I continue strolling down memory lane rereading Heinlein’s juveniles. This time it is FARMER IN THE SKY, a book that did not stick too prominently in my memory from when I read it first three decades ago, for the reason that it by and large was not very memorable.

This does not mean it was not good; but it does mean that it was not great. The writing is always crisp, clear, smooth, professional, easy-to-read: but in this case there is neither memorable character or plot. As Cymbeline is to Shakespeare, FARMER is to Heinlein.


About the only thing I remembered from when I read this as a fourteen-year-old was the rock-crushers used to turn sterile lava-flows on Ganymede into gravel and then powder; and I remembered the infodump where the author delivers a lecture on the need for soil to be impregnated with various micro-organisms, nitrates, and so on, to be alive and fertile. Those of you who write advice to novice writers take note, that an infodump you are always telling SF writers to leave out is sometimes the most memorable part of an SF book, at least as far as its target audience, fourteen-year-old boys, are concerned.

As with many Heinlein books, the plot is that there is no plot. I mean, there are a series of events, some related by theme, some not, but they neither build on each other, nor, for that matter, have a necessary relation to each other. Any novel where you can swap the events of chapter five and of chapter fifteen and no one would notice the difference does not have a plot.

Here are the series of events. There are four acts. The first takes place on Earth. The main character Bill is an Eagle Scout of the future. Eagle Scouts of the future get to do cool things like fly helicopters to the Rocky Mountains and go camping in Antarctica. His father, George, is a widower, who has decided to homestead on Ganymede, which has been terraformed for colonization. There is initially some argument about whether the boy should go. The boy is shocked to find that his father has remarried, and Bill now has a younger step-sister he does not necessarily get along with. There is no real reason given why his dislikes the stepsister, and they are sort of reconciled later on, and there is no real reason given for that, either. It’s clumsily handled. The tensions in the family could have made an interesting story as the farm family had to learn to work together homesteading in a hostile environment—but, no. Nothing is really made of it. The stepsister dies for a moment of pathos later on.

Second act, in space. Interesting lecture on space-travel, 1960’s style technology. Bill manages, with some quick reflexes, to plug a meteorite hole in the hull in his cabin, saving several lives. This causes another boy to pick a fight with him, which he loses. I actually liked the fact that Bill lost the fight, because it struck me as realistic, but there is never any rematch. The tensions in the Scout Troop could have made an interesting story as the Scouts had to learn to work together homesteading in a hostile environment—but, no. Nothing is really made of it.

Third act, homesteading on Ganymede. Now the theme, such as it is, comes on stage. The main contrast is between Bill and two neighbors, Schultz, and Yammerhead (not his real name, but you know who I mean; Yammerhead shows up at least once in each and every Heinlein tale). Papa Schultz stepped unchanged out from Germantown in the Colony of Pennsylvania, accent and all—he is a textbook example of an American pioneer, large-hearted and bill-bellied, with a helping hand for his neighbor and sage advice with his salt-of-the-earth wisdom. Yammerhead (not his real name) a whining layabout who expects the government to do everything for them. Schultz helps out Bill during the early days, while Yammerhead yammers. There is an earthquake that blows out the colony power supply, including the artificial weather system, and the family, with the wounded stepsister—call her Little Nell—must trek threw the snow and darkness to find the warmth of town after their one-room farmhouse is flattened. A good scene: I wish there had been a good book surrounding it to support it. Little Nell dies, and so does the cow Mabel. The author makes more out of the death of Mabel than of Nell. Schultz survives by the remarkable expedient of burning his one tree, the only apple tree on Ganymede. Yammerhead decides to give up and fly back to Earth. Bill is seriously toying with the idea of flying back to Earth, but when he sees the name of Yammerhead on the roster, he screws his courage to the sticking place and decides to stay.

Fourth act, exploring on Ganymede. Bill is hired as a cook to help an expedition scouting out new terrain to open up. Bill gets an attack of appendicitis while climbing rocks. He and his pal stumble into a cave where alien artifacts are stored, and a many-legged walking machine is used as a stretcher to carry Bill to safety. Since Bill is semi-conscious during most of this scene, a way less dramatic to tell the tale of man’s first contact with evidence of alien intelligence cannot be imagined. The rescue of the injured is a staple of Boy Scout stories, and should have been the dramatic climax of the book, but, as it was, the episode displayed no particular tension or resourcefulness.

Finally, as an afterthought, a new plot conflict is introduced on the last six pages. Bill’s father wants him to return to Earth to complete his education as an engineer, but Bill realizes that he now thinks of Ganymede as his home, and he is unwilling to leave it, even for a few years. I suppose we are supposed to feel good that the farm-boy does not want to learn engineering, but this strikes a sour note with me, as it should with most science fiction fans. As a readership, we tend to admire and value engineers, intelligence, education.

