Commentary by Joseph T Major on Robert A. Heinlein's FARMER IN THE SKY

Opus #75; written August 10 - September 10 1949; 60,000 words

Serialized in Boy's Life September-November 1950 as Satellite Scout


Like certain other organizations that it distances itself from, the American film industry works on the "Hurry up and wait" principle. Thus, when the George Pal film Destination Moon was under way, its initial script writer and technical advisor was rushed to Hollywood, spare no expense and waste no time, to oversee the production. Rewrites and preproduction concerns delayed the start of shooting for several months. Things will happen in such circumstances, such as:

Whilst ensconced in an analogous situation W. C. Fields informed a multitudinous congeries of cinematic directors that he was not of the opinion that he was being recompensed to refrain from practicing the thespian arts for which he was desired, and instead compose, for inspection by the agents of another production company, the story treatment for You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. Yes. So Uncle Bill went on to other fields and film connoisseurs were denied the spectacle of seeing the man behind the curtain bark "DRAT!" to the sudden assault of Toto on a side detail in the Wizard of Oz's throne room.

Robert Heinlein's sitting around waiting for the rest of the production crew to get going on Destination Moon produced a different sort of product. In 1946 he had begun an ambitious new series of short stories set in a future of commercial interplanetary travel, for sale to the Saturday Evening Post. Though he had had the usual differences of opinion with editors, which in this case cut him off from this lucrative and attention-getting market (SEP editor Stuart Rose bounced one story and Heinlein decided not to send them any more; when he'd pulled that particular trick with Astounding, John W. Campbell, Jr. had gone to the trouble of pursuing and getting back (for a while) the producer of his highest-rated stories), the idea was not yet dead.

Heinlein had linked up with another market, another means of getting his ideas before a receptive impressionable audience. He had already clashed with this editor once, a harbinger of clashes that would later cause history to repeat itself once again. But Starship Troopers was ten years in the future, and all was well for now between Robert Heinlein and Alice Dalgliesh. He needed to get Scribner's the juvenile novel for their 1950 schedule, though.

Later on, the SEP-type stories of commercial interplanetary travel would be shoehorned into another series, one in which they fit less well, and causing problems of consistency. (The Robot-Foundation linking has a precedent, you see.) But for now, it was free and open for exploration at even novel length, even for kids. The result in this case has its own merits, which will be discussed here at length.


Bill Lermer's world (from internal evidence this story is set sometime just after the year 2050) is curiously both free and constrained. It's free enough to have wild lands for Boy Scouts to roam in; yet it's so constrained that they have stringent food rationing.

Bill himself is free and constrained. With his mother Anne dead these many years, his father George has established an unusual relationship with his sole issue. Well, maybe unusual for the general world. Bill and George are partners, partners in family life, and as good partners should be they are on a first-name basis. This partnership leaves the partners free to pursue their own goals, whether it be engineer George or scout Bill. Like any partnership, this means constraints; the idea of a partnership is that each participant gives up certain rights in order to gain the benefits of association.

Heinlein was later to set forth more exotic family arrangements, some of which might not work. Here we have his self-disciplined ideal of total freedom for others, rigid constraints for one's self. We also see the consequences of his opinion that children deserve adult courtesy from their parents. Being treated as a deserving adult by George, Bill has grown into being a deserving adult. But then the last thing Heinlein said in the last book he published was a hymn to the value of a strong family structure in raising children well.

Their world, I said, has its unusual features. The first thing we see Bill doing is flying a passenger helicopter. Well, maybe not really flying, since the craft is being controlled from the ground. (That's an optimistic prediction, given, for example, the predilection of the Navy's sixties-era DASH remote-controlled anti-submarine helicopter to wander over the horizon, never to be seen again.) Nevertheless, Bill is the pilot and bears responsibility, as can be seen when another Scout causes a problem, and leaves Bill responsible.

The first thing he does at home, though, is to prepare a meal:

I grabbed two Syntho-Steaks out of the freezer and slapped them in quickthaw, added a big Idaho baked potato for Dad and a smaller one for me, then dug out a package of salad and let it warm naturally.

By the time I had poured boiling water over two soup cubes and over coffee powder the steaks were ready for the broiler. I transferred them, letting it cycle at medium rare, and stepped up the gain on the quickthaw so that the spuds would be ready when the steaks were then back to the freezer for a couple of icekreem cake slices for dessert.

The spuds were ready. I took a quick look at my ration accounts, decided we could afford it, and set out a couple of pats of butterine for them. The broiler was ringing; I removed the steaks, set everything out, and switched on the candles, just as Anne would have done.

"Come and get it!" I yelled and turned back to enter the calorie and point score on each item from the wrappers, then shoved the wrappers in the incinerator. That way you never get your accounts fouled up.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 9

TVP ersatz meat, low-calorie artificial ice cream (ice milk, ice treat, whatever), low-calorie butter replacements ("spread" they call it; what will they call the lower-calorie replacement for spread?), soup cubes, and freeze-dried coffee are all available at the grocery now. Pick them up after you hit the mall for a new microwave (not to mention electric candles), and anyone can cook, though not everyone can eat what's just been cooked. There is a social revolution implicit in technology making meal-fixing less complicated, and it's one of the strengths of Heinlein's writing that he could extrapolate the advances of technology and the changes they would make in society, and then assimilate such vast social changes into the background of his stories.

