The best of the Heinlein juveniles

Citizen of the Galaxy — Robert A. Heinlein

Citizen-of-the-Galaxy

Some of this will come across as negative so I’d like to begin with “Citizen of the Galaxy is in many ways the most ambitious of the juveniles and it was that ambition that put Heinlein’s blind-spots out where I could see them.” This could easily have been a much more straightforward, much less interesting space adventure book.

The easiest way to look at this is as four linked novellas, which I believe is how it was serialized in Astounding. Since they don’t seem to have titles, I am using lines from near the beginning of each section

Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.”

Purchased on an apparent whim by the beggar Baslim the Cripple, Thorby is rescued from a life of exploitation and abuse for one as the acolyte and adopted son of a man who is far more than he appears. Thorby is only beginning to understand who and what Baslim really is when the grand state that is the Nine Worlds also begins to understand who and what Baslim really is. Thorby is left fleeing for his life, pursued by the secret police.

Luckily for Thorby, Baslim made contingency plans and with the help for various friends (and possibly one of the police chasing him, depending on how you read one scene), Thorby finds refuge in Sisu, one of the ships of the society of interstellar merchants known as Traders.

Inside the first few million miles Thorby was unhappily convinced that he had made a mistake.

Past obligation to Baslim requires that the Traders adopt Thorby. He in turn has to learn how to function in the constrained society of the Traders, a world shaped by the fact traders are dependent almost every day of their lives on an artificial life support system. Unlike the Nine Worlds, each ship is a matriarchy and while the Traders as a whole are free, individual traders are closely bound by tradition and necessity.

Thorby might have enjoyed a happy enough life as a Trader but Sisu’s obligation to Baslim did not end when they took in Thorby as one of their own. Much to their mutual regret, the crew of Sisu and Thorby part ways once it becomes possible to hand Thorby on to his next set of mentors, the crew of the Terran Hegemony ship Hydra.

“The Colonel asked me to deliver him to you.”

Baslim the Beggar was also Colonel Baslim, loyal officer of the Terran Hegemony and the next stage in Thorby’s personal evolution is to become a Guardsman, one of the guardians charged with protecting civilians from interstellar predators. Thorby is nothing if not adaptable and so once again he shapes himself to fit his surroundings.

Fate is not finished with Thorby. Baslim and Sisu lacked the resources to find out who Thorby really is but the Hydra has access to resources neither the intelligence agent nor the traders could reach. Thorby is given just enough time to become comfortable with this new life before being sent back to his forgotten beginnings on ancient Terra.

This way, Mr. Rudbek, if you please.”

Thorby is not just from a wealthy family on Earth, he is the wealthy family or at least he is by rights its head. He very quickly learns that de jure control is a quite different thing from de facto and it does not help that he is even more at sea on Earth than he ever was on Sisu and Hydra. He has an ally in the form of his ditzy but stalwart cousin Leda and with her help he may find a way to live up to his obligations to all of his mentors, most particularly Baslim.

There is a cost, of course, and that cost is that like so many previous protagonists in the juvenile books, Thorby has to defer gratification indefinitely, personal goals set aside in favour of grander ones.

The common thread between the four stories is poor Thorby, perpetually back-footed as he is pushed along from milieu to milieu by necessity and duty, barely given time to adapt to new surroundings before he is whirled away. The one constant he is allowed to keep is his skill at remaking himself to need.

This book has the only example I can think of a human matriarchy in Heinlein, the society of the Traders (I don’t think Star’s society is matriarchal, it just happens to have a woman as the current incarnation of the ruler). As migrant anthropologist Doctor Margaret Mader explains, the traders have a patrilocal matriarchy; ultimately the boss is always, always a woman.

That said

“You haven’t seen ships trade daughters. Girls leaving weep and wail and almost have to be dragged… but girls arriving have dried their eyes and are ready to smile and flirt, eyes open for husbands. If a girl catches the right man and pushes him, someday she can be sovereign of an Independent state. Until she leaves her native ship, she isn’t anybody — which is why her tears dry quickly. But if men were boss, girl-swapping would be slavery; as it is, it’s a girl’s big chance.”

It’s a Heinlein matriarchy. Women can become powerful but only if they snag and then push the right guy. People who remember how Starman Jones’ Ellie was careful to conceal her true skill from Max Jones may find this passage familiar:

Thorby beat [Mata] three games and tied one… a remarkable score, since she was female champion and was allowed only one point handicap when playing the male champion. But he did not think about it; he was enjoying himself.

Sadly this does not end well because by Free Trader ways a Mata/Thorby romance qualifies as incest and Citizen is also the Heinlein where the authorities are willing to step in to prevent incest. How cruel and restricted the ways of the Ship! 

That meager route to power is only available for Free Traders women; other societies are worse. Back on Earth, we find out that Thorby’s dad married into the Rudbeks but this seems to have made him the head, rather than his wife – a Rudbek by blood – taking that role.

Leda, step-daughter of antagonist Weemsby and Thorby’s main ally in the final section, is acknowledged to have her points:

She was not a “home girl”; she was a sophisticated woman adjusted to her environment. Since her mother’s death she had been her father’s hostess and could converse with people from other planets with aplomb, handling small talk of a large dinner party with gracious efficiency in three languages. Leda could ride, dance, sing, swim, ski, supervise a household, do arithmetic slowly, read and write if necessary, and make the proper responses. She was an intelligent, pretty, well-intentioned woman, culturally equivalent to a superior female head-hunter — able, adjusted and skilled.

