By William H. Stoddard
From his first stories published in Astounding Science Fiction to such late novels as Friday and Job, Robert Heinlein was recognized as an outstanding science fiction writer.
For many of us, though, our introduction to his writing, and often to science fiction as a genre, came from the twelve novels he published through Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Categorized as “juvenile” and aimed at an audience ranging from boys in junior high school to young men in the armed forces, these books in fact speak to a far wider audience, and are more sophisticated both in literary technique and in the ideas they present, than almost any other boys’ books and indeed than many books for adults.
And those ideas are often relevant to libertarian concerns.
In Citizen of the Galaxy, his next to last book for Scribner’s, Heinlein seems to have been acting on a long-standing complaint about his editor’s concerns: When he wrote about high-school boys, she worried that he wouldn’t sell to servicemen, and when he wrote about young men aged 18 or above, she felt that younger boys wouldn’t identify with his characters.
In Citizen of the Galaxy, he took his protagonist, Thorby, through many different ages, from young boyhood to early adulthood. And each stage of his life saw him in a new social environment.
The novel begins, shockingly (especially in terms of what was acceptable for young readers), with Thorby being led up to the auction block in a city on another planet, Jubbul, to be sold as a slave.
He doesn’t seem to look like a bargain to the crowd; no one wants to bid for him — until the auctioneer offers to take “any bid at all” and an elderly crippled beggar makes an outrageously low bid, and, a few minutes later, with the help of an amused nobleman, ends up as his owner.
The beggar, Baslim, raises Thorby, and they come to regard each other as father and son. This continues until the Jubbulpore police come to arrest Baslim, who kills himself rather than face questioning, leaving Thorby as a wanted fugitive, until he’s smuggled off the planet by a starship captain who owes something to Baslim. This begins a series of wrenching dislocations that shape Thorby’s further life.
Behind this surface, though, Citizen of the Galaxy is a book of a different kind: A novel of espionage, but told indirectly, through the eyes of a narrator who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on.
In fact, it’s very much indebted to Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel Kim, about a young boy of uncertain parentage who becomes involved in British covert operations in India; notably, Baslim’s training Thorby in mnemonics closely replicates “Kim’s game,” a sequence in Kipling’s novel about his protagonist’s training.
On Jubbul, Baslim is spying on the slave trade; the Free Traders who adopt Thorby were his couriers; the military service that enlists him has officers who revere Baslim as a heroic exemplar, and he delivers a memorized coded report to them; and when he’s reunited with his birth family on Earth, he learns about the powerful interests there that profit from the slave trade on other planets, and consciously makes Baslim’s war on slavery his own.
This hatred of slavery is itself a libertarian theme, and a powerful one.
But Heinlein generalizes it, saying of Thorby, “his strongest reflex was resistance to any authority he had not consented to; it had been burned into his soul with whips.” This leads him into the book’s climactic struggle, over control of Rudbek & Associates, the family trust, one of the great fortunes of Earth.
And another libertarian theme emerges from the story as well: the moral right to self-defense.
When the parents of his father (who married into the Rudbek family) assert philosophical pacifism as a moral position, Thorby tells them of his proudest achievement, destroying a pirate ship that was trying to rob the Free Trader ship Sisu and enslave its crew, the Krausa family, into which he had been adopted. Heinlein’s story affirms the right to armed self-defense.
Interwoven with its political themes, Citizen of the Galaxy has another theme: family. In the last part of the novel, Thorby is reunited with his birth family, Rudbek — and learns that it can inspire loyalty: his cousin Leda supports him out of such loyalty, over her stepfather, the trust’s general manager.
But each part of the novel has some version of family. His commanding officer in the Hegemonic Guard describes the Guard as an enormous family; every ship of the Free Traders is owned by a family, and the overall culture of the Free Traders is held together by intermarriages. And ultimately, Thorby’s real family, the one that made him what he is, was his adoptive father Baslim, who bought him and then set him free.
Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.
Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his bestselling novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in 1983), Stranger in a Strange Land (in 1987), the novel Red Planet (in 1996), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the novel Time Enough for Love (in 1998) and the story Requiem (in 2003).
Recommendation: Read William H. Stoddard’s Prometheus Blog appreciations of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land:
Lunar revolution, rational anarchism & TANSTAAFL: An Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction
Authority, responsibility and a “man from Mars”: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a 1987 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner
* Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
* Prometheus winners: For the list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
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Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.