Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
Cover art by Darrell K. Sweet
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Citizen of the Galaxy is the next to last of the twelve juvenile novels that Heinlein wrote for Scribner's in the late 40's and early 50's. Unlike many of the earlier books he wrote for the Scribner's juvenile line, which have accumulated enough Zeerust that reading them can be acutely painful at times, it has actually held up fairly well over the past six decades. The fact that it is space opera probably helps, since such stories are generally expected to emphasize adventure over extrapolation. While novels such as Red Planet and Between Planets, which were set in our own Solar System and predicated upon a view of Venus and Mars which was still (barely) possible at the time of writing but has since been proven inaccurate, Citizen of the Galaxy takes our hero to worlds so far the distances are measured in hundreds and thousands of light-years. And while we have made scientific studies of some exoplanets, in relation to the total number of stars in the Milky Way they're very few, and it's still possible that there might be plenty of Earthlike planets out there, worlds where humans could settle in shirtsleeve environments and even retrogress technologically.
Citizen of the Galaxy begins with a terrified boy on the slave auction of an exotic, decadent city. In the first few paragraphs Heinlein builds the scene with his typical expert touch, juxtaposing the squalor of a slave ship's hold (not dissimilar to the conditions of the ships which brought kidnapped Africans to the Atlantic coast of North America) and the fact that the ship on which our as-yet-unnamed protagonist rode unwilling has traveled more than forty light-years. At once we know we're in a space opera setting, in which faster-than-light travel is not only possible, but so common that it functions much like seagoing transportation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It's probably a universe where Space Is An Ocean, and spaceships function much like seagoing ships. A universe full of more-or-less Earthlike planets where people can live on the unprotected surface in a shirtsleeve environment, although some of them are apparently extreme enough in environment that their inhabitants have undergone visually striking mutations.
And all that in the first few paragraphs, with an economy of words and an attention to the telling detail that was the hallmark of Heinlein in this period, when he'd already mastered his craft but had not yet become too big to edit, nor had age and ill-health made inroads into his faculties. In fact, it could be argued that Citizen of the Galaxy is one of his best works, if not the best. We're being set up to read a familiar type of story, specifically the slave narrative, recycled In Space.
And then the story takes a surprising turn, very different from the usual course of events we would expect if we're already familiar with slave narratives. This will not be the usual auction with heated bidding by several potential buyers, whose faces and attire will be studied by the narrative voice for signs of cruelty or kindness. The auctioneer has no more than begun his standard pitch when he is heckled by the audience, who view his words as being on about the level that the reader's contemporaries regard the pitches of the stereotypical used-car salescritter. The boy seems unmarketable until, half as a joke, a bid comes from one of the beggars that gather around the block, hoping to wheedle a few coins from the wealthy buyers as they collect their purchases. One noble dandy decides to humor the audience and forces the issue, as much to keep the auction moving and get to some more interesting items as to provide entertainment for his fellow idle rich. One thing leads to another and soon the boy ends up in the old man's keeping.
So off they go together to Baslim's home in the ruins of the old stadium, where dwell the lowest classes of this decadent city of Kiplingesque wicked Oriental splendor. On the way he begins to teach the lad the basics of business, pushing the begging bowl in the direction of likely-looking marks as they make their way. And of course keeping the kid from running away.
Our protagonist has no more than crossed the threshold of Baslim's lair than we get the first hints that, like Kip's father in Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, this one-eyed and one-legged man is more than he seems. Rather than being a dark and filthy hole little better than an animal's den, his place proves to be clean and carefully furnished, rather like one of Tolkien's hobbit-holes. Baslim tries to establish some kind of rapport with the lad, but without success. Even a plate of food set before him results only in the lad fleeing out the door.
As the light fades, Baslim regretfully announces that he's going to have to shut the door and lock it -- this is a bad neighborhood, after all, and he can't risk having a thief come in while he's sleeping and cut his throat for his few meager possessions. The boy has a choice -- he can come inside and enjoy the safety of a snug home, or he can take his chances outside. At last the boy answers in words, calling out for Baslim to wait, and in he comes. The ice broken, he reveals his name is Thorby, and a working relationship soon begins.
Baslim begins Thorby's education, and it's not just in perfecting one's pitch and being able to judge which marks are apt to be most susceptible to a particularly miserable appearances. No, Baslim teaches Thorby to read and write, not just in the tongue he already knows, but in several other languages common in the galaxy. He also teaches other skills -- how to read a whole page at a glance and retain it indefinitely, how to calculate rapidly and precisely without resort to pen and paper, even with large figures, how to remember large numbers of seemingly unrelated facts and to correlate them to draw conclusions.
Soon Baslim has Thorby performing other tasks, such as taking bits of microfilm (a somewhat Zeerusty detail -- a contemporary writer would probably have them be data chips) to be picked up by certain passers-by. In the process, Thorby meets a number of friends and associates, some upstanding and some less than admirable, such as the one-handed thief Ziggy, who teaches Thorby the arts of the pickpocket. At this point Baslim determines to free the boy, arguing that it's too dangerous to own a thieving slave.
And just as Thorby begins to feel that he really has a secure place in the universe, everything is ripped away from him. For Baslim the Cripple is in fact a spy, working under deep cover -- and that cover is blown. Down comes the ruthless justice system of the Sargony, and suddenly Thorby is on the run, with desperately few people to turn to. However, he is able to discover that one of the spaceships he's had to memorize is in fact in port. Of course then he has the problem of getting onto the spaceport grounds, but the grizzled spacer Captain Krause of the Sisu works out a way, albeit involving a cargo container and some sleeping drugs.