Earlier (and, I fear, later as well) science fiction was wont to dwell on such changes to an implausible degree. Though this is an example of a deliberate parody of such attitudes, think of "Masters of the Metropolis", the goshwow technological wonder story by Randall Garrett and Lin Carter on the adventures of Sam IM4 SF+ (done after Sam Moskowitz edited Science Fiction Plus for Hugo Gernsback, author of the goshwow technological wonder story Ralph 124C41+) and the wonders of the bus, the Subway Train, the Sky-Scrapers, the automobiles, etc., etc., etc., in the fabulous Year of 1956.

The other background item is a little more important to the story. Bill and George aren't eating TVP ersatz meat, imitation ice milk, lite spread, and other such dietetic taste treats because they need to lose weight. Food is rationed, world wide. Apparently Malthus has overrun the demographic transition (in far too simplistic brief, in an agricultural society children are producers, in an industrial society children are consumers, and so in industrial societies birthrates drop unless stimulated by other methods) and population is increasing beyond the limits of food supply. Thus the references to calorie and point scores, not to mention Bill's concern earlier over an announcement that the ration was being reduced by ten calories. (At least it's nothing like Winston Smith in 1984 drafting an announcement that the chocolate ration was being "increased" to 25 grams (when it had been 30 grams) and then meeting Parsons who seems to have believed it.)

It's ironic, though, in the light of later developments that perhaps couldn't have been foreseen, what George and Bill believe is the most proximate cause of the overpopulation hence the ration cuts:

"You follow all the commissary news, don't you, Bill?"


"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?

Farmer in the Sky, p. 10

Leave aside the calculatory lack of prediction (aside from Asimov's "A Sense of Power", prediction of calculators pretty much didn't happen in SF and that story was more about the rediscovery of mental calculation and the atrophy of unneeded facilities) and look at the people involved. One of the more notorious cases of academic freedom being impeached by the academics themselves is that of would-be Stanford Ph.D. candidate Stephen Mosher, who was denied his degree for having transgressed the limits of reproductive freedom. That is, he reported the harsh enforcement methods used in enforcing of the Chinese law on one child per family (like third-trimester abortions), which has been successful in curbing the growth of their population, and thereby committed the mortal sin of publicly stating opinions in opposition to abortion, for which he was duly punished.

For the problem of this book, as opposed to the wider problems of "real-world" society, this is a case of social changes that were beyond anticipation, though, and should not invalidate this book except for those who demand perfect predictiveness and adherence to standards of the future from authors, too large a group, I fear.

Well, overpopulation, and it could possibly still happen, is the beginning problem of this book. For every problem there is a solution, or we wouldn't have much of a novel here.


That relationship of adults gets its first test early on. Every problem has a solution, and in George's case it's a solution that seems to violate his declared rules. He's going west, where there are wide-open spaces and the land is free. Since this is not the thirteenth century, when land was available in Wales for the cost of shooting a few Celts or the nineteenth century, when land was available in America (that's both the United States and Canada) for the cost of shooting a few Indians (where Civil War losers would post G.T.T. (Gone To Texas) on their property and do so) and in Siberia for the cost of shooting a few Yakuts, we have to look to other climes, and climes at that fortunately not occupied by indigenous persons. That is, the other astronomical bodies in the system. Or some of them anyway; it turns out that Mars and Venus are in fact occupied by indigenous beings. Perhaps, say, the Venerians of Space Cadet (1948) and the Martians of Red Planet (1949)? (That is, are the two other Scribner's novels composed and published in parallel with the SEP short story cycle, in a common universe with this novel and those stories?)

But the Galilean satellites are wide open, and as it's well before Voyager, they seemed perfect sites for a SF writer's flights of extrapolation. Overcrowded Terra is exporting some of (later to prove a crucial point) surplus population to Ganymede, and George Lermer, engineer, has chosen to be among those exports. Half the fun is getting there, as someone put it. (Given Heinlein's displayed attitudes in the matter, and the mores of the times, the relationship in myths between Ganymedes and Zeus is particularly irrelevant.)

Heinlein's greatest writing skill was in the description of process; while we may not know all that much about how someone or something looks (I would like to see Spider Robinson cite chapter and verse for his detailed descriptions of Heinlein characters, for example) we do know in lavish detail about how he, she, or it works. Add to this his unusual and indeed nearly unique attention to political detail, and you have an interesting product of vectors. (The manuscript of Take Back Your Government (1992), the fruits of his hard-won intimate knowledge of the political arena, must still have been still warm.) The detailed description of the process by which would-be colonists get through the process of becoming eligible for colonization is enough by itself for the book to merit Alexei Panshin's tribute: "Until the day that we do have an actual colony on Ganymede, I can't imagine a more likely account of what things will be like." [Heinlein in Dimension, p. 58; the other comments by Panshin on this work will be analyzed later and refuted, corrected, or supported.]

At first, George is concerned for Bill, who needs an education. The senior partner can go on to Jupiter III, while the junior can go to Caltech. "I thought we were partners," Bill protests, but George has his son's best interests to heart and continues to debate. Finally, while having time to think during a field trip to Antarctica, Bill decides that he will accept staying behind to finish his studies, if need be. Meanwhile, George has brought himself around to accept his son's going with him to Ganymede, and applied on his behalf. (Note again the contrast between travel abilities and food stocks.)

Ganymede isn't quite the satellite paradise it could be; but there is a vast terraforming program under way for over fifty years, beginning in 1998 with the start of an atmosphere-making project. Heinlein had thought that with the explosive demonstration of the utility of rockets provided by the VfR on London, people would leap at the opportunity, starting with a manned moon landing by 1957 and a permanent base there five years later, and had in this spirit drawn up his slick stories and initial juveniles including this one, where the first contact with (I presume this means first landing on) Ganymede was in 1985.

