CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY has the most of what makes a Heinlein juvenile good: it is a coming of age story with a profound theme, scribed with solid characterization.
Let us explore these points in order. First, what makes for a good coming of age story?
Well, such stories are, at the root, a Cinderella or Parsifal tale: stories about inexperienced, inept youth learning and growing and achieving the status of manhood. In this case, the author starts, not merely with an inexperienced youth, but with an orphan boy whipped into slavery, half-feral, hardly human, and shows his growth upward through every rung in society to the very tiptop. His rise through society parallels his rise to maturity, and the reader gets to see the culture from different perspectives at each rung of the social hierarchy.
There is more plot here than is typical of a Heinlein tale: events established in the beginning of the book actually have an effect on the end.
The plot is an act in four parts: Thorby is a ragged slave-boy bought by the beggar Baslim, who takes pity on the lad and raises him as his own son. Baslim turns out to be more than meets the eye, a spy involved in dangerous work, and gives the boy training in advanced memory techniques. Baslim makes the boy promise to follow a certain set of instruction should he ever disappear. In one particularly poignant scene, Thorby loses his adopted father, and is on the run from the ruthless police of the despot-government of the slaver's world. Unexpected hands help him, including one widow whose face Thorby never sees.
Thorby gets his message to Captain Krausa of the Free Trader ship Sisu. The bulk of the book is Thorby's apprenticeship under the Traders, who scorn him as dirt at first, but he works his way up the social ladder by being obedient, unselfish, smart and hard-working, until the Ship's Exec, Grandmother, is matchmaking an advantageous marriage for him. And yet, Thorby is not a Trader, and his yearning for freedom, for his own place in the world, whispers to him that the highly-regulated and taboo-ridden life of a Trader is not for him.
The Free Traders are one of Heinlein's more memorable inventions: space nomads who never settle on soil, but act as caravan merchants from world to world, bound in a tightly-organized extended family, with strict rules governing endogamy and exogamy, with starboard and portside moieties enforcing an incest taboo. Unlike most SF conceits, the Traders are anthropologically sound, with traditions no more outlandish than those of Hottentots or, for that matter, orthodox Jews: and unlike most SF conceits, the Free Traders are depicted both as flawed, and as sympathetic.
There is one scene, for example, where Captain Krausa is agonizing about what to do with Thorby, whom he has adopted as his own son, and who has proven a valuable firecontrol-officer, a loyal member of the Tribe. The Captain's prejudice against 'fraki,' outsiders, makes him unwilling to believe the boy is not really a Free Trader from birth, and unwilling to send the boy away to find his real family; but his Trader's sense of honor, his vow that all debts must be paid in full, requires him to do just that. In other words, two values of the Free Traders war in the Captain's breast, and at no point does the author mock the conflict, or dismiss its drama; and yet they are not necessarily the values a modern Western man would bring to bear on the issue.
Another example is when a girl whose interest in Thorby extends to thoughts of marriage is traded away to another ship to prevent the match, which would have been incest by their way of reckoning kinship. The author could easily have portrayed the decision as irrational, even monstrous. Instead, he gives as clear and just as reason for it as can be made: when dealing with the crowded ship-life of the Free Traders, small technical violations of the incest rules cannot be permitted, any more than small breaks in the hull. The safety of the people depends on the perfect integrity of their system. Allowing the marriage of a sister to her adoptive brother would normalize brother-sister marriage, muddy the rules, and give authority to a dangerous precedent. (Heinlein's argument in favor of integrity is astonishing, considering that this same pen gave us the stomach-turning scenes in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE where Lazarus Long longs erotically for his own mother.)
Science Fiction is a perfect vehicle for portraying alien values and world-views in a sympathetic light: and yet how rarely it is done, even by Heinlein, who has the talent to do it.
Third act: Thorby is enlisted by the Hegemonic Guard, and serves a short stint in the military. Here the action shifts away from Thorby himself, to the maneuverings of his CO Brisby and his paymaster, trying to work his way around the galaxy-sized bureaucracy to find the boy's identification records. Also, Baslim turns out to be, not merely a spy, but a legendary member of the X Corps, a man devoted to exterminating the slave trade, a task which promises to take centuries to complete: and Thorby has in his trained photographic memory crucial clues linking the dirty business to prominent and powerful business interests on Earth.
Note here how craftily the author pencils in the character development of Baslim the Cripple even after he is dead, which also foreshadows the character development of Thorby, his adopted son: he does this merely by having Thorby meet men who knew and admired Baslim, and tell him of the man's true heroism.
Fourth act: Thorby turns out to be none other than Thor B. Rudbeck of Rudbeck, the most ultra of the ultra-rich, and he has trouble adjusting to life as a member of the elite. He stands to inherent an ungodly amount of money, and he begins to suspect his Uncle Jack, the current controller of his missing parents' affairs, is playing dirty pool.