But she’s treated with off-handed contempt by her step-father:

Leda was on her feet. “I’m here myself. This is my first meeting and I’m going to vote!”

Her stepfather said hastily, “That’s all right, Leda — mustn’t interrupt.”

And even after she uses Weemsby’s underestimation of her against him, Thorby – whose corporate ambitions has just been saved by Leda’s cunning - thinks

Good girl, Leda… she had even tried to help in the business — until it had become clear that business was not her forte.

Thorby, you patronizing dick.

I must have disliked how Leda is treated the first dozen or so times I read this because I completely misremembered her bits. I remembered her as the too-wise older woman who guides the naïve young man before ultimately deciding she cannot saddle him with such as her but as awful as that version was, this is worse. The one bright note is that the next passage after “forte” is:

But she was one bright spot in the gloom; she always bucked him up. If it wasn’t patently unfair for a Guardsman to marry — But he couldn’t be that unfair to Leda and he had no reason to think she would be willing anyhow.

Which given Thorby’s track record of predicting his own life makes it absolutely clear that he ends up married to cousin Leda and spends the rest of his life trying to work out how that happened. The big question for me is “Does she let him keep thinking his free will plays a role in how his life plays out or does she arrange a skiing accident six weeks after the shine goes off her barbarian sweetie and take over as his grieving widow?”

Margaret Mead stand-in Mader isn’t just there to feed Thorby convenient infodumps on how Free Trader society works but also to underline that there are many ways for societies to order themselves in pursuit of survival. The only custom that gets singled out for opprobrium is slavery, which gets a treatment that reminded me of “Logic of Empire” without the “Oh, well, nothing to be done” angle:

Long before space travel, when we hadn’t even filled up Terra, there used to be dirtside frontiers. Every time new territory was found, you always got three phenomena: traders ranging out ahead and taking their chances, outlaws preying on the honest men — and a traffic in slaves. It happens the same way today, when we’re pushing through space instead of across oceans and prairies. Frontier traders are adventurers taking great risks for great profits. Outlaws, whether hill bands or sea pirates or the raiders in space, crop up in any area not under police protection. Both are temporary. But slavery is another matter — the most vicious habit humans fall into and the hardest to break. It starts up in every new land and it’s terribly hard to root out. After a culture falls ill of it, it gets rooted in the economic system and laws, in men’s habits and attitudes. You abolish it; you drive it underground — there it lurks, ready to spring up again, in the minds of people who think it is their ‘natural’ right to own other people. You can’t reason with them; you can kill them but you can’t change their minds.”

I bet that last sentence went over well in Dixie.

Let us focus not on how the main slave-based society is the one explicitly founded from India and dwell more on the part where they get their slaves in part thanks to the hard working people of the Hegemony, whose great companies -or at least high ranking officials thereof – are more than willing to turn a blind eye to abuses in the name of profits.

Interestingly, Heinlein goes out of his way not to link Weemsby and his minion Judge Bruder, Thorby’s main antagonists in the final section, to the slave trader or to the assassination of Thorby’s parents. Weemsby and Bruder are just in it to keep the power they got after Thorby’s parents were murdered:

“Status”… Uncle Jack had high status and was fighting to keep it. Thorby felt that he understood him at last. Uncle Jack put up with the overwork he complained about because he liked being boss — just as captains and chief officers worked themselves silly, even though every member of a Free Trader family owned the same share. Uncle Jack was “chief officer” and didn’t intend to surrender his supreme status to someone a third of his age who (let’s face it!) wasn’t competent for the work the status required.

Not everything is connected to the Big Plot.

I couldn’t work out how the economics of interstellar travel work, except it’s cheap. One thing I could tell is that Heinlein’s brief flirtation with embracing relativity in Time for the Stars was just that, brief. Ships in this explicitly accelerate up to and past the speed of light:

But a ship which speeds up by a kilometer per second each second will take three and one half standard days to reach speed-of-light.

It’s also probably best not to think about stuff like how much power the Sisu has to be generating or anything like that. Citizen is a space opera as hard as Jell-O flavoured gelatin dessert and it makes as much sense to worry about the gritty details as it does trying to make sense of Ray Bradbury’s rocket science.

I probably should discuss the relationship between this book and Kipling’s Kim but since I have not read Kim, I cannot.

Unless Have Space Suit, Will Travel really surprises me, I would have to say that this is my favourite of the Heinlein juveniles. It’s true there are aspects I didn’t like but some of them show Heinlein is at least trying, rather than settling for assembling stock adventure elements. I particularly like how Citizen of the Galaxy is four books in one1: a spy novel like an episode from Escape, what appears to be an Andre Norton-style Free Trader novel, a barracks novel and a boardroom thriller. If you don’t like the part you are reading, take heart! Another entirely different one will be along soon enough.

Citizen of the Galaxy is available in a variety of formats


  1. You didn’t think I would get through one of these without a footnote, did you?
    I expect a modern Citizen would spin this out into at least four novels, each one jam-packed with all the action of a novella.

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