Tags: Robert Heinlein
Individually, Heinlein’s prominent adult fiction is more widely known and read (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers) but I think the argument can be made that his juvenile (or young adult or whatever the proper term is these days) novels have held up the best over time. I haven’t read enough of either side of his work to make any pronouncements on this question, but I can vouch for Citizen of the Galaxy as a light, engaging read. The plot certainly sounds like the sort of wish-fulfillment trash that clutters young adult shelves: Thorby is an orphan captured by slavers has the good fortune to be taken in by a wise old beggar. He learns street smarts on the mean streets while the beggar teaches him reading and mathematics at night, then as a teenager he manages to escape poverty to become a crewman on a trading spaceship, and from there continues to bigger things, all the while on a quest to discover his true identity. This is a science fiction version of a very, very old sort of story, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I mention in the end it turns out he is the scion of an aristocratic family and must defeat those who would deny him his inheritance.
I said this sounds a lot like wish-fulfillment. I guess there’s nothing wrong with a little wish-fulfillment escapism in moderation, but particularly in children’s fiction I think it’s the literary equivalent of junk food. What’s interesting is that Heinlein, ever the ideologue, uses this framework to impart some very, dare I say, edifying ideas. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a rollicking adventure story that pulls the reader along for the ride, but this turns out to be a candy coating. The first hint is that as the protagonist’s life progresses through stages from grim existence to ever more elevated positions (beggar, trader crewman, soldier, magnate) he becomes less and less happy. Toward the end, after shocking a long lost relative with a brief account of his early life, he laments that his days as a beggar were the happiest of his life. Every time he achieved a higher status, he became more burdened with obligations and more isolated. This wasn’t poor fortune. Each step of the way, Thorby has the option of rejecting the higher calling (fighting the institution of slavery) he inherited from the beggar who adopted him and living a simple life. His final decision to reject decadence is the climax of the novel. Once he is set on putting the liberation of other slaves ahead of his own life, the book ends. He doesn’t actually achieve any of his goals, and while he has unearthed a sinister conspiracy he has barely begun to try to defeat it. In a normal story, this would be the middle.
But for Heinlein it is the end, because the book is not about the defeat of slavery in human space, it’s about a young man finding a way to live ethically in a difficult world. Unlike a lot of children’s entertainment that pats itself on the back for the most banal of themes (friends are good!), this is genuinely edifying. Unlike Heinlein’s adult work, the message here is broad enough that I think pretty much everyone can agree with it. While this is entertaining for adults as light reading, I’d mainly recommend this for younger readers.