Before we begin: I don’t know why I love the “juvenile” Robert Heinlein books so much. They’re a dime-a-dozen at used book stores. I can tear through them in a day, and I know that I should be reading something more intellectual than a novel about a hardy space farmer that was originally serialized in Boy’s Life, but there’s a consistency of tone in these novels that is really appealing. They’re always earnest and subtly self-deterministic, like a precocious young boy whose understanding of the world is limited to the moral parameters of the scout code.
Farmer in the Sky is the story of Bill Lerner, a teenage boy who emigrates to a farming colony on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. Although Heinlein is hardly famous for his scientific accuracy, Farmer in the Sky is rich with details about terraforming the lifeless Jovian rock into a fertile farmland, and as such I think will appeal to a new generation of theoretical ecological tinkerers and landscaping buffs. The soil of Ganymede has to be created from scratch by pulverizing boulders and dead rock, then seeding the resulting dust with precious small amounts of organic material brought from Earth, as well as nitrogen-rich compounds and, eventually, trash from the farm itself. In a sense, this is a 24th-century pioneer novel, evoking the American frontier and the down-home fables of Little House on the Prairie more than whizz-bang rocketry. Bill Lerner cultivates his farm in excruciating detail, survives winters, gets by on the generosity of his neighbors, raises animals, and reaps the eventual fruits of his labor. There are hardships and fallow land, apple trees and tripled-crested Jupiter sunrises over the rows of hardy crops.
I think this so-called “lesser” novel is a great example of science fiction’s ability to be allegorical. By replacing one factor, e.g. the place or time, of a fairly traditional genre tale, Heinlein brings us face-to-face with the core structure of the American mythos. This is, after all, a Manifest Destiny story. It’s a colonizing story. It’s about bending an unforgiving and distant land to your will, wresting fertility out of death — something from nothing. It’s a very archetypal, essentially timeless, story. It’s about life and masculinity, and achieving manhood through the creation of life. Outer space, while seeming like a gimmick, is actually a logical modern metaphor for the frontier, distant, and entirely bereft of life.
To be honest, I initially thought that Farmer in the Sky was representative of a literature that predates the fraught political complexity of contemporary writing, especially of the postcolonial school. Of course, I am wrong. Although Heinlein’s breed of sci-fi is somewhat naive and comes more from a libertarian intellectual bent than an academic one, colonialism is an essential part of the genre’s historical context, and echoes of colonial history and ideology float throughout much of the canon — even in Heinlein’s seemingly innocuous juveniles. After all, what is an alien but an “other”? What is an exotic planet but the coast of California or even a land-bridge over the arctic ice, leading you forever from your home to a foreign and distant place? A place where your young will grow and bear children of their own, never feeling nostalgic for the shores of what was once your home? Encountering life after journeying through space holds the same shock of emotional complexity as landing on the shores of the New World and finding a people already there.
As the scholar John Reider makes axiom in his Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, “science fiction exposes what colonialism imposes.” When Lerner accidentally discovers the technological remnants of a previous Ganymedian civilization in a cave, the whole masculine-colonial machine is brought to a humbled halt. Had the farmers been plowing the bones of ancient aliens into their soil? It lacks the emotional conflict of contact between two civilizations, but the metaphor is clear: whether we intend it or not, from the trammeling of the past comes the order of a new world.