enhanced] DD-B

Book Note: Robert A. Heinlein, Farmer in the Sky

I read this book about 3-Sep-2001. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 1950. This note was last modified Tuesday, 11-Sep-2007 19:28:07 PDT.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


This just won the "Retro Hugo" for best SF novel of 1950 (would have been awarded in 1951). That seems a good enough excuse to reread it; I haven't read it in years and years, that I can recall.

The other nominees were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis, the first of the Narnia books), Pebble in the Sky (Isaac Asimov), First Lensman (Edward E. "Doc" Smith), and The Dying Earth (Jack Vance). People have already started decrying the choice, of course (the awards were presented last night as I write this). Certainly the Jack Vance is more literary, the C.S. Lewis has probably sold even more copies, and I personally have read First Lensman much more often than any of the others. (In the actual voting, Asimov placed second, Lewis third, Smith fourth, and Vance last. At least they all beat No Award.)

I notice the paperback shown on Amazon has the same awful cover that the paperback I'm reading has (different ISBN, though). This one is a December 1982 printing that sold for $2.25. Ah for the good old days. I remember $2.25 being expensive for a book. I remember $1.25 being expensive for a book, for that matter.

George picks a bad way to announce he's getting remarried

I like the part taking place on Earth, before they leave for the trip. Bill (the teenage son) is portrayed as having a lot of skills and lot of maturity in some areas, but not emotionally. He and his father have been dealing with the loss of Bill's mother for quite a while, and neither of them is doing it very well. But they've still built a pretty good relationship, they seem to be able to communicate about a lot of things. Still, George picks a bad way to announce he's getting remarried.

The subjects they describe in school are very advanced by today's standards. There's talk of grade-school calculus, even. Bill is a licensed helicopter pilot ("only" helicopters, not full airplanes). They take field-trips all over the world, including Antarctica. This sort of thing is fairly characteristic of Heinlein's juveniles; I think he was hoping that education would advance rather than retreat (if it really has).

It feels so strange to read these books with dates in the past

This book has dates in it. The first mission to Ganymede was in 1985. The atmosphere project there started in 1998. By the time of this book, there's enough atmosphere for people (well, barely), and enough to hold in heat (barely). It feels so strange to read these books with dates in the past. In my timeline, the Challenger blew up on 28-Jan-1986.

There's a lot of detail about the ships, both the rocket shuttle up to orbit, and the "torch" ship they use for the actual trip (total-conversion drive). Not the drive itself, of course, but the space allocation, engineering, and so forth. This is all nicely done.

From what I've seen so far, this is one of the least-feminist (or even "sensitive" to feminist issues) of Heinlein's novels, though. Partly it's Bill's viewpoint, as an adolescent boy -- but society should have advanced more by then. The sex roles are still in place, and he shows a lot of typical "silly women" stereotypes to make fun of while acknowledging as normal. I'm sure this will bug lots of people; heck, it bugs me.

There are signs of that Heinlein attention to detail all over. Here on page 143 the driver of a rock-crusher is wearing an anti-silicosis mask. Remember, this book was published in 1950! (Actually he has the mask pushed up, so they can see his expression, but that's because the wind is favorable; the dust isn't reaching him at that point.)

The whole issue of how to terraform a planet (well, a moon; but it's about the size of Mars) comes up, of course. Especially a planet with no native biology—sterile rock, not even broken down very well (it stayed below freezing most of the time for most of the planet's history). This gives him an opportunity to discuss ecology, and how everything interrelates. I'm sure some of the detail is now known to be wrong, and I know it's rather simplified, but it gets the idea across. He talks about how to build soil from bare rock, layering of different sizes, nutrients, bacteria, insects. Erosion, soil depth needed for different plants, and on and on. Being right is good, and much of it still seems to be right, but just trying to convey the monumental complexity is what impresses me so much. In a book published in 1950, remember; ordinary people know a lot more about ecology now than they did in 1950. This book must have contributed to their being interested. He's honest about the atmosphere project, too—does the figures and all (melting ice, heat-dissociation into oxygen and hydrogen). Completely unfeasible without the total-conversion device they've developed.

And the importance of good relations with your neighbors to a pioneer, too.

On page 192 of this edition (Bill is serving as cook on the surveying expedition, where everybody is living through the light phase on pep pills) the phrase "food is sleep" appears. This is relatively recent fannish knowledge about how to survive a convention (where being too busy to eat or sleep is entirely possible), but I've never noted anybody finding it in this book before. And it's attributed as an Eskimo saying! Anybody have a cite for that?

I'm inclined to think discovering the alien artifacts is maybe a bit much, though.

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David Dyer-Bennet