Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
Published: Scriber, 1950
Awards Won: Retro Hugo Award
“The Earth is crowded and food is rationed, but a colony on Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter, offers an escape for teenager Bill Lermer and his family. Back on Earth, the move sounded like a grand adventure, but Bill soon realizes that life on the frontier is dangerous, and in an alien world with no safety nets, nature is cruelly unforgiving of even small mistakes.
Bill's new home is a world of unearthly wonders and heartbreaking tragedy. He will face hardships, survive dangers, and grow up fast, meeting the challenge of opening up a new world for humanity and finding strengths within himself that he had never suspected existed.” ~WWEnd.com
I’ve read my fair share of Heinlein novels and stories, though I think this is the first I’ve read of his juveniles. I originally picked this up because it won the Retro Hugo Award, a popular vote award given retroactively for a year where the standard Hugo Award was not given.
Farmer in the Sky is the story of a young Boy Scout heading out with his family to colonize a Jovian moon. Since it was originally intended as a serialization for the Scouts’ Boy’s Life magazine, there’s a very strong presence of Scouting throughout the story. I think it suits the story well, since Bill’s adventure is one of determination in the face of adversity, preparedness, and a frontier spirit. Scouting was pretty popular when I was a kid (I have no idea if it is still as popular), so I found that aspect of the story pleasantly nostalgic. Bill is a model Scout, calm, clever and resourceful in the worst of times, and generally compassionate for others. He also had a bit of a self-important streak, and often felt compelled to teach disagreeable people a lesson. I felt that this helped his character feel more like a flawed, realistic teenage boy. The story moves quite quickly, so most of the other characters are pretty lightly drawn. There are quite enough to fill out Bill’s world, though, with his friends and enemies in the Scouts, helpful and unhelpful neighbors, and his family, which has its share of internal problems.
From the focus on science in the novel, it seems that the story was also intended to promote an interest in science for young readers. I enjoyed the focus on science and math, and thought that the story gave an exciting context for the drier discussions. However, given how old the novel is, it’s inevitable that a fair amount of the scientific content is now known to be untrue. Also, whenever a problem came up that required a great leap of technology, Heinlein kept the details a bit vague (like the ‘mass converter’ that was used to terraform Ganymede). On the other hand, this is the novel for which Heinlein is credited with predicting the microwave, so a few of the predictions are spot on. My e-book version also came with an essay by Dr. Jim Woosley about the science of the novel, which I think would be really useful for new young readers coming to the work today.
In addition to the Scouting and science promotion aspects, Farmer in the Sky is a very entertaining novel. Space colonization stories are a classic staple of science fiction, and I enjoyed following Bill’s journey from the regulated, overpopulated Earth, through the months-long space journey, and into the farming colony of Ganymede. Bill approached the journey as if it were going to be a grand adventure, and while I think it was that, it was also not exactly what he expected. Subsistence farming is not easy (I have never participated, but have subsistence-farming relatives), and there are deadly risks associated with establishing a colony on a world not naturally suited for human life. Bill grows up through the work and responsibility of homesteading, and the grief from the consequences of unavoidable disasters. Despite the hardships Bill, his family, and his community endure, I think the ending is very optimistic and upbeat about facing what the future holds in store.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Farmer in the Sky tells the exciting story of Bill and his family’s journey to become homesteaders in a colony on Ganymede. The experience is more difficult than young Bill may have anticipated, but he rises to the occasion with intelligence and resourcefulness. I enjoyed watching Bill grow up through his challenging and painful experiences in the new colony. Bill is also a Boy Scout, and the organization has a constant presence throughout the story. Though the science is dated, I think that the story would still be able to inspire an interest in new young readers. Though it was written over half a century ago, I think that the story of Farmer in the Sky is still one that new readers will be able to enjoy.