The Door into Summer
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction
September, October, November, & December 1957

Scribner's: New York, 1957
302 pages

collected in —
Infinite Possibilities
November 2019

Aspects of freedom & slavery

There are different ways, more or less abstract or concrete, in which we may think about freedom and its antagonist, slavery. Here I'd like to look at this conflict in two of its aspects, both apparently straightforward and eminently practical: freedom of movement and freedom of association. Together these meld as twinned themes of Robert A. Heinlein's "juvenile" science fiction novel, Citizen of the Galaxy. Both these themes also drive the main plot of the great anti-slavery classic, Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Heinlein's fellow Missourian, Mark Twain. The heroes of both novels are young and more ignorant than they realize, but quick to learn albeit often through hard knocks. Missouri, incidentally, was one of the four slave states (of fifteen) which did not secede as the American Civil War began, having perhaps more countercurrents than those states with more-famous battles.

Freedom of movement

Heinlein accomplished more than any other author at the dawn of the Space Age to get our era off the ground. Many of his fictions are immersed in space travel, interplanetary or interstellar; and the characters and cultures of these as well as planet-bound stories are deeply affected by transport technologies and travel. Whether these are in development or long-existing, Heinlein's matter-of-fact style of having his characters actually live in their future time, rather than lecture each other about it, or discover afresh what they obviously must know already, helps immeasurably with verisimilitude regardless of the great empty distances traversed and the other changes that time has wrought. The people live in their realistic future; and we believe it.

In Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein deploys a grand sweep of interstellar travel and societal possibilities. We follow our hero, Thorby, sold as a slave boy at the beginning of the novel, through vivid adventures up through young manhood. Ranging far in space, the story is chock-full of fascinating characters and details, all of them contributing in one way or another to Thorby's education and maturity. (And to the reader's, too, I can attest.)

Yet Heinlein shows that even the soaring physical freedom of interstellar flight and the ability to visit and leave far-flung planets, has its built-in constraints.

Freedom of association

Heinlein's sharp observation and deep thoughtfulness makes his exotic-but-familiar societal portraits deeply compelling. Freedom of movement across an uninhabited land has obvious drawbacks. In addition to unbroken loneliness, accident and starvation without help are constant hazards. We are social individuals. On the other hand, freedom of association means nothing without the ability to seek out a different society or other social groups, often simply by moving, physically shifting one's location or one's attendance. Note that Heinlein is often at pains to find something positive in the most awful of situations; as he will point out serious negatives in far more pleasant ones. He wants us to think.

The novel hits the ground hard and fast, opening with a routine slave auction:

"Lot ninety-seven," the auctioneer announced. "A boy."

The boy was dizzy and half sick from the feel of ground underfoot. The slave ship had come more than forty light-years; it carried in its hold the stink of all slave ships, a reek of crowded unwashed bodies, of fear and vomit and ancient grief. Yet in it the boy had been someone, a recognized member of a group, entitled to his meal each day, entitled to fight for his right to eat it in peace. He had even had friends.

Now he was again nothing and nobody, again about to be sold.

So in Thorby's quick transition from slave ship to auction block, we have movement without freedom; and association without freedom. How can a slave boy become a citizen in such a galaxy? What does it mean to become a citizen of such a galaxy, whose basic features are all to familiar already from human history? But Heinlein — who described himself as a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist — will begin showing us brighter associations and a swiftly changing trajectory through them.

Citizen of the Galaxy in Astounding Science Fiction

The novel divides naturally into four parts — which made an easy decision for editor John W. Campbell to serialize it across four monthly installments of his magazine. (Some novels he had to reject solely because, while too long for a single issue, they couldn't be divided into reasonable portions.) Each section grows surprisingly but inevitably out of the previous one; the reader can't predict just what's coming. (And I won't tell you here.) Unlike in his other juveniles, Heinlein simply numbers his chapters so the reader doesn't have even obscure clues to what's coming.

The novel always has proven extremely difficult for its illustrators. Astounding's cover and interiors, the Scribner's book jacket, and various paperback covers over the years. I can't help but think that Kelly Freas would have done a much better job than any of these: see for instance his detailed and vivid Astounding covers and interiors for Heinlein's novel Double Star just the previous year, 1956. In fact Freas did covers for two of its three installments, a rare occurrence for serials; and both excellent.

Here's where editor Campbell put his foot wrong publicly for one of his magazines's very best and longest-standing authors. He stated in the magazine that he couldn't decide which he liked better about Citizen of the Galaxy: Heinlein's actual novel, or H. R. van Dongen's cover portrait. That cover isn't bad, but could fit a hundred science fiction novels or thousands of other novels. Tactless, big time. In contrast, Freas' two beautiful covers for Double Star the previous year could belong only to that novel.

Astounding aiming at an adult audience, and Scribner's aiming at a juvenile audience, there are several small differences between the texts. Again the Scribner's editor required a few small and harmless passages to be censored because they touched on sex and religion, sensitive areas for librarians and schoolteachers. Heinlein was quite upset both intellectually and emotionally, and considered pulling the novel from Scribner's. William H. Patterson, Jr., in the second volume of is biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century; Volume 2, 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better, lists the excised scenes and some of Heinlein's correspondence about the issue. Campbell also made suggestions but what Heinlein accepted improved the novel.

The Astounding serial of Citizen of the Galaxy may have been the first Heinlein I ever read. I've read both that and the Scribner's edition multiple times. For this review I re-read the Astounding version followed in short order by the Scribner's. The story moves so quickly, and through such interesting associations, that these small differences scarcely are noticeable. At least, thanks to Campbell, the Astounding text is Heinlein's.

In whatever version, I strongly recommend it. A modern masterpiece of anti-slavery, pro-freedom fiction.


© 2019 Robert Wilfred Franson

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