The "more likely account" includes health tests. People for a colony have to be sound in mind and body, so exhaustive tests are required. That is, I think exhaustive tests are sometimes required, given some of the examples we encounter later on. What is involved?

There was the usual physical examination, with some added wrinkles. A g test, for example I could take up to eight gravities before I blacked out, the test showed. And a test for low-pressure tolerance and hemmorhaging they didn't want people who ran to red noses and varicose veins. There were lots more.

But we passed them. Then came the psycho tests which were a lot worse because you never knew what was expected of you and half the time you didn't know you were being tested. It started off with hypnoanalysis, which really puts a fellow at a disadvantage. How do you know what you've blabbed while they've got you asleep?

Farmer in the Sky, pp. 22-3

Heinlein seemed to have considerable faith in the value of hypnoanalysis, given how often it is used in his works, from "'If This Goes On '" (1940) onward. He thought so in other cases, too: Heinlein believed that Morey Bernstein had uncovered a genuine case of reincarnation in the "Bridey Murphy" case, for example. Hypnotic trance analysis has to be carefully done, to keep the hypnotist from implanting false memories, as when Morey Bernstein imprinted as memories of a previous life through bad hypnotic procedure Virginia "Ruth Simmons" Tighe's youthful memories of neighbor Mrs. Anthony (neé Bridie Murphy) Corkell's stories of her girlish life in Ireland. Perhaps his trust was less than totally warranted.

The one example of a psycho test that we see seems to be an interesting sort of test, what special operations types refer to as a "sickener". Two purported clerks give Bill ample opportunity to respond to being defamed to his face, and he refuses to gratify them by reacting. This activity seems quite typical of the standard operating procedures of fraudulence, deceit, hypocrisy, subterfuge, and misrepresentation common among psychological types, but I suppose the end justifies the means. (There were more obvious "sickeners" in Space Cadet, where they were even more justified by this being an environment of military training, but strangely enough Heinlein seemed to explicitly deny in that book that such was the intent.)

In spite of his worst fears Bill passed his tests and was finished with them, except for the one that the Colonial Commission did not have in its test plan. The result initially puts a strain on the partnership. You see, when the Colonial Commission wanted to colonize Ganymede with families, they were adhering to the reactionary fantastic idea of a monogamous heterosexual marriage. George also sticks to that idea (and apparently Heinlein himself had not gone beyond it or could not dare to at that time) which means that a marriage is in the making. It might've gone over better if he had told Bill beforehand.

But in spite of everything he clamps down and makes an effort to accommodate to his new stepmother Molly and bratty stepsister (I think this is a standard requirement) Peggy Kenyon (I suppose they had to tell one Margaret from another some way) soon enough. Given that the whole emigration thing started because George wanted to get married, yet the wedding bells come as a vast nerve-wracking surprise to Bill, one wonders how close their partnership had really been.

Modern times make much of commingled families, though it's usually by reason of divorce. Back when this book was written, writing about divorce wasn't all that common because divorce where children were involved really wasn't all that common. (There was a peak of divorces right after World War Two; ardent soldiers going off to war had wanted to get hitched, then battle-weary veterans came home and said "I married that?"; while Rosie the Riveter said "No way, José," when shown the kitchen.) So to be in accordance with the moral standards of the times and in keeping with what was actually more likely at the time, Molly Kenyon and George Lermer were the bereaved survivors of deceased spouses. This gives an added impetus to emigrating; as long as you've lost your better half anyway, why not make the new start as much of a new start as possible?

For all that Heinlein disdained Freudianism, there is a substantial substratum of psychological stress in this incident. (Blish after all labeled Heinlein a Freudian.) Bill resents the intruder Molly Kenyon taking the place of his dead mother Anne. One could, with the right kind of determination, read far more things, and far sicker ones, into this feeling than Heinlein says about it. This doesn't seem to be either what was intended or proper, though. Another comment I noted about the combining of families pointed out that it was rather a hard thing to do well. Trying to reconcile that with the shock of bereavement seems to just add to trouble. Perhaps Bill had to be normal, like the bulk of Heinlein's early characters, especially to counteract it. If thinking about this even crossed Heinlein's mind someone who doubts Freudianism is likely to not bother having sick characters.

As a subtle aside to this anecdote of marital strife there are more intriguing hints of the vast advances in technology and the changes in society derived from them. It was well enough to postulate commercial jet flight, commuter helicopters, and answering machines; preliminaries of such things already existed in the late 1940s. But it seems odd that a society approaching starvation would be so prodigious of resources. Also, what kind of government would it take to enforce the rationing described, and how could it then permit such mobility?


A passage to Ganymede is not all that it seems, and one of the first hints is that not all the colonists-to-be seem to be living up to that ideal implied by the batteries of tests that Bill suffered. (Perhaps that hypnoanalysis implanted the wrong kinds of ideas in some people.) The flip side of Heinlein's admiration of the competent was a dislike of the incompetent, and there are plenty of examples here. On the other hand, this problem contains its own solution, at least in Heinlein's view, as shown by George's mild comment on Bill's protest: "As for those who sneak past, it doesn't matter. Old Mother Nature will take care of them in the end." [p. 89]

Some of these exemplars are only incidental, like the nagging passenger who thinks that she should be the captain's first and highest priority, above and beyond such trivial and irrelevant matters as navigating the ship. (Did the Heinleins' tramp royale around Earth recounted in Tramp Royale bring them across any examples of this type?) Some are recurring. And one even turns out to be surprising.

Back in Chapter One, you will recall, a fellow Scout, described then only as a "twerp", nearly managed to saddle Bill with a speeding ticket. But what should happen on the shuttle but:

I looked up. There was a boy standing in front of me. He said, "What's the trouble, William, my boy? Dropsick?"

