Citizen of the Galaxy – Review by Alan Milner ©1997
Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons as a so-called juvenile novel, Citizen of the Galaxy appeared in 1957, at the height of the civil rights movement. Originally entitled The Chain and the Stars, the author cut it heavily before submission to Scribner’s, intending it for a juvenile audience although it encompassed adult matter. He also cut and slanted a serialized version intended for adults that appeared from September to December the same year in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction.
The Scribner’s juvenile version is the basis of this precis. Heinlein’s outline of future history does not list Citizen of the Galaxy. But, arguably, it may be an extension out from it, diverging from the paths taken by the Long family and their immigration to Secundus and Tertius. Lazarus Long obliquely refers to an involuntary visit to a society much like Sargon’s at the beginning of Part VI, “The Tale of Twins Who Weren’t,” in Time Enough For Love. There he describes his offstage escape as involving a rise from Temple slave to high priest of a state religion, seemingly on a planet much like Citizen’s Sargon.
Dramatis Personae (Major)
On its surface, Citizen of the Galaxy is about Thorby “Baslim,” orphaned as a small child, enslaved by space pirates, rescued by a mysterious crippled beggar who buys him at auction, adopts him as son, and educates him intellectually and in the ways of the world. But, even though “Baslim the Beggar” disappears early in the story, on another level, he is the major character of Citizen, and stands as one of the author’s most memorable.
Baslim is special because Heinlein tells us so, demonstrating his ability to sketch his characters in a few bold strokes, and then convince us that these bare bones are worth caring about because he, the author, cares about them.
Baslim, a one-eyed, one-legged old man, is a great deal more than he appears, the kind of man who does everything right, for the right reasons, and never counts the odds when he is up against them in a worthy cause – and wears scars to prove it.
The beggar is really Colonel Richard Baslim, a legendary officer in the Terran Hegemonic Guard, an Earth-based interstellar police force attempting to keep the peace among an ever-expanding community of star travelers. Having once reached flag rank and been assigned to a desk, Baslim voluntarily accepts a reduction to Colonel and leads an odds-against raid on a pirate stronghold to rescue a shipload of helpless victims being sold into slavery. Losing an eye and a leg in that action, and facing involuntary retirement, Baslim volunteers for the only unit that could still take him, the X corps, a covert intelligence group within the Guard. His self-selected mission: to ferret out those helping the slavers conduct their heinous activities.
Thus, Baslim ends up as a beggar on Sargon, capitol of the Nine Worlds, center of interstellar slave trade, far from Earth, gathering evidence about piracy and the slave trade. The evidence indicates, as heinous as piracy and slaving are, that major corporations from the home worlds are in it up to their necks, providing ships, equipment, supplies, and technical know-how that keep the pirates and the slavers in business.
Using the persona of Baslim the Beggar, Colonel Baslim keeps track of the comings and goings of slave ships, noting markings, tracing origins. Sargon’s secret police apprehends Baslim, but he suicides before being interrogated, setting off a frenzied search for Thorby who becomes a fugitive upon the death of his foster father.
Following Baslim’s final instructions, Thorby seeks out one of five Starship captains – all couriers pledged to Baslim – and delivers his final message, hypnotically implanted in the young man’s brain in the ancient ‘secret’ languages used by those couriers.
The couriers are all captains of “Free Traders,” who Gypsy-like, pilot the future equivalent of tramp steamers, interstellar merchants who jump from star to star buying and selling goods from human and alien alike; but the one who takes Thorby aboard gets more than he bargained for. Imbedded in the boy’s brain is a message beseeching whichever courier who receives the message to care for his adopted son as his own and convey him to an Terran Hegemony outpost where, Baslim hopes, they will be able to reunite the boy with his family. This puts the Captain in the ultimate difficult position. Free Traders are a closed society and look at ground dwellers as less than human – fraki, a somewhat inoffensive rodent with ‘strange’ but otherwise undescribed habits. But debts must be paid: they whom Baslim rescued from the slavers at the price of an eye and a leg were the Family and Crew of a Free Trader. Which ship didn’t matter. Debts must be paid.
So it happens that Thorby, a former slave and a beggar’s son, becomes a member of the Sisu, a proud ship of the Free Traders – an unusual society that combines the highest standard of living in the known universe with a closely managed, tradition and taboo bound society. Adopted as the Captain’s son into that extended Family, a clan that crews his ship, trained as a gunner and placed in line of ultimate command, Thorby proves his worth in battle by blasting a pirate out of the sky when it threatens his new-found family.