Thorby awakens in a tiny room, little better than a cell. Food is delivered to him on a regular basis by a lad little older than himself, who refuses to talk and generally treats him with contempt. After a while, Thorby decides to investigate his surroundings and thus stumbles upon the anthropologist Margaret Mader (probably a mild Tuckerization of Margaret Mead, who was very prominent at the time the novel was written), who helps him understand a little of the society within which he has been placed, yet to which he is an outsider. Even things as little as the use of the term "fraki," which originally denoted a particularly noisome species of vermin, as a way of designating the Other and reaffirming one's solidarity with one's own group, are explicated to him, and thus to the reader.
And then the perilous journey outsystem (since in this fictional universe one cannot initiate faster-than-light travel until one is almost completely outside of a star's planetary system, giving pirates ample time to intercept and capture a vessel) is over and Thorby is finally summoned to meet the captain and the Chief Officer, who proves to be an elderly and bedridden woman, Captain Krausa's mother. His wife is the Assistant Chief Officer, effectively the old woman's bodyservant for all her elevated title might indicate. Thorby delivers a message Baslim had him memorize years earlier, and these august personages determine that in order to fulfill the dead man's charge, Captain Krausa must adopt Thorby as his own son.
Thus Thorby is thrust full into the society of the Free Traders, not as a lowly sub, but as one of the most senior members of the Family. And as a member of the Family rather than a guest, he has duties -- which means training. There are some rough times, particularly as he's first learning how to live in a tight-knit society in which everyone learns almost everything important with their mother's milk, to the point they aren't even consciously aware that they learned it, rather than knowing it instinctively. But learn he does, thanks to Baslim's renshawing, a schooling in the process of learning effectively (when I first read the novel, I immediately thought of the Bene Gesserit of Dune, but it turns out that it's named after an actual person, Samuelf Renshaw, who did some work on speed-reading and rapid learning), and soon Thorby holds significant responsibility, both in terms of combat duty and of actual trading. He gets to see several strange planets, and one day he even gets to be a hero, blowing up a pirate that was about to jump the Sisu.
And just as he's beginning to feel at home (albeit restless in the tightly organized and regimented structures of Family life), it's all yanked away. The Free Traders are Gathering for one of their regular reunions, and Captain Krause is reminded of the rest of Baslim's charge -- to find Thorby's origins. Krause is so impressed by Thorby's skills that he's sure the young man must be a Free Trader by birth as well as adoption -- but no ships were lost during the right period for him to have come from any of them. So with great reluctance he takes Thorby to a Hegemonic mail courier, hoping they will be able to find his people.
Wanting desperately to have a home and a community once again, Thorby enlists. When he recounts his role in the action against the pirate, he's breveted to rank and things are looking up for him. But trouble isn't far behind. Not long after a query to the central vital statistics databanks turns up empty, the ship's jackass (there's always one in any groups of people) makes an obnoxious crack about Thorby's having been a slave. It hits one of Thorby's buttons, and he reacts.
Suddenly he's in major trouble, looking at the very real possibility of being dismissed from the service and put out on the nearest habitable world. It wouldn't be a disaster, because his adoption by Captain Krause and the Sisu was never abrogated. As long as he could find work to keep himself alive until a Free Trader ship put in, he could find his way back to that home. But it'd still be a disgrace, and he wouldn't want to have to explain himself to his adoptive family.
And just as everything looks darkest, the captain realizes there's one form of identification they haven't tried, one that every Terran infant and infants on most other civilized worlds are identified by before they even leave the hospital. So Thorby's footprints are taken and sent back to Earth -- and the news comes back to send Thorby to Earth at once. He's no random stray, and Captain Krause was right after a fashion about him having to have trader ancestry. Thorby is in fact the scion and heir of one of the greatest mercantile families of the galaxy. He is in fact Thor Bartleby Rudbeck, the Rudbeck of Rudbeck.
So from the poorest of the poor, he is flung to the pinnacle of society. But we're not to happily ever after yet -- the longer Thorby stays among his new long-lost relatives, the more he smells a rat. The skills in judging people and situations that he learned first from Baslim and then from Captain Krause and Grandmother Krause are in fact serving him well against people who would like to settle him into a nice little gilded cage, a bubble of social space through which only the information they want him to have will pass. People who have plenty to hide, including involvement in the very slavers who killed his parents and threw him into a life of slavery. In the irony of ironies, he may well have travelled in ships to which he was the rightful owner.
His first impulse is to abandon everything and run back to the Guard -- but he soon learns that he cannot abandon the responsibilities to which he is heir. He has to thread his way through yet another strange society and master its intricacies, and this time it includes overcoming a Smyler With The Knife who presents a friendly, even fatherly, face while fully intending to betray him. And Thorby also learns that fighting slavery isn't just a matter of stand-up battles, but of following and choking off the money trails, all the time having to avoid putting himself in positions in which he could be cut off from his lines of support and betrayed.
Thus under what appears to be a relatively simple story of action and adventure in a space opera setting, Heinlein delivers a meditation upon responsibility and the maturation of a young man into his adult place in the world. It's a shame that he never chose to write more stories set in that universe, since what little we glimpse of it suggests a milieu as complex as Andreacute; Norton's Forerunner universe of C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe.
Review posted January 11, 2012.
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