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Citizen of the Galaxy Paperback – May 17, 2005
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About the Author
Robert A. Heinlein, four-time winner of the Hugo Award and recipient of three Retro Hugos, received the first Grand Master Nebula Award for lifetime achievement. His worldwide bestsellers have been translated into 22 languages and include Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, Time Enough for Love, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. His long-lost first novel, For Us, the Living, was recently published by Scribner and Pocket Books.
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The Future History stories are pretty interesting, as are "Starship Troopers," "Double Star," and other earlier works, despite whiffs of sexism and racism that go deeper than the expected prejudices of the time ("Orphans of the Sky" treats women like disposable livestock).
But there is absolutely no question that Heinlein brought a snappy, writerly sensibility to the field, and his writing and characters (pre-"Mistress," for the most part, at any rate) are lively, richly textured and clever. Like Hemingway and The Beatles, one may not like Heinlein, but one has to acknowledge that he utterly revolutionized his chosen field of artistic endeavor. In that, he was brilliant.
I'd never sampled the juveniles as a kid, instead weaning on Clarke, Bradbury and Le Guin. But I've read a handful of them as an adult and honestly, they may constitute the best work Heinlein ever did. I've just finished "Citizen of the Galaxy" and I place it at the head of the class of the juveniles.
Where in his latter career Heinlein lectured and badgered the reader with his insistence on the correctness of his ideas, "Citizen" is a deeply moral, adventurous, fast-paced and appealing exploration of the broad idea of freedom, seen through various lenses. We see the protagonist, Thorby, as a downtrodden slave; then slave to a more-than-benevolent, if hard-driving, master, Baslim the Cripple; then member of a family of interstellar Free Traders, who live within strictures of their own imposing; a member of the military (a life Heinlein, a Navy veteran, clearly sees as something of an ideal); and finally, living a "dream" life as an impossibly wealthy — but not powerful — heir who is willing to put his comfort and privilege on the line to fight for the freedom of people he does not know.
It seems clear today that faster-than-light travel lies beyond the realm of possibility, but Heinlein offers a shorthand — "rational" and "irrational" space — that, while never explained, just has the feel of plausibility. He is, nearly two decades on from "Orphans," willing to present strong, smart female characters, such as Thorby's cousin Leda and the matriarch of the Free Trader ship, with only the occasional, and slight, resort to sexism.
And while there is a pretty convincing case to be made that some of Heinlein's works, notably "The Sixth Column" and "Farnham's Freehold," are noxiously racist, "Citizen of the Galaxy" is a full-throated, unreserved condemnation of slavery of all kinds. Where "Starship Troopers" begins to verge on late-Heinlein-style lecturing about the military and the duties of citizens, "Citizen" presents an argument against pacifism and a case for ethics and sacrifice with much less bluster, making them far less dyspeptic — and consequently, more thought-provoking.
This is a great book. Although it's considered a "juvenile," perhaps by virtue of its young protagonist, it's a smart, mature book — it even hints at sex! — that is far less "young adult" than many alleged SF classics (think "Ender's Game").
It's too bad Heinlein went down the road he did. Had he progressed, instead, along the lines of "Citizen of the Galaxy," there's no telling what classics he might have penned.
Later, Baslim calls in some favors and sends Thorby to live with the Free Traders, a group of space merchants that keep to themselves with their own unique culture. Here Thorby discovers another aspect of freedom: a person's ability to do as he wishes is severely constrained by the culture in which he lives. The Free Trader society (which owes much to Margaret Mead's seminal ideas, and highlighted by an anthropologist character named Margaret Mader - Heinlein was not usually so obvious with his names) of rigid matriarchal domination and separation into moieties provides security, peace of mind, and the ability through rigid rules of formalism to allow a small group of people to live together for extended periods without breaking any heads, but has as its downside great limitations on freedom of choice. This section of the book may be the best part, as the society is so different from today's American culture that it becomes fascinating in its own right, apart from its effects on Thorby. Thorby himself grows and changes significantly in this part of the book, from first love to determining just how he must balance the demands of duty and personal desires.
The last section deals with Thorby back on Earth, within a society not much different from our own, and shows a third aspect of freedom: the internal courageousness to make your own decisions and act upon them. Freedom is just as constrained by internal timidity and/or defining decisions as by external forces. As this last section offers little in terms of new or different views of society (though it is a good mirror of some of the flaws of a capitalistic/lawyer dominated one), it isn't as engrossing as the first two sections, but is highly important in terms of completing Heinlein's thematic investigation of all aspects of freedom.
Characterization other than Thorby and Baslim is pretty thin, especially for the females that appear in supporting roles. This was fairly typical for his juveniles, as they were basically strong adventure novels with their primary focus on their central character. But the thematic line on slavery/freedom is much stronger here than most of his messages in other books, and as this particular position is also stated in some of those other works (most especially Farnham's Freehold), has to be seen as one of Heinlein's personal beliefs (unlike some other positions he proposes in his books that seem mainly designed to stir up debate).
This book is not Heinlein's absolute best, nor even the best of his so-called 'juveniles' (which are typically better reading than most 'adult' mainstream bestsellers), but still provides an engrossing, fun, and illuminating read. Recommended for all readers willing to look at life styles different from their own.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)