Retro Review: Farmer in the Sky

5 Apr

“As Hank put it, there was one good thing about colonial life – it sorted out the men from the boys.”

-Farmer in the Sky

Farmer in the Sky has the odd distinction of being the only one of Heinlein’s juveniles that didn’t really appeal to me when I was a preteen. I’m not sure why that was the case. It wasn’t very exciting, by the standards of some of the other books I was reading at the time, but The Rolling Stones wasn’t that exciting either and I loved it. Perhaps it was the simple fact that I didn’t like the main character very much. There is something about William (Bill) Lermer and his widower father, George, that irritated me. Or perhaps it was the fact that I didn’t like my experiences in the Boy Scouts – I didn’t stay for very long – and Bill’s obsession with scouting in all its forms is a reminder that misfits like me don’t fit in very well with such groups. It was – and still is – harder for me to empathise with Bill than Max Jones or Rod Walker.

The basic plot is quite simple. On a crowded future Earth, where food is carefully rationed, teenager Bill is surprised to discover that his father is planning to emigrate to Ganymede, the largest and most inhabitable of Jupiter’s moons. Convincing his father to allow him to emigrate too – and discovering, to his horror, that his widower father is marrying again – Bill prepares for the trip, then sets foot on the interstellar colony ship Mayflower for the voyage to Ganymede. It takes him some time to get used to Molly, his stepmother, and Peggy, his stepsister.

Arriving at Ganymede – after a brief adventure during which Bill saves the ship from an impact with a tiny piece of space debris – the colonists discover that the farms they were promised simply don’t exist. (The authorities on Earth basically dumped four times as many colonists on Ganymede as the colony was expecting). Bill’s father goes to work for the colony administration – he is apparently a pretty fair engineer – while Bill goes out to set up the farm. Unfortunately, Peggy takes ill very quickly on Ganymede. She just isn’t suited to life on the rough world.

The family struggles on, even after a disastrous quake nearly wrecks the colony (and kills Peggy, one of the few truly emotional parts in the book.) Offered a chance to go back to Earth, Bill decides to stay and, after repairing the farm, joins an exploration mission where he discovers evidence of a former civilisation. The story ends with a reflection of the prospect of war on overpopulated Earth … and the observation that Ganymede and the other colonies will survive.

Like most of Heinlein’s juveniles, the core of Farmer in the Sky is about a young man growing to adulthood. Bill’s scouting gives him a chance to learn to lead and then lead himself, although he doesn’t have the patience – yet – to be a proper leader. He goes through the worst part of adolescence while moving to a new environment, which is – in many ways – the making of him. The self-righteous prat we meet in the early pages – there is something of a Teacher’s Pet about Bill, although he’d deny it – gives way to a rugged adult. Bill – like some of Heinlein’s other characters – has a habit of making credible mistakes, some more irritating than others. He’s also oddly unaware of girls and women, to the point that he blithely dismisses Gretchen’s irritation when Bill puts his foot in his mouth. One reviewer has even suggested that Bill is a racist. There may be some truth in it.

Bill’s habit of blithely disregarding everything he doesn’t understand leads to some of the book’s more amusing moments. In the early pages, Bill cooks for his father and himself … and then asks himself why women make such a fuss about cooking. It’s easy! The fact that Bill is doing nothing more complicated than heating precooked food in a proto-microwave seems to have completely slipped past him. Cooking from scratch is a great deal harder, as I can testify. Later on, he assumes that a shuttle captain is pulling his leg about pirates in space – and is aghast to discover that the man was actually telling the truth. Bill also manages to miss his father’s shiftiness when discussing the need for families to emigrate, although he really should have picked up on something.

His relationship with his father is also odd, although it is far healthier than the later relationship between Hugh and Duke Farnham. George is an oddly shifty person when it comes to emotional matters (like a few other engineers I’ve met) and doesn’t tell Bill he’s getting married again until it is almost too late. It is never easy for a young man to step out of his father’s shadow, or for the father to recognise that his son is an adult, but George makes it harder than necessary. A wife and mother might have been able to bridge the gap between them, but Bill’s mother died some years before the story. It’s nice to see Bill grow to accept his new relatives, yet … Heinlein really doesn’t give this the space it needs.