It was that twerp Jones. You could have knocked me out with a feather. If I had known he was going to emigrate, I would have thought twice about it.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 46

The gradually un-twerpish Hank Jones (and the character evolution is a crucial part of the book) seems to be here precisely to fulfill several Heinlein roles noted by Alexei Panshin. Panshin notes:

In his early stories, at most one character was blessed with the ability to speak in brisk, bright, clever metaphor. The rest spoke a simple, utilitarian English. The one character (usually a Heinlein Individual of the competent or wise old man state) was thus enabled to stand out a bit from the crowd . . .

Heinlein in Dimension, p. 144

In this book Hank seems to have usurped that position, one usually assigned to the hero of the work. To some extent he also serves in that prescribed role of mentor, in the relationship of senior Heinlein Individual (Hank would be in the second, "competent" state) to junior Heinlein Individual, but the relationship is not all that direct. Of course, this pattern holds true in other of the Scribner juveniles; Panshin even gives as an example of that distinctive pattern of speech Sam in Starman Jones (1953), who holds that same position in relation to the point of view character of that book that Hank does in this one (except for what happened to them in the end).

You'll note, by the way, the reference to "Dropsick?" that Hank slyly made. Hank had been dropsick, too. That sort of nauseated reaction to weightlessness has been a serious, if unpublicized, problem for real-world space programs. Chalk this predictive bullseye up to the sort of random luck that just happens to fall into the lap of well-prepared, thoughtful types.

Whether or not Heinlein had himself been a Boy Scout, he certainly was the type, and the type if not the actual organization itself had popped up in his stories a time or two, all the way back to "Lost Legacy" (1941). The Boy Scouts' magazine Boys' Life had become another one of Heinlein's slick markets. An edited version of Farmer in the Sky appeared in Boys' Life ("Satellite Scout", August-November 1950), for example. It would seem that Heinlein was tailoring stories for the special needs of this market to more thoroughly exploit an opportunity to impress wild ideas upon impressionable minds.

So Bill is a Boy Scout, other positive characters like Hank Jones are Boy Scouts, and little details of the story involve the mysteries and rituals of Lord Baden-Powell's civilising agency for those dangerous untamed beasts called boys. This seems like a good idea to the characters, too, and so they set out to set up the Boy Scouts of Ganymede. This turns out to be helpful then, in keeping the animals in line sorry, in keeping order on board. Thus the troops turn out to search for a lost child; useful on a large vessel with a small crew.

There is one recurring minor factor that I suppose I should mention at this point. About this time in Liverpool, there was a nine year old boy who was learning to play a certain musical instrument. Had history turned another way, the fans of Lawrence Welk might well think highly of another accordionist from the banks of the Mersey, instead of feeling negative towards John Lennon. Yes, Lennon's first instrument was the accordion, and in this book Heinlein has Bill Lermer numbered among the artistes (whatever) of the squeezebox.

This figured in a minor way from time to time. Bill wangled a spot for his accordion by showing that it was a cultural implement, and the Colonial Commission wanted to import culture (broadly defined; it must have been) to Ganymede. He plays it from time to time, in order to provide relief for various nerve-strained groups.

It's interesting, though, what he plays. Namely, Rhysling's "The Green Hills of Earth". Anyone trying thereby to reconcile Farmer in the Sky with, say "Logic of Empire" (1941) could be a little troubled. Reconciling the background and events portrayed herein with "If This Goes On " (1940) or Methuselah's Children (1941) is going to be even more difficult. The Lermers would have to have been leaving Earth just after Nehemiah Scudder's reign, which given that the Prophet banned space travel would seem to make it a little hard to do.

However, the story "The Green Hills of Earth" (1947) is in the Saturday Evening Post series of stories. Originally Heinlein had intended these to be a different future history, separate and apart from the Future History of stories from Astounding (cf. Grumbles from the Grave, letter of October 25, 1946, p. 105). It seems that perhaps he hadn't yet decided that Rhysling was in the history, instead, of Lazarus Long. (Which is why "Mary Risling" of the serialization of Methuselath's Children became "Mary Sperling" in the book (1958).)

Another example of that sort of background building Heinlein specialized in was in the description of the ship the jolly colonists were using. The stories for the Saturday Evening Post and the other slicks contained occasional hints of a vaster world out there. Sometimes a hint would be developed into a story of its own, the way that an incident referred to in "It's Great To Be Back" (1947) was expanded into "Gentlemen, Be Seated!" (1948), or a background item from Space Cadet became "The Long Watch" (1949). The reference on page 66 to the interstellar space ship Star Rover that had failed to come back might have been one of these in the making.

But in this story, anyway, after the Star Rover vanished, its successor the Star Rover II fell prey to obsolescence and became the Mayflower, tasked with the burden of transporting colonists from Earth to Ganymede, including Molly, Bill, and George Lermer, and Peggy Kenyon, our protagonist and his family. This facilitates the goal of emigration immensely, as now the transit time to Ganymede is cut from thirty-three months to sixty days. This isn't wholly helpful, though, from another perspective, as we shall see later.

The description of how the Mayflower functions is another example of that realism and vividness Panshin refers to. If Heinlein stressed function over description, here was one place where he could come into his own. By now the descriptions of how a ship was spun for gravity, or what measures are taken to generate a breathable atmosphere, are commonplace. But this old description is still fresh.

There are also the human factors, some of which are all too powerful. For example, when, for an audience of students, the Mayflower's Chief Engineer Ortega describes the functioning of the engines, points out that they are inaccessible, and supplies the reassurance that "nothing can go wrong", the question is raised:

"Humph!" said Noisy. "All I've got to say is, if there isn't any way to make a repair when a repair is needed, what's the use in sending engineer officers along?"

