Pack up your hoe, honey. We're going to Ganymede.

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.

3 thoughts on “Pack up your hoe, honey. We're going to Ganymede.

  • August 26, 2010 at 10:04 am

    As I recall, “Farmer in the Sky” was one of the last two Heinlein books I tracked down and read after my initial exposures (the other being “Starman Jones.”) I think I enjoyed it as much as anybody.

    I’ve come to realize a lot of Heinlein’s books are extremely episodic, and that “Farmer” is no exception. If memory servies, I suppose it could be divvied up as “Life on Earth,” “Journey to Ganymede,” “Pioneering Days,” “The Disaster,” and “The Long-Gone Aliens.” Each segment was fun to read.

    I can’t say I see anything wrong with what Heinlein says about the Boy Scouts, though. I went through the Cub Scouts in the seventies, though no further, and I carry the experience with me, a good experience. I also think much of what is said about the Boy Scouts (and Girl Scouts) is generally said by others with their own political and religious axes to grind.

    I can’t fault Heinlein for “failure to predict,” either. I’ve never used a GPS device…and don’t know why a system for one would be needed on Heinlein’s Ganymede, where most of the action takes place in territory that is obviously mapped out, and some takes place in territory in need of a map—orbital photos only tell you so much.

    (By the way, I don’t know what it was that stopped me from posting earlier—but I’m glad you’re up and running again.)

  • September 20, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    I’ve been re-reading all of my Heinlein too…

    Space Cadet is fun, love the Gee Whiz element really…

    But the best? Time Enough For Love: Half-way through right now, haven’t read it in a decade (though this is probably at least the 4th time I’ve read it!). I think it’s RAH’s best.

    Just re-read ‘Stranger’ as an iBook: Whoever edited it did a horrible job, at least four chapters were repeated in the iBook, still: nice reading it on my ‘futuristic’ iPad!

  • December 9, 2010 at 10:50 am

    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.

    Absolutely. From the early 50s on, anyone who cared (and didn’t have an engineering degree) figured we’d have the entire solar system colonized by 2000.

    This was, however, coming from a mindset that believed that we’d be able to “pioneer” space; once we got out there, we’d use pluck and luck and FORCE the planets to yield up their bounty.

    Heinlein wrote with the knowledge of the leading edge of space technology back then. Things were very much of a “jalopy” era; sliderules and dead reckoning (and knowledge of orbital mechanics, of course) were good enough.


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