What I’m Reading: Robert A. Heinlein – Citizen of the Galaxy

I have always had somewhat ambivalent feelings about Robert A. Heinlein – well, maybe not always: If I’m not mistaken I encountered him first when I was still a child, in German translation, and most likely abridged; those weren’t even paperbacks but the brochure format that was and I think still is popular in Germany for all kinds of pulp literature and which I used to devour by the dozens back in the day, and through all genres – Science Fiction, Romance, Crime, Western… I read them all.

Anyway – Heinlein. As I grew up, and moved from his juveniles to his later work, my youthful enthusiasm for novels like Have Spacesuit Will Travel began to wane somewhat. Seen with  a more critical eye brought on with greater maturity (or so I hope), it becomes hard to overlook that many of his political views are not exactly enlightened, that there is some weird stuff going on with gender relations, and that there is overall way too much sermonising on whatever subject happened to catch Heinlein’s fancy at the moment – Stranger in a Strange Land, to cite but one example,  is pretty much one long sermon from beginning to end.

On the other hand… there just is something about Heinlein that grips you and you won’t let go, that draws you in and keeps you reading and turning pages even as you groan at yet another sermon and roll your eyes at yet another awkward fornication scene. I’m still trying to figure out what constitutes that appeal for me, but I strongly suspect that it has do with his narrative voice. I don’t think anybody is going to accuse Heinlein of writing literary fiction, and yet I have only recently seen the prevalence of voice of plot singled out as the trait that seperates literary fiction from genre literature. Based on the writings of Heinlein and some others I tend to disagree with that assessment, because while his works are very much genre, there also is a dinstinct style to them, a certain tone to their narrative voice, a unique lilt to the rhythm of their prose that are unmistakeably his.

That tone seems to go best with first person narrative (as indeed most of his novels are), and maybe that is the reason why it did not appear very pronounced in Citizen of the Galaxy, as that novel is told entirely in the third person. Which would make for a weaker Heinlein novel, except that there is hardly any of his trademark sermonising either, and it being a juvenile, no sex at all. It’s almost like his good side and his bad side were somehow interdependent on each other, and you couldn’t have one without the other. And if you tone down on one, you’ll water down the other and end up with some kind of middle-of-the-road Heinlein, which is basically what Citizen of the Galaxy is – it is not his best, but not his worst either, in fact it probably would make a good introduction for people new to Heinlein to find out whether they can stomach him at all, or even for people who otherwise dislike his works.

It is an entertaining romp, even if there is not really much happening – it’s bascially a classical Bildungsroman, with the hero wandering around, seeing places and getting to know people, all of which makes him grow as a person and finally become fully himself. There is of course an SFnal element, in that that he also encounters a variety of different societies in space and on planets – and I think this is something that makes Citizen of the Galaxy stand out among other sci-fi novels of the period, in so far as back in the day (1957, to be precise) there was not that much Science Fiction around that placed its emphasis on anthropology and sociology rather than on the hard sciences.

And a final point in which I find this novel noteworthy is in clearing up Heinlein’s attitude towards women which is a persistently recurring debate. While none of them are primary characters, there are a lot of female secondary characters around – and not a single one of them is the simpering, helpless wifey sort that would conform to the period stereotype, but without exception they are all extremely intelligent and highly competent persons. I don’t think anybody who reads Citizen of the Galaxy with an open mind will in good conscience be able to call Heinlein a misogynist. However, while there is nothing wrong with his female characters per se, the way he depicts their role in future society and in relationships appears to me to be deeply problematic – it seems even in the future, women cannot hold a position of power by themselves, but need to be married to a powerful man to achieve anything, with the male being in public view and the female using their relationship to manipulate and pull strings in the background to exert any influence. That is a very 19th century attitude, and seems strangely anachronistic for a future society. But then, they still have slavery, too, and the struggle to abolish it is Citizen of the Galaxy’s main plot point… except that there is no Hegemonic Guard to fight for female emancipation.

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