Farmer in the Sky, p. 69

Later on George answers that question:

"There are certain adjustments which conceivably be made in extreme emergency. In which case it would be Mr. Ortega's proud privilege to climb into a space suit, go outside and back aft, and make them."

"You mean "

"I mean that the assistant chief engineer would succeed to the position of chief a few minutes later. Chief engineers are very carefully chosen, Bill, and not just for their technical knowledge."

Farmer in the Sky, p. 69

Here we have the awful burden the Heinlein Individual has when things are in danger; to give them up, to lose them, so that others may keep them. (Not that any Heinlein Individual would readily submit to having a ring finger bitten off by a caveman, gollum, gollum.)

The "Noisy" who asked the question, by the way, is another typical Heinlein character. Panshin describes his standing in the class of supporting roles: "Heinlein ordinarily relies on caricature, and he has a number of set pieces which he produces as needed. One is . . . the Nasty Young Weasel, usually named something like 'Sneaky' Weems." [Heinlein in Dimension, pp. 129-30] Or "Noisy" Edwards, who in this case is certainly nasty, young, weaselly, and sneaky.

There is one trip-up in the background. The Mayflower uses a "matter conversion engine", where matter of some kind is converted directly to energy. What it works out to is that, as with so many old SF standards, you can't do it; the law of conservation of particle number applies, and you can't get a zero number of particles unless you begin with equal numbers of particles and antiparticles. Positive plus negative equals zero. You must have antimatter (with the problems involved) before you can liberate that energy inherent in matter.

It seems so facile to have such a trip flavored by mutiny, rebellion, barratry, and the establishment of a mutants' colony along the spin axis of the ship. Well, Universe (1941) showed that Heinlein could try that out and make it worthwhile, and he was young enough not to repeat himself, or pad out a story with semi-relevancies. Instead, the story focuses on the day-to-day features of making a society function. There is local government, education, and helpful recreation (that's where the "Boy Scouts of Ganymede" come in). As Bill puts it in the end: "Making a trip in space is about the dullest way to spend time in the world, once the excitement wears off." [p. 70]

Well, maybe not, there did have to be a little excitement, and so in a million-to-one shot (the density of the asteroid belt has turned out to be immensely discouraging to writers) the Mayflower is hit by a meteoroid. The competent individual in charge reacts, improvising a patch over the hole, taking charge of communications with the bridge, and trying to restore order. Bill did pretty well that time. It's worth noting that Bill seems to take it in stride, doing no more than was his job. Not to mention that right after this heroic incident he loses a fight to Noisy Edwards, who had panicked when the meteoroid hit and didn't want to have to feel grateful afterwards.

The usual hierarchy of mentorship we see in a Heinlein novel takes a different configuration here. In his discussion of the Heinlein Individual, Panshin singles out this book: "The narrator of Farmer in the Sky is not naïve enough to be called a pure stage one, and his friend and sometime-mentor, Hank Jones, is not quite knowing or cynical enough to be a pure stage two." [Heinlein in Dimension, p. 171] On the other hand, we do have a progression of mentorship, with Bill learning from more experienced people like Hank, George, and others we shall meet later. We don't get to see him able to pass on this hard-won experience and knowledge to others, though.


That project on Ganymede is one of the more interesting background elements. When it turned out that Venus and Mars were inhabited, humanity finally seemed to have learned something from the catalog of crimes and follies that are history. Instead of colonizing those planets, it was decided to colonize places without indigenous inhabitants. Which turned out to be the Galilean satellites of Jupiter.

This colonization required a vast preparatory effort and investment. Machinery and equipment were transported to the satellite to break down the ice into oxygen for breathing, to create a surface pressure of three psi. This was sufficient, but other gases were lacking. Also, a "heat trap" was generated to concentrate sunlight and thereby raise the Ganymedean surface temperature to livable levels.

While it isn't within the purview of the characters to know how this "heat trap" works, one does wonder. It hardly seems to be chemical in nature, given that, as we will later see, it is power-dependent. Moreover, there are substantial problems involved in having a pure oxygen atmosphere, as Grissom, White, and Chaffee were to find out in 1967 at rather a high price. (Were the full consequences of this air mix known at the time? There hadn't been that much exploring under low pressures, and such breathing mixtures seemed to have worked.)

The financial feasibility of all this is also open to question. But then my financial awareness has been stimulated by having read Fred Pohl's Mining the Oort (1992). One of the plot problems of that book is the burden of the vast financial investment required to make Mars livable; the interest payments are killing the would-be Mars folk (more than metaphorically, sometimes) and there's no return from the planet to pay the investors back. Often science fiction writers, themselves so burdened by limited finances, seemed not to be carrying this constraint on to the star-spanning stories of their creation. Could this perhaps be a radical form of escapism? Heinlein does touch on the project financing, but it's problematical and there could be more.

In spite of all these barriers, both natural and man-made, thirty thousand hardy souls survived the climactic rigors of the new worldlet, not to mention the thousand days of travel time needed to get there. (Well, maybe not thirty thousand, since after all some would have been born there.) They were getting along just fine, building their own little world, when they were hit with a ton of bricks. Well, anyway, news that their population would be growing by a fifth at one fell swoop, with batches of six thousand more coming along twice a year at first and then faster. What a reassuring thought.

