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).