Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Citizen of the Galaxy

While usually considered one of his "juvenile" books, Citizen of the Galaxy is one of Robert Heinlein's best. A boy sold into slavery is purchased by a legless mendicant who teaches him what amounts to the rational egoism of a Stoic, a Jesuit, or perhaps a Randian. The beggar is more than he seems, and so is the boy.

Leaving the slave planet, a world of Levantine decadence, the hero becomes a passenger on a family-owned trading spaceship where the crew speak what happens to be Finnish and live according to a two clan phratry system divided as well from outsiders, the "Fremdi." The social rules are very complex, one may not fraternize with the other clan, but when it comes time to take a wife, one may not marry within one's own clan. Heinlein does not make the fact that the ship members are Finns living according to ancient folk custom explicit, and I only figured this out after I had studied archeology and anthropology and then re-read the book after about a decade.

Having lived under a Middle Eastern-style despotry and aboard a clannish trading vessel with a gypsy-like attitude toward strangers, the hero then makes a transition into an British style navy where again he must learn a totally new way of life. He not only learns Western values, he learns his own birth identity and the role he can play, should he choose to, as a citizen of the galaxy.

The book is quite a broadening experience, for its hero and for the reader, and Heinlein's research and fidelity to the systems he describes is impressive. Except for the space element, the story might have been set on 19th century Earth. One of the best aspects of Heinlein "science-fiction" is that it is not alien or technology driven, but plot and character driven. Some of Heinlein's books have the flaw that they lack endings. Yet this story is fully integrated and does not disappoint. Do not be put off by the fact that the main character is an adolescent. The book is fully suitable for adults and I have read it three times. Heinlein's love for humanity, his cosmopolitan sophistication and his nevertheless unending advocacy for the superiority of universal liberal values show that Heinlein himself most assuredly deserved the title Citizen of the Galaxy.

3 comments:

mverick said...

This was my favorite book as a child and I read it many times. I agree that CotG is a broadening experience. I was very lucky to stumble across Heinlein as an eleven-year-old. Very nice synopsis.

Ted Keer said...

Thanks, mverick! I have read all of Heinlein's works. This one is often treated as juvenile and is neglected, hence my desire to review it.

KateGladstone said...

Re the starship resident's term for "outsiders, the 'Fremdi' -- the book consistently refers to them as "fraki" (uncapitalized).
"Fremdi," as I recall, occurs only once in CITIZEN: in a list of synonyms or near-synonyms for outsiders a/k/a fraki.

Neither "Fremdi" nor "fraki," by the way, appears in Finnish dictionaries, so I would surmise that the ship-dwellers' Finnish differs somewhat from the language of their ancestors: a possibility strengthened by the fact that Heinlein describes the ex-beggar-boy's shipboard education as including instruction in Finnish "as spoken by [the ship-dwellers]." (Heinlein seldom -- if ecer -- wasted a word, so he didn't idly add that qualifying phrase "as spoken by the People [of the ship] when he could have just written "Finnish.")