Citizen of the Galaxy

I’ll never forget the first time I took a real book suggestion from my father. I was about twelve or thirteen, and he gave me Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. At the time, I’d never really read any science fiction — my taste tended more to fantasy and endless re-readings of Rebecca. I was skeptical, but I wished to please, so I sat on the couch and opened to the first page. An hour later, I’d torn through half the book and could not be coaxed to dinner. (He has since then introduced me to many other wonderful and carefully-chosen authors. Thanks, Dad!)

Heinlein and I have had a rocky relationship since then. I find his post-Stranger in a Strange Land bestsellers to be weird and bloated, more polemic than story. But his short stories (like the wonderful time-twisters “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies”) and his work for young adults are endlessly pleasing: tightly plotted, fascinating, serious about science without being heavy, well-characterized, and action-packed.

Citizen of the Galaxy is all those things. Just look at the first line:

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.”

And off we go. Thorby, lot ninety-seven, is knocked down for an insultingly low price to a beggar on one of the slave worlds of Sargon. This beggar, Baslim the Cripple, turns out to be much more than he appeared at first: he brings Thorby up to speak several languages, to know astronomy and galactography, and most of all, to remember all that he hears and sees. When Baslim — a father to Thorby, more than a master — is finally arrested by the Sargon police, Thorby must do a lot of growing up very quickly, and follow Baslim’s final instructions to the letter, as he joins in a galaxy-wide struggle to end slavery.

This book was terrific. It’s a fast read, but it has a little of everything: it’s a coming-of-age story, a fight against injustice, a spy novel, an anthropological study of at least three very different societies, a nice hard science-fiction piece, and a corporate thriller. Heinlein doesn’t waste a word or a moment. I was struck, reading, with how different this might have been in the hands of another (perhaps more modern) author. We don’t wallow in Thorby’s past, or in graphic descriptions of abuse or torture. We take it for granted that slavery is evil. With a few deft strokes, Heinlein lets us make our own decisions about characters, and moves on at the rapid pace of a star cruiser. What a crisp pleasure. I mentioned that this was one of Heinlein’s pieces suitable for adolescents, but it is very enjoyable for adults, and is recommended by Michael Dirda in his baker’s dozen of science fiction novels at the end of Bound to Please. Highly recommended (and so is Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

This entry was posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Citizen of the Galaxy

  1. Cara Powers says:

    Oh! I loved this book. My dad introduced me to Heinlein, too. I’ve read almost everything he has in print.

  2. Lightheaded says:

    I didn’t grok Stranger in a Strange Land much as I wanted to. Really. But I still have a lot of old Heinlein books here, particularly Job: A Comedy of Justice which somehow promises to be funny (but does not appear to be SF at all). Maybe I should look for the short stories you mentioned. They’re here, somewhere.

    I hope this one is one of them. Lovely review. I’d like to read something terrific and yet outside the realm of our everyday world.

  3. christina says:

    I read a couple of Heinlein books while taking a Sci Fi course for my Lit degree in college many moons ago. I find that I’m more of a character driven reader rather than plot driven and Heinlein’s characters were always flat (IMO, of course).

  4. Jenny says:

    Cara — I’m amazed that you’ve read all of Heinlein. Which are your favorites?

    Lightheaded — I haven’t read Job, but I’d recommend Podkayne of Mars, Friday, and several others. Good hunting!

    Christina — Wow, I’d love to take a sci fi course. I can’t agree that Heinlein’s characters are completely flat, but of course his novels are much more plot-driven. Sometimes that’s exactly what I want — getting out of the quotidian-epiphany character-driven world to something actually happening!

  5. Lorin says:

    I’m a little late to weigh in here but I just had to say that I love Heinlein – yeah, he’s really spotty, but when he’s on, I love it. Stranger is one of my favorite books but the YA books are fun. I think Space Cadet was my first SF book. Like you, it was a gift from my dad, who knew that I was really into astronomy and would get a kick out of it. Since then, I’ve read just about all the Heinlein I could find (except Job – ugh, started it, hated it, never finished) but I have never read this one. I’ll have to see if I can find it and read it for myself.

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