Freedom & Responsibility in “Citizen of the Galaxy” by Robert Heinlein

by | Mar 6, 2021 | Bridge Books, Classics, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Genre

Bridge Books/ Classics / Science Fiction / Young Adult

Audience

Highschool & Up

Author’s Worldview

Undisclosed

Year Published

1957

Themes

Freedom, Society, Obligation, Family

 

Reviewed by

Eric Postma

The classic science fiction writers like Heinlein, Dick, Herbert, Asimov, and Bradbury were about so much more than setting up cool alien worlds, ray guns, and laser swords. They asked deep questions and used their writing to explore them and provoke others to contemplate some of the deepest mysteries in life. Herbert explored the nature of religion, Dick asked questions about what it is that makes us human, and Heinlein used his works to explore that nature of freedom and how it works in different contexts. Citizen of the Galaxy is arguably Heinlein’s best work on the subject.

Subscribe to Our FREE Email & Get Weekly Catholic Books for as little as $1

The story takes place in the distant future, with humanity having expanded out into the galaxy. Most of the settled worlds are still under Earth’s authority, but a handful have broken off and it is there that we meet Thorby, a pre-teen boy up for sale at a slave market. He’s bought by a beggar named Baslim the Cripple and from there embarks on a life that exposes him to many different societies and states in life.

It is here that Heinlein shines the brightest. He artfully uses every stage of Thorby’s journey to explore the structure of the society that he is in and how that affects the concept of freedom. The story begins with Thorby wishing that he was back on his slave ship. At least there he had friends and status in the holds. Now, waiting to be sold, he knows he will have to start over.

Baslim, fortunately, is a kind master and teaches Thorby the art of begging while also educating him in literature, history, and mathematics. Without even knowing it, Thorby is beginning to experience his first taste of real freedom, the freedom to think beyond his immediate circumstances.

Thorby later is taken by free traders and then the military, allowing the young man to experience life within different but highly structured societies, learning that in order to have the freedom to move around the inhabited star systems with a large number of people requires a great many rules to maintain order.

In the end, he is running a large interplanetary business, in theory with the money and authority to do whatever he wants. Yet, Heinlein makes it clear that to live well in such circumstances, one is bound by an interlocking web of obligations, each one pulling him in a slightly different direction and demanding his time and energy.

Throughout Thorby’s story, Heinlein does an excellent job of exploring the nature of freedom and demonstrating that in any society, there are always rules and duties that prevent freedom from being absolute. There is even the implication that freedom without some sort of structure is completely meaningless, a concept that conforms well with the Catholic understanding of freedom.

Subscribe to Our FREE Email & Get Weekly Catholic Books for as little as $1

Lest you think Citizen of the Galaxy is merely a philosophical treatise thinly disguised as a science fiction story, the author does a fantastic job of making each society believable as well as drawing characters with genuine goals and emotions. With Thorby especially, Heinlein convincingly shows the confusion and frustration he experiences as he moves from one society to the next.

Some of Heinlien’s works do contain themes and ideas that are contrary to Catholic teaching. I saw none of that here. The only society portrayed in the book that has standards that very clearly contradict Catholic teaching is the Sargony, which is portrayed in a very negative light given its practice of slavery.

I definitely recommend it for more mature teen readers and up, not because of any adult content but because the story is fairly slow moving and the concepts that make it worth reading will go over the heads of younger readers. I’ve never been disappointed when I go back to the well of the great sci-fi writers and Citizen of the Galaxy is no exception.

Subscribe

Subscribe to Catholic Reads to get access to Catholic Literature from 50% off to FREE

Cinder Allia by Karen Ullo

A political fantasy epic bildungsroman where Allia’s feminine heart becomes as powerful a force has her sword.

Gelen by Colleen Drippe

Fr. Ruiz has little idea what he’s getting into when he takes a post on the isolated and pagan planet of Fen.

Night by Ellie Wiesel

One of the most famous and horrifying first-hand accounts of the Holocaust

Honor at Stake by Declan Finn

If you’re looking for a vampire-romance with a truly unique twist look no further.

Unlikely Witnesses by Leslea Wahl

When four boys glimpse a crime in their Colorado town they end up in an interrogation cell of the FBI.

Zeal & Zest: Where to Begin with Hillaire Belloc

Belloc was known as a Catholic polemicist with a vicious talent for skewering his opponents. Anyone struggling to persevere as a Christian in the fields of journalism or media should read him. His children’s books have an acerbic humor that will appeal to bored veterans of political correctness, especially teens.

Pink Noise by Leonid Korogodski

A classic Martian adventure that plumbs the spiritual life of a future humanity.

Cinderella by Charles Perrault

The true story of the Catholic saint who inspired the myth of Cinderella

McCracken and the Lost Oasis by Mark Adderley

A swashbuckling adventure into Catholic history and archeology.

Nowhither by John C. Wright

Ilya Muromets fights off a dozens of tempting sirens and finally grows into the man he needs to be to defeat the Dark Tower.

Comet Dust by C.D. Verhoff

A Catholic end-of days inspired by the private revelations of the saints.

Saving the Statue of Liberty By Andrea Jo Rodgers

Can John save the Statue of Liberty and keep from getting kicked off the team and out of the Academy?

A Life Such As Heaven Intended by Amanda Lauer

A chance encounter with an amnesiac soldier leads Brigid to discover the realities of the Civil War.

Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor

An intimate window into the mind of a great artist and honest Christian

City of Shadows by Declan Finn

St. Tommy uncovers a group of elites using an ancient artifact to destroy London.

Strange Matter by Brian Niemeier

Ready for the end of the world, battle mechs, and body swaps? This collection of short stories has it all.

Saint Michael: Above the 38th Parallel by Shanti Guy

The true story of St. Michael, the original punch-communism-in-the-face superhero

The Joining by J. H. Dierking

The aliens will surprise you and lead you into greater insight into how our own bodily design determines much of what is considered right and wrong.

Beneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles

A young girl goes pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago on behalf of her brother and finds her place in the world.