After 10 years away, Space Commander John Lane returns home to Spaceport, Earth and is reunited with his wife Estelle and 16 year old daughter, Susan.
Lane discovers that the role of raising children in their teenage years (when they are colloquially known as ‘jabbers’) has passed to officially sanctioned ‘outfits’. Lane is not happy with this change and puts wheels in motion to undermine the outfit and return responsibility for raising his daughter to the parents (more specifically, him).
A member of an alien race watches Lane from afar, aided by his son (Bud) who is disguised as a member of Susan’s outfit. The aliens are very interested in learning the capabilities and weaknesses of Earth. The alien seeks to protect and guide his son from afar.
Matters come to a head when an alien fleet is detected at the fringes of the Solar System but in a trajectory that will intercept Earth. Commander Lane must respond to the threat. Bud, attempts to escape Earth prior to the confrontation. Both must consider their loyalties and conceptions about parental responsibility.
Written in 1970, the book is dated by the use of language and the vision of technology. Teenagers are called ‘jabbers’, parents, like Lane who oppose the ‘outfit’ system are ‘booters’. Teenagers say ‘sack’, which appears to be a general affirmation/agreement along the lines of ‘you dig?’. Telephones are still wired into houses and call-boxes and there are many mentions of lifts which take people up and down to the underground transport system. Most of the focus is on the characters themselves and the reader doesn’t really get a picture of Spaceport. In some respects, the setting and language feel dated even for the 1970s.
More problematic from our viewpoint is Lane’s attitude to his daughter. His view of parental responsibility seems to be that he owns his daughter and he will decide what is right for her future. To be fair to Van Vogt, Len Jaeger, the unwitting father of alien imposter Bud, also treats his son as a chattel and violently resists all outside influence. In a plot to undermine Susan’s ‘outfit’ (the Red Cats, groovy man!) Lane orders a good looking Flight Officer under his command to take her on a date. The Flight Officer is more than 10 years older than Susan and uses his greater strength to force her into kissing against her wishes. In a strange counterpoint, a scene involving Lane receiving a late night call is at pains to highlight that he and his wife have twin beds. No funny business here.
The outfits themselves are semi-autonomous and apply approved ‘outfit regulations’. For the most part, outfit members are very sensible, studious, independent and prudish (Susan is sanctioned for lip-kissing, even though it was against her will) Considering that the outfits are made up of of boys and girls from the ages of 13 to 19, this might not chime with the readers experience of teenagers or their memories of themselves at the same age. Outfits have been adopted because evidence showed that men like Lane, who seek danger and tests of courage largely as a result of trauma in their own teenage lives which condemns them to remain as overgrown teens forever. Their actions subsequently cause trauma to their own sons and daughters and the loop continues on and on. It is felt that teenagers are better able to raise themselves and younger children and the results in Spaceport, seem to support the theory.
Intergenerational differences are the main topic of the book and, indeed, feature in the confrontation with the alien fleet at the climax. If you can accept the vision of the future was written almost 50 years ago and that relations between men and women and their children were somewhat ‘different’ then, this is for the most part an enjoyable book, which makes you consider modern relationships between the sexes and the generations.