Friday, August 28, 2009

1951 Retro Hugo – FARMER IN THE SKY by Robert Heinlein

Another retro winner. The 1951 Hugo was awarded in 2001.

I’ll be talking about Heinlein a lot as I go; he’s clearly one of Hugo’s favorites, and one of mine as well. I graduated from Asimov to Heinlein at some point in Junior High. Heinlein was more provocative in almost every way. I had not read Farmer in the Sky, however. Farmer was written before Heinlein’s more revolutionary books and was meant explicitly for kids, so it has a slightly different feel. Bill Lermer, the main character and narrator, is a boy scout (as he will remind you early and often) who decides to emigrate from an overcrowded Earth plagued by rationing (it’s interesting that overpopulation and the Malthusian crunch is a pretty common theme with these early novels – 20 years before Paul Ehrlich’s non-fiction bestseller The Population Bomb). He heads off with his father, step-mother and step-sister on a colonial ship (called the Mayflower) bound for Jupiter’s large moon of Ganymede. What follows is basically Little House on the Prairie in space. The plucky colonists overcome lots of hardships (or not in some cases) and by the end they’re talking about independence from a fading Earth.

There’s a lot of Frontier Theory here. Frederic Jackson Turner famously theorized (in 1893) that the hardships of frontier experience had forged Americans into a different (and, the implication is, better) people than their European forebears. The idea is in disrepute among American historians now (at least as Turner framed it), but it was clearly part of the American zeitgeist when Heinlein wrote this novel. The weak colonists retreat or die, and the colonists that remain on Ganymede become a hardy bunch of fighters, ready to take on the solar system and build a wonderful, vibrant free society.

This “ra ra” attitude, plus the “golly gee, I want to make Eagle scout” dialog makes the book a bit embarrassing at times. But, Farmer in the Sky also has a lot of what makes Heinlein great – especially the readable, interesting explorations of some of the basic engineering problems of space travel that make up a lot of his early work (he was the Kim Stanley Robinson of his day).

The book does take an odd (but intriguing) turn near the end, and then comes to a quick conclusion that left me wondering if Heinlein was planning a sequel. It’s always hard to come up with an ending, but I’m noticing that these early books often have very abrupt conclusions, and I’m wondering if it’s a product of serialization.

Anyway, I did enjoy this novel, though I wouldn’t call this a must-read. It’s not as influential or interesting as Asimov’s Foundation or Heinlein’s trio of Hugo-winning books from the ‘60s. But, it is a short, satisfying page-turner about colonization if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

Anachronism Alert: We’re told humans first landed on Ganymede in 1985 and that terraforming began in 1998!

Also, the terraforming itself is pretty simple – just keep as much solar heat as possible in the atmosphere, plant the crops and watch out for weeds. There is a nice bit about cultivating the proper bacteria in the soil, but it’s definitely a mid-twentieth century engineer’s view of the environment. One of the things I’m most watching for (and one of the reasons I’m tackling this chronologically) is to see when more complex and nuanced views of ecology will start to show up (I know by Robinson's Red Mars…)

Grade: A-

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