I don’t know how accurate Heinlein’s view of the colonisation of Ganymede actually is, but a fantastic amount of thought and detail was woven into the book. The mechanics of actually getting to Ganymede and turning the world into a habitable place to live are discussed in great detail, perhaps way more than I considered necessary when I was a child. Heinlein tells us about the importance of things like insects and suchlike for turning the ground into soil, as well as the logistical limitations of shipping stuff from Earth. (Bill made me smile when he argues that his accordion should be considered a cultural item, rather than a personal one; it lets him bring the instrument without it cutting into his weight allowance.) Everything from Earth costs a fortune on Ganymede. I’d be surprised if Heinlein didn’t get quite a few things right.

At the same time, the colony also seems to be playing host to a number of people who are very poor colonisers indeed. Peggy gets ill, as I mentioned, but others feel (rightly) that they were swindled when they boarded the Mayflower, only to arrive and discover that the promised land simply doesn’t exist. George tells Bill, when he questions this, that a number of people were probably allowed to pass the test through political connections, rather than actual competence. (Bill’s friend, who changed his mind about going, had a father who couldn’t move his business to Ganymede.) He also states that Ganymede will wipe out the weaker ones, sooner or later, a statement that comes back to bite him when Peggy dies. At least one of these people becomes a lesson in the dangers of allowing bitterness to overcome you.

Bill’s obsession with scouting, as I said, irritated me. But it does lead to some amusing moments. Having set up a ‘Ganymede Scouts’ on the Mayflower – and given a shining demonstration of why I never liked the Scouts, as they exclude someone whose only real crime was being annoying – Bill confidently announces himself as a Ganymede Scout … to a real Ganymede Scout. Needless to say, this does not go down well at all. Bill finds himself in hot water as the original Ganymede Scouts have no intention of allowing the newcomers to simply take over. He does overcome this problem, but only with some help from a friend who realises – probably correctly – that the originals have a lot to teach the newcomers. It’s nice to see Bill get a comeuppance that taught him a useful lesson, without doing permanent harm. I don’t know if he realised it himself, though.

Heinlein’s wider world has its odd moments. It is a world where teenagers have access to flying cars, but also starvation rations. The food rationing system may seem perfectly normal to Bill, but Heinlein’s readers would have understood perfectly why Bill wanted to leave for good. Bill actually complains, at one point, that the Chinese are constantly having more and more babies, leaving less food for everyone else. (This has an ironic echo in people complaining about more and more pettifogging environmental regulations over here, while China is pumping out more pollution without restriction.) Trying to ship even one percent of the population to Ganymede is futile and there’s little point in trying to ship food back. It is later explained that certain people believe that war is inevitable and that they’re trying to save as many humans as possible.

Overall, Farmer in the Sky is an odd book. It has a lot in common with the Little House books (only IN SPACE); it preaches self-reliance and independence, as well as the importance of community and doing what you can with what you are given. And yet, I cannot help thinking that it is one of the weaker of Heinlein’s juveniles. Heinlein did not develop Bill sufficiently, in my view, to make him a decent character. Nor are we invested enough in his stepmother and sister to feel much for them, although Peggy’s death is genuinely emotional.

But, in many ways, it is still a remarkable piece of work. There are moments of genuine humour – including a couple I think sneaked in by accident – and it lacks the bombast of some of Heinlein’s later works. It is a good reminder that space colonisation is dangerous, but worthwhile. It’s well worth a read.

6 Responses to “Retro Review: Farmer in the Sky”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 5, 2018 at 5:25 pm #

  2. Derek Knox April 5, 2018 at 10:19 pm #

    I agree it’s one of the weaker of his juveniles. Most of them work well as stand-alone books, but this one felt more like a 1st book of a series.

  3. Dani April 5, 2018 at 11:15 pm #

    FitS was first published in a boy-scout magazine, so the emphasis on scouting helped pay the bills.

  4. David Graf April 6, 2018 at 12:44 am #

    I love these Retro Reviews. They bring back a lot of memories of my youth. Thank you!

  5. Shrekgrinch April 7, 2018 at 1:00 am #

    Chris – Have you ever read John Christopher’s books, like his Tripods & Prince In Waiting Trilogies?

    • chrishanger April 15, 2018 at 8:02 am #

      The Tripods, yep. They haven’t aged well, but they were good when i was a kid.


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