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Literature / Citizen of the Galaxy

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Citizen of the Galaxy is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein first published as a serial in 1957 and part of the twelves works he wrote for juveniles.

For as long as Thorby can remember, he's been a slave, futilely resisting as he was sold to a succession of masters. Now, in the slave markets of the space port of Jubbulpore (capital of the Nine Worlds), he's bought by the beggar Baslim the Cripple, for the token sum of nine minims. Thorby eventually learns that Baslim is far more than he appears, as the old man teaches him lessons about how to both think and live as a free man, while enlisting his help in spying on the ships arriving at the port.

When Baslim is hunted down and killed as a spy, Thorby is forced to obey the last request of his Pop and escape on one of the ships of the Free Traders, a insular yet Proud Merchant Race who owe a debt to Baslim that can't be repaid — although adopting Thorby would be a good start.

So Thorby begins a journey that takes him from one end of the galaxy to the other, and his journey that started with him in the depths of slavery catapults him to the highest levels of society. And at every step, he has to struggle with the nature of freedom and how he can find it in his circumstances, even while fulfilling his responsibilities.

A graphic novel adaptation of this novel was successfully Kickstarted in 2013, and was published by IDW Publishing in 2015.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: Thorby's grandparents are convinced that there is never any reason to resort to violence, even in self-defense. Within the context of the novel, they are shown to be naively misguided as to the way things work outside the Solar System.
  • Age Insecurity: This is a culture shock for Thorby, when his cousin refuses to disclose her age and explains that on Earth it's impolite to ask about a woman's age, unlike the women in the culture where Thorby grew up, who would try to claim to be older than they really were because of the higher status of elders.
  • All Men Are Perverts: The Executive Officer of Sisu confiscates pornographic images from the bachelor's quarters, saying that such filth doesn't belong on their ship. In a bit of Values Dissonance, the images are implied to be no worse than pinup girls, which would have been risque when the novel was written, but tame by today's standards.
  • Auction: This is where the novel opens, as Thorby is put up for sale. The novel's first line: "'Lot ninety-seven,' the auctioneer announced. 'A boy.'"
  • Author Catchphrase: Characters saying "So?", meaning in the sense of "Is that so?" in context. Several of Heinlein's other works using the phrase are on the trope page.
  • Black Market: The spaceport area of the city of Jubbulpore:
    "The inhabitants brag that within a li of the pylon at the spaceport end of the Avenue of Nine anything in the explored universe can be had by a man with cash, from a starship to ten grains of stardust, from the ruin of a reputation to the robes of a senator with the senator inside."
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: An unusual example in that it all takes place among fellow humans. Every culture Thorby finds himself living among is so strange to him that it takes a long time to adjust, and in some cases, he never really understands how it works. By contrast, he adapts to the ways of actual aliens with more aplomb. Granted, he doesn't try to live with them, just interact.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Played with. Space travel is definitely common, and Thorby spends most of the book travelling the galaxy, much of which has been colonized. However, it's also mentioned in dialogue that fewer that 1% of people ever leave their birth planet. And the travel time is more like an ocean cruise than a cross-country road trip.
  • Chaste Hero: As usual for a Heinlein juvenile-novel hero, Thorby has a gift for missing other characters' romantic overtures, even after still other characters try to explain it to him. He's still not above feeling pleasantly embarrassed by some engineered romantic moments (like the "Spirit of Sisu" play that Grandmother Krausa tries to use to pair him with Loeen), and does show symptoms of The Dulcinea Effect when the situation seems to warrant it (Margaret has to pre-emptively discourage the cunning plan Thorby was starting to form after learning that she would be leaving the Sisu alongside Mata).
  • Cool Old Guy: Baslim the Cripple AKA Colonel Richard Baslim.
  • Cunning Linguist: Thorby knows a smattering of several languages when Baslim buys him, and he learns two or three more throughout the course of the novel. It's implied that Baslim knew even more.
  • Deadly Euphemism: On Jubbulpore, "shortened" is slang for "beheaded".
  • Death by Origin Story: Thorby's parents. Getting them declared legally dead provides the main thrust for the last part of the novel.
