04 March 2012

Farmer In The Sky

Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
1951 Hugo Award Winner
First published in Boys’ Life
RETRO Hugo Awarded in 2001
167 Pages

I’ll answer your most burning question right now.  I don’t know which Heinlein title is the real Master of the Precious…yet.  They were too evenly matched so I’m going to have to work it out in another post tomorrow.  Hey, it’s a very serious unofficial award to confer and I want to make sure it gets done properly.

Back to business.

This is a YA title, of which Heinlein wrote over a dozen, and this was my first.  Here, Bill Lermer and his father, George have applied for permission to emigrate to Ganymede, the third moon of Jupiter.  We follow them on their trip out and as they navigate the hardships of colonizing and farming the harsh moon’s lava-encrusted landscape and also deal with the occasional life-threatening disaster millions of miles from Earth.

So (not) Heinlein
This is Heinlein’s second Hugo winner of the 1950’s (first technically, but it was a retro) and if there is anything similar about these two novels, it is the characters.  They are the kind of people that no one really is, but everyone identifies as the kind of person they are or would like to be.  Bill is just one of those characters (George too, but who cares about George really).  I was sorry I didn’t read this book at a younger age because Bill was totally one of those characters who I would have tried so hard to emulate…and would have been so sad when I didn’t.

Apart from the characters, the style of the rest of the book was rather dry and straightforward and generally subdued compared to any of Heinlein’s other titles I’ve read.  Somehow it seemed fitting considering younger the audience and it’s never dry to the point of boring, but it is a noticeable departure from I have become accustomed to in his later works (even Double Star).

Heinlein has also been credited through the years with a number of predictions of future technologies (though some, like GPS in The Mark of the Beast, are debatable).  It is always fun when a SF author predicts some crazy contraption and this is another of those situations.  In Farmer in the Sky, Heinlein is said to have predicted the microwave oven.  The story first appeared in Boys’ Life in 1950 and I’m not entirely clear on when microwave ovens were invented for home use so I can’t really add anything to that discussion other than continued mystery and intrigue.  Nevertheless, if that’s your thing, then you may be interested.

Bill’s Earth is overcrowded and seeing animals like mountain lions is rare, if there’s even any left.  Aliens exist on Mars and Venus, which as we all know, I love to see and humans have already begun colonizing the solar system as far out as Jupiter’s moons.  Back on earth, food has been rationed and with Bill’s mother dead, Bill cooks for his father and makes sure their meager rations are accounted for.

Things don’t seem to have reached Malthusian proportions yet, but life has definitely grown uncomfortable for the people on Earth.  So when another ship is commissioned to send emigrants to Ganymede it is easy to understand Bill’s sudden interest without having to be told everything he ever thought about settling on another planet.

Heinlein actually does a pretty spectacular job of painting an extremely subtle picture of what life and Earth was like and allows the reader to fill in the gaps, which I also love.  There are some times that the book is more Hard SF, but those are really just the parts of space travel and astronomy that Bill is interested in so it’s kind of fun that the book slips in and out of different styles.   

Back to the point though, the reasons for emigrating at this point in the story are ostensibly just to alleviate the population pressures on Earth, but we come to understand that everyone really has their own reasons for leaving and a real sense of adventure pervades the first eight or nine chapters.  Reading from a teenager’s perspective only added to the excitement and I had a lot of fun with it.  Thinking about it now though, it is a little strange (in a good way) to think of how dangerous the journey out was but how light-hearted the book felt in the face of a lot of unknowns about what life would really be like on one of Jupiter’s moons.

And now for something completely different…
That is, until they actually reach the surface of Ganymede.  Heinlein has let us have our fun and now he makes us pay up.  From this point forward, everything is the worst and the universe sucks so I hope you weren’t too attached to the fun of getting out here.  The material completely changes and entire pace of the book slows down, in a really good way… Bill grows up.

Of course, settling and attempting to farm a lifeless, freezing, lava-encrusted moonscape is going to be difficult and I guess you could expect this to happen, but then Heinlein piles on more.  Disaster strikes the entire moon and nearly kills everyone and just as soon as we recover, Bill has a discussion with another settler/scientist who completely rocks his worldview.  And right after that Bill stumbles on a discovery that changes everything he knows about the universe.  I don’t want to give this away, but it gets pretty grim…and Bill handles it!  Not handles it like some technology saves the day and “oh what a happy ending,” but he struggles with it internally and then consciously chooses to face a suddenly very foreboding future.  How cool is that?!  I thought it was great to see a young man deal with a problem in a way that most adults don’t.  Read this kids!

I really, really liked that Heinlein respected his younger readers enough to trust them to deal with some difficult topics.  I’m a firm believer that adults expect too little of our younglings and while I’m not sure how I would have handled this in my early teens, I appreciated it now.  Overall, if you’re in the mood for some juvenile fiction, Farmer in the Sky is definitely the way to go. 


Universe 3/5
Social/Political Climate 4/5
Dialogue 4/5
Scientific Wonders 2/5 (very functional, nothing existed that didn’t need to)
Characters 5/5

Overall 18/25

This week’s book is A Case of Conscience by James Blish.  This is the only title by James Blish that won a Hugo, so I hope it has a good showing!

Next week’s book is They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley.  AKA The Forever Machine.  AKA The Worst Hugo Ever (perhaps I’ll have something to say about this).  AKA The Last Remaining Book of the 1950’s!  Once this one is done there will be awards to hand out and musings to be floated about the Hugo Award’s first decade.

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