Citizen of the Galaxy Summary
by Robert A. Heinlein

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Citizen of the Galaxy Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Scribner’s juvenile series took a giant leap in a new direction with Citizen of the Galaxy. Though the protagonist is a boy who comes of age in the novel, the point of view is much more adult (it was the only one of the juveniles to be serialized in Astounding Science Fiction), and the locale, for the first time in the series, is outside the earth’s solar system. The world in which Thorby, the main character, grows up is much darker than any previously seen in Heinlein’s fiction. The reader first sees Thorby in the dirty, decadent, savage streets of the spaceport Jubbulpore; he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. When the story opens, he is on the auction block again, so thin and scarred that no one but a dirty beggar offers to buy him.

The beggar, Baslim the Cripple, is one of Heinlein’s most fascinating characters. Though a beggar, he and the hole in which he lives have unexpected resources. He turns out to be a secret agent of the Exotic Corps, an interplanetary police force combating slavery. He begins to train Thorby in his trade, without telling the boy about the “X-Corps.” Baslim is killed by powerful enemies before Thorby can learn his secret.

Following Baslim’s orders, given to him under hypnosis before Baslim’s death, Thorby seeks out Captain Krausa of the spaceship Sisu. Krausa adopts him into “The Free Traders,” a race of space gypsies who travel the galaxy, buying and selling. Thorby adapts to this strange new culture with the help of an anthropologist traveling with the ship, who explains the ways of these people who spend their entire lives in a city-sized ship, the Sisu. Just when Thorby gets accustomed to the nomadic life, however, he discovers where he came from before he was kidnapped, and he is returned “home”—to Earth. Further, he discovers that he is “Rudbek of Rudbek,” heir to a vast fortune and head of an international conglomerate that makes him the most powerful individual on Earth. Ironically, his company is behind the very slave trade that victimized him.

This is not a rags-to-riches cliché, and the story is not over. Wealth isolates Thorby, and powerful men who know more about the treachery of international trade attempt to keep him from finding out too much about his own company—about shady operations such as the slave trade, for example. Thorby fights back, with the help of a young woman who seems intent on marrying him. They win, but Thorby is not ready for a family. Instead, he enlists in Baslim’s Exotic Corps to continue the fight against intergalactic slavery.

The key to understanding the major theme of Citizen of the Galaxy, and of the juvenile series as a whole, is in the title. Each stage of the plot is concerned with various aspects of citizenship: the relationship of the individual to society. As a slave, Thorby is not a citizen, so society is an enemy. It is impossible to engender any sense of duty toward society in a boy when that society denies his value as a person. Baslim not only frees Thorby legally but also gives him the personal dignity necessary to become a citizen. At this stage, however, Thorby’s sense of duty does not extend beyond Baslim.

In the Sisu, however, Thorby is adopted into a family and learns to feel a loyalty to the entire ship. When he discovers that he is a galactic citizen, however, with records on Earth, he becomes a citizen in the moral sense: He discovers, at the end of the novel, his responsibility to his entire race. He devotes his life to ending slavery.

The science in Citizen of the Galaxy is not the nuts-and-bolts explanation of gadgets and planets found in the earlier novels. Here the science is anthropology, the study of how people get along together. Much of the technical explanation is given by the anthropologist Thorby meets on board the Sisu , Dr. Margaret Mader (a near anagram of the name of twentieth century anthropologist Margaret Mead). She teaches Thorby a version of Heinlein’s moral Darwinism—that rules of...

(The entire section is 1,151 words.)