  • Decided by One Vote: A slightly more realistic, if no less dramatic, version. Thorby's cousin Leda announces at the very last moment that she, and the thousands of shares in stock she holds, is voting for Thorby.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Inherent in the nature of the book itself, which is something of a meditation on how the idea of "freedom" can mean different things to different societies.
  • Due to the Dead: During the Free Traders' gathering, Krausa risks missing a memorial ceremony for both his late mother and Baslim in order to bring Thorby to a Terran Guard base and honor Baslim's last wishes. As soon as the base commander discovers that Krausa is about to miss the ceremony, he orders the Free Trader captain to be driven back to the Gathering using a fast air car.
  • Evil Uncle: Weemsby asks Thorby to call him Uncle John even though they're not actually related (he's the stepfather of a cousin of Thorby's, as well as an old family friend). He's also more ambitious than actually evil, but then, Ambition Is Evil.
  • Exact Words: Thorby's first experience on the Sisu is as a "fraki" who is literally ignored by the crew to the best of their ability — until the Chief Officer of the ship, Captain Krausa's mother and superior officer, hears the message Baslim left for the Sisu and concludes that Baslim's request to care for Thorby "as if you were I" means that Krausa must adopt the boy himself.
  • Failed a Spot Check: A sergeant of the guard has a conversation with a fortune teller about how he is searching for Thorby, while Thorby is standing mere feet away pretending to be changing the letters on a theater marquee (although to be fair, Thorby is currently standing on a ladder with his head masked by the glare of the lights, so the only thing the guardsmen could see would be his feet) It's also entirely possible the guy knew it was Thorby , and was trying to subtly tell him to run as far and fast as he can.
  • Fantastic Racism: Like any clannish society, the Free Traders (or the People, as they call themselves) consider everyone else beneath them. Interestingly, they don't differentiate between humans and aliens: if you're not People, you're nobody, and all planet dwellers tend to be lumped together as "fraki"note . Captain Krausa of Sisu (and possibly other ship captains) is a bit looser about this, probably because he is often in direct contact with outsiders.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Part of the standard combat readiness drill among the Free Traders is for the Chief Engineer to arm the "suicide switch" on the ship's power plant, allowing it to be detonated like a hydrogen bomb to "deliver his people into the shelter of death" if all else fails; this is to keep them from becoming slaves if defeated by raiders.
  • Fish out of Water: Thorby constantly passes from one society to the next and has to learn an entirely new set of social mores each time.
  • Future Imperfect: While Thorby and Leda visit New Washington in order to contact the lawyer Garsch, they stop to visit the Replica Lincoln Memorial. As far as Leda knows, Lincoln founded America. Thorby knows at least one other thing about him:
    "He did something else."
    "He freed slaves."
  • Handicapped Badass: Baslim the Cripple sees and does a lot for a guy who's missing a leg and an eye. He has prosthetics, but he only uses them when passing himself off as a wealthy citizen.
  • Happily Adopted: Thorby is happy as the "slave" of Baslim the Cripple, and also happy on the Sisu after he is adopted by Captain Krausa.
  • Hard on Soft Science: Thorby runs into an anthropologist, which leads to the following exchange:
    "An anthropologist is a scientist who studies how people live together."
    Thorby looked doubtful. "This is a science?"
However, she is able to provide him with valuable insight and support as he assimilates into a culture that is foreign to him.
  • Hero of Another Story: Baslim the Cripple is much more than the simple beggar he poses as on Jubbulpore. We get snippets of what he's been up to as the story progresses, but we only see what Thorby witnesses firsthand. Specifically, Colonel Richard Baslim is an agent sent by the Terran Hegemony to investigate and bring down a pervasive slave trafficking ring that uses Terran shipping companies as fronts for its criminal enterprises. Baslim is also a hero to and honorary member of the Free Traders because he was instrumental in rescuing one of their ships from said slavers.
  • Insane Troll Logic: The Free Traders refer to themselves as "people" and everyone else as "fraki". When Thorby, a fraki, is adopted and assimilates well, the captain's wife decides that the only way that could be possible is if Thorby was born "people" and then kidnapped and sold into slavery, rather than accept that a fraki might be a person as well.
