Tag Archive for Robert A. Heinlein

A Review of Citizen of the Galaxy

Citizen of the Galaxy Cover

Published in 1957 by Charles Scribner’s sons and copyrighted that same year by Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy is the tenth of the Heinlein Juveniles and takes place in a far distant future where humankind has spread widely through the Galaxy. Probably around age ten or twelve at the beginning of the story, Thorby, the main character, is a boy, who lives on a planet where despite being set far in the future, the social organization resembles that of ancient Babylon.

The story opens at a slave auction where Thorby is the object of the bidding. In a scene that is both disgusting and comical, Thorby finds himself sold to an almost penniless beggar named Baslim and his new master appears to be only one step above slavery himself. The first part of the story concerns the evolution of a master-slave relationship into a father-son relationship during which Thorby discovers that Baslim the beggar is not what he seems. As time passes and Thorby grows into a teenager, Baslim gives him messages to deliver to people around the spaceport near where they live. He gradually suspects that Baslim is engaged in some sort of covert activity but doesn’t learn the exact nature of that activity until much later in the story. Baslim utilizes hypnosis to give Thorby a complex set of instructions to be used in the event that anything should happen to him.  When Baslim disappears, Thorby carries out the instructions and after several suspenseful brushes with danger, finds himself aboard an outward bound starship named Sisu.

Thorby’s education continues aboard Sisu. Run by a family of interstellar traders whom he learns owed Baslim a large debt, Thorby is taken in as a repayment for that debt. The family was a member of a larger group of traders who call themselves simply the people, and who regard themselves as culturally superior to the populations of the various planets with whom they trade and to whom they refer as fraki. The ship also bristles with weapons as insurance against attacks by pirates and Thorby spends the next two years in the Sisu learning to become a first class fire control officer. During this time he also receives an excellent cultural education from an anthropologist who happens to be traveling with the ship to study their society. Eventually, Sisu meets up with a ship of the elite space guard and through a convoluted series of events, Thorby learns that like Baslim, he isn’t what he appears to be.

With a point of view first seen from the perspective of a pre-teen child, this book is a departure from the other juveniles in which the protagonists are usually several years older. We get to see Thorby grow and mature under Baslim’s guidance. Heinlein establishes that he believed in the importance of environment on human development by showing that when treated as a worthless slave during his formative years, that is what Thorby became. In a similar vein, as Baslim worked to educate and instill a sense of personal pride in him, Thorby gradually ceased to think like a slave, even though the local social structure required that he continue to act like one. The possibility and value of self-improvement is a recurrent theme throughout the Heinlein Juveniles.

In addition, slavery as an abhorrent but persistent institution is one of the main themes of this novel. Heinlein clearly recognized it, identified it in its many forms and just as clearly hated it. Slavery is there on the first page of the book as well as the last and I am convinced that Heinlein did not regard slavery as a dead institution, else why write it into a story set in a distant future? He knew that slavery existed even in his then modern world of the 1950’s, even as it still does today. While he often metaphorically referred to the communist nations as slave states, the slavery he describes in this novel is the real thing, complete with ownership papers that describe the slave as property and a tattoo on the slave to mark his place in society.

Personal and family loyalty is another theme that Heinlein addressed in this book. Thorby feels loyalty to Baslim and a need to follow his instructions long after he knew he was dead. He finds himself faced with a challenge when those instructions conflict with the new loyalty he feels for his adopted family and with his own desires. Later in the story, the issue comes up again when he discovers his true identity and is presented with a choice between resuming the role he was born to, or pursuing a course of his own making. How Thorby resolves this final conflict is the climax of the book and I will allow the reader to enjoy the discovery.

