The concept of slavery is not one that is dealt with very frequently in Science Fiction. Maybe that’s because people want to believe that the future is going to be glorious and egalitarian, free from the violence and oppression that have marked mankind’s history up til this point. Even in dystopian stories where characters live under the threat of harm from a totalitarian ruling state, the idea that a person could essential own another person isn’t really discussed. But revealing hard truths makes for compelling literature, and Robert Heinlein is a master at both. In Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein reminds us that slavery, while being one of the most universally loathed human practices, has been going on for nearly all of recorded history and will most likely continue in some form even as human beings begin to populate the stars. While most people in the industrialized world think of slavery as an artifact of the past, the reality is that the level of slavery and human trafficking is greater today than at any point in history. And as humans (hopefully) begin to colonize more and more planets throughout the solar system, there will be inevitably be a greater opportunity for these practices to take hold in the dark, unprotected reaches of the galaxy.
While the story isn’t technically about slavery, it does use it as a prominent backdrop and motivation for its main character Thorby, a young slave boy who we first meet on the planet Jubbul where he is being auctioned off by slave traders. When the scrawny young boy gets few bids, he is eventually bought by a beggar named Baslim the Cripple for a paltry sum and taken to live with him in an underground dwelling. Instead of treating Thorby as a slave, though, Baslim takes him on as a sort of foster son, teaching him the ins and outs of begging, as well as a bunch of other topics you wouldn’t suspect a beggar to be knowledgeable about, including math, language, and history. In addition to begging, Baslim begins to send the boy on missions to deliver messages to various people on the planet about the comings and goings of slave trade ships through the port. And, with great foresight, he makes Thorby memorize a message to give one of the ‘Free Trader’ starship captains in the event of his death. Thorby slowly begins to realize that Baslim is more than just a crippled beggar, although he doesn’t discover his true nature until much later.
When Baslim is captured and murdered by the local authorities, Thorby is able to contain his grief long enough to approach Captain Krausa of the starship Sisu and deliver the message. Thorby learns that Baslim once saved an entire ship of ‘Free Traders’ from the clutches of a slave trading ship. In return, Thorby is adopted by Captain Krausa and taken to live with the rest of the clan on the Sisu. Now, the free traders are more than just an ordinary group of traders. They are a fiercely insular clan with a rigid social structure built around a matriarchal figure and the trading of goods between spaceports. Each starship is like an extended family or clan, and Thorby spends the next few years adjusting to life on the ship and learning the customs of the free traders, while also adjusting to life as a “free man.” But Baslim’s message to Captain Krausa wasn’t just to take care of Thorby, it was also to help him find out who he really is. With no memory of his parents or how came to be a slave in the first place, he could literally be anyone. To help Thorby on his journey, Captain Krausa helps him enlist in the Terran Hegemony military, where he eventually learns more about Baslim’s true identity – as well as his own.
Citizen of the Galaxy works as both a thoroughly engaging coming of age tale and a scathing indictment of slavery in all its forms. Whether it’s the Terran military’s lack of enthusiasm for fighting the slave trade or the implication that wealthy interests on Earth are actually benefiting from the forced labor of slaves, Heinlein seems to be raging at the complacency and casual acceptance of such a horrific practice. And in his portrayal of Thorby as the average, every man, citizen of the galaxy, he also seems to be showing us how anyone can can be a slave. In Heinlein’s view, everyone has the potential, though education and experience, to make a difference in the world – both ways both small and large. And to restrict or suppress that potential in any way is the worst thing possible.
Buy Citizen of the Galaxy