  • Kangaroo Court: Defied. Weemsby and the judge on his payroll attempt to set one up when Thorby seeks to declare his parents legally dead and set himself up as the rightful heir to their estate, but his savvy and equally underhanded lawyer makes sure the case is handled fairly by filling the courtroom with reporters and high-ranking judges.
  • Kissing Cousins:
    • When he is on the Sisu, Thorby's adopted niece Mata is interested in him (they're roughly the same age). Their relative stations in the family make any romantic relationship taboo, despite the fact that there is no blood relation between the two; she is swapped to another Free Trader vessel after trying to find a loophole to make her a suitable potential mate.
    • At the Rudbek estate, "Uncle" John tries to foist Leda on Thorby, and she isn't completely against the idea. Thorby is mildly disturbed at first (especially after the fiasco with Mata), until he goes over their lineage in his head and realizes that, at least by Free Trader standards, she's not taboo. He still remains against the idea though, because he intends to stay a Chaste Hero and, later, doesn't want to hurt her by being an absentee husband because of the X-Corps.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: James Garsch is a cheerfully mercenary lawyer Thorby hires for the fight to regain control of the Rudbek family fortune. When they first meet, Thorby is reminded of the "old, scarred freedmen professionals who swaggered around the New Amphitheatre." By the end of the book, Garsch is working (long hours) alongside Thorby at Rudbek & Associates in order to fight the slave trade.
    James J. Garsch: (when he and Thorby first meet) "I come high. I usually charge for each inhale and exhale."
    James J. Garsch: (later) "This is going to be fun. And very, very expensive for you."
    James J. Garsch: (at the end of the book, when asked why he agreed to join Thorby at Rudbek & Associates) "Because I'm an old idiot. Somebody had to give you a hand. Maybe I relished a chance to take a crack at anything as dirty as the slave trade and this was my way—I'm too old and fat to do it any other way."
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Decibel, the corporal Thorby serves under when he first joins the Hegemony military. He claims that Free Traders are cowards who run from raiders. When Thorby corrects him, and states that he himself blew up a raider when he was a Free Trader, Decibel takes him down to one of the ship's gunners to put him in his place. He is shocked when the man not only confirms Thorby's story, but thanks Decibel for making him aware of such a valuable asset as Thorby's gunnery experience.
  • Lost Orphaned Royalty: Not royalty in the literal sense, but fits the same trope: Thorby is the heir to a Mega-Corp, but his parents ship was destroyed and he was sold into slavery. It's heavily implied that his parents were eliminated to prevent them from finding out that some subsidiaries of the company were supporting and profiting from slavery.
  • Made a Slave: The story begins with Thorby being sold to Baslim. According to his backstory, Thorby had been sold several times before then. Shortly after buying him, Baslim suspects that Thorby wasn't born a slave, but had been captured by slavers. Turns out he was right.
  • Mars Needs Women: While Sisu is on-planet trading, an inspection is held that results in the confiscation of several items of pornography from the bachelors' quarters. The ship's supercargo decides to put the confiscated smut (and several comic books seized from the nursery) out with the rest of their trade goods instead of having it incinerated. The response is immediate, and the aliens eventually work out an exchange rate of one carved jewel per individual page. The bachelors of the Sisu swiftly offer their remaining Porn Stashes for the common good. The book implies that the pictures are valued by the aliens because they are "brightly colored pieces of paper," rather than any squicky interest in human women.
  • Matriarchy: The Free Traders live in a matriarchal society, with a woman serving as Chief Officer of each ship.
  • Mutant:
    • Humans have mutated in several different directions since spreading out among the stars. When Baslim first buys Thorby, he thinks the boy is between 10-12 years old, but is unsure since some mutants look like normal humans, but age at different rates. When Baslim is able to determine that Thorby is non-mutated, this causes Baslim to conclude that Thorby is probably from the Terran Hegemony, and possibly even Earth.
    • The only example seen is one of the other buyers at the slave auction, a "Syndonian" with Pointy Ears who finds the auctioneer pointing out Thorby's seemingly "perfect" round ears quite insulting.
  • Neuro-Vault: Before he's killed by the Sargon's forces, Baslim takes the time to hypnotize Thorby to memorize his final report, along with a series of messages to the captains of several Free Trader ships (like the Sisu), in their unique languages, asking them to take Thorby offworld.
