Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Farnham's Freehold

Recently I took one of my periodic cruises through old prozines, which are inevitably fascinating voyages. This time it was Worlds of IF circa 1964, where I reread Robert A. Heinlein serialized novel Farnham’s Freehold, which I first read forty years ago. This was typical of late career Heinlein: as much polemic as story, with paper-thin characterization, many characters being little more than stereotypes, but such natural storytelling that it was still enjoyable reading.

The premise is that Hugh Farnham builds a shelter beneath his house during the height of the Cold War, which becomes useful when the bombs drop a few miles away on a government defense complex. Somehow, in the story’s major imaginative leap, the Farnham family find themselves transported centuries into the future, long after Earth has recovered from the war which destroyed virtually all life north of the equator.

What they find is a society ruled by blacks in which the few remaining whites are slaves. The society is rigid and totalitarian, virtually a mirror image of our own sexist society, but with a secret at its core which ultimately makes it worse than our own flawed society (seemingly a necessity for Heinlein who, at least in this story, cannot accept a black society being less evil than a predominantly white society).

The story is worthwhile reading, mostly fast-moving plot stopped for occasional lectures. Most of its flaws are characterization problems. The narrator Hugh needs to be reliable for the reader to place any trust in his narration, and mostly he is, but he is also an obsessive-compulsive control freak whose behavior is occasionally so illogically emotional that it brings the story to a jarring halt. Ponse, the authority figure in control of Farnham’s family in the future, veers between totalitarian and supportive, also exhibiting behavior that is often unbelievable but convenient for forwarding the story.

Hugh’s family members are primarily stereotypes who serve the author’s purposes in the polemic aspect of the story. Hugh’s wife is a drunken, self-absorbed bitch. His son is selfish to the point of arrogance, and a lawyer as well (I guess Heinlein is taking no chances that the reader might actually like the boor). Both Hugh’s daughter and her sexy friend are near-perfect ideal women, one of whom dies horrendously in childbirth while the other becomes Hugh’s mistress.

There is also Joseph, the Farnham family servant who in the story’s beginning talks in an almost-slave patois, although Heinlein describes him as a valued member of the family. In the future Joseph is immediately accepted by the black ruling elite, but he still remains loyal to the Farnhams, helping them as much as possible until Hugh’s anger and jealousy virtually drive Joseph away emotionally.

Keep in mind that I did not enter sf through Heinlein’s young adult novels, so the first Heinlein stories I encountered were his Sixties novels Stranger in a Strange Land, Podkayne of Mars, Farmham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The first three were all seriously-flawed, and all the major innovations which Heinlein brought to sf in the “Golden Age” were so commonplace by the 1960s that I found nothing particularly innovative or awe-inspiring in latter-day Heinlein. My initial impression of his fiction forty years ago was wonder at why he was considered the finest sf writer ever. Later, when I learned more about the history of sf, and read early Heinlein as well, I was able to appreciate what he brought to the field in the late 1930s. But my relative objectivity at reading his fiction often enables me to view his mid-to-late career fiction with a different point of view than readers who are Heinlein’s children.

So while I enjoyed rereading Farnham’s Freehold, I see nothing in it which makes it any more a major novel than his other Worlds of IF serial, Podkayne of Mars, or makes either of them the strongest prozine serials I have read in the past year. Consider Farnham’s Freehold slightly below Poul Anderson’s Three Worlds to Conquer, James H. Schmitz’ The Tuvela and A. Bertram Chandler’s Edge of Night.


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