I’ve been slacking on my re-read of Heinlein’s works. Since I’m not going at it in any systematic way, I tend to wait until the mood strikes me and no other titles are more vigorously demanding my attention. I’d expected to get quite a few more titles re-read this summer but the days have been full and I have been lazy. But Farmer in the Sky was a great choice for a few mornings killing time while the eldest child learned to swim.*
Farmer (1950) was first published in Boy’s Life Magazine and concerns Bill, a young man in his late teens, who emigrates to Ganymede with his father, his father’s new wife and her daughter. The Earth is quickly being used up by the interlinked problems of too many people and not enough food. A modern writer would probably spin this as too many people and too much carbon dioxide. The end result, however, would be the same.
It’s time to stead some homes. Both the Moon, Mars and Venus are carrying colonies in this iteration of Heinlein’s future. Ganymede, which was first contacted in 1985, has been having its atmosphere transformed since 1998.** Bill’s story mirrors Little House on the Prairie with earthquakes subbing in for locusts. It’s hard, this pioneering thing, and a wise farmer always takes advice from a older farmer who has an apple tree. And there are always rewards for explorers who dare to look around that next rock.
Farmer isn’t a great book and it doesn’t hold up well. All of the talk about the importance of being a Boy Scout strikes me as creepy, given what the organization has evolved into during the last 60 years. Farmer tends to be a little too gee-whiz to bridge the years and remains mired in the era in which it was written. This isn’t a huge surprise given who the story was originally written for.
What works, as usual, is Heinlein’s plotting, which moves briskly without ever skimping on information, and his characters. While Bill could have been a cipher, he and his cohorts remain distinct from each other. The few women in the book are just as well-drawn, if also mired in the roles of the time. The only character who fails to pop is Mr Saunders, who plays Heinlein’s standard “government owes me a living” foil.
Two tidbits that struck me as marginally interesting: 1) Heinlein, for all his ability to extrapolate the gizmos of the future, failed to envision the GPS (or failed to mention why Ganymede wouldn’t have one) and 2) that the captain of the ship that brings Bill to the planet is Captain Harkness. I cannot, however, figure out if his first name was Jack.
* Not that she learned to swim in just a couple of mornings. Just that I grabbed Farmer on my way out the door to the most recent round of lessons.
** In 1950, did it really seem possible that man would set foot on one of Jupiter’s moons within 40 years? Was the time that optimistic about space travel? I grew up in a post-Challenger world and don’t have a good sense of what those days were like.