On the scientific side, sleep learning and hypnosis are used by Baslim as methods of training Thorby, and also of sending a message that uses Thorby as the unwitting messenger. Such techniques have since been largely discredited, but at the time this book was written, were considered by many to be cutting edge science. Heinlein also makes computers a primary method of navigation and fire control for Sisu, even though at the time this book was written, computers were still glorified adding machines that filled up entire buildings, were fragile and temperamental. He presciently foresaw that they would increase in power and reliability while decreasing in size. A weapon used by slavers to paralyze the occupants of a starship is another invention that Heinlein proposes. While seeming far-fetched at first glance, such weapons are currently under study by our own defense department. Finally, the Sisu utilized fusion power for its propulsion and made use of the space/time anomalies postulated by Einstein that we now call wormholes. As always, Heinlein’s science was right at the edge.

This is an outstanding book and it operates effectively on several levels. If none of the other elements I described earlier were present, as a coming of age story with only the psychological themes, it would still be a good tale. But with those themes present this is a great tale. If you like action and suspense woven into a realistic and human story, this book is for you.


A Review of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein

Farnham’s Freehold was copyrighted in 1964 by Robert A. Heinlein and published that same year by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York. Initially set in the time in which it was written, at the height of the Cold War, in typical Heinlein fashion, this book starts off with a bang as the main character, Hugh Farnham and his family were blasted 2000 years into the future by a Russian atomic bomb. They survived the event because Hugh had the foresight to build a bomb shelter under his home. How the family adapted to this strange new world of the future constitutes the bulk of the novel.

Staying alive was their first priority and Hugh packed the shelter with everything he thought they would need to live after a nuclear war. But once in the event, it turned out that they needed to improvise-and some of their improvisations were quite ingenious. For example, Heinlein described how they constructed an irrigation canal using a homemade transit of the type employed by the ancient Egyptians to ensure the proper slope; and, how they lined it with clay tiles similar to what the Romans used in their aqueducts. Their 250 ton steel re-enforced concrete bomb shelter had been tilted on an angle by the bomb blast. Using tools and techniques first developed by the ancient Egyptians to erect their monuments, the Farnhams were able to re-level the heavy structure without any power equipment.

Compounding the practical problems, Hugh had to deal with conflicts within the family. In addition to his wife, Grace, Hugh had two children: Duke, his grown son and Karen his college age daughter. There were also two others who were not actually blood relatives: Barbara, a friend of Karen who happened to be staying with them at the time of the attack, and Joe, their African American hired man. Early on, Grace and Duke attempted to gang up on Hugh in a struggle for power. However, everyone else had confidence in Hugh’s leadership, sided with him, and Hugh prevailed. But the conflict remained barely beneath the surface for the rest of the story, erupting on several occasions.

After six months of carving out a homestead, planting and irrigating a garden and successfully working out a division of labor; despite their differences, the extended Farnham household seemed destined to prosper. Heinlein had a surprise for them, however. Unfortunately, their homestead was located in the private game preserve of a heretofore unseen landlord. This landlord was a member of The Chosen, the people who had inherited the Earth after the European and Asian races had all but wiped each other out in the nuclear war, and they were descendents of Black Africans. The Chosen now held the remaining light skinned people of North America in slavery. The landlord, whose nickname was Ponse, had the homestead destroyed and the Farnham clan was carried off into bondage. How this was resolved, I’ll allow readers to discover for themselves.

Heinlein uses irony with great skill in this story. The reversal of the relative status of the black and white races is only the most obvious. There are numerous subtle ironies within this over arching one. The Chosen, who in this story were Moslems, proved to be just as ruthless as the white Christian slave owners were in their time and equally hypocritical in their religious justifications. Joe, who in his own time was a second class citizen, suddenly found himself one of The Chosen, while Hugh, his former employer, became a slave. There are many more such ironies for the reader to discover: some are funny and some are not so funny.

As social commentary, this book is a Heinlein tour de force. He addresses racism, a dysfunctional family, sexual liberation, adultery, property rights, religion, intellectual freedom, methods of leadership in a crisis, the Cold War, and human rights in general. And, despite the doomsday backdrop of the story, he does all of this in a way that leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the future of the Farnhams and of the human race.

Star Trek, Star Wars, or Zardoz?

What is humanities’ future in space if any?

