Princess of Fire is now available as a Createspace POD paperback. Phase One of my GBtWD (Get Back to Work, Doofus) project is complete. I’ve started on Phase Two, which is creating a synopsis for Princess of Stars. I’ve allocated a month to that phase. Once I have it in hand, I can start drafting Princess of Stars.
Meanwhile, I’ve been doodling and reading and thinking about what I can do to expand my blogging efforts– and it occurred to me that it might be fun to do a series, like my previous one on films that inspire me, on books that do the same. Almost at once, a first candidate for review presented itself.
A few weeks ago Chuck Wendig issued a flash fiction challenge, “YOUR VERY OWN SPACE OPERA”. I didn’t follow up on the challenge– 1000 words is not nearly enough for a proper space opera story, in my opinion– but it reminded me of past space operas, my own (unpublished) and others, and I was inspired to revisit a book that, for me, is one of my Ur-works of science fiction, and, specifically, space opera– Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy.
My personal copy of the book is the thirty-seven year-old Ballantine paperback with the Darrell K. Sweet cover, which is now permanently fixed in my mind as the definitive image of Thorby and Baslim the Cripple–
**********Spoilers hereafter, beware**********
Often the books you read in your youth are the ones that make the strongest impression and which stay with you the longest. So it is for me with Citizen of the Galaxy. I read this little novel before I was sixteen, when I was a lonely nerd desperate to find ways of engaging my imagination more powerful than those supplied by my narrow natal culture. I found just such a vehicle in Citizen of the Galaxy.
This is the story of Thorby, a scrawny, young, and scarred (in many ways) slave, who, through a twist of circumstances, comes to be the property of a beggar called Baslim the Cripple. Baslim is more than he appears (as is Thorby) and he adopts Thorby as his foster son. This starts Thorby a path to re-discover his past, and find his place in a complex and dangerous universe.
Heinlein was a master of creating future worlds with a wonderful economy of words. In Citizen of the Galaxy he surpassed himself. In the first few pages he paints a picture of Thorby’s enslavement and sale in Jubbulpore with small verbal brushstrokes–
“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer repeated. “A fine, healthy lad, suitable as page or tireboy. Imagine him, my lords and ladies, in the livery of your house. Look at–” His words were lost in the scream of a ship, dopplering in at the spaceport behind him.
Heinlein did more in that one paragraph than many modern writers can do in pages of scribbling.
More than that, though, Heinlein’s artistry is seen in the large-scale structure of the book, in which he creates, not one or two cultures for Thorby to navigate, but four, plus others, human and non-human, of which we get glimpses. He brings each of them to life with that same economy. Each society is a stage in Thorby’s growth from slave to free person, as he grows more sophisticated and worldly-wise with each– and, ironically, finds that he has to struggle against new forms of slavery even in freedom. His contact with each society is broken in wrenching ways, forcing him to find his way anew. The drawback with this plot structure is that the novel’s short length does not allow for a detailed exploration of each society or Thorby’s adventures in them (more about that below).
Heinlein did not invent space opera. If there is any one person who deserves that accolade, it would be E. E. “Doc” Smith, with his Skylark and Lensman series, although there were plenty of predecessors even to Smith. But Heinlein put his stamp on the sub-genre with Citizen and other books. His writing and his concepts were just that good.
One aspect of the novel I particularly enjoy is the vivid life Heinlein gives to the capital of the Sargonate, Jubbulpore, where the novel begins. Decades before Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Heinlein created a world where high technology lives cheek-and-jowl with extreme poverty, corruption and superstition. It’s also a strong portrait of life in an all-powerful tyranny, where even nominally free people have reason to fear the authorities– but where ordinary people still find ways to resist.
The book is not perfect. It telegraphs one or two pieces of plot that would have been better left as surprises. Personally, I find myself wishing that Heinlein would have spent more time on Thorby’s experiences in each culture, particularly his time in the Hegemonic Guard, which passes without even a major space battle (unless you count flying mashed potatoes). This last complaint is probably the result of the fact that Heinlein’s juveniles were intended to be short and were produced on a time-table, at least one a year for more than a decade. This is one Heinlein novel which you might wish was a little more door-stopperish than average.
Far more critical, however, is the fact that Heinlein does not completely close the circle for Thorby. Thorby finds a place and a purpose in the last society he has to negotiate, as the head of a powerful family corporation– but the lingering question of whether officers of that corporation actually caused the death of his parents and sold him into slavery to cover their own culpability in the interstellar slave-trade is never really resolved. There is no emotional or psychological catharsis or resolution, no vengeance or retribution, not even a perp walk. The climax of the book is a proxy fight for control of the family corporation, which is perhaps logical in terms of corporate culture, but overall is a dramatic let-down– and it’s followed by an unsatisfying and rather awkward concluding chapter in which Thorby– whose full name is Thor Bradley Rudbek– sits around thinking about how Baslim would want him to stay the course in his corporate job, to do what he can to fight slavery from his position of economic power. Not exactly an ending that makes you light up the literary equivalent of a cigarette.
The weakness of the book’s ending is puzzling, and has come in for a lot criticism over time. When you compare it to the perfect resolutions of other Heinlein books, such as Have Space Suit Will Travel or The Door into Summer, it’s doubly-puzzling. Heinlein was perfectly capable of giving a book a dramatically satisfying conclusion, but somehow this one (in my opinion) got away from him.
A review of the book’s history does not shed a great deal of light on this conundrum. Citizen was written from November to December, 1956 (staggeringly fast, even for a short book). It was came out in hardcover in July, 1957. In other words, Heinlein had seven months to reconsider the ending, but there is no evidence he ever did. It appears this is a case of him applying his own Rules of Writing to himself, in particular, Rule Number Three–
1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4.) You must put the work on the market.
5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
Rule Number Three has been indicted for causing a great deal of confusion in the minds of novice writers– but it might explain the ending of Citizen. It’s pretty clear that Heinlein finished it, shoved it into the pipeline to Scribner’s, and moved on to other projects, including Have Space Suit Will Travel.
As frustrating as the ending is, however, it doesn’t change the overall power of the book, shaped as it is by Heinlein’s unique imagination, and his ability to depict humanity at its worst and best.
If you want to write science-fiction in general, and space opera in particular, this is a book you have to read.