Thorby decides to investigate. He is assisted by his cousin Leda, one of the few entirely likable Heinlein female characters in his body of work. She is shown to be competent at both spycraft and high finance when the occasion calls for it. She is demure enough to pretend to have no head for business, but notice it is her mechanizations that ultimately outmaneuver her unscrupulous uncle at a climactic stockholder's meeting.
Because this is a juvenile, she cannot be used as a Heinlein hobby-horse to express his ideas of sexual liberation. Indeed, the innocence of the lad as scheming females maneuver to marry him, or scheming elders to marry him off, is one of the more charming aspects of the book.
He is also assisted by a lawyer, who is Jubal Hershaw under another name, James J. Garsch. Some commentators have criticized the climax on the grounds that the lawyer Garsch does the legal maneuvering and Thorby, the book's hero, is an interested onlooker. This analysis is trivial and beside the point. In each one of the four acts of this magnificent novel, the same theme and pattern unfolds in a slightly different way: each act contains a mediation on freedom and responsibility, and consists of a scared and lonely Thorby finding himself in a strange environment, adopted by a new family under a new set of laws and customs, finding a mentor to advise him and acclimate him, and, finally, growing into his environment.
In the first act, the restraint was the legal chains of slavery, and the economic restrictions of being a beggar. These chains are struck off when Baslim gives the boy a home. By providing him with a home and a father, slave or not, beggar or not, Baslim frees the boy.
In the second act, the restraint was the customs and taboos of the Free People, ironically customs much more strict and binding than what Thorby knew as a beggar. In the third, the restrictions are the military discipline of the Guard, the labyrinth of red tape, the secrecy of the X Corps.
In the fourth act, Thorby is offered, by his Uncle Jack, an unspoken devil's bargain of infinite freedom. He can live like a playboy, cared-for, pampered, given an endless expense account, all the wealth in the world, if only he will sign over his power of attorney to Jack; the only price asked him is that he shuddup and not rock the boat. Neither economic concerns, and only the most minimal social taboos, will now restrain him. THAT is the action of the Fourth Act, not the legal maneuvering, which is an afterthought.
That temptation is resisted by Thorby. Determining to put aside the life of a playboy, and take control of his heritage and legacy, and to continue the fight against slavery in which Baslim gave his life, that decision is the central decision of the fourth act, and it is the only decision Thorby makes in the whole book entirely on his own. Everything up until now has been decided for him, by Baslim, or Krausa, or the X Corps.
All his previous mentors come to his aid. He resolves to carry on first, according to the needs of the military service of the X Corps; second, in the careful businesslike way his foster father Kruasa would approve of, always paying his debts to the full; and third, as a man enslaved by his duty, free to do everything but disobey his conscience, as his foster-father Baslim would approve of.
The book ends when Thorby, now at the utmost top of the social ladder, determines to do his duty, despite painful and strong desires to do otherwise. The learning process, his achievement of maturity, is symbolically shown to be complete when, like ghosts, the voices of his foster parents echo in his memory, affirming his decisions. It is a completely satisfactory ending.
The book is the best of the coming of age books because coming of age is about maturity, which is, the process of learning self-command. Self-command is a paradox, because the philosopher can be perfectly free even when chained up or reduced to beggary, because he is free in his soul, which no outside despot can touch. And yet self-command demands sacrifice and toil and self-sacrifice above even what restrictive customs or the iron laws of military service compel.
The book is about status, what it means in society, what a person has to do to get it, and what unscrupulous people will do to keep it. Part of the maturing process is learning what status is, and how to earn it, and, yes, how to dispense with it when need be, lest it possess you.
This book is about honor. It is about paying your debts, especially spiritual debts, despite strong personal interest and inclination. The almost mystical reverence and respect all the admirable characters pay to the concept of honoring the wishes of the dead, honoring the humanity of a slaveboy who seems to have lost his, honoring customs one does not understand, honoring the service to which one belongs, honoring one's father, honoring one's conscience .... the book is one long meditation on the meaning of freedom and obligation, slavery and license.
The book is about identity. Thorby spends the fist three acts finding out who he is, who his family is, where is home is; and the final act, he finds out what character he has, what he is made of, and we see all the thread of all his foster families and previous homes drawn together: Slave and beggar, Free Trader and Guardsman, Spy and Tycoon, all combine in the last scene to be a man every inch his father was, devoted to freedom, fighting the hard fight he will not live long enough to see the end of, doing his duty, and honoring those who came before him.
The characterization is masterfully done, with an economy that other writers should practice and admire. Instead of praising it, I will indulge in a brief quote. Baslim the Cripple has just bought the feral slave-boy, (apparently out of curiosity because the boy is an Earthman, unmutated; but we will later find out Baslim was gathering evidence to link the Nine Worlds slave trade to Earth). The boy won't talk. Baslim leaves the door unlocked while he serves dinner, and is not nonplussed when Thorby bolts for it. After a while he hears stealthy movement in the passage beyond. Then:
"Will you come eat your dinner? Or shall I throw it away?"
