Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy
July 18, 2013
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This is a fantastic little book.
It’s an earlier Heinlein novel, but it was done a few years before Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land put him on the road to longer political diatribes and all of that “swinging” stuff. It’s a short book– about 250 pages or so– so there’s no time for fooling around. Citizen is a solid, straight-ahead read. It’s classified as one of his juveniles, but doesn’t strike me as being kid stuff at all. (Maybe it sidesteps icky “adult” themes or something…?)
One of the striking things about this book is that it demonstrates just how relevant and influential Heinlein is. I was blown away last year reading about Sarah Hoyt’s ultra-libertarian planet where there weren’t any traffic laws. I’d never imagined such a thing… but it’s been right here in Citizen all along for decades. Many features of Verner Vinge’s Qeng Ho traders are also explored here, but that was all new to me when I read Deepness in the Sky a couple of years back.
The only place that the book strikes me as being particularly dated is in the computer-type tech. The stuff described here sounds about like what you’d expect to find on a World War II aircraft carrier. A slide-rule even turns up at some point. As far as this goes, Heinlein is not too different from the other grandmasters of his day. It doesn’t get in the way of the story, but it is intriguing how authors in the fifties and sixties failed to anticipate just what computers would be able to do.
The space combat scenario depicted here is probably a major influence on Traveller. Trade vessels don’t exactly have a jump drive, but they do run the risk of encountering pirates when they enter or leave a star-system. The way combat works is, the trader will detect the enemy ship coming after it… and the gunner will do all these calculations to figure out if and when it can be hit. It takes a healthy combination of math skills and intuition… and you even have to be young enough that you don’t second guess yourself too much. If you jump the gun or hesitate, you’ll miss completely– you have to press the fire button at the exact right moment. But a hit with a single nuclear missile is all you need to take care of your foe. Interestingly, some navy guys could not believe that a trader could take out a pirate given how primitive their weapons and targeting systems were…!
What’s fascinating about Heinlein’s style here is that he doesn’t really use cliffhangers for the ends of each chapters. I would finish a chapter and just keep on reading every single time– even if it was just to read the next page or two. The reason he could do this without the usual tricks was that his story is constantly expanding in scope and tone. He sets you up to expect a certain type of story and action… you invest in the characters and the situation… but your expectations keep getting stymied when a new complication gets worked into the mix. This ah-ha type feeling that comes as your mental model of the setting expands and deepens in lurching steps… it really is what I’m reading science fiction for. Heinlein seems to do it effortlessly here.
This is easily the best book I’ve read all year. I’m still waiting for someone to come out with something that can even come close to touching Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke. Sure, I’m happy to read a 6. I occasionally stumble across an 8. I just don’t see the 10’s anymore. I’ll keep looking, though….