Farmer in the Sky (11-09-1958)

When I started this column, I had not expected this to turn into a travelogue.  Given that I do much of my reading on a plane heading somewhere glamorous and exciting, I suppose it can’t be helped.  I hope you can all bear with me.

Northwest Orient, a Seattle-based airline, has been filling the air waves with advertisements about their shorter route to “The Orient” (i.e. East Asia).  Well, I decided to bite, and this weekend found us on a plane to the Far East.  There is no direct route to Japan, but Northwest has the next best thing: after a hop back to Seattle (how familiar!), there was a short layover in Honolulu.  Less than a day after takeoff from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, we arrived at Tokyo’s modern air hub, Haneda airport.  The DC-7 is not as fast as the 707, but I think I prefer the gentle drone of propellers to the loud roar of jets.  Call me old-fashioned.

When I get used to the time difference (they should come up with a term for that logy feeling you get after long-distance air travel), I’ll tell you all about the wonders of Japan.  Or perhaps not–you come here for the science fiction commentary, don’t you?

With Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” deterring me from rushing off to finish this month’s Astounding, I decided to catch up on my burgeoning backlog of Heinlein novels.  I liked “Have Spacesuit Will Travel,” recently serialized in F&SF, so I read Farmer in the Sky on the trip.

The book was published eight years ago in 1950, but it feelst up-to-date.  It is the story of an Eagle Scout in his mid teens emigrating out to a newish colony on Ganymede with his family.  Interestingly enough, nearly half of its length is devoted simply to getting there: the application, the preparation, the flight to Ganymede on the Mayflower.  Once there, the tale emulates prior settler stories.  You have the hard times, the loving description of food raised and eaten, the triumphs, and the tragedies.  All throughout, Heinlein does a pretty good job of portraying the physics involved in spaceflight as well as a primer on agronomy on a recently dead world.  The book ends satisfyingly if on a slightly bittersweet note.

A few of interesting points from the book:

Bill, the book’s protagonist, is from San Diego, like me. 

As usual, the author does a good job with technology predictions.  His “quickthaw” and “autoresponder” are plausible and seamlessly executed.  I always find it a little jarring when “slipsticks” (slide-rules) are in copious evidence.  In these days of IBMs and UNIVACS, am I alone in thinking that portable computing machines are the wave of the far future?

California has around 50 million people in the book’s indeterminately dated (but probably the mid-to-late 21 century) future.  This is five times that recorded in the 1950 census.  Extending this to the world population, there must be some 10 billion people on Earth.  I talked about this in an earlier piece; 10 billion sounds like a lot, but not in the doomsday area.  But Heinlein’s future Earth has food rationing, and it is big impetus for leaving the planet. 

I would be okay with this, but Heinlein’s depicted future also has developed complete matter conversion drives and power plants.  Humans have the ability, in the book, to manufacture a breathable atmosphere for Ganymede.  As Bill’s father says early on in the story, “Wherever Man has mass and energy to work with and enough savvy to know how to manipulate them, he can create any environment he needs.” It seems to me that once humanity taps the limitless power afforded by mass conversion, or even thermonuclear fusion, providing food for even 10 billion people should be a trifling concern. 

There is a little bit of gentle misogyny: Bill’s father tells his step-daughter that she’s not allowed on the bridge of the Mayflower because she’s a girl, though this may be meant teasingly.  Bill notes that girls should be kept in a well until they are sixteen, and then a decision made to let them out or leave them there.  Again, I don’t know how out of character this is for a teenaged boy.  On the other hand, there is a skilled female pilot, Hattie.  She’s not the most likable of characters, but she knows her job, and she’s been at it for a long time. 

These are minor quibbles.  The book is good and should fire the imagination of many a young (and old!) reader.  It’s worth it just for the chapters describing the trip to Ganymede.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

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