Slavery and Freedom

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced.  “A boy.”  The boy was dizzy and half sick from the feel of the ground underfoot.  The slave ship had come more than forty light years; it carried in its holds the stink of all slave ships, a reek of crowded, unwashed bodies, of fear, and vomit and ancient grief. 

This is the opening to Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy.

"Slavery and freedom" is a thread that runs through Heinlein’s work, sometimes openly, sometimes unobtrusively, and sometimes as a point of character development, but I can think of only two of his books that have a slave main character.  Both (all of his books, really) are dangerous books, particularly dangerous to today’s ethos of “victimhood makes you valued.”

Sure that opening grips, but at least if you are my young self when I first encountered the story, you read it not so much for the boy, but for the intriguing figure of the maimed beggar who buys the boy and eventually sets him free, not just of the chains of legal slavery but the chains on his mind, the ones that make him truly a slave.

There is never a hint that having been a slave makes the character noble, though there is a feeling of repulsion and disgust at the institution of slavery.  And opprobrium and disgust at those who engage in the trade.

The slavery of Citizen of the Galaxy is “traditional slavery” — the original sin of mankind, of making chattel out of our fellow humans and trading them and using them as objects.  It’s existed since the world was world, and been present in every civilization in the world.

The other slave character is of course Friday.  That is a different kind of slavery, though ultimately the same.  The character is a futuristic human, a created person — “my father was a knife, my mother was a test tube” as is said in the novel — an enhanced person, but for all that one who considers herself inferior to “natural born humans” partly because that’s how she was raised: to believe the artificiality of her birth made her a chattel and not really human.

Both Thorby, the character of Citizen of the Galaxy, and Friday (or Marjorie) the character of Friday, eventually set themselves free.  Thorby becomes a slave-hunter and uses his considerable wealth, to the extent he can (being chained by profit and investors and other such considerations), to fight slavery.  Friday’s past makes her freedom look more like “normal” settled life as a farmer’s wife on a colony planet.

But the important thing is that from the moment they reject the chains that make them slaves in their own minds, they both become truly interesting characters, and you get the sense that they’d succeed at whatever they really wanted to do.