Retro Review Citizen of the Galaxy

14 Apr

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.

-Citizen of the Galaxy

Robert A. Heinlein hated slavery.

It is odd, given just how many times he was lambasted on charges of racism, to realise just how deeply this shines through his work. The Puppet Masters, Logic of Empire, Farnham’s Freehold, Time Enough for Love … Heinlein changed his mind many times on many issues, but never on this. Slavery was, as he saw it, a great evil and he spared no words in railing against it, detailing in great detail the horrors inflicted on both the slaves and their masters. I suspect this earned him very few friends in Dixie. Slavery was long gone by the time Heinlein was born, but the myth of the Lost Cause – and happiness in slavery – was still going strong.

And, in Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein puts forward his strongest argument against slavery and the slave trade.

Citizen of the Galaxy is probably best divided into four sections. In the first, a young boy – Thorby – is purchased as a slave by Baslim the Cripple, a beggar on a vaguely Islamic world and taught the trade of begging for food and money. As he grows older, he slowly comes to realise that there is more to Baslim than appears, a realisation that comes just before his ‘father’ is arrested by the secret police and brutally hanged. Fortunately, Baslim is owed a great debt by the Free Traders – a society of interstellar merchants – and Thorby is taken onboard one of their ships before he can be hanged too.

This kicks off the second part of the story, as Thorby – aided by an interstellar anthropologist – is adopted into the Free Traders and starts carving out a place amongst them. It’s a difficult task, made harder by the fact their society is both highly restrictive and extremely secretive about what the rules actually are. Thorby starts to fit in, only to discover that the Traders – and his second adopted father – intend to pass him on to his next place as soon as possible. And so … Thorby joins the Terran Hegemony Guard as an enlisted spacer. This eventually leads to Thorby’s true identity being revealed.

Thorby, it seems, is none other than the long-lost heir to one of the largest interstellar shipping corporations in space. This would seem like good news, except Thorby finds himself grappling with his uncle for control – he may own the company, but his uncle controls it – and has to mount what is, in effect, a legal insurrection to get what is his by birthright. With the help of Leda, a distant cousin, he ends the book in control of the company, slowly trying to clean the slavers out of the business … and ruefully aware that, in some ways, he’s just as much a slave to the company as he was to his first owners. But at least he can do something that might, eventually, put matters to rights.

Although Citizen of the Galaxy is generally regarded as one of Heinlein’s juvenile books, it is very different from the others. It is, at base, the story of a young man who moves from society to society, barely having a chance to learn the ropes before he is forcibly moved to the next. (Thorby apparently has very little agency in his life, a piece of fridge brilliance I missed on the first read-through.) Beneath it, it is also the story of four very different societies; the slave culture of the Nine Worlds, the Free Traders, the Guards and the Corporation. As Thorby grows older, he becomes more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of all four – and, in their own way, how they both empower and restrict their people.

This includes a certain mixture of both open and covert slavery. The Nine Worlds is as open and honest about its true nature as the slaveowners of Dixie; slaves are traded openly, regularly abused and have no right of appeal. An escaped slave will be tracked down and mutilated, if caught. The Free Traders, by contrast, are both the freest society in space and the least free. Their freedom in space is bought by a regimented social system that trades women from ship to ship and cares little for individual freedom. Heinlein paints a curious picture of a society that is both led by women – I think it’s the only example of a matriarchy in Heinlein’s works – and terrifyingly oppressive to women. And men don’t have it much better. The Guard is a standard military organisation, with the great redeeming point that every man is a volunteer; the Corporation (and the world of the mega-rich on Earth) is both immensely luxurious and just as trapped by social norms as the Nine Worlds.

Indeed, the further Thorby travels from the Nine Worlds, the harder it is to convince people that he was once a slave. A crewman on his ship is the first to question him, openly challenging his story, but he is far from the worst. People on Earth simply don’t believe the stories about slavery and, when his grandparents realise what he was doing to survive, they are inclined to see him as letting the side down … rather than accepting that Thorby was lucky not to have to do something much worse to survive. Part of the reason that such horrors endure is that people simply don’t believe they exist. It is a problem that has an uneasy resonance in our society.

Thorby himself is an odd duck. He is clever, but in some ways he is more of an idiot savant than a genuinely brilliant person. (That said, he has moments of remarkable insight into some characters, most notably his uncle.) Like most of the other Heinlein heroes of the juvenile books, he knows nothing about sex (possibly because his mentor steered him away from emotional entanglements) and doesn’t understand the girls making passes at him or why his body is responding to them; unlike the others, he is at least allowed to feel attraction to the girls. He sometimes needs to have things explained to him that should be immediately obvious. I’m tempted to declare that he’s autistic.

