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Panicky Malthusianism meets bad physics in the least of the classic Heinlein juveniles

Farmer in the Sky

By Robert A. Heinlein 

6 Sep, 2014

The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) Reread


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I think Heinlein worked on his technique all through the juveniles but to my eye 1950’s Farmer in the Sky, while introducing themes that would persist through the rest of his career, is a half step back, filled with pacing issues and the decision to highlight aspects of his world-building that he probably should have tried very hard to distract people from.

[spoiler warnings]

Even after Bill convinces George to take Bill with him to Ganymede, the surprises don’t stop. Ganymede wants married people and their dependents. As widower, George does not qualify and when Bill points this out, George is very evasive. This is because George is planning on remarrying before he heads into space, something Bill grudgingly accepts as a necessary cost. Bill is unpleasantly startled to discover that the marriage is not going to be one of convenience; George actually loves Molly, who by the way is an employee of George’s. 

Thanks to the application of total conversion technology [1], the trip to Ganymede is expensive but not all that difficult, so it is a bit surprising that it takes up about quarter of the book. It is not until nearly half the book is over that the new blended family – George, Bill, Molly and Molly’s annoying tween daughter Peggy – set foot on Jupiter’s moon. A good chunk of the trip to Jupiter is taken up by lectures seemingly designed to show that Heinlein did not really grok relativity and that for some reason as exhaust velocities approach C, his interest in the rocket equations vanishes. 

Conditions on Ganymede are not what the settlers were promised but despite occasional lapses of determination, the family stays and takes up their part in converting a formerly lifeless moon into a habitable – if small – world. Peggy does not prosper in the new world, which concerns her family, but happily a vast natural calamity (one probably triggered by the terraforming process) sweeps Peggy, along with the majority of the population, from the board; with Peggy gone, there is nothing to prevent George and Molly from focusing on replacing the unfit Peggy with superior babies, or Bill from considering how he will spend the rest of his life.

Also, there are aliens. Or at least their relics. 

This was painful to read, although there were aspects that rang true. George comes off as weasel whose attempts to avoid confrontation often make things worse. It’s pretty clear to me that George’s Plan A was to ditch Bill on Earth so George could secretly marry Molly and emigrate to Ganymede; given the difficulty of communicating with Earth, it’s possible Bill might not have found out about George’s new family for years, if ever. 

I also enjoyed Heinlein’s evocations of something clearly recognizable to modern eyes as the Overview Effect.

And there I got my first view of Earth from space.
I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I expected. There it was, looking just like it does in the geography books, or maybe more the way it does in the station announcements of Super-New-York TV station. And yet it was different. I guess I would say it was like the difference between being told about a good hard kick in the rear and actually being kicked.
From where I was it was turned sideways; the end of Siberia, then North America, and finally the north half of South America ran across from left to right. There were clouds over Canada and the eastern part of the rest of North America; they were the whitest white I ever saw-whiter than the north pole cap. Right opposite us was the reflection of the Sun on the ocean; it hurt my eyes. The rest of the ocean was almost purple where there weren’t clouds.
It was so beautiful my throat ached and I wanted to reach out and touch it.

The sections where Heinlein tries to imagine how one would terraform a planet were diverting, although I did wonder about what the crop yields per hectare would be in light only 1/25th as bright as Earth’s.

During the long infodumps about the Mayflower, poor Ortega tries the good old well, I’d explain it if only you were better educated,” gambit but makes the mistake of answering one question too many:

Mr. Ortega, admitting that you can’t pass the speed of light, what would happen if the Star Rover got up close to the speed of light-and then the Captain suddenly stepped the drive up to about six g and held it there?”
Why, it would- No, let’s put it this way-” He broke off and grinned; it made him look real young. See here, kid, don’t ask me questions like that. I’m an engineer with hairy ears, not a mathematical physicist.” He looked thoughtful and added, Truthfully, I don’t know what would happen, but I would sure give a pretty to find out. Maybe we would find out what the square root of minus one looks like- from the inside.”

Yeah, no. This section 

If we had held that drive for a trifle less than a year, we would approach the speed of light.
A mass-conversion ship has plenty of power to do just that. At one hundred per cent efficiency, it would use up about one per cent of her mass as energy and another one per cent as reaction mass. That’s what the Star Rover is going to do when it is finished.” 

shows that hat Heinlein has a misplaced optimism about how the rocket equation works in case of very high exhaust velocities. On the plus side, Heinlein has a good enough grasp of the energies involved that he does not have the conversion ships launch from the surface of Earth, because 

If the Mayftower had blasted off from Mojave space port the whole Los Angeles Borough of the City of Southern California would have been reduced to a puddle of lava and people would have been killed by radiation and heat from Bay City to Baja California. 

and that would be bad.

Speaking of places where the science is broken, it’s not actually possible for the moons of Jupiter to line up the way they do in the book. 

Heinlein is still wedded to the girls are yuck” model in this, although Bill does concede a local teen named Gretchen might make a decent wife. Not totally sure if Gretchen thinks Bill would make an okay husband because aside from Peggy, women don’t get many lines in this. Heinlein will drop this model fairly soon. 

The justification for terraforming Ganymede is as a lifeboat for Earth; as is explained later in the novel, nothing can be done to keep populations from expanding to their Malthusian limits, and in a world with nuclear weapons – possibly total conversion weapons – any violent conflicts triggered when Earth slams into said limits could have calamitous (and the occasional references to the Ruined Planet” hint at worst case scenarios, although I don’t think this book ever comes out and says they did it to themselves). Although the demographic transition had been noticed by this point, many people were unaware of Warren Thompson’s work; even today it is obscure.

Heinlein makes it easy for readers to assume the issue is those darn Asiatics, with lines like this 

Did you notice the results of the Chinese census as well? Try it on your slide rule.“
I knew what he meant-and the steak suddenly tasted like old rubber. What’s the use in being careful if somebody on the other side of the globe is going to spoil your try? Those darned Chinese ought to quit raising babies and start raising food!”

But other scenes make it clear Bill’s confidence in his understanding of the world around him is often misplaced. Bill and George live in a California with sixty million people, almost six times the population of that state when this book was written. As well, when Bill gets to the Mayflower mustering site in North America, he learns the room he reserved is occupied by 

a family with nine children.

Clearly the Asians are not the only ones having lots of kids; it’s just that Bill resents them more because he’s kind of a racist. 

At no point does anyone ask given the technology demonstrated, is terraforming Ganymede the best way to handle the food problem?” This is probably because there is no point to working out how to grow more food, since the population will just grow until there are shortages again. Bill is sharp enough to realize this applies to Ganymede as well as Earth; no good answer about how Ganymede will handle the issue is forthcoming.

I’m not snarking when I talk about poor doomed Peggy. Heinlein makes it clear that colonization is not safe, and George opines (in the context of the revelation that a surprisingly high fraction of the people on the Mayflower are clearly not suitable colonist material) 

The tests are usually honest. As for those who sneak past, it doesn’t matter. Old Mother Nature will take care of them in the long run. Survivors survive.” 

Although George and Molly probably don’t think of her in these terms, Peggy is pretty clearly someone who should never have been allowed to emigrate to Ganymede; she is unfit and unlucky and she does not survive. But to leave her behind would be to consign her to a doleful fate as an Earthican second-hander; obviously a slow, miserable death on Ganymede was more merciful.

I doubt I will reread this any time soon but for those of you who do want to, this work is available in several formats, from the troubled Virginia edition to a more affordable ebook.

1: I wonder when the word fusion’ first appeared in Heinlein’s fiction.