In innumerable books the epic saga is recounted of a grim struggle between initial peaceful hardworking colonists and the criminal element dumped on them by an unperceptive colonial commission, finally resolved by the intervention of romantic, reliable, reasonably-priced mercenaries. Rather than rebel, and anyway there's no criminal element coming (they hope), the Ganymedeans have taken the lemon handed them and set out to make lemonade. (Besides, in real life mercenaries have proven to be overpriced, under-disciplined, and subject to eviction by dissatisfied superpowers. Ask Robert Denard.)

"Dumped" is the right word, though. Moreover, the Ganymedeans couldn't even complain very well, because they couldn't get a radio message of complaint back to Earth. (No Deep Space Network, capable of picking up a message from Ganymede broadcast with mere watts of power, like Voyager did, in this universe!) Being forced to improvise and dare, in the Churchillian turn of phrase they improvose and dore, creating enough barracks for the newcomers, and a plan for making lemonade. They will sort out the newcomers, and use the skilled to complete the development of Ganymede, making it industrially self-sufficient to go with its self-sufficiency in food.

They will even accept new immigrant boys in the Boy Scouts of Ganymede. Which group was slightly disturbed at having its charter usurped by strangers from the good ship Mayflower. (Again a case of writing to the audience. Heinlein never seemed to have any trouble with (or perhaps from) the editors at Boys' Life maybe he never had to have any correspondence with them.)

All this provokes a corresponding crisis among the immigrants. There was that conversation with Bill (and example of mentorship) where George had predicted that many of the seemingly unfit ones would fall by the wayside [p. 87-9]; some of them seem to be even anticipating or preventing that, depending on how you look at it, by going back to Earth. The ones who stayed had their own problems.


The idea was to have farmers in the sky, and Heinlein has worked out a clever scheme for doing this. You see, all they have to start with is rock. This rock can be crushed and powdered to dust, but then all you have is sterile rock dust. However, this dust can be supplemented with nitrogenous compounds to make usable soil. Describing it is the easy part; the nitrogen has to come from somewhere. In fact, all the various components that make up usable soil have to be provided. Creating your soil de novo means that in addition the various components that hamper agriculture on Earth can be deleted.

This depth of consideration extends to the Ganymedean environment in general. Twenty-one years before Earth Day and its succeeding regular event, the "Ecological Crisis of the Month" (cold winters see "ecologists" predicting a new ice age, hot summers see "ecologists" predicting global warming, always in apocalyptic terms), Heinlein was writing about ecology and its topic the environment, and considering this science in its proper relationship to science as a whole, human society as a whole, and indeed the universe as a whole.

In science fiction, it is possible to build a background to order. Sometimes this procedure can go too far, and in the resultant work other writing components are pushed aside, ignored, and discarded to produce an uninteresting travelogue. (I'm always coming home to find things like that littering my floor, unread.) The advantage to being able to construct your background to order is that the writer can then expand his range of plots.

In this case, we have a case of plots revolving around the building of an environment in an unnatural and hostile setting. It's worth, though, considering the question: Earthly settings aren't hostile and unnatural? In answer to a similar question back on pp. 20-2 George had shown that Southern California was just as unnatural and hostile as Ganymede. The compensatory factor is technology, and that derives from human intelligence and human will.

So the Ganymedean environment was balanced beforehand. A higher form of natural selection ensues, as beneficial life forms were carefully chosen in the struggle for existence while inimical ones were purposefully excluded. This was carefully controlled, too: "[It] really brings it up to the top of your mind to know that stepping on an insect carries with it a stiff fine if you are caught, as well as a pointed lecture telling you that the colony can get along very nicely without you but the insects are necessary," [pp. 121-2] notes Bill.

Economics also applies, but not quite as much as might be. (Cf. the above-referenced Mining the Oort by Pohl.) The internal economics of the colony make sense in the light of the distribution of resources. With manufactured goods rendered expensive by transportation costs, and Earthly cash just as useless, the store of value on Ganymede is land and we'll see how land is spent and transferred.


The interesting parts of To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1988) are the ones on Maureen's life as a doctor's daughter in rural Missouri. (The less interesting ones are on the topic of "I'm Myrtle the Fertile Turtle I'm never happier than when I have a baby in my belly and a man on top!" which only seem to take up 99+% of the book.) Similarly, one of the more interesting parts, barring the tired sex jokes, of Time Enough for Love (1974) is the one where Lazarus Long strikes out to set up a homestead in the wilds of a new planet. Heinlein had worked with this topic before, like in Farmer in the Sky. However, this first time had odd twists of its own. Neither Maureen's grandparents nor her son had had to make the soil for their new farms.

In our last thrilling episode, we left Bill Lermer, his father George, stepmother Molly, and stepsister Peggy shivering in the cold of a Ganymedean winter, staggering under the thought of having to be one of thousands of new settler families forced to hack a farm out of pure rock. Having traveled half a million miles to get away from his engineering, George now finds himself a practicing engineer again, in the Ganymedean capital and settlement of Leda (appropriate name), and his new engineering job is tied in to the self-reliance plan. Which leaves Bill with the farm-maker's task.

Here again mentorship comes into play, very relevantly in this case. The Lermer homestead got picked quickly (insider trading?) but upon inspection the dispirited pioneers seem to be less than satisfied with their palatial new acres of rock. Enter stage left the new mentor:

We sat there a while longer, not saying anything, just thinking long thoughts. Suddenly we were almost startled out of our boots by somebody yodeling at us. A moment before I had been wishing to hear just anything, but when it came it was like unexpectedly encountering a clammy hand in the dark.