On another list, the question was raised about the future of humans in space and several movie versions were suggested. My thoughts on these follow. If anyone wants to argue, take offense or agree, please feel free to comment.

I think the Star Trek vision is still too Earth bound, too reflective of our own forms and biases. The aliens in Star Trek, Whatever Generation are simply reflections of ourselves. They are not aliens. The Vulcans are simply the logical and rational sides of ourselves; the Klingons are our greedy and rapacious side, while all of the other aliens are simply character actors in morality plays.  It is a great series, but it is not particularly visionary.

Star Wars tries to be big, but ends up being small. It is Shogun in space.  Jedi-Samurai, endless intrigues with double and triple crosses, good guys become bad guys become good guys and so on. It is great fun but visionary about human space flight it is not.

Zardoz is a total downer. This is science fiction at its worst. It is The Sun Also Rises without the happy ending.

I see human space flight, exploration and colonization as the dawn of a new age. Those who go will be optimists. The kind of people who looked at the New World as an opportunity to be grasped rather than a mystery to be feared. We will take all of our faults and foibles with us, of course, but the tip of the spear will be sharp and we will embark on a great adventure. Those new folks, the lunar and Mars colonists, the ones born and raised there, will see the universe through different eyes. Where we see limits, they will see opportunities. I am quite optimistic. The only movie I can think of that captures this spirit isn’t science fiction at all, it is Centennial, a mini-series about the settling of a town in Colorado that begins with the Native Americans who settled there first, to the trappers and mountain men, the cattlemen, farmers and follows through to the present day. That is our future in colonizing the solar system.

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky

Copyrighted in 1955, Tunnel in the Sky is the 9th of the Heinlein juveniles and it is noteworthy in several respects. First, while it is set in the future and on another planet, the bulk of the novel isn’t really science fiction at all, it is more of a survival tale. Second, while some of the story involves Robinson Crusoe type details on improvising basic technology, a major portion of it is social and political commentary made through the actions and statements of the characters. And third, the protagonist, Rod Walker, is black.

In this future, the Ramsbotham Jump has made interstellar travel as simple as passing through a doorway: on one side you are on Earth, step to the other side and you are on another planet in another star system. This is how Rod Walker and his classmates travelled to another planet for the final exam of their high school course in survival. What they didn’t know was that a fluke in the form of a stellar nova, short-circuited the gate they had just passed through and left them stranded. A trip that should have been several days long, lasted for two years. Heinlein turns how Rod and the others survived their stay on this strange planet into a fascinating tale.

While the clues are often subtle, this is probably the Heinlein juvenile with the most social commentary.  Sex and race are irrelevant to the job of surviving on this dangerous planet and Heinlein treats them that way. After having spent several days alone, and after having been ambushed and robbed by an unknown assailant, Rod met Jack Daudet, who allowed Rod to share his own shelter in a cave. A few days later while hunting, they met Jimmy Throxton who joined them as well. It is after Jimmy was there that Rod discovered that Jack was really Jackie: a girl. Heinlein uses this clever plot twist to drive home the point that men and women are equal, and particularly so in this extremity.

Gradually their colony grew with students similarly stranded until it reached a population of about 75. They constructed a village with a stockade to keep out predators and Rod emerged as the ex officio leader of the group.  At this point it was decided that they needed some sort of government so the group elected a mayor for the settlement. The mayor-elect was an older student who proposed holding the election in the first place. Heinlein uses this micro-society to explore the advantages and disadvantages of democracy and those of the very concept of government itself, while Rod discovered that politics trumps ability every time.

Heinlein treats race, sex and ethnicity as irrelevant in this book.  While this is a diverse group, the surnames of the characters are the only clues we have to place any of them into an identity group. One character, Caroline Mshiyeni, has a clearly East African surname and was seen by the other members of the group as natural girlfriend and possible wife for Rod. In the context of 1955 society, the implication here is clear: Rod must be of African descent himself. At that time, what was termed miscegenation, or interracial marriage, was not only frowned upon by the society that would be reading this book, it was illegal in about a dozen states. Therefore, looking through the lens of the mores of the mid-1950’s, the implication is that Rod is black. To drop a subtle clue like this is typical of Heinlein. He could not state that his main character was black. His editors would have rejected the story out of hand. But he could imply it to the readers sharp enough to pick up the clues. Similarly, as I noted earlier, while he could not state that men and women were absolute equals; with the Jack to Jackie transformation he could show it to be true.

