Oct 15, 2016

Thoughts on Citizen of the Galaxy

I capped off my Scotland trip by reading Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy on the flight home. I've read a lot of Heinlein over the years, and I've always found it engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking, and world-view-expanding. Citizen of the Galaxy was no exception. There was one difference this time though: it's now painfully obvious how chauvinistic Heinlein's writing is.

Interestingly, I came to Citizen of the Galaxy as a part of my search for fiction with elements of education/learning. It's a fairly classic story: young boy born into unfortunate circumstances, through serendipity matched up with a world-class tutor, and the story of his triumphal rise from his situation. Unique (among such stories I've read) in that it takes place in a space opera setting: across planets around Earth. Not that best incarnation of that plot I've read, but then, Citizen of the Galaxy isn't considered one of Heinlein's top works.

Coincidentally, a week or so back, Uma and I had a discussion around the sexism in Heinlein's work, specifically Stranger in a Strange Land. To be fair to Heinlein, the sexism is more likely to take the form of gendered expectations of superiority in different domains than the outright belittling of women that was more common in the middle of the 20th century. But sexism it is.

Citizen of the Galaxy was a perfect example of this more subtle sexism. In the book there is a clan society ostensibly headed by a patriarchal figure. The book twists that structure with the addition of a matriarch that is not formally in charge, but indirectly controls the actions of the clan. Classic "behind every man..." marginalization of the leadership potential of women. Throughout the book, there is only a single female character that seeks to help the protagonist in any way. And she does so only after being set up by her powerful father as a romantic match for the protagonist then being rebuffed. Her aid doesn't come in the form of expert advice or sage wisdom, but in exercising the barest control of the small direct authority she does possess and exceeding the incredibly minimal expectations of her father.

I don't mean to belittle the literary value of Citizen of the Galaxy. It was a good book and I enjoyed reading it. It's just interesting the extent to which (most of) our society has evolved in the way it thinks about gender equality.