Farmer in the Sky (1950/53)

Some time in the future, Earth is overcrowded. People live in tiny apartments, food is rationed. To relieve the population pressure, the solar system has been opened up for colonisation. With Mars and Venus out of the question for various reasons, the Jovian moon Ganymede is the most promising candidate. When the novel’s story sets in, decades-long terraforming efforts have created a breathable atmosphere and livable temperatures, and potential emigrants are promised their own plot of land and food aplenty. Among those taking the plunge are our teenaged protagonist Bill Lermer, his recently-widowed father, and, much to Bill’s surprise and dismay, a very suddenly-acquired stepmother and stepsister.

Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Farmer in the Sky takes its time to get to Ganymede, spending about half its pages describing conditions on Earth and chronicling the journey to the moon in the spacecraft Mayflower. As the name not-so-subtly suggests, the book casts its space-bound colonisation as a repeat of the settlement of North America by Europeans, sans the pesky issue of original inhabitants. The parallels are reinforced by the fact that, spaceships and power generation aside, Heinlein’s future looks very low-tech from a modern perspective. Life as a Ganymedean homesteader doesn’t seem any less fraught with danger than it was for a settler during the Westward Expansion. Cultivating a farm is back-breaking work, the environment can easily kill you if you’re not careful (and even if you are), and in a disaster civilisation may as well be thousands of kilometres away.

While the first half of the book is enjoyable enough, even with the frequent forays into boy scout subplots (a tedious necessity given the novel’s origin as a serialised story for a scouting magazine), the second part is where it really gets interesting. Unsurprisingly, conditions on Ganymed are not as rosy as propagandised, and the novel deals quite realistically with the challenges faced by such a young colony in general and Bill’s journey to manhood in particular. Its structure is somewhat episodic, with frequent jumps forward in time, but Heinlein never loses tension once Bill lands on the moon.

As is to be expected given the target audience and the author, the novel villifies a number of “moochers” who expect to be given everything by the government without doing their fair share of work and with no regard for the realities on the ground; these digressions, which could have been written today, are rather one-sided, exaggerated, and thankfully infrequent. The other side of that coin, an emphasis on the importance of self-reliance, hard work and earning one’s keep, is more palatable and feels less like the airing of political grievances.

Late in the book, men are differentiated from animals by the way they adapt their environment to themselves instead of adapting themselves to the environment. For the Ganymedeans, this is really only true on a large scale, with space-travel and terraforming. But on an individual basis, they are very much “pushed around and forced to accept what nature handed them”. At least that’s the case for the early pioneers, building a foundation for later arrivals. Bill comes to understand and accept that, and that separates him, the man, from the previously-mentiooned moochers. As a farmer, Bill provides food for his colony, and the colony is the first step in mankind changing the ultimate hostile environment to their needs: space.


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