Total Immersion: Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy

Somebody has borrowed my copy of Citizen of the Galaxy. (If you give it back safely, no questions will be asked. You’ll know if it’s mine, it’s an old battered Puffin edition with a boy on the cover holding a begging bowl full of stars.) In the meantime, because sometimes when I need to read something nothing else will do, I re-read it out of the library a couple of weeks ago.

What Heinlein was unbeatable at was writing total immersion. His universes hold together perfectly, even though he describes them with very few strokes. From the first words of Citizen you’re caught, you’re there beside the slave block that stands by the spaceport in Jubbalpore as a beggar buys a slave. There’s something so compelling about the prose, about the story, that I find myself totally sucked in every time. There are books I can re-read in a fairly detached way — I do know what’s going to happen, after all — but this isn’t one of them. I’d love to analyse how Heinlein does it — I’d love to be able to copy how Heinlein does it, and so would a lot of people — but no, the sheer force of storytelling drags me through at one sitting without pause every single time.

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The story is quite simple. Thorby is a slave, recently arrived on the world of Jubbalpore in the hold of a slaver’s spaceship. He is bought by Baslim the Cripple, who is more than a beggar and who educates the boy. Then Baslim is killed and Thorby whisked off planet by a ship of Free Traders, a Finnish speaking spacer clan who adopt him in gratitude for past services by Baslim. Baslim has made them promise to deliver Thorby to a vessel of the Space Navy, (The Hegemonic Guard, his own service) in the hope that they will be able to identify Thorby. The Free Traders do, reluctantly, because they’d much rather keep him. Thorby is enlisted and eventually identified as Thor Bradley Rudbek of Rudbek, lost heir to the Rudbek fortune, who disappeared with his parents at a very young age. Back on Earth he discovers that his uncle probably had his parents murdered and Thorby enslaved, he gets rid of his uncle and buckles down to run his business and oppose slavery.

On the way through this breakneck plot (the whole book is only about 80,000 words long) we also run into silent trading with aliens, a battle with space pirates, the interstellar economics of slavery and the luxury and decadence of Earth. Thematically the book is about the utmost importance of liberty to people, and how liberty is only attainable with education and choices.

For a book written for young adults in 1957 it is admirably ahead of its times on racism (humans of all races are enslaved, and slavers) and sexism — as often in Heinlein’s juveniles there are no major female characters but there are minor ones in significant roles, shooting down space pirates and effecting successful rescues. It’s also, again considering it’s more than fifty years old, surprisingly undated. The computer on which Thorby shoots down the pirates is described (or not described) in such a way that I could picture it as a futuristic computer in 1975 and a CP/M computer in 1985 and a DOS computer in 1995 and a Windows computer now.

Heinlein isn’t known for anthropological SF, but that’s what this is really. The society of Jubbalpore, and the matriarchal patrilocal society of Free Traders Thorby is thrust into are anthropological curiosities, and that’s where the book gets half its charm. The other half comes from the assurance of the narrative voice that guides us along with Thorby with absolute confidence from planet to planet, from slavery to riches with never a false note nor a pause to consider the inherent implausibility of the whole thing.

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