Citizen of The Galaxy
© 1957 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY
"Losian to Finster, Finster to Thoth IV, Thoth IV to Woolamurra, Sisu went skipping around a globe of space nine hundred light-years in diameter, the center of which was legendary Terra, cradle of mankind".
Thorby, an orphan shipped in as a slave, is bought and adopted by a one-eyed, one legged beggar on the planet Jubbul.
"Technically, Thorby was not part of the underworld, since he had a legally recognized status (slave) and a licensed profession (beggar). Nevertheless, he was in it with a worm’s eye view. There were no rungs below his on the social ladder."
Thorby could easily have become just another low criminal, but his adopted father, Baslim the Cripple, refuses to let this happen. He teaches Thorby to read, and forces him to expand his horizons beyond the narrow world of Jubbulpore. Baslim is more than he appears to be and is finally arrested and executed by the Sargon’s government, but not before making arrangements for Thorby to leave the planet.
After Baslim’s death, Thorby is smuggled off Jubbul and returns to space aboard the Free Trader ship Sisu. Because of a special relationship between the captain of the ship and Baslim, the captain adopts him and he becomes a member of one of the clans of nomadic space travelers called "The People".
"The People are free; this old Galaxy has never seen such freedom. A culture of less than a hundred thousand people spread through a quarter of a billion cubic light-years and utterly free to move anywhere at any time."
Slowly adjusting to the life aboard the ship and among The People, he moves from the status of a fraki, or outsider, to becoming a valuable crewman, responsible with others for protecting Sisu from being captured and enslaved by pirates.
He also learns more about Baslim and his status among the People, but with this knowledge come even more unanswered questions.
Finally as the ship arrives at a Gathering of all of the clans, Thorby learns that his life aboard Sisu is only a temporary stop on the way to finding out where he came from, where his real family is and who and what Baslim really was. Captain Krausa, his adopted father, following Baslim’s instructions, gives Thorby over to the captain of Guard Ship Hydra.
Having gone through three major upheavals in his life, captured into slavery, sold to Baslim and moving to Sisu after Baslim’s death, Thorby again is uprooted. He enlists in the Guard , which is "mailman" and "policeman" of that part of explored space. As a crew member of Hydra, he again must struggle to find a place for himself. He finally learns just who and what Baslim really was.
But this life too is short-lived and he must leave Hydra and the Guard and enter into the most confusing of all of these different worlds, Earth, legendary Terra, capitol planet of The Terran Hegemony. On Earth he finally discovers his roots and his real family. However, as before, he finds that here too, he must struggle to make his place and face the problems that comes with this life, using all of the experience, knowledge and wisdom that he has gained from Baslim and others who have influenced him.
I recall a critic complaining of this work that Heinlein switched Thorby’s worlds too fast to make this a good novel by not filling out more detail on each of Thorby’s various worlds. I thoroughly disagree. I found that the worlds were richly formed and sufficient in contrast and similarity to fully support Thorby’s experiences and most importantly to give the reader a strong sense of ‘being there’.
Readers of Kipling may find the plot reminiscent of his novel Kim. This is not surprising as Heinlein was a great fan of Kipling’s and there are many references that tie this work to Kim. In Volume 6 of The Heinlein Journal, Jane Davitt has written an excellent article dealing with these and other references in Heinlein’s works to those of Kipling’s.