Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy: a major unseen influence

Out of all of the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy is the one I like best. I first discovered it at the age of 12 or so. This story educated, entertained and inspired me; it sank into my subconscious mind and some years later influenced the course I took in life. I still go back to it occasionally, and it is just as enjoyable and moving now as it was when I first read it.

I like the descriptions of life on Jubbulpore, capital of the Nine Worlds. I feel relieved when Thorby, the young hero, escapes from the regimented, restricted, custom-ridden, ship-bound life of the clannish Free Traders, which is my idea of hell. It is an anomaly that he had more freedom in his previous life as a beggar than he did as a high-ranking member of that closed society.

I feel for Thorby when he experiences the cold wind of fear, when he feels some sick twinges because people he cares about have gone away forever and when he feels lost once more.

I envy Thorby his string of benevolent mentors, father figures even. His abilities are recognised, and he is educated and rigorously trained accordingly. Older women are there to help him just when he needs it, and he gets some useful briefings from young people too. He has people to tell him the score, to explain what is happening, to show him how to look at situations objectively and put his life into the context of various societies. 

Doctor Mader, an anthropologist, enlightens him by explaining that while some people just function, using information they have acquired subconsciously, others must learn and apply their knowledge consciously. This to me is a vitally important point that explains a lot about the differences between people.

At a time when the Free Traders have told and shown Thorby nothing, Doctor Mader fills the gap. I see something symbolic in the way she shows him how to transform the bare, featureless cube of his cell into a well-equipped little bunker.

I wish that I could have had such helpful adults and this kind of instruction in my life when I was that age.

Thorby goes from being nothing and nobody to discovering his true identity as a lost member of an elite, extremely rich family back on Earth. On his journey he experiences violent dislocations and the loss of some key people in his life; once restored to his inheritance, he learns some unwelcome truths about his family of origin and their business affairs.

Joining the dots
The honeymoon period with his family is soon over. Thorby does not accept his assigned role; he departs from the script and asks awkward questions. Thorby’s strongest reflex is a resistance to any authority that he has not consented to, and he refuses to obey certain orders. People become obstructive and information goes missing.

Some unwelcome ideas, nightmare notions even, come into his mind and he follows them up. He collects data, makes some connections and builds up a picture of the movements of star ships.  He finds that the company owned by his family is involved in the slave trade. Even more devastating, his parents may have been murdered because they started to make an inspection visit.

Once again with help, Thorby takes control of his affairs and the family company. He has always hated first slavers, later the institution of slavery itself: now he is in a position to do something about it.

Duty and responsibility
Thorby wants to make the same kind of contribution that his beloved mentor Colonel Baslim did. He wants and intends to rejoin the Hegemonic Guard, after he has cleared out and cleaned up the mess he has inherited and put in new managers he can trust.

Life as a tycoon means that Thorby in some ways becomes a slave once again, this time to desk duties and paperwork. He is swamped by a job far more complex than he had believed possible. He comes to understand that his task will take a very long time, and that, for the moment at least, the way to make the best contribution to the fight against slavery is to stay where he is.

He will sacrifice his personal wishes to the cause, knowing that he may never get the chance to do what he wants to do.

Thorby and Harry Potter
There are some similarities with Harry Potter’s life: both Harry and Thorby’s parents are murdered; Harry has his scar and Thorby has his brand; both boys spend some years out in the wilderness with no one to care about them and no frames to their pictures before they discover who and what they really are; both have large sums of money waiting for them; both are selected for high status tasks that few can perform well and that involve tracking and manoeuvring and need very fast reactions: Harry as Seeker where he must capture his target and Thorby as Firecontrolman where he must destroy it.

Harry loses Sirius Black and Professor Dumbledore when they are killed; Thorby loses Colonel Baslim when he poisons himself to avoid capture followed by interrogation and torture. He is also separated from his next two mentors: Free Trader Captain Krausa when he is transferred to the Hegemonic Guard, and Colonel Brisby in the Guard when his real identity is established.

The Free Traders despise frakis, or groundlings, rather as dark wizards despise Muggles and Mudbloods.

Espionage, detection, Kim and the Great Game
I – and many other people - have noticed the influence of Rudyard Kipling in more than one of Heinlein’s works.  I wonder whether Citizen of the Galaxy would even exist if Kipling had not written Kim, which I consider to be one of his greatest works. This is where the expression ‘the Great Game’, which refers to the political struggle between great European powers in Asia in the 19th century and the activities of rival intelligence services, was immortalised. There are many secret agents operating on behalf of the British and the Russians in the book, and the young Kim becomes one of them - on the British side.

In Citizen of the Galaxy, undercover spies and a network of couriers are working to put an end to slavery. Thorby becomes one of them, at first unwittingly.  While Kim loves intrigue – like Sherlock Holmes he plays the game for the game’s own sake - Thorby has a personal interest in the cause.

The disguises, the spying, the secret codewords, the undercover intelligence gathering and distribution in both books remind me of the activities of Richard Hannay and his colleagues in John Buchan’s books, Greenmantle in particular:

“…they find out many things, and they count the game worth the candle… “

Computing and the unseen influence
I still remember how relieved and excited I felt when I first heard of computer programming as a profession. I just knew that it was what I wanted to do; I saw it as the answer to all of my problems. At the time, the feeling of recognition did not consciously register: I did not realise that I had been prepared much earlier by what I had read in Citizen of the Galaxy. The message there was that while being suitable for working with computers was not for everyone, girls could be just as good at it as boys. Women could be bosses too.

I re-discovered the book a few years after starting my destined profession but I did not make the influence connection until many years after that. After this realisation, I started to think about how I came to read the story in the first place.

I remembered that there was a short gap after one family member left and before another returned. During this time, someone came to stay with us for a few days, which was very unusual indeed. He had a collection of classic Science Fiction magazines, and I read many of them avidly. It was the first time that I had encountered such publications as Astounding Science Fiction, where Citizen of the Galaxy was first published - in serial form.

Was it just by chance that this man came to stay and introduced me to a story that was to become a great, unseen, influence in my life? 

Accident or design?
There is an interesting passage in Heinlein’s fantasy novel Glory Road where a character called Rufo tells Oscar, the hero, that he was unwittingly selected, trained and honed for his eventual role as a champion. Swordsmanship is an essential part of this, but is very uncommon in America. By ‘chance’, his Scoutmaster was a Frenchman and a school teacher. He started some of the boys off. Oscar continued with the sword in college, and then he joined the army. Rufo says:

“Ever wonder why that immigrant got that job in that town? And volunteered for Scout work? Or why your college had a fencing team when many don’t? …Didn’t you have more combat than most of your category?”

Rufo informs Oscar that the misfortunes, setbacks and encounters with danger he experienced were all unavoidable, were actually part of a training operation.

It would be an interesting exercise to apply the concept of being selected and trained for an eventual role to Kim and Thorby’s lives – and to anyone who suspects that unseen influences have been at work in their own lives.

For example, books can be a major influence in our lives, sometimes recognised sometimes unseen; I know this from personal experience. My family moved around a lot when I was young. We always ended up close to large libraries with a good supply of high quality books: this was how I discovered most of the children’s books that I have written about. One library allowed me to go down into the storeroom where there were many books that were never on the public shelves: I found some real treasures there. Something saw to it that throughout many upheavals I had a large, continuous supply of material to educate me and feed my imagination.

The issue of whether these influences are benign or malign is another matter.

Debts and synchronicity
One expression that occurs frequently in Citizen of the Galaxy is:

“Debts must be paid.”

This is one of the tenets of the Free Traders, and the People say this to Thorby on several occasions, in a variety of ways: “Debts are paid…debts must be paid…debts are always paid… in full… no half measures…”

This hurts, as does another Free Trader expression: 

“One takes care of one’s own.”  

I was brought up by and among people who always tried to evade their responsibilities; I had no good examples to follow. “I have said enough.”

Re-reading the book with the intention of writing an article meant being hit many times with the rule that debts are always paid. This hurt so much that I decided to have a break and return to a background task, which was reading The Lion's Mouth, Kathleen Raine’s third volume of autobiography, for the first time. I found my place, and saw that the next sentence was:

 “All our debts must be paid.”

Cover art
Heinlein’s books have been published and re-issued with a variety of covers, some beautiful – I really like Bruce Pennington’s work - and some dire. In my opinion, the best cover for Citizen of the Galaxy is the one by Madelon Vriesendorp that shows a running man made out of planets on the front and scenes from Thorby’s life as planet insets on the back.

There is a scene where some locals pay the Free Traders in jewels for pages torn from trashy picture books and pin-up magazines. I wonder what they would have given for good quality SF art.

A discussion of Kipling and Heinlein
The relationship between Kim and Citizen of the Galaxy is discussed in detail in the chapter Heinlein and Kipling: Educating Slaves in The Heritage of Heinlein: A Critical Reading of the Fiction by Thomas D. Clareson and Joe Sanders.

In my opinion Kim is the better book, but Citizen of the Galaxy has had more influence on my life.