The other characters are a curious mix of stock and strikingly unusual. Baslim seems nothing more than a beggar at first, with his true nature as an interstellar spy only revealed in hindsight. The Free Traders and the Guard are, in many ways, stock characters, although – as always when Heinlein uses stock characters – they are drawn from life. And Thorby’s Uncle is, in many ways, both; he’s a ruthless businessman, but he isn’t actually evil. (I was expecting him to be the evil mastermind; apparently not.) Even Thorby concedes that his uncle has a point – it isn’t remotely fair that his uncle should have worked hard for power and position, only to have everything thrown into doubt and eventually lost by sheer random chance. Why should he want to surrender control to Thorby?

As always, the book has drawn accusations of sexism. That is a difficult charge to sustain, although there may be some meat to it. The Nine Worlds puts women in one box, the Free Traders puts them in a slightly better box, the Guard appears to be male-only (to the point where Thorby wryly notes that the corps missed an excellent recruit in Leda) and Earth may put women in a box. Leda’s uncle is quite dismissive of her, not entirely without reason; it is not to Thorby’s credit that he echoes this attitude at the end of the book. If you like Thorby, and Heinlein goes out of his way to make Thorby likable, Leda is a heroine; if you’re not so impressed with Thorby, you might wonder if Leda really did the right thing. Arguably, she didn’t.

The book, like Starman Jones, features women trying to hide their intellect from men. (For once, the main character notices this even if he doesn’t understand why.) It’s an odd point and, justifiably, has drawn fire from critics. That said, there is a logic to it – as I will discuss later – that Heinlein probably couldn’t bring out in the pages of a juvenile. An intelligent women isn’t a bad thing, as far as most men are concerned, but a woman – or anyone, really – who lords it over a man is. Men want to be comfortable with their wives, not feeling constantly challenged or put down. The instinctive male response to a challenge is to see a threat, not a potential partner. This isn’t a point many people want to hear – and it is often deliberately misinterpreted – but it is often true.

Citizen of the Galaxy is more honest about sex and attraction than any of the other juveniles, as I have mentioned above, although it is still remarkably clean. Thorby’s sheer lack of sexual knowledge strikes me as a little unrealistic, for someone who was brought up in a slave society. But then, as someone who knew that people could be bought and sold, he might be leery of allowing himself to develop too many attachments.

Overall, Citizen of the Galaxy is certainly the most unusual of Heinlein’s juvenile books and, like most of them, it has aged fairly well. It presents the horrors of slavery in a manner youngsters can understand, without details that might turn off their parents; it shows how different societies can have different ideas of right and wrong (and how one society can seem natural and right to insiders while also horrific and evil to outsiders); it shows how people who are insulated from horror can pretend it doesn’t exist and, perhaps most importantly of all in an era of instant gratification, that not everything can be solved instantly. Ignore the poor science, please: Citizen of the Galaxy is a book worth reading.

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12 Responses to “Retro Review Citizen of the Galaxy”

  1. Charles Harris April 14, 2018 at 4:19 pm #

    “… brutally hanged.”

    My memory may be faulty — I read the novel when it was serialized — but wasn’t Baslim “shortened”? That doesn’t suggest hanging.

  2. Dani April 14, 2018 at 4:50 pm #

    It’s not clear why Thorby would want to take over the corporation, why it would be beneficial, or why people would want him to. Starting with the last, if you were an Exxon shareholder, would the knowledge that someone was a long-lost Rockefeller make you want him to be the CEO? And the claim is not made, in the book, that Thorby would provide the corporation with better leadership.

    At one point a theory is floated that elements of the corporation might be facilitating piracy. There is no evidence to speak of, but it provides an implicit justification, and a tie-in to the rest of the book: If Thorby is in charge, he will be in a position to investigate, or at least look for better oversight.

    In terms of character and story logic, Thorby’s stockholder rebellion actually stems from his uncle’s error in judgment in not dealing with Thorby openly.

    • chrishanger April 15, 2018 at 8:11 am #

      I think Heinlein left that vague, deliberately.

      There’s no sense that his uncle is involved in slavery (although he does make an attempt to con Thorby into leaving him in charge.) I can make a good argument that the uncle SHOULD have been left in charge, even though he’s an asshole . And the stockholders would certainly have backed him up, as he’s a better pair of hands than an unrested boy. Heinlein might well have wanted us to wonder if Thorby and Leda did the right thing.

      Chris

    • sam57l0 April 17, 2018 at 1:56 am #

      As I read it, one of those uncles had space pirates capture the ship Thorby and his parents were on. Thorby finally twigged to that.

