Farmer In The Sky

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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.

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3 Responses to Farmer In The Sky

  1. robert says:

    cogent and insightful, as are all of the postings on this blog.i think you’ve touched on something really nice here. it hadn’t occured to me to read science fiction in a postcolonialist framework, but it makes perfect sense. if space colonies are a typical figure in sci-fi then why not apply postcolonialist theory? most postcolonialist theory holds that imperialism is justified through the colonizers feminization of the colonized. more specifically, postcolonialism suggests that the cultural artifacts of the colonizer embody the inextricability of masculninity and empire. when an empire reaches its zenith–england at the close of the nineteenth century, america during the cold war or under “w”–it belies a preoccupation with safegaurding the “maleness” of the members of its own society. it’s a self-preservation mechanism on the part of the colonizer–by gaurding the literal bodies of its members it ossifies the integrity of the social/political body. what kind of gender implications shine through in farmer in the sky? does the novel figure the colonized planet as something to be exploited? does the “boy scout” hero exhibit any kind of gender anxety? if the remnants of the civilization the hero finds are represented in repressive terms then i think this would be evidence that the text fits into this way of reading imperialist artifacts. but if the hero is portrayed as an anomaly or misfit within his own imperialist culture, then he could be said to be acting in unconscious collusion with the ideological aims of the colonizer. or, if the remains of the civilization the hero uncovers evoke his own culture, it could simply suggest the futility of any imperialist endeavor. i love that you’re posting pictures of 80s mass market papberback editions of these novels! and thanks for introducing a jaded reader to samuel delany. holy shit! did you know he grew up in the second floor of a funeral home? in harlem?robert

  2. Claire, have you read the Richard K. Morgan Altered Carbon series? They have a great conceit of there having been an incredibly advanced Martian civilization that vanished before humans made it to the other planets. Our colonies are haunted by incomprehensible Martian artifacts and there are changing theories and arguments about how the Martians actually lived, some of which have consequences in terms of tech transfer and political theory.The other sci-fi this reminded me of is PK Dick’s Martian Time-Slip. That’s another frontier narrative, but the barely established human colony on a foreign world is more like a suburb than a mythical western town — the suburbs being the 50s and 60s version of the frontier. Dick’s suburbs are, of course, filled with mental illness, disturbing simulacra, and a general sense of epistemological unease.This quote of Geoff Manaugh‘s about JG Ballard applies, I think, equally well to Dick’s take on suburban life:”It’s hard to say whether Ballard has actually contributed anything — perhaps a deranged enthusiasm for all things suburban? Maybe it’s more accurate to say that he’s taken something away: the naive belief that modernity leads to anything other than sexual deviance and violent nationalism or corporate sociopathology. Though I feel like a member of the Taliban, saying something like that. Ballard, we can’t forget, is perhaps suburbia’s biggest fan — not because he likes father-son bonding and family picnics and a good barbecue but because everyone comes out of there completely insane?”

  3. Robert, I think a postcolonialist reading of Heinlein is a tiny bit of a stretch, honestly, as Farmer in the Sky has an Andre Norton-esque gee-whiz innocence to it, something I call “Radio Flyer sci-fi.” But who knows? Heinlein was a weird, smart, fucked-up guy and even his children’s tomes have something sinister about them — the thing about the ruins of a previous Ganymedian civilization is almost perverse (kids cutting their feet while plunging deeply into a dark inhospitable cave [ahem], finding inscrutable artifacts); it’s tacked-on to the end of a fairly standard pioneer tale as if to remind the readers that nothing is without implications, nothing is unsoiled in a colonial situation. That said, it also kind of humanizes the whole “barren rock” notion of extraterrestrial colonies. Is that weird? That a colonizer/colonized dialectic is somehow comforting, maybe necessary, in a story like this? Like a place isn’t a place worthy of plundering unless someone lived and died there before you?Greg, I haven’t read the Altered Carbon series. I will, thanks for the recommendation. I love the idea of alien ruins; my first ever science fiction book was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which is kind of a primer on sci-fi tropes, and it uses the idea to great (and lasting) effect.

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