We both jumped and Dad said, "What in the ?" I looked around. There was a large man coming toward us. In spite of his size he skipped through the rocks like a mountain goat, almost floating in the low gravity. As he got closer I knew I had seen him before; he was on the Court of Honor, a Mr. Schultz.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 131

You can't say that Heinlein has unobtrusively introduced a major character, one playing a crucial role. Come to think of it, Schultz's own self-introduction is hardly unobtrusive. It isn't unhospitable, either. It's almost as if there was set down a model farm next door, ready for mentorship and training. And the mentoree takes the opportunity: "Papa Schultz needed a field hand about as much as I needed four ears, but that didn't keep me from moving in." [p. 137]

One criticism that has been made of this book, not totally without merit, is that it exhibits a characteristic weakness of Heinlein's; his plots flow erratically. Panshin gives as an example the case of this book: "[The] telling of the story is diffuse, particularly toward the end where we are given the sort of synopsis that might be found in a diary kept by a not-too-conscientious person, six months covered in a paragraph." [Heinlein in Dimension, p. 58]

There is a certain dilemma of writing involved here. A novel is supposed to be a selective recreation of reality. A book on the plan of ". . . and the next day the ant came and took away another grain of sand, and the next day the ant came and took away another grain of sand . . . [repeat without limit]" would be unreadable. The writer has to select relevant incidents to further his plot.

As a further complication, remember that the audience of the time that the book was written would be at least aware of such agricultural complexities implicit in Bill's observation on his apprenticeship that "[by] then I could caponize a rooster or plant a row of corn; I still had a lot to learn but there wasn't any good reason why I shouldn't start making my own farm." [Farmer in the Sky, p. 138] (Nowadays it might be less so.) The rock-grinding and other man-made accelerations of natural soil production described in the next part of the novel aren't in the reader's experience and should be described in detail.

So in telling this story there has to be synopsification. In this example, Bill's apprenticeship at farming has been chosen to be synopsified. The question is how much and where. This isn't to say that Heinlein's choice of selections is beyond question, as we shall see.

The rock-grinding is described in plausible detail and terms. Once we have the rock dust, it has to be prevented from becoming a dust bowl, which is where the previously-mentioned organic materials come in. They have to be added to the dust, and this allocation needs to be carefully thought out. But the Colonial Commission's allocation of nitrates aren't the only source of organics for this farm in the sky:

I was studying the matter, my mind not made up, when I saw something moving down the road.

It was a line of men, pushing wheelbarrows, six of them. They got closer and I could see that it was the male Schultzes. I went out to meet them.

Every one of those wheelbarrows was loaded with garbage and all for me!

Papa Schultz had been saving it as a surprise for me. I didn't know what to say. Finally I blurted out, "Gee, Papa Schultz, I don't know when I'll be able to pay you back!"

He looked fierce and said, "Who is speaking of paying back when we have compost running out of our ears yet?"

Farmer in the Sky, p. 146

Organic gardeners should appreciate this heap of generosity. Well, maybe the modern audience isn't totally isolated from those implied background elements. Seems odd to celebrate getting garbage. By the way, Heinlein's own two-wheelbarrow family of Grumbles from the Grave (p. 119) came later, in 1961. You'd think he'd have learned from his own writings: "I learned not to sneer at a wheelbarrow after I priced one at the Exchange," [p. 137] noted the respectful Bill (even though the prices there were seriously inflated by transportation charges) not to mention the Schultzes' six.

Other considerations apply: "Or take earthworms. I know they are worth their weight in uranium because I was buying them before I was through. A farmer can't get along without earthworms." [p. 122] This kind of reference shows how well Heinlein had considered the background, and integrated it into the plot.

Moreover, this comment is a part of the long theoretical discussion of ecology in Chapter 12 "Bees and Zeroes" [pp. 120-6], which had featured the previously-referenced comment on insects. In other words, here we have a juvenile entertainment, obviously an inherently non-serious work, discussing in detail issues relating to a complex science. I think Heinlein had a better grasp of the issues involved.

But a nice fertile field is so much vain trumpery without a base of operations. Thus a house is in order, and there are other considerations to consider. Not all is well in the happy Lermer family; those exhaustive physical tests hadn't exhausted all the potential problems, and it wasn't political pull that failed in this case. Poor Peggy has changed from stock Bratty Little Stepsister to stock Poor Little Match Girl. She hasn't adapted to the one-fifth pressure, not at all, and the Lermer homestead will need a pressurized room for her.

The response is another old pioneer custom; the house-raising. The house-raising manages to bring us back to the Scouting theme, since the Scouts of Bill's patrol (the Auslanders [German: "foreigners"]; first the Schultzes and now this how many of the first settlers of Ganymede were German, anyway?) are doing the work. Vatti Schultz chips in to help a field hand, no doubt with certain other considerations in mind. (At the right time I will tell the relevant story of the field hand of John S. Shepherd of Hickman County, Kentucky.)

Come to think of it, how is all this being paid for? Money is tight and in a sense on Ganymede the currency of Earth isn't even useful toilet paper. There is one store of value on Ganymede: land. This realization shouldn't be surprising to anyone aware of the pioneering work by Ludwig von Mises on the subjective theory of value, the academic proof of why fuel is more valuable in the Arctic than fresh water, while the reverse holds true in the Sahara. Read Mieses's masterwork Human Action.

It's somewhat disturbing to realize that most of the farmers in the sky are in fact sharecroppers of the Colonial Commission; they have pledged their land in return for various improvements, both to the land itself and the materials needed to work it: "[When] you start to farming . . . . you've got to go to the Exchange and buy a lot of other stuff. I was already in debt a proved acre and a half, nearly, before the house ever went up," [p. 149] one such farmer in the sky observes. They can also pledge their land for various other benefits; George's plans to send Bill back to Earth to earn an engineering degree are frequently referenced, the costs to be paid by pledging land.