The boy did not answer. "All right," Baslim went on, "if you won't, I'll have to close the door. I can't risk leaving it open with the light on." He slowly got up, went to the door, and started to close it. "Last call," he announced. "Closing up for the night."
As the door was almost closed the boy squealed "Wait!" in the language Baslim expected, and scurried inside.
"Welcome," Baslim said quietly. "I'll leave it unlocked, in case you change your mind." He sighed. "If I had my way, no one would ever be locked in."
There you are. Four paragraphs of two to four sentences each, and you now know everything you need to know about Baslim, his parenting, his philosophy, and his life.
I still recall, even from years ago, the similar scene later in the book, where the characterization is filled in with a few adroit pen-strokes. This time it is the villains (if the book has villains). These are the grandparents of Thorby, named Bradley, who live fat and comfortable lives on a world that does not realize slavery still exists, and do not much care to find out:
"I heard you use that term 'sold' once before. You must realize that it is not correct. After all, the serfdom practiced in the Sargony is not chattel slavery. It derives from the ancient Hindu gild or 'caste' system a stabilized social order with mutual obligations, up and down. You must not call it 'slavery'."
"I don't know any other word to translate the Sargonese term."
"I could think of several . . . . But, my dear Thor, you aren't a student of human histories and culture. Grant me a little authority in my own field." . . . .
"But I can't translate any better I was sold and I was a slave!"
"Don't contradict your grandfather, dear, that's a good boy."
Thorby shut up. . . . . he had already found that while his grandfather knew much about many things, he was just as certain of his knowledge when Thorby's eyes had reported things differently.
I have also read commentators who dismiss the Bradleys as a typical Heinlein straw-man. Well, since I have talked face-to-face with folk who tell me not to believe things I myself eye-witnessed, because I should believe their abstract theories rather than my lying eyes, and who said it without once smiling, as earnest and serious as any Ghandi advocate of total disarmament, all I can say is, for strawmen, these Scarecrows talk a lot, and without a bit of brains. The belief system of the Bradleys is as strange and arbitrary as the taboo-system of the Free Traders, and they are as equally unaware of it.
(What is involved here is called a word-fetish: if you call a thing by name that disguises its nature, the fetish of the word is assumed to change the nature of the underlying reality, so as to eliminate its unacceptable reality.)
I have read commentators who scorn the role of women in the book, noting that, not once, but twice, clever women pretend to be dumb in order to get Thorby to talk to them, and to give themselves a chance to flatter the boy. I fear my sympathy here is with the author: the complaint sounds like a shibboleth to me. I can only assume the critics here are not women, who have not found out how hard it is to get men to talk about themselves or anything important, or discovered what silly asses men are. Some men are just taciturn. You cannot make time with a man unless he talks. Taciturn men will not make small talk: they aren't built for it. But any man with the knight-in-shining-armor gene will be happy, be honored, in fact, if they think they can help out the poor little dear with her math or something. It is a perfect excuse to ask as many questions as you like. Once you are married, and they are strictly under your control, then you can show them how smart you are. (Maybe it does not have to work this way these days, with our liberated women and our menfolk, now socialized to have no scrap of chivalry or romance, so they can be either effete wimps or barbaric boors, but nothing approach a real man: but it is a way that works, and it is not a system any worse than the complex taboos of the Free Traders.)
Do I have any complaints about the book? Only one single paragraph struck a flat note in my ear. There is a scene, one of the turning points in Thorby's growth from helpless slave to all-powerful business magnate, when he fires a missile at a raider and destroys it, saving his ship and his adopted family from certain capture, slavery, death. Thorby, as is right and proper for a human being, pauses to wonder, perhaps with a touch of guilt or awe, that he has slain so many of his fellow men, so instantly. The author breaks the fourth wall to tell us that this is the reaction of "an integrated personality" it is like a man who eats a steak but prefers someone else to do the work in the slaughterhouse. In other words, when the author's character comes to life under his hand, and has the realistic and human emotion of pity, scruples about taking human life, the author rushes to assure us that real "integrated" people kill without pity, like robots, or perhaps they crack wise like James Bond electrocuting an evil spy, and muttering with a wry quirk of the eyebrow, "Shocking!"
Sorry, but the James Bond fantasy strikes me as the immature one. Real men come home from war and tend not to talk about what they have done. Some have even been known to pray for the souls of men they've killed. For that matter, even primitive hunters sometimes apologize to the spirits of the game they slay for their daily meat, regretting the loss even of animal life. Heinlein reveals here a philosophy not even as mature and human as that of the superstitious pagan.
But this is one paragraph, nay, one sentence out of a work which is simply the best of Heinlein, and therefore among the best of all scientifiction.
Upon rereading, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY now ranks as my favorite Heinlein, above STARSHIP TROOPERS, and above MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. His books written for grownups do not have this level of composition, characterization, theme, and particularly the echoes and foreshadows in each section of the book of the other sections. It is all masterfully, masterfully done.