Over time, and not without some pain, Thorby grows accustomed to his life, becoming gradually more content with his favored role within the hierarchy of the family and crew. But Baslim foresaw that Free Trader life would not sit well with his son, who was born free, and lived free again as Baslim’s son. Baslim had other plans for his son. When a Guard ship touches down during the Gathering of Free Traders, Thorby’s adopted father, over strong objections by his wife who as the Traders are a matriarchy truly rules the ship, fulfills his peoples’ obligation to Baslim’s last request by begrudgingly presenting Thorby to the Guard.
Law requires the Guard to give aid and comfort to stranded citizens of the Hegemony; but, as Colonel Baslim’s son, special consideration applies. Things are complicated, however, when Thorby tells his new benefactors that he has another hypnotically implanted message from the dead Colonel Baslim to the Hegemonic Guard. Under hypnosis, the final message of Colonel Baslim is revealed to his own service – all the data that Baslim had collected about suspicious ship movements in and out of Sargon, the hub of the interstellar slave trade. By itself, it is an impressive achievement but, as a Free Trader, Thorby also has access to information unavailable to Baslim, information about when and where Free Trader ships have disappeared over years. Together, this information paints a nasty picture implicating home planet companies in the slave trade itself.
But what about Thorby, now orphaned three times? An initial search finds no record of his birth; and no funds ordinarily are authorized to perform a more expensive one. However, to avoid this so-typical bureaucratic snafu, the Guard captain, with the connivance of his shipboard staff, enlists Thorby to obtain the complete identity search necessarily required for his enlistment. It reveals that he is really Thor Bradley Rudbek, the long missing heir to the greatest fortune on Earth, taken in the same raid that killed his parents during an inspection tour of their off-planet holdings.
Released from enlistment he returns to a home he cannot remember where he finds himself almost immediately embroiled in a corporate power struggle to regain the fortune left him by his parents and control over the company. Ultimately, using the data Baslim had collected merged with information from the Free Traders about lost and missing ships, Thorby realizes that his own company is deeply involved, providing ships, fuel, stores and repair services to the slave trade. As a slave, Thorby was probably transported in ships that his company had built.
Thor Bradley Rudbek defeats the caretaker management left by his father in a proxy fight, opening the way for Thorby to take up where his father left off, fighting slavery. In the end, Thorby’s measure of control over the family business enables a close working relationship with X Corps, aiming his ongoing efforts as chief executive of the Rudbek enterprises at eliminating the scourge of slavery from the galaxy, becoming the secret weapon of the Guard, which suddenly finds that one accidental enlistee from its lowest ranks may become its most important asset in the fight against slavery.
Baslim would have appreciated the irony of that.
On the surface, Citizen is an eye-opening experience specifically because it eschews the easy argument against slavery by race, and moves directly into the more difficult argument against slavery as an inappropriate invasion of personal rights by both the state and by economic entities.
Underneath that, however, Citizen is an impassioned plea for life-long education. In many of Heinlein’s books, a principal character is portrayed over time, beginning in relative ignorance, learning from experience, receiving the benefits of tutelage from an authoritative source, and then using those teachings to resolve subsequent problems. A formula, but one that works very well, repeatedly, in the hands of this master story teller.
Citizen portrays this young man’s education in four stages: a disenfranchised child tutored by a man of wisdom, an adolescent in an artificial space-faring culture that may prefigure tomorrow, a young recruit in the Guard, and an unwilling adult but youthful player in economic, social, political, and legal machinations that clearly satirize 20th Century America’s corporate civilization.
As a youth in Sargon, Capitol of the Nine Worlds, Thorby begins at the bottom social rung, the slave of a beggar. The incongruity of slaves and beggars coexisting with interstellar travel seems unbelievable on the surface, until you read descriptions of modern day slavery in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Closer to home, we are already seeing the almost inevitable development of wage-enslaving sweatshops in the decayed centers of our own cities – into which we may soon be forced by low wage foreign competition – surrounded by dazzling new outlying parks for favored industries and occupations.
What Thorby – and we – see of this slave state is the oppressive nature of its oligarch government, which must repress most its subjects for slavery to continue. We also see the eagerness that many strata in that oppressed society possess readily to subvert it, in those-ranging from simple housewives to shopkeepers to madams to beat policemen-who help Thorby escape it.
Among the Free Traders, we see the vision of a seemingly Utopian society. Each Free Trader Starship is an independent state. The crew are the citizens of that state, members of a clan. One ship to a clan, one clan to a ship. Collectively, the Free Traders enjoy the highest standard of living ever known, but they pay a steep price with the rigidity of their social system, where ship’s rank and family standing are necessarily and complexly interwoven to create the individual’s status, and even moiety, in the group.