  • Noodle Incident: Several.
    • We never find out the exact details of how Thorby himself became a slave and how his parents died in the same incident, although the book drops tantalizing hints that it might have been set up by profiteers within his parents' company who were benefiting from the slave trade themselves.
    • There are several references to Colonel Baslim's rescue of the Hansea from slavers, but the subject is a taboo among the People so we never find out exactly what happened. The only hint is a comment by Col. Brisby, C.O. of HGC Hydra: "That was a hand-weapons job. Messy."
    • When Colonel Brisby, Commanding Officer of a military starship, gets the identification back on his newest recruit, a young ex-slave and ex-Free Trader. Turns out the youngster - our protagonist - went missing after a starship "accident" when he was a baby and is in fact the much-sought-after sole heir to a Galaxy-spanning mercantile empire. After reading the message, Brisby muses "Why do things like this always happen to Hydra?", leaving the reader to wonder just what other adventures the Hegemonic Guard Cruiser Hydra has been involved in.
  • No Such Agency: X-Corps - the elite branch of the military that Baslim belonged to.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Defied with Mata, Thorby's adopted niece. Although the two grow close after some Belligerent Sexual Tension during Thorby's training as a fire control officer, she's technically part of the same moiety (group of the ship's crew treated as blood relations). Mata's brother Jeri, coincidentally Thorby's roommate, acts as a chaperone to keep things under control at first. However, the Sisu's Chief Officer (Thorby's adoptive grandmother) takes swift action to trade her to another Free Trader vessel as soon as possible once Mata asks to be adopted into the other moiety to become a legitimate potential mate. As the sociologist Margaret explains to Thorby as soon as he finds out about most of this, this form of the incest taboo exists for valid reasons in the culture of the People, and Grandmother did the right thing.
  • Nuclear Option: Free Trader ships routinely use missiles armed with 20 megaton nuclear warheads against Space Pirate ships. It's presented as a legitimate option as a successful boarding would mean the enslavement of the entire crew and there's no other defense available - and Thorby successfully "burns" a pirate ship when it attacks the Sisu. Thorby at the end starts the development of what is implied to be Deflector Shields as an alternative to the nukes, but it's unknown how much it will take or if it will be successful at all.
  • The Paralyzer: One of the key weapons that Space Pirates depend on in this book is a starship-mounted paralysis ray that can freeze the crew of a target ship, leaving them vulnerable to capture and enslavement. The only way to prevent this is to destroy the pirate ship before it can fire — or at least launch a missile that hits after the crew is paralyzed, like Thorby manages near the planet Finster.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: The Sisu's crew use both formalized descriptions of their positions (e.g. "Starboard Second Assistant Cook") and overly specific familial relations (e.g. "Cross-Cousin-in-Law by Marriage") to refer to each other, depending on a social situation. The sociologist Margaret Mader explains that the excessive politeness of the ship's society is used as an escape valve to avoid tensions that would otherwise lead them to come to blows: "you could go through a day and not utter a phrase not found in the Laws of Sisu." Thorby briefly tries to put this into practice early in his training as a fire control officer, until his rival and adopted niece Mata uses Puppy-Dog Eyes to persuade him to relent.
  • Photographic Memory: Baslim teaches Thorby this skill through a process he calls "Renshawing," after Samuel Renshaw. This process comes up in a few other Heinlein novels.
  • Protocol Peril: Averted by Sisu during trade, asthey pride themselves on never having trouble with fraki. Captain Krausa is well versed in the customs of the various planets they visit to trade; when accompanied by Thorby, Krausa take the time to brief him on local customs as well so he can avoid any negative incidents.
  • Rags to Riches: Thorby goes back and forth, but goes from being a penniless beggar to a member of the well-off Free Trader ship Sisu, to a comfortable but relatively low paid member of the Hegemonic guard, and finally becomes heir to one of the largest MegaCorps in human space.
  • Rags to Royalty: Not technically royalty, but Thor discovers that he is the heir to possibly the largest corporation in the galaxy.
  • Read the Fine Print: Weemsby tries to bounce Thorby into signing a long and complicated document that would give Weemsby control of Rudbeck, but Thorby was taught by The Sisu's Chief Officer never to sign anything unless you understand both the document and the laws under which it will be executed.
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: Thorby at one point is given a "megabuck", which is a combination of this and We Will Spend Credits in the Future. The main Terran denomination is the credit (one credit will buy about five loaves of bread, according to Thorby); 100 dollars is 1 credit, 1,000 credits is 1 supercredit, and 1,000 supercredits is 1 megabuck. In other words, a megabuck is a million credits, or 100 million dollars — which is still considered a lot of money, but not nearly as much as 100 million would be today. That 'megabuck' is considered to be an amount of money that Thorby, Leda, and several other young rich scions could all blow through in several weeks of holiday amongst the resorts and sports for the superrich... in other words, about a million dollars.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Weemsby's chief council is a former judge, Bruder, who is stated to have other judges in his pocket.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Weemsby is used to being able to throw money at his problems, and to use the massive influence of his company if that doesn't work. Unfortunately for him, Thorby has money to burn, too.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Captain Krausa defies the orders of his wife to make sure that Thorby is put on a Hegemony vessel, like Baslim asked him to do.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Most citizens of the Terran Hegemony are shocked and horrified when Thorby tells them he used to be a slave, and disbelieve him. His grandparents especially refuse to believe that slavery exists in the Nine Worlds. And when Thorby argues the point with them, they inform him that they know more about the situation than Thorby does, even though he lived through it, and was unambiguously a slave.
  • Slave Brand: Slaves on the planet Jubbul are tattooed with a serial number(Thorby's is on his left thigh). If a slave is manumitted, a line is tattooed through the serial number, along with the seal of the Sargon and the volume and page number of the record book in which the manumission has been duly recorded. Thorby is not at all ashamed of what has been done to him, but when another character mocks him over his experiences, Thorby does react with minor violence (responding to a command of "Hey, Slave! Pass the potatoes!" by throwing said potatoes—"bowl and all"—in the other guy's face).
  • Slave Liberation: In the Back Story, Colonel Baslim stormed a raider's compound and freed the crew of a Free Trader starship who had been captured to be made into slaves.
  • Slave Market: The book starts at a slave auction where the main character, Thorby, is being sold. There's so little interest in him, as a scrawny little boy, that a beggarnote  is able to buy him, free him, and adopt him as a son.
  • Space Cossacks: The play Aunt Athena wrote for the Free Traders' Gathering, based on the origin of the Sisu itself, portrayed its first captain as a "saint with a heart of steel" who went into space because of his disgust with the "evil ways of fraki". Since the play was portrayed in-universe as a poorly-written crowd-pleaser, it's safe to say this trope is how the People, a clannish Proud Merchant Race who live and die in their trading starships, think of themselves.
  • Space People: The Free Traders live in nomadic clans whose homes are their starships. They are noted for being somewhat disdainful of planet-dwellers, whom they sometimes refer to as "fraki".
  • Space Pirates: Of the "ruthless, violent criminals who have spaceships" sort, and definitely not romanticized anachronistic lovable rogues who say "Arr!" and have pet Space Parrots (though we never actually see them up close). Often referred to simply as "slavers"; their primary goals are not just taking ships and cargoes as booty, but also capturing their crews to be sold into slavery.
  • Starfish Aliens: While a member of Sisu, Thorby encounters two alien races. The descriptions of the races make it clear they're not remotely humanoid. Their cultures and philosophies are also very alien, to the point that Sisu doesn't even interact directly with one race.
  • Ungovernable Galaxy: Although slavery is technically illegal, the ruling hegemony is unable to enforce the law in the far reaches of the galaxy and it is widely practiced in some systems.
  • Used Future: The space port of Jubbulpore and its surroundings have this look. While the Free Traders ship Sisu isn't a Shiny-Looking Spaceships, it is clean and luxuriously outfitted since it is the home of successful merchants. We don't see enough of Earth to really know its state.
  • What Would X Do?: A Colonel mentions that whenever he's faced with a difficult situation, he always asks himself what his former commander Col. Baslim would do.
  • Wretched Hive: Jubbulpore, Capitol of the Nine Worlds. Or at least, the area by the spaceport where Thorby spends most of his time.