  3. G April 14, 2018 at 6:05 pm #

    I believe Thorby inherited roughly 46% of voting control of the corporation, and his uncle tried to trick him into permanently signing away his voting rights to him, depriving him of his inheritance. Thorby also wanted to help elimanate slavery…I loved the book, I just wish it had gone on longer, it ended abruptly.

    Any update of The Princess in the Tower??

  4. William Ameling April 14, 2018 at 9:22 pm #

    First, Baslim poisoned hinself before he could be captured and questioned, then after his death he was beheaded and his head displayed in a place that shows the results of that “system of justice”. Thorby was being sought so that they could question him for more information about what Baslim was doing, and who his contacts/sources/ etc were.

    One thing that I missed as a young reader of Citizen of the Galaxy, is the person Thorby goes to for help after Baslim’s death and who helps him escape to the Free Trader ship, is obviously (to me now as an adult) the madam of a brothel, some of whose customers were young men from the Free Trader ship he ends up on. This was NOT made explicitly clear in the text of the story, but is easy to infer.

    The Free Traders have a problem that all multi generational groups of people who are moving around a lot, e.g. on wide ranging groups of merchants, often on ships of some kind, have. That problem is avoiding inbredding, i.e. marriage of closely related people and the problems that causes with their children. They solved it by having a dual split social structure on their ships, one side is basicly the adults and children native to the Clan that owns and runs the ship. Newcomers, are normally on the second side. Thorby being adopted by the captain of the ship was a very rare exception. The other side is basicly people from other Ships/Clans that have changed ships and that are the ONLY people that the first side are ALLOWED to marry by many social mechanisms and customs. The second side is mostly is mostly women who have been traded/exchanged between ships, i.e. there is a two way exchange of women who will be looking for husbands on the new ship and vice versa, husbands looking for brides amongst the newcomers. There might be some occasional men on that side, that a woman from the first side could marry. Things are more complicated, without us getting a lot of details, when one or two or multiple ships join together to start a new Ship/Clan. But avoiding inbredding is paramount.

    Because of the importance of avoiding inbredding, these social customs are Very Strong. However, the Head of the Clan is a Matriarch who is the Mother (usually) (or wife of the previous Captain) or wife of the ship’s current Captain, which normally means that she is one of the exchanged brides who married well and helped advance her husband in the command structure of the ship. That Husband (potential Captain) is probably a son or nephew (or closely related to) of the previous Captain (things are variable here). (I suppose in theory a man could move to a new ship and marry a daughter of the ship’s Captain, and then eventually end up the new Captain of the ship, but I doubt that it happened often). (If Citizen of the Galaxy was written today, exchanges of men between the ships might have been more common, and women would have more options, but even so the restrictions on marriage would probably still be there).

    Even for things like the people who ran the anti pirate missile defenses of the ships (who were both male and female with a lot of mathematical abilities and able to use advanced computers and control the missiles), the dual organization of the ship was maintained. By today’s standards those computer/fire control systems are very primitive.

    They also had a once every 10 year gathering of most of the Free Trader Ships during which a lot of politicking, trading, starting new ships, and exchanges of potential brides goes on. Ships that could split on their own to form a second ship had a higher reputation amongst the Clans, but it was hard to do successfully. It was more normally a joint effort.

    One thing that was interesting about the first section was how highly trained and educated Thorby was by Baslim, multiple languages (I think it might have been at least 7), mathematical abilities, working as an agent in a hostile society, memorizing and reading large amounts information, particularly coded messages, etc.The results of that training and education affect what Thorby does (is able to do) in the remaining three sections of the story.

  5. Dennis Caro April 14, 2018 at 11:31 pm #

    Brought back memories. I read this when it was first published… yes I’m that old 🙂 . A suggestion: I’m going to Amazon to look for a kindle edition of the book. If you had a link here on your site to that book would it generate any revenue for you?
    All the best

    • chrishanger April 16, 2018 at 5:26 pm #

      Probably not – I don’t have the time ATM to set them up.

      Chris

  6. William Ameling April 15, 2018 at 2:11 am #

    I first read Citizen in the middle 1960s, probably when I was in Junior High School (perhaps 5th or 6th grade), which would have been 6 to 10 years after it was published, from the local public library. Like most books from that time period, their vision of what advanced computers could do was limited. The most advanced I can recall from the early 1960s was in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and that was written about 4 or 5 years after Citizen.

    • sam57l0 April 17, 2018 at 2:02 am #

      I first read the book 3-5 years ago. Somehow I’d missed it before.

  7. Gene Roberts April 15, 2018 at 8:45 pm #

    Any status on The devil and the deep blue sea

    • chrishanger April 16, 2018 at 5:26 pm #

      Not as yet. Irritatingly, I had to junk the old plot.

      Chris

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