Part of Bob Heinlein’s storied “Juvenile” series for Scribner’s, Citizen of the Galaxy is a Grade-A galactic bildungsroman. By virtue of it nominally being a book for kids, it skirts some of the more roguish Heinlein themes (fawning speculation over the motives of various ineffably buxom women, for example), but otherwise sticks to its libertarian bootstraps, promoting fierce individualism and self-determination in the face of inhuman bureaucracy, a great theme for kids if I ever heard one.
Its protagonist, Thorby, is a kid (somehow) abducted and sold into interstellar slavery, submitting to many masters before he is (somehow) sold to a beggar in a street market on a planet called Jabbul. It becomes quickly apparent that the beggar, “Pop,” is actually some kind of high-level spy, who teaches Thorby hypnotic memorization, relative outer-space geometry, physics, and six languages. Throughout the novel, Thorby repeatedly begins at rock-bottom (e.g. slavery) and quickly works his way up through complex hierarchies by virtue of his skill and earnestness. He lives on a multi-generational trader’s ship, in a highly rigid social structure comprised of arcane familial vocabulary and enforced social moieties. He enlists in the galactic military. He becomes the trust-fund-kid, then business tycoon, of a future-Earth hegemony. And all this on a backdrop of cosmic slave trade, politics, laser-battles, and a sincerely real moral code which is primarily concerned with taking down slavery, both conceptually and in practice.
The emphasis in Citizen of the Galaxy is on intergalactic, border-busting “good citizen-hood,” which, in Heinlein’s parlance, means the ability to overcome meaningless sociological hurdles in the interest of a greater self-betterment. Thorby is a kind of avatar for the well-developed man, and it’s clear that Heinlein would be happy with a nation of Thorbies: capable, sensitive, and driven to “do right.” In the end, much of the Heinlein canon is preoccupied with this singular issue, the ability of the individual to create him or herself. The enemy, logically, is the slavers (those who enslave); there is no greater evil than the arbitrary limitation of man’s potential for individual accomplishment. Perhaps because of its emphasis on self-creating, this novel is explicitly anti-slavery and implicitly pro-civil rights (significantly, the date on this: 1957).
Citizen of the Galaxy suggests three techniques for accomplishing personal greatness:
1. Unorthodox modes of education: self-education, total immersion, education with the intent to overthrow governments, Zen-like physical training, hypnosis, learning “something real.” Education and a willingness to learn against all odds (and despite a lack of expectation to do so) is presented, in Citizen of the Galaxy, as an unquestionable tenet of survival.
2. Profound emotional self-reliance. The ability to overcome tragic personal hardship with an eye to the future and to protecting the legacy of loved ones. Thorby moves forward to honor “Pop,” who taught him everything, even though he moves towards circumstances bleaker than the last.
3. General distrust of the establishment and all who might limit you, both physically and spiritually. Quite simply, no one who commands power can be entirely trusted.
Robert Heinlein is so great. Even this, a “lesser” novel by definition, is so heavy. I mean, consider these above techniques. They’re all the the keys to Thorby’s escape from his various imprisonments, but beyond being tools for overcoming outer-space hurdles, they are just as easily applicable to all our own lives. These ideas are real: Education, independence, and one wary eye on the man.
Can we take a page from Heinlein here and apply these techniques to our own lives? Onward and upward, readers!
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