Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Citizen of the Galaxy
It's not all that often that you can read a book as a young adult, again as an adult, and again as a middle-aged man and still enjoy it. Many of the books I read as a teenager seem not nearly as interesting now. Fortunately, Citizen of the Galaxy, and most everything else Heinlein wrote, stand the test of time.

Thorby is a slave, sold on the auction block on a planet in the Sargonese empire. His parents were killed by raiders when he was three years old, and he's been transferred from one abusive owner to the next his entire life. At the beginning of this book, he's just entering adolescence, and he is purchased by a beggar named Baslim the Cripple for a paltry sum. Old Baslim, however, turns out to be something more than a mere mendicant, and Thorby's life takes a sudden turn for the better with his new owner.

Baslim's not only teaches Thorby the trade of a beggar in the marketplace, but to read, write and speak several languages, perform mathematics, and to remember and report accurately everything he sees. It turns out that Baslim is actually a spy, reporting on the movements of ships engaged in the slave trade, which centers on Sargon. He has contacts among the Free Traders, who carry his reports back to Terra's X-Corps.

When Baslim is captured for interrogation and executed, Thorby must get off planet to escape the same fate. He contacts one of the Free Traders, Captain Krausa of the Sisu, and Krausa not only smuggles him off planet, but, out of loyalty to Baslim, who rescued a ship of Traders captured by raiders long ago, adopts him as his foster son into the crew of his ship. A great deal of the novel is spent with Thorby as he becomes accustomed to his new family and his role in it.

If you've ever read Double Star by Heinlein, you are perhaps aware that Heinlein didn't think to highly of actors. One of the lines in Citizen reflects that, "Since Thorby had no talent, he became an actor". It made me chuckle, anyway.

Thorby's "real" family is eventually located, and he has to leave the Free Traders to first join the Terran space navy, and then to be reunited with his biological kin. In both of these places, he continues to work to fulfill his "Pop" Baslim's mission of eradicating slavery in the galaxy.

One of Heinlein's great gifts was the ability to teach moral principles in his novels, usually without being too heavy handed about it, or bogging down the story in any way. In this novel, he moves smoothly between Thorby's juvenile point of view, Baslim's cynical old man point of view, and Krausa's thoughts as master and commander of a trading vessel.

Heinlein also often anticipated technological advances in his books quite accurately. The one that stood out here was night vision goggles, used by the Sargon's police while hunting under the ruins for Baslim and Thorby. The book was written in 1957, so I think he was a few years ahead of the curve on that one.

Heinlein was also a master of character development. Thorby does a lot of growing up here, from a scared, abused child to a responsible yet still naive teen, to a young man who begins to realize that doing the right thing is not always easy, nor exciting, but often must be done to remain true to yourself and to those who have paved the way.

Just a note: The version of the book pictured here is a reprint of the title. The one I just re-read from my personal collection is the old Ace edition.

1 comment:

Beverly said...

Hey - just hoppin' by! I started the hop on Friday, but had to leave, just now getting back to it. Hope you had a great weekend! Stop by The Wormhole and say hi!