina. However, he loses any chance for a relationship with Eldreth; she returns home to marry her boyfriend. Max accepts this with mixed feelings, but looks forward to his new career.
Wikipedia, Fantasticfiction.com and my recolections.