Review of Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)


Robert A. Heinlein (writer).

Read in 2018.

The steady rise of the protagonist from slave to tycoon.

This is damn fine young-adult SF, the second-to-last of Heinlein’s juveniles. The escalation of the protagonist’s ability and status, while tritely wish-fulfilling for the reader, is neatly counterbalanced by the mental scars of slavery and Thorby’s deep humility, as well as the fact that he’s miserable as a tycoon. He stays on the high end of the ladder not because it gives him the material resources for his own Batman-like moral crusade but because the diffuse center of galactic capitalism, including his own company, is a driving factor of the moral problem he wants to combat: Some part of his family business of building spaceships is selling them to slavers, and even with FTL communications and benevolent leadership it is realistically hard to root out that corruption in an interplanetary system built to run on greed. The cultural elite lives in denial and complicity. That is good worldbuilding and it has aged remarkably well. Even the computers, which are developing apace, actually seem plausible. As Mark Yon once pointed out, it is amazing that Heinlein got this out before the launch of Sputnik. It is many steps up from Between Planets (1951), which is smaller in scale and deals with a “citizen of the system”, not the galaxy.

The grand sweep and moral charge are the stuff of Gray Lensman (1939) toned down, but the fundamental ideas are very different, and that comes through in all the nuances. There’s an anthropological kinship system for FTL free traders! The more immediate model for this story, Kipling’s Kim (1900), is naïve by comparison, revolving around both mysticism and imperial British bullshit. Heinlein improves on his predecessors, despite some sexism and unimaginative cultural associations: the slavers use quasi-oriental nomenclature (“-pore” from the Sanskrit pūra, meaning “city”) whereas the capitalists are New England Anglo types in a recognizable legal system. I particularly appreciate the anthropologist-sociologist Margaret’s point about the free traders—the People—not actually being free: That’s Heinlein formulating his libertarian obsession with unusual grace and intelligence through the mouth of an accomplished female scholar. The title of the novel refers to the same notion of basic freedom and responsibility. I also enjoyed the near-absence of violence, a nice surprise. The ending, however, is a weak courtroom drama.

References here: Star Trek (1966), “The Alternative Factor” (1967), Star Wars (1977).

text fiction