Farm debt crises are a recurring theme in social history, from Solon's reforms of the Attic debt to American farmers driving tractors down Pennsylvania Avenue. Somehow it seems worrying that the Ganymedean colonists should still be in the same boat. One of those continuations by lesser hands of greater works that are now all the rage could use such a crisis as its topic (doubtless the crisis would be resolved through the intervention of romantic, reliable, reasonably-priced mercenaries, per the predilections of the expected publisher).


Crisis # 1 is over and the happy family is reunited. Well, where would a novel be without conflict? Conflict, or trouble anyway, is about to arrive not in single spies but in entire intelligence agencies.

Bill's strains seem to be covert. You can observe a lot by looking, as the respected sage L. P. Berra put it, and after playing Rhysling's famous song about the cool green fields of home on a cold winter's night, Bill looks around at the moved faces surrounding him, realizes that old home ties are a little much to bear at times, and goes out to do a little looking at a different scene:

The clouds had broken due west and let the sunset glow come through a bit. After my eyes adjusted, by that tiny amount of light I could see around me the mountains, snow to their bases, disappearing in the clouds, the lake, just a sheet of snow-covered ice, and the boulders beyond our fields, making weird shapes in the snow. It was a scene to match the way I felt; it looked like the place where you might be sent for having lived a long and sinful life.

I tried to figure out what I was doing in such a place.

The clouds in the west shifted a little and I saw a single bright green star, low down toward the horizon, just above where the Sun had set.

It was Earth.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 158

Who said that Heinlein couldn't convey deep emotional feeling? But emotional feeling is a process, a "how things work", or don't work in this case. (We'll see a more extreme example later.) One can see that this scene might inspire people to recount the author's descriptive policy, but if you look closely you can see that there are very few actual descriptive points "snow to their bases", "a sheet of snow-covered ice", "weird shapes" not very specific and leaving much up to the reader. One can go too far in describing the commonplace, and sometimes it's more interesting to get the reader involved. This can leave the reader blank on anything outside his experience, which can make handling an author's own creations hard.

The rest of the family is feeling the strain, too. It was after all Molly's tears at hearing "The Green Hills of Earth" that sent her stepson out into the cold night, and George seems to be aging faster. The one with the biggest problem is poor Peggy, who seems unable to adjust, and it's not just the pressure she isn't adjusting to:

She didn't belong here and she wouldn't grow here. Have you ever had a plant that refused to be happy where you planted it? It was like that.

She belonged back on Earth.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 157

But not to worry. The old saying goes: "I was feeling down and out and they told me 'Cheer up it could get worse!' So I cheered up, and sure enough, it got worse." Spring is going to be exciting this "year"; there will be a lineup of all four of the Galilean satellites with the sun and Jupiter, producing a stupendous sight in the skies. (In his essay "The Dance of the Satellites" [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1969, reprinted in The Solar System and Back [1970] Asimov showed that such a lineup was impossible. *SIGH*) Father Zeus (the names "Zeus" and "Jupiter" have both been postulated to derive from the hypothecated Indo-European original dyeu-pater "sky-father") has his own special plan laid on to celebrate this rare alignment among his loved ones, it turns out. Gods shouldn't be frightened by the prospect of palimony.

Heinlein knew when to allocate his descriptions; the depiction of the alignment is striking. However the Jupiter effect strikes in full force, with a devastating earthquake. How devastating this earthquake is to Ganymede is revealed in degrees.

It begins with the personal equation; the hard-raised Lermer manse has fallen down. Fortunately there's no fire and the massive stone slabs of the house walls are nothing that two adrenalin-hyped desperate men can't clear off of the rest of their family. The explosive depressurization seems to have been too much of a shock for Peggy to bear, but none of the others seem to be hurt thus far.

Then the next stage in the disaster reveals itself; there are too many stars in the sky. The heat trap is gone, in fact there is a general power failure, and Ganymede is about to revert to its previous low temperatures. (Which is why I can't see it as a chemically-induced greenhouse effect.) Struggling through cool summer night rapidly become icy Antarctic blizzard, the Lermers make their way to safety. "[Seemed] to be hurt," I said; but Molly didn't bother mentioning her broken arm until all were safe. This uncommon fortitude as common nature is an example of why it is so hard to be definitely negative about Heinlein's female characters.

The stricken community rallies with commendable speed. Once power is restored, the Scouts go out on search teams. Here we have an example of the speed with which children grow up on the frontier. Where else would sixteen year olds without guns be classified as older men? (I know about today's situation, which is why the qualifier.)

The search is grim. Nearly two-thirds of the Ganymedean population is dead, most of the livestock and all of the crops are gone. "As Hank said, we'd all be a little hungry by and by," [p. 178] a prediction to be repeated by the author in a nonfictional context. (Of course, Hank's folks were now numbered among the majority, so perhaps his brisk, bright, clever metaphor is the cover for grief.)

But one of those searches for the dead has a happy ending. Shock seems to be the best possible stimulant, as we see when a sleepy Bill is electrified into awareness at the news that the Schultzes are yet among the missing. He and George hitch a ride out that way to look and find out for themselves:

They dropped us at the turn off and we trudged up toward the Schultz's house. I began to get the horrors as we went. It's one thing to pile show over comparative strangers; it's another thing to find Mama Schultz or Gretchen with their faces blue and stiff.

I didn't visualize Papa as dead; people like Papa Schultz don't die they just go on forever. Or it feels like that.

But I still wasn't prepared for what we did find . . . . They were all safe, every one of them.

Farmer in the Sky, pp. 178-9

There are several points worth mentