Citizen of the (two-fisted) Galaxy: more of why I love sf/f

Cotg58I can’t remember the first Robert Heinlein science fiction book I ever read. My mom (who had been teased as a child because of the way she spoke) was determined that I would learn to speak correctly, and decided the best way to teach me proper grammar was to read to me from her favorite authors. So before I could talk, she would read aloud from her Agatha Christie murder mysteries and her Robert Heinlein science fiction books. Later, when I could talk, she would make me repeat back whole sentences as she read. Besides turning me into a lifelong fan of mysteries and sci fi, this project also accidentally taught me how to read long before I got to school.

While I don’t remember the first, I do remember several that I read during elementary school and into middle school…

Heinlein spent a significant part of his early career writing books which were specifically aimed at the young adult audience, so for a long time his works were frequently cited as the book that introduced someone to the genre, or was simply someone’s most beloved book. Because of these works, his work is often held up as an example of “old fashioned adventure without a political agenda.” Which is extremely misleading, to say the least.

Citizen of the Galaxy was not my first, but it was one I read on my own during an early grade, and that I came back to several times afterward. A young man known as Thorby is a slave in an interstellar society. He has no idea who his parents were, and at the beginning of the story is focused solely on survival. But over time he learns how his parents died, and that he is actually the heir to a rather vast financial empire back on Earth. Once his identity is established, he is “rescued” and taken home. As he’s being re-integrated back into society, he comes to suspect that the relative who has been running the company since his parents died was probably behind their murders. He also learns that the company has been profiting immensely from secretly exploiting the slave trade while putting forward a PR facade of being opposed to it. Eventually the bad guys are defeated, and Thorby finds himself in charge of his parents’ company. He had hoped to hand the whole thing over to others, so that he could go back out into interstellar society and fight the slave trade directly, but his sense of responsibility won’t let him walk away and risk the resources of the company being used to harm others.

The book has an anti-slavery message, definitely. But it also has a strong message decrying the exploitation of labor in general, and the greed and inherent immorality of the profit motive. Hardly non-political notions!

have_space_suit_will_travelHave Spacesuit, Will Travel is a bit harder to sum up. The main character, Kip Russell, while trying to win a prize to ultimately fund his university education, winds up winning an old, barely functioning space suit. He decides to get the thing back into working order in hopes of selling it for a profit. While testing it out after he’s fixed it, Kip receives a distress call on the suit radio, which results in starships landing near him. Before he knows it he has been caught-up in a struggle between at least two alien races who each have very different plans for Earth. A series of adventures follows, as Kip is whisked away first to the moon, and then off to another star system some distance across the galaxy, and then out of the galaxy altogether, where a sort of federation of even more advanced aliens put humans, and the first two alien races, on trial for their suitability to participate in intergalactic society.

Since one of the races gets sentenced to death (as a race—actually, their entire home planet is literally shunted out of the universe, so an entire ecosystem is destroyed because of the actions of a small number of people), the trial was not merely about whether someone is let into the elite club. In the end, humanity is given a rather long time to develop and possibly become worthy of the intergalactic federation. Kip is returned home, and as a result of his adventures, is accepted to study at MIT with a full scholarship thanks to the scientist who happens to be the father of the other human, a girl named Peewee, who was captured by the aliens and shared Kip’s adventures.

On the one hand, the story is a rollicking (and more than slightly far-fetched) adventure. The story features a lot of bravery, derring do, and clever escapes by both the main character and his two companions (Peewee and an alien known throughout the story as Mother Thing). On the other hand, the federation’s insistence that only societies that have learned to get along without resorting to war and that are willing to coexist peacefully and cooperatively with all others is more than slightly political. The irony that the peace-loving federation will evaluate an entire species from a small number of examples, and then condemn billions of sentient creatures (not to mention all of the other species that share the species’ homeworld) to mass extinction is barely touched upon.

The title is a play on a figure of speech which had been used in various forms for decades before the book was published in 1958. A common phrase used in advertisements of professional musicians seeking employment was “have tux, will travel.” And the figure of speech, “have {fill in the blank}, will travel” was used, often humorously, to convey a person’s willingness (and implied aptitude) to tackle certain types of challenges. Just before Heinlein’s book was publish, a popular television show, “Have Gun, Will Travel” began broadcasting. The central premise of this western was that a character named Paladin was available for hire, not as a lawless gunman, but specifically as a champion for hire.

It was while I was reading this book (in fifth or sixth grade), that my parents reminded me that “Have Gun, Will Travel” had been my favorite show when I was about three years old. I’ve written before how I don’t remember the show at all, but rather recall being a fan of “The Rifleman” at the time (and why I suspect my homophobic father may have actively discouraged my interest in the latter show). Heinlein’s book is clearly not inspired by the television series, but rather more harkens to the older notion of the figure of speech. Though I suspect the show’s hero appealed to Heinlein.

One of the themes or notions common to both of these books (and a lot of Heinlein’s work in general), is the idea that education, in both practical and “book learnin'” forms, is an essential part of becoming a responsible adult. Underlying that notion is the idea that becoming a responsible person is a goal not just that everyone should aspire to, but that it’s the minimal hurdle one has to jump to participate in the business of living. Another notion that emergences from his work is the importance of learning to get along and learning not to resort to violence to solve one’s problem; in fact, learning that violence seldom really solves anything.

I think that a lot people miss that last bit in Heinlein’s early work, particularly the juvenile-aimed stories. Part of that was simply market pragmatism on his part. Adventures where people got into danger and then got out again were expected—and the public ate them up, so that’s what he wrote. That there were themes of brains are better than brawn, the might shouldn’t make right, and that learning to live cooperatively is better than competing seems to slip some people’s notice. Heinlein’s politics were often described as conservative, though he was outspokenly liberal early in his career. He did officially switch political registration from democrat to republican in the mid-50s, and his work was frequently patriotic and pro-military, but he described himself as a philosophical anarchist.

A lot of his novels, especially Star Beast, Starship Troopers, and Space Cadet include both overt and implied condemnations of racism and segregation, well ahead of the civil rights movement of the sixties. On the other hand, there were his problematic handling of race questions in books such as Farnham’s Freehold.

Heinlein’s early work, while being fun adventures, also encourage the idea that competence and ethics were more important than brawn or social status. Which was very appealing to this young, queer nerd. Heinlein’s later work involved more complicated and nuanced characters with more ambiguous moral outcomes. In certain ways the later Heinlein is an entirely different writer than the early Heinlein (though I would argue that certain fundamental beliefs remain throughout his oeuvre—but exploring exploring that is worth at least an entire post on its own).

So, I’ll wrap this part of my look back at Heinlein here: his early works taught me that learning all you can, and applying your skills, the courage of your convictions, and understanding of your fellow beings, was the surest way to a happy and successful life. And a maybe a good way to meet aliens.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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