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.