Robert A. Heinlein,
Citizen of the Galaxy
(Scribner's, 1957; Sagebrush, 1999)

Citizen of the Galaxy is probably Heinlein's most mature juvenile novel and is certainly one of his most inspirational. It contains a sweeping indictment of slavery and provides a stirring message about citizenship and civic responsibility.

Thorby is a slave; the only memories he has are a tangled morass of mistreatment spread among faceless men on nameless worlds; all he brings with him to Sargon are a filthy piece of clothing and an ugly assortment of scars and sores. On the block, no one values him enough to even bid on him, all except for the beggar Baslim. He takes him home (a hole beneath the abandoned amphitheatre) and raises him as a son rather than a slave. Thorby learns the art of begging from his new Pop and enjoys the happiest years of his life with him. Then Baslim, whom Thorby eventually learned was much more than a simple beggar, is arrested as a spy. Thorby satisfies his Pop's wishes by evading capture himself and taking a message to a certain ship's captain. Captain Krausa adopts Thorby as his own son and makes him a member of the Free Trader family on the ship Sisu. Here Thorby learns the complexities of Free Trader family life, makes real friends and assumes a pivotal job protecting the huge spacecraft from raiders. Then Thorby is displaced once again, as Krausa takes him to the first ship of the Hegemonic Empire he comes in contact with. While Thorby hates to leave his new family, he does it to satisfy Baslim's ultimate wish for him to find his true kin. Thorby soon learns that wealth does not make you rich as he strives to fight slavery in the galaxy and become the son his birth parents wanted him to be.

Heinlein gives us three strikingly different looks at family life. While Thorby is happy as a part of the immensely complicated Free Trader family on Sisu, he looks back at his days with the beggar Baslim as the happiest of his life. On the ship, one is barely acknowledged as existing if he or she is not a part of the family. The only person who talks to Thorby at first is an anthropologist, and she gives a poignant explanation of this type of society. The family is free, yet each individual in that family is in some way a slave; Thorby is told what to do and when and where to do it. The ultimate lesson is learned on Terra, where the prescripts of Baslim continue to guide Thorby's actions. He is determined to fight against the slave trade, which is something most Terrans don't even believe exists because it is taking place far, far away. For Thorby, it is personal and he devotes his life to fighting against it. The ultimate responsibility he learns is to fully devote himself to the noble cause, to be willing to give us his own freedom, even to become a beggar as Baslim did, in order to work for the freedom of others.

The story is as much fantasy as science fiction, but the message it contains and the moral lessons it teaches make it one of Heinlein's most important and enjoyable novels.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 4 June 2005

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