The story also depicts how the young people strived over the two years or so that they were stranded on that planet to build a decent society and civilization. They dealt successfully with outlaws and crime, made the tools and equipment necessary for life, planted and raised crops, hunted in an organized way and married. They formed a government, however imperfect and dealt successfully with an environmental threat that could have consumed them.

This book moves right along and has the constant tension created by the “man on the edge of survival” situation Rod and his fellows find themselves in.  Tunnel in the Sky is an optimistic book about the strength, resilience and basic decency of human nature. While there were villains and low life characters, they were a minority and were ultimately killed or exiled by the strong and decent majority. It is telling that at about this same time William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was published. His book placed a group of young people in a similar survival situation, but with much less exemplary results: they degenerated into predatory animals. Naturally, Golding’s dark book was a success among the cynical critics. On the other hand, if you are looking for an upbeat page turner for the weekend, this is your book.

Review of The Star Beast

The Star Beast was copyrighted in 1954 by Robert A. Heinlein and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in that same year. This is the first of the juveniles to have no interior illustrations, but the cover art and title page were done by Clifford Geary. Because of the lack of illustrations, for the video montage portion of this review, I will use the some of the cover art of the many editions of this book that have been published. This is the eighth of the juveniles and as it was with all of the previous books, the plot and characters are unique. Set in the 22nd century, the book has two distinct story lines, lines that eventually intersect, and the point of view changes among the several characters that populate these story lines. This is an interesting plot device and allows Heinlein to build suspense as the reader tries to anticipate how and when the two plots lines will meet.

The first story line probably takes place in Colorado, although that is never stated, and has three principal characters. Lummox, the title character, is an alien brought to Earth by the great grandfather of the book’s ostensible main character, John Thomas Stuart XII. John Thomas is a teen aged boy who takes care of Lummox and tries with limited success to keep the beast out of trouble. Lummox, who was small enough to fit in a jump bag when brought to Earth, has grown to the size of a medium tank and is just about as tough. The close relationship of the two and their loyalty to each other is a crucial part of the story. John Thomas also has a friend, Betty Sorenson, who plays an important role in this book, even though the point of view is never centered on her. Like Lummox, Betty is loyal to John Thomas and tries to look out for him, and while John Thomas seems oblivious to the romantic implications of their relationship, Betty is not.

The second story line takes place in the Federation Capital, the location of which is not stated but in other Heinlein books is in Nassau. There are two main characters in this line and both have the point of view at various times. Henry Gladstone Kiku, OBE, Permanent Undersecretary for Spatial Affairs, is one of the most powerful men in the Federation. Sergei Greenberg is his go-to assistant and is assigned all the hard jobs, because he gets them done. As the story develops, the two men are involved in some tricky negotiations with a newly discovered alien race called the Hroshii. I’ll allow the reader to discover how this seemingly unrelated plotline eventually intersects with the one in Colorado, but it is through circumstances that only Heinlein could make believable. As a character, Kiku is especially noteworthy because he is from Kenya and is black. In 1954, one simply did not depict black men in such roles and if this had not been science fiction, I doubt if any editor from a major house would have approved it. Heinlein, always a step ahead, would cross the color line again in another of the juveniles.

The double plot lines make this an intricate novel, more so than the previous juveniles, but with well developed, believable and likeable characters as well as non-stop action, Heinlein carries it off.  The book is readable and never boring. As with his other works, Heinlein does not indulge in the poetic descriptions of scenery and characters that impresses critics and professors of literature. Rather, we learn about the characters by watching what they do. The Star Beast is another masterpiece by the original dean of science fiction.