What is remarkable to me as a writer is how little it would have taken to shore up this plotline. Didn’t he do a second draft? For example, we have the theme in Act Three of the tension between Schultz and Yammerhead. Why not make the boy who beats up Bill in Act Two a member of the Yammerhead family, so that there was both personal enmity and public conflict? Why not have a scene, after the disaster, when the village debates whether to abandon the project or not, so that Schultz and Yammerhead have to face off and convince their neighbors? Then there actually would have been something at stake when these two men disagreed. Why not have the tension in the family in Act One come to a boiling point during this face off, as the stepmother favors staying, the father favors giving up, and Bill is unwilling to give up, and so must make an alliance with a stepmother he dislikes, whom he now sees in a new light? Then, when the meeting is interrupted with news that someone (make it Little Nell) needs rescuing, the plot could bring all the threads together, as the community, the neighbors, the split family, and even the doubts in the mind of Bill, have to be resolved, and all have to work together. You could then have Little Nell make a speech denouncing the cowardice of anyone who would abandon his farm and quit—and then die pathetically. The community wipes a tear away and stiffen their backbones and go back to the noble and tragic task of wrestling a life out of a barren wilderness. THAT would have been a plot.

There were things I liked in this book, but they were few and far between. For example, with merely a sentence or two, the author depicts the degree of overcrowding on the Earth by mentioning how every meal has to be rationed for calories. There were things I disliked, but they were minor. For example, the author indicates the degree of change between that day and this by having the son call his father by his first name (something I found distracting and annoying—it made the father seem weak and the kid seem rude).

Another minor dislike: the characters do repeat the Scout Oath at one point, but they swear fealty to God and Planet rather than to God and Country. I heave a small sigh. I am sure when I was young I would have thought that one-world talk was a sign of progress, rather than a sign of a lack of normal, sane, affection and patriotism for one’s home. Since the whole rest of the book is about the tillerman’s love of the land he tills, the home soil for which he suffers and bleeds and where his loved kith and kin will bury their bodies, this little bit of science fiction cosmopolitanism stuck in my teeth.

The thing I like the best was the detailed explanation of the ecology and technology involved in terraforming Ganymede: for which there is fortunately a total conversion technology. But the thing I found least feasible was the idea. Why do it? Ganymede is colder than Antarctica. The atmosphere (according to the book) was artificially created starting in 1985. Now, this might seem like a reasonable project to the generation that saw Bolder Dam created, which led to the un-desertification of California; and whose parents saw the transcontinental railway completed. To me it does not seem reasonable. Why not simply build a greenhouse over Antarctica, melt the snow, and use the soil there? Why not pump the excess water to the equator, and irrigate the Sahara? Why not live in an O’Neill colony, or in a domed city under the sea? I mean, seriously: the domed city under the sea could grow corn in its seabottom mud without importing earthworms, could it not? And if you ran low on air, you only need to lift a snorkel a few hundred feet, not 5.2 AU. Since one of the characters actually dies because of the low pressure on Ganymede, it is clear that any of these habitats would take less time and effort to terraform or build than to equip Ganymede for human shirt-sleeve environment.

My major dislike is an utter lack of plot. There is a scene that consists of nothing but a college bull session, I kid you not. It has nothing, nothing at all, nothing in the least remotest way to do with anything that happens before or after. A group of scouts are sitting around in a tent, chewing the fat. One character, who was introduced just for that scene, puts forth the theory that population pressures inevitably cause wars, and that the next war might decimate the overpopulated Earth; even Ganymede, virgin terrain, will one day be filled, get crowded, get overcrowded, and wars will kill off the population until it dies back to a sustainable level. This is an interesting theory, just deep enough to engage the brain of a fourteen-year-old, but which the older and warier reader might recognize as a favorite hobby-horse of Robert Heinlein.

The ‘Malthus’ view of the world (that men will overpopulate until they die back, and therefore war and famine are inevitable) is one with a science fiction ramification (if war is inevitable, ergo mankind must be the toughest sons-of-bitches in the goddam universe in order to squeeze out the competition) and is one that crops up in many, perhaps most, Heinlein books. I sort of like having this kind of stiff jolt of political philosophy in a juvenile, since it might get the fourteen-year-old to sit up and think.

However, if it were me, I would jolt the boys with Thucydides, not Malthus, and tell them war is caused by phobos, kerdos, and doxa—fear, self-interest, and honor. Thucydides is actually grimmer reading than Malthus, because while one could do something about overpopulation (cf. China, compulsory abortion and sterilization), nothing can abolish fear, self-interest, and honor.

If the plot had actually had something to do with these interesting or alarming ideas, the book might have been interesting. On a scale of one to ten, I give it a huhn. If I had to read this book again or PODKAYNE OF MARS, which also had no trace of a plot, I’d read Podkayne. At least she had a personality.

There just was not enough butter to scrape over the bread here. FARMER IN THE SKY might have made a good short story (the book was originally a short story in BOY’S LIFE, called ‘Satellite Scout’) but there is not enough material to make for a novel. For one thing, the fact that the main character is an Eagle Scout could have been subtracted from the story without it making any change. It should have been crucial to the plot.

I used to be a Scout, and I love scouting and the whole idea of scouting. A story showing how these simple, honest virtues taught by Baden Powell, luxuries on Earth, but necessities in the wilderness, would have been a great story.