enhanced] DD-B

Book Note: Robert A. Heinlein, Farnham's Freehold

I read this book about 23-Oct-2014. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1964. This note was last modified Sunday, 28-Dec-2014 17:02:11 PST.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


I do continue to think that Starship Troopers (#2) is more controversial than this book; for controversy there has to be a strong force on both sides, and few will stand up to defend this book. I mean, I'm going to, just a little bit, because I do feel some of the inferences made about Heinlein from this book are wrong; but it's a pretty bad book, in so many ways.

Heinlein was heavily into fallout shelters. He actually blasted into bedrock to make the space for one at one of his houses.

I've never really understood the point of surviving a civilization-ending war; I'm too big a fan of civilization. Being sentenced to spend the rest of my life as a subsistence farmer is one of the worst things I can imagine (sorry, I can't actually imagine super-natural demons pouring molten gold down my throat for eternity).

But, especially when this was written, there was a lot less tech civilization to lose. Heinlein would have seen it as returning to a situation he'd lived in happily, I suspect.

This book also has time travel and/or alternate universes. We all remember I'm not a big fan of time travel, right?

So, Hugh Farnham and his family, servant, and a visitor go into the shelter when the warning comes, and they get hit with a really big blast, and when they come out, they're...somewhere else. They figure out fairly soon that the geography is the same, but there are no signs of civilization. The early part of the book has some nice The Mysterious Island type building of things having the knowledge but not the tools, including some serious use of explosives (and Hugh doesn't know his chemistry as well as Cyrus Harding; he uses nitrogen tri-iodide in quantity, whereas Harding knows how to make nitroglycerin)

There are also some interesting personal dynamics issues in the early sections of this book. Hugh is uhappily married to an alcoholic wife, and he and his son Duke don't get along too well either. I almost think Heinlein models power relationship in families too much on the military model, except that he then clearly sees and relates the problems, so it's probably nowhere near that simple (I don't think it's good for a child's relationship with his parents to have much of anything to do with a soldier's relationship with his commander).

Then civilization finds them.

Civilization in this far-future time is an aristocratic, slave-owning, cannabalistic, race-based society, which came out of Africa after the 20th Century technological countries nuked each other. Possibly I'm wrong in calling it "civilization"; but it has lots of technology, and has endured a long time.

Yeah, this is where people abuse the novel a lot. It's certainly not a nice society. I don't read it as saying that blacks are worse slave-masters than white; I read it as saying that being a slave master is in and of itself bad for you, whoever you are, and that no "race" is immune. It's a simple case of reversal, in this case being used to show that it's not about who's on top and who's on the bottom; it's bad, period. And I'm pretty sure that's what Heinlein was intending when he wrote it; he writes about slavery in enough different contexts over a long enough time that I think it's pretty clear it's the human institution he despised most.

Books of moderate age run into interesting problems in a rapidly-changing society. I've seen Heinlein criticized for presenting narrow options to women, for example; while many women of my generation cite Heinlein as the one who told them they could be engineers and scientists (and we know that, when he actually was hiring engineers, he went out of his way to hire women; it wasn't just a theory to him). That particular example is an example of Heinlein winning, and people who grew up in the world he won finding his efforts to create it insufficiently visionary. That's both perfectly fair, and horribly unfair.

On the fair side, people who live in our current, larger, world, will find the world he describes rather constricting. The only way to understand it is as a piece of historical fiction (except that it's set in the future). It's like Jane Austen, or Patrick O'Brian, or Dorothy Sayers; the world their characters live in is rather narrow and constrained by today's standards. (Yes, even worse for women then for men; but it's not like it was wonderfully wide open for men.) Thus, current children will not likely enjoy many of these classic SF books, unless they have the sort of awareness to appreciate them as historical fiction (which some do).

On the horribly unfair side, I feel like some people are saying that Heinlein himself was somehow a bad person for some of this. When his books were a real part of what helped improve the society he grew up in into the one we have now. That's abominably unfair. Heinlein didn't have to put a discussion of the Glass Ceiling into The Rolling Stones (#2), it's not in any way integral to the plot, and that book was part of a series marketed to adolescent boys. But he thought it was important to tell them that women faced that sort of problem. (And the term "glass ceiling" itself wasn't introduced until a generation after Heinlein's book was published.)

If Heinlein was a bad person for only being a few generations ahead of the rest of his age cohort on many of these issues, well, I guess there were a lot of bad people around then.

(I think you can make a pretty good argument that Heinlein believed in rather a lot of biological determinism, and that this did somewhat cramp his imagination. Also that his observations of children, after he left home, were conducted from a safe distance.)


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David Dyer-Bennet