Citizen of the Galaxy might be my favorite of Heinlein’s novels, which makes it a good candidate for my favorite novel, period. It’s one of Heinlein’s “boy’s books,” or “juveniles,” which would be called a YA book today. It was intended for 12- and 13-year-olds. Not just boys; Heinlein was well aware that girls were a big part of his audience. Like the best YA novels, it makes good reading for adults, too.
Rereading it recently, I was delighted by how quickly I got pulled back into the world Heinlein creates, its story and characters. Science fiction often has a short shelf-life, but Citizen is nearing 60 years old and still going strong.
The novel starts at a slave auction.
“Lot ninety-seven,“ the auctioneer announced. “A boy.“
The boy was dizzy and half sick from the feel of ground underfoot The slave ship had come more than forty light-years; it carried in its holds the stink of all slave ships, a reek of crowded unwashed bodies, of fear and vomit and ancient grief. Yet in it the boy had been someone, a recognized member of a group, entitled to his meal each day, entitled to fight for his right to eat it in peace. He had even had friends.
Now he was again nothing and nobody, again about to be sold.
We know this is the distant future because of the presence of starships. We know the technology is oddly mixed, with starships and slaves coexisting. But we don’t know where we are or any other details. We’re seeing things from the perspective of the slave boy Thorby, half-animal from a life of brutality.
A crippled old beggar named Baslim buys Thorby. We and Thorby soon learn Baslim is not what he appears to be. Baslim adopts Thorby as a son, and teaches Thorby to be a man.
We follow Thorby to an interstellar trading ship, the Sisu. Then we go with Thorby to a naval vessel of the Hegemonic Guard. And finally, we’re on Earth. Thorby learns who he really is. He learns Baslim’s real identity. And Thorby takes on Baslim’s life work as his own, to fight the interstellar slave trade.
Here we see all of Heinlein’s strengths at their best: Heinlein could build worlds and societies in the reader’s mind with a few words. Even though the world of Jubbul, where Thorby is a slave, has interstellar travel, it’s a highly stratified society. The wealthy travel through the city on sedan chairs borne by slaves. It’s an Asian society, and yet all the characters speak mid-20th-Century colloquial English. And why shouldn’t they? They’d be speaking perfectly colloquially to each other; their language wouldn’t sound exotic to their own ears. Heinlein was a master of that language. Reading him is like being transported into a movie starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
Heinlein could be a master of economic storytelling. Not in his later career — his later books were sprawling messes. But here Heinlein is lean and muscular; we’re transported through four complete societies and across the galaxy in less than 300 pages.
Citizen strikes the right balance between action and ideas, showing and telling. Heinlein had a tendency to lecture that made his later novels bloated, but it works for the novel here.
The theme of Citizen of the Galaxy is one Heinlein wrote about through much of his career: The conflict between freedom on the one hand and, on the other, the restrictions of duty and of a person’s need to fit in to society. People need somewhere they belong. The society of the trading starship Sisu is highly restricted and regimented, but its people, including Thorby for a while, are free.They have chosen that life. It’s their home, their family, where they belong. Same for the space navy Thorby joins later. As Thorby faces his duty to fight slavery, he loses his freedom to make choices.
The ending of the novel is surprisingly adult. Thorby doesn’t beat the slave trade. He isn’t ever going to beat it. A wiser character tells him that the best they’re ever going to be able to do is stifle it in 200 years, and by that time it will have cropped up elsewhere. Nonetheless, minimizing suffering is a worthy fight, even if you can’t make a lot of difference by yourself. A little difference is enough. The ending is satisfying despite its inconclusiveness — maybe even more satisfying for its realism.
Citizen was first published in 1957, but it holds up surprisingly well, even though a big part of the story involves computer technology. I had a chance to visit the bridge of a nuclear submarine in 2010, and it was easy to imagine Citizen in that environment. The shipboard scenes are particularly vivid; Heinlein was an Annapolis grad; he spent years on ships, and it shows in his writing.
Citizen also holds up surprisingly well in its depiction of gender roles. An important supporting character in the first part of the book is a woman who owns a tavern. A woman anthropologist is an important supporting character on the Sisu. Men and women have different roles in that society. At first, as junior officers, they’re equal. After that, men run the ships, but women run the society within the ships. They are equal but different and in many contexts men take orders from women.
In the third and fourth parts of the novel, women play about the roles you’d expect in a book published in 1950s America. Overall it works.
As for ethnic roles: I mentioned that Jubbul seems Asian. WASP Americans seem to run the Earth, but we actually don’t know that. We only know their names. The ship’s doctor in the navy is named Krishnamurti. The trading ship Sisu is descended from Finns.
The theme of slavery is, regrettably, still current. Slavery just keeps cropping up in the world. Here in the US, its legacy bounces back like a ballpark hotdog. One character tells Thorby that some foolish people think slaves are actually happy with their lot, that some people are natural slaves and thrive when others make decisions for them. That same odious sentiment was in the news even as I was rereading Citizen.
I read Citizen this time around as an audiobook, the Audible edition. Narrator Lloyd James does a fine job with the voices. He gives Baslim a Scottish accent, which is fine, because Sean Connery should have played him in a movie.
Here it is on Amazon: Citizen of the Galaxy.
The illustrations in this blog post are the cover of the edition I read as a teen. It’s one of the better book covers I’ve seen.