I was browsing around in Pioneer Book about a week ago (and Pioneer Book is an awesome place to hang out if you like books–they’re used, but cheap, and it’s really fun just to go and get lost in there!) and I saw a few used Heinlein books for sale. I don’t know too much about anything in particular that he wrote, just that he’s known as one of the best Science Fiction writers of the last century and had a very strong influence on the genre, and so I decided to pick up one of his books to get a taste for his writing. I settled on Citizen of the Galaxy, for no particularly compelling reason except that it seemed a little bit more interesting from the back cover blurb.
It was definitely a good book! I read it very quickly and really loved it! This was one of those books that I would read between classes (and maybe for the first five minutes of class as well), while eating, while walking back to my apartment from on campus, etc. Basically, any time I had free time.
The story takes place in the far future, when humanity has expanded to many worlds and has diplomatic contact with many alien races. But because space is so large, all the worlds are only held together in a loose confederation. Far away from Earth is the Sargony of Nine Worlds, where human trafficking is alive and well. The main character, Thorby, is a boy who starts out as a slave–but he is bought and befriended by a beggar named Baslim. However, Baslim is much more than a mere beggar, and there are many people from outside of the Sargony who would like to see slavery abolished. Soon, Baslim is killed by the Sargony, and Thorby is forced onto the run. He moves from place to place, among many different people, as he grows from a boy to man. When he finally finds the true identity of Baslim–and his own true identity–he finds that it provides him an unlikely opportunity to fight the evil slave trade. But it will require him to once again give up everything that he wants.
It was easy to read and very fast. In fact, it was surprisingly fast. There were many scenes where I thought to myself “wow, this scene could really be fleshed out more!” The descriptions were minimal, and at times, days, months, and even years passed by in only a couple of pages. Heinlein definitely wasn’t too wordy, but the things that he did describe and did explain were the important and interesting things.
I think a lot of this was due to the point of view. It was 3rd person omniscient, like Frank Herbert’s Dune, except that it was even more detached than Herbert. Herbert would get into the scene enough to give a detailed picture of everything, but for Heinlein, the important thing was the plot of the story–as well as some of the more interesting ideas he had.
One really interesting idea that he had was of a society of space traders that travel the frontiers of known space on long voyages, completely isolated from the rest of humanity, who over time form their own distinct culture and government. Each ship is like its own country, with a very rigid social structure to keep the friction of long voyages from causing mutiny and disorder. The onboard community is almost like a tribe of nomads where everyone plays a role. Every few years, they come together in a giant gathering to intermarry and buy new ships to start new clans.
The way that Heinlein envisioned this society is truly fascinating–he took the conditions that existed on the frontier of the world that he created, combined it with the technology of space travel, and drew it to what he saw as the logical conclusions. He then humanized it somewhat by telling a story within it.
He did this for more than just the Free Traders: he did it to one degree or another throughout the whole book. And these ideas and concepts, combined with the story of Thorby’s rise from anonymity and the underworld, made the story really good. It really got my imagination going, which in my opinion is a sign of greatness in any story.
Oh, and one more thing: one reason why I love reading these old sci fi stories is because it is ALWAYS funny when one of the characters pulls out a slide rule to do some math! ALWAYS!!! It happened only once in this story, but it made me LAUGH so hard! You’ve gotta love old 60s sci fi!