Even worse, while the Free Traders as a group are free, the individual members of such communities live under an usually benign tyranny-but there are hints that, sometimes, the tyranny becomes malignant, and the social structure breaks down, necessitating a ritual ‘cleansing’ to purge the ‘madness’ if any of that clan – or their ship – survive.
Here we see part of Heinlein’s long-running concerns about communism. A Free Trader Starship is a family business where the needs of the individual are taken care of by the group. It is a great society, unless you happen to cherish freedom more than comfort, in which case it may become just another form of slavery.
The Free Traders represent the epitome of collectivism in action, in theory; but at the top there is a rigid, caste-bound form of dictatorship-the captain and executive officer (his wife) of a ship potentially can be just as harsh in their edicts as Stalin and Beria. Censorship, exile for deviation, extreme prejudice against strangers, severe and unthinking taboos, and rigid oligarchies that channel careers all exist here When it fails, as collectivism frequently does, individual or collective disaster may strike. But you have to understand that freedom exists out there; and few growing up in this society, as it is portrayed, admit they do. Thorby does. Thorby finds that he was positively more free as the slave of a beggar than he is as a Member of a Free Trader Family, and even thinks about leaving – only to have the decision taken out of his hands by his own dead father, Baslim the Cripple, who foresaw all this and left instructions that would prevent Thorby from staying among the Free Traders.
As good a father as Baslim was, he had a double agenda. Not only did he want his son to have the best possible life circumstances, but he also needed his son to deliver a message to the Hegmonic Guard, and the only way to insure that the message would be delivered was to make sure that Thorby is delivered to the Guard as well.
The third stage of Thorby’s journey takes him through enlistment in the Guard, an interstellar paramilitary force dedicated to wiping out piracy and slave traders. Here, briefly, we see how life as a Guardsman differs from life in a Free Trader Family. The physical circumstances are similar. Both Guardsmen and Family members live on a Starship, traveling between the stars. Psychologically, there are vast differences. Guardsmen know that their term of service is limited and that, someday, they will retire and return to life on the ground. Free Trader Family members have no such retirement. They are born among the stars, live there all their lives, die in space, and their bodies go into the mass converters of the rockets at the end.
The members of the Guard are serving out enlistments. Essentially, they are free, and while they do not have the same great protective blanket of mutual support that the Free Traders offer their families, they have another sort-the esprit de corps that has been described at length in other stories about the military written by this author. The fundamental difference exists in the degree of voluntarism and freedom permitted not only among higher echelons of command, the officers, but among enlisted ranks.
Let’s look at two examples. On the Sisu, the Chief Officer (by tradition, the wife of the Captain of the ship), is frustrated by the hidebound strictures of the ship’s traditions, and takes to her bed in deep depression when it becomes evident that their recently-adopted adult son must be given up to the Guard. The Guard Captain and his staff, on the other hand, take great delight in evading the bureaucratic nonsense which seemingly obstructs their aim to obtain a full search for Thorby’s identity. In this case, Heinlein gives us two examples of hierarchy, the rigid caste system of the Free Traders contrasting with the more democratic traditions of Guard.
The second example, Heinlein contrasts the discipline imposed by rule-bound societies like the Free Traders with the more enlightened use of authority demonstrated on the Guard ship.
Contrast the reaction that occurs when Thorby strikes a Sisu petty officer and a similar encounter with a Guard petty officer. The deck master in the Sisu has no recourse but to ignore the deliberate blow. Such a blow is taboo; it simply cannot be done, and when it happens anyway, Thorby is then put in Coventry, boycotted, by the offended parties until time heals those wounds. By contrast, the Guard gives Thorby a very mild administrative punishment for ‘striking’ a petty officer upon provocation but the petty officer simultaneously loses his hard-earned rank because he provoked the attack by referring to Thorby’s childhood enslavement. The petty officer’s punishment stands as nothing less than a tacit approval of Thorby’s reaction, and reinforces the Guard’s dedication to equality among its men and women.
In these vignettes, Heinlein shows us that the Guard, as a functionary of a free society, has the ability to exercise wide discretion when the occasion warrants, but the Free Traders, living in a technologically advanced feudal society, must ignore much and have little discretion to exercise in their personal conduct and professional behavior. Is it any wonder that sometimes ‘madness’ arises that must be cleansed?
Finally, in the fourth stage of his journey, Thorby returns to Earth, humanity’s home, where the former slave and beggar, the one time Free Trader and Guardsman suddenly finds himself the heir to a great fortune, at the other end of the social spectrum, only to discover that even the wealthy can be imprisoned by and enslaved to their own wealth.
On Earth, he meets his long-lost family and slowly begins to realize that, despite being unbelievably wealthy, he remains as much a prisoner as he had been as a slave, only now, he has the skills he needs to change the environment if he can grasp the reins of power. The family megabusiness has been hijacked by an unscrupulous business manager, who tries to get Thorby to sign away his rights. Forced to fight for his inheritance, he is encouraged by the learning skills he got from Baslim the cripple, cautioned by the business practices learned from the Free Traders, and supported by the mission-focused Guard.
Yet, before resolution, there remains two further areas from which assistance must come: a surprising last minute alliance from within his largely unconcerned real family remote ‘cousin’ Leda, who is the daughter of the manager who has hijacked the business, and with the ‘hired gun,’ lawyer Garsh.
Character, Plot and Thematic Juxtapositions
Special mention is due these last two characters: James J. Garsh, because he is at once a retread, that of attorney James Roderick McCoy (The Real McCoy – Licensed Shyster – All Work Guaranteed) from the 1947 short story “Jerry Was A Man,” and appears in later works, fully developed and expanded in one form, as Jubal Harshaw, Michael’s lawyer, teacher and advisor in Stranger in a Strange Land, and in expanded into yet another form as Jake Salomon, Johann Smith’s attorney and Eunice Branca’s advisor and lover, in I Will Fear No Evil. Thorby’s newfound but remote cousin, Leda (‘Weemsby’) Rudbek (his mother’s first cousin), also appears as a more mature and sophisticated reincarnation of Betty Sorenson, John Thomas Stuart XI’s girl friend and future wife, from the 1954 juvenile novel The Star Beast. Within the plot structure, Leda is crucial because she owns the shares of stock that will eventually decide the outcome of the power struggle between Thorby and her father – and sides with Thorby because, in the end, the justness of his cause is more convincing than her father’s connivances.
Richard Baslim reminds us of at least two others: Mr. Dubois, the History and Moral Philosophy Teacher in Starship Troopers who teaches Johnny Rico about the difference between being a consumer-taxpayer and a citizen, who appears yet again in the guise of Dr. Matson, instructor of the Advanced Survival course required for Outlands employment in Tunnel in the Sky. Although Baslim is not the formal pedagogue these others are, the only significant difference between these three is that, when the time comes, Baslim pays the ultimate price for his philosophy: his life. Yet, not much difference exists: both Dubois and Matson could well have bought their ‘farm’ before ever earning their rights to the role of teacher.
Thorby is cast in the protagonist’s role of a classic Bildungsroman, the familiar ‘growing up’ novel, as are Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers, Rod Walker in Tunnel in the Sky, and all other heroes of Heinlein’s juvenile works. A sketchiness of physical description makes it easy to associate each with the others and for the juvenile reader to assimilate unto himself lessons taught. The distinction between these three is that Johnny Rico and Rod Walker are born in at least comfortable circumstances and have to accustom themselves to hardship, while Thorby grows up under extreme hardship and has to accommodate himself to colossal wealth.
It’s just a guess, but I believe I read this novel for the first time in 1960, when I was 12 years old. Its effect on me was such that, years later, in my mid-thirties, unable to remember the title of the book, or even the name of the author, I remained haunted by its content.
I remember contrasting – unfavorably – my own educational experience with the life experience that Thorby enjoys in this novel. I also remember regretting that there was no single individual in my own life that came within a cable’s length of being as interested in me as Baslim was in Thorby, not because my parents and kinfolk were so bad, but because Baslim was so damned good.
In retrospect, looking back over Heinlein’s works, I sometimes think that, in many respects, Baslim is Heinlein himself, or at least one of his alter egos. A man who never had children of his own, in a few short pages gives us an outline for what a good parent – a good father – should be. And, if Robert is up there somewhere looking down as I write, I would have to say thank you, because Heinlein’s portrayal of Richard Baslim has played a major role in my own development as a father. (A whole other critique could be written contrasting the parenting styles of the four major influences on Thorby’s life. Baslim would come out the hands down winner, though.)
Indeed, it might not be stretching the point too far to say that Baslim is an incarnation of Iron John, the fictional, fairy tale character from an ancient fable that Robert Bly uses in his book of the same name to personify the process through which young boys become socialized into their roles as men in society.
Despite the strong effect the book had on me, I actually forgot the name of the book and even the author, while carrying with me a deep impression of the book’s message. A few years ago, in a discussion about science fiction, I mentioned my interest in finding the book again and was only a few words into the description of the plot when three different people all shouted out its name.
Out of print, I believe, for several years, and currently published inside a truly atrocious book jacket, Citizen of the Galaxy is one of those rare achievements, a book that actually focuses the reader’s mind and teaches him something worth knowing in the process. If Starship Troopers is on the official reading lists for all four of our military service academies, then Citizen should be required reading for those training for careers in education, psychology, human development – and, of course, fatherhood.