Lion of the Blogosphere

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein

Although it’s officially a “juvenile” novel, Citizen of the Galaxy is a much more adult story than a novel like Have Spacesuit Will Travel. There are a lot of votes for Spacesuit being one of Heinlein’s top juvenile novels, but I found Citizen to be a way better reading experience. Citizen was one of my favorite novels when I was a kid, and I’m glad to see that it’s held up so well. There’s a case to be made for Citizen being Heinlein’s best novel, period.

Because it’s such a great book, I will put the more detailed discussion below in case you intend to read it (which I recommend) and don’t want the plot spoiled for you.

Citizen covers the early life of Thorby, and the book is divided into four separate periods of his life:

(1) His life with Baslim, his adopted father and a licensed beggar on Jubbul, capital planet of the Nine Worlds.
(2) His life as a “Free Trader,” a society of spacefaring traders who live their entire lives on their spaceships.
(3) An enlisted man in the Hegemonic Guard (the shortest and least fleshed-out period)
(4) And finally, as the richest man in the Galaxy, after he discovers his true identity as the lost son of the deceased Mr. and Mrs. Rudbek.

One important theme of the book is slavery. Thorby starts the book as a slave, who is later freed by Baslim, although being freed doesn’t have any immediate or direct impact on his life. Unlike the utopian future predicted by Gene Roddenberry where everyone gets along and human rights are respected, Heinlein’s futures are a lot more dystopian. In this future, while slavery is illegal on Terra (and in fact, most people on Terra don’t believe that slavery is happening elsewhere), that’s not the case in the outer fringes of the colonized parts of the Galaxy.

The message from Heinlein is that men will become barbaric and evil without a strong central authority to keep them in check. There’s definitely a sort of irony in that Heinlein simultaneously preached libertarianism and the belief that everything would fall apart without military/police. There are a lot of blog commenters who get incredibly mad when I say that the world needs a police force and the United States is the only country that is in the position to supply that worldwide good, but I think that Heinlein would agree with me. The message in Citizen is that your own material comfort when you already have plenty should be subordinate to ridding the galaxy of slavery and other evils like that. The “Terran Hegemony’s” role as the strongest military power in the galaxy is meant to be analogous to the United States’ role as the strongest military power on Earth.

Thorby’s college-professor grandparents whom he meets on Earth represent the misguided liberals of Heinlein’s time. They are total peaceniks who believe that violence is always wrong, and refuse to believe that slavery is happening in the outer fringes of the galaxy. When Thorby explains that when a slaver ship is after you, you have no choice but to fire nuclear missiles at it and destroy it because the only alternative is being captured and sold into slavery, his grandparents refuse to believe the situation is as Thorby describes it.

A few years after Citizen, Heinlein would write Starship Troopers which is a pro-military novel, and Farnham’s Freehold which is a novel about slavery. It’s interesting that we see both of these themes in Citizen. However, the slavery in Citizen was not race-based slavery. Rather, anyone with the misfortune to be captured by slavers or be born into it were slaves regardless of their race.

In many Heinlein books, there is a grumpy old man or other authority figure who speaks with the voice of Heinlein. That’s mostly absent in this novel, although we can see a little of the Heinlein-avatar in Baslim, and surprisingly in the form of a female anthropologist Margaret Mader (a very obvious and thus satirical reference to famous real-world anthropologist Margaret Meade) who conveniently happens to be aboard the Free Trader Sisu so that Heinlein has a character who can tell the reader what to think about his future societies.

Margaret Mader warns Thorby that if he wants to be free of the Free Traders, he must leave before they marry him, otherwise he will be trapped in that life forever. The message is that even if you are in a situation you like, and aren’t officially a slave, you may still not be free. The Free Traders have a very rigid and hierarchical social structure, so one’s life aboard their spaceships is pretty restricted to what the higher-ups in the society say it should be. I wonder if there’s an analogy to having a cubicle job at a big corporation?

As an ode to one of Heinlein’s favorite topics in his later novels, incest, Thorby winds up marrying Leda, his first cousin once removed. This is as close as Heinlein can get to promoting incest in a book marketed to teenage boys.

Overall, I would rate the final period covered by the book, Thorby’s time on Earth, to be the weakest. It’s the least science-fictiony part of the book, and mostly Heinlein’s take on corporate shenanigans of the 1950s overlaid into the future, along with his belief that lawyers are money-grubbing parasites but sometimes you need the best lawyer no matter how much he charges.

The other purpose of Thorby’s earth-side adventures is a segue from a period in Thorby’s life where he relies on mentors to help him develop (Baslim, Captain Krausa of the Sisu) to a time when he’s now an adult on his own and needs to rely on himself, with the help of the wise advice he received earlier in his life.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

April 3, 2018 at EDT am

Posted in Books

15 Responses

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  1. I’m reading Space Cadet. There have been moments, but it hasn’t captured me like Orphans did.


    April 3, 2018 at EDT am

  2. Lion, ever play Civilization IV, Beyond the Sword? Best game of the series by far, which is now on number VI. I have probably spent more time on that game over the years than any other. Really fun game with city planning, war, and history of science elements to it.

    You can adjust the difficulty in ways that you don’t need to know the hundreds of separate rules at first to play, and as you do learn them you can make it harder so you always have about a 50% chance of beating the AI players.

    Even though the game is like 15 years old now, it still has an active message board and mod community.

    I like it even though I never could get into most other popular games in the same genre.


    April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Civ IV is my all-time favorite computer game.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

      • I was addicted to Civ 3 and Age of Empires in middle school. Other than Sim City and this obscure MMORPG called Subspace/Continuum, they were probably the only computer games I ever really got into.


        April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

      • Another pop-LtB parallel! I stopped for a few years after I could beat it easily on Monarch level. Going beyond that stopped being fun since to win required me to exploit every little AI weakness to overcome the huge handicap.

        Years later, I forgot so much of the game I can play it again on Prince level.


        April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Is Beyond the Sword an expansion of Civ IV? I played that game like crazy in 2004-05, but haven’t tried out any of the sequels since then. I loved trying to conquer all of the other nations with the Aztecs before they could advance too quickly. Something about the high-risk/high-reward strategy made that game tons of fun. I found it got boring towards the end of the game with the very technological advancements.


      April 4, 2018 at EDT am

  3. FEMALE active shooter currently at YouTube headquarters. Is she protesting the lack of females in tech?


    April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

  4. Wow, you make “Citizen” sound much better than it is. Your summary is way more insteresting than the book.

    One of the things I remember being disappointed by is that (if memory serves) the death of Baslim takes place offstage, and one keeps hoping that the report wasn’t real and that we’ll see him again. Way too much involving Baslim is told rather than shown.

    The last part of the novel — the wealthy corporate stuff — was extremely dull (you’ve certainly got that right), but so was the interlude on the Free Trader spaceship, which turns out to be mainly filler, a long unnecessary digression.

    Yeah, I’m happy you had a nice reading experience, and clearly you are particularly well primed to appreciate the philosophical and political message of a book like this… but I’m astonished to see you praise, with such enthusiasm, something so flawed.


    April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

  5. Is this as good as Farnham’s Freehold? I enjoyed that one quite a bit.


    April 3, 2018 at EDT pm

    • It’s not in the same category. COTG is a “juvenile” but FF is not. That said, I liked COTG more than FF.


      April 5, 2018 at EDT pm

  6. […] interesting ideas, it’s not as interesting or as mature as Citizen of the Galaxy which I’ve previously reviewed. But still one of Heinlein’s better “juveniles” and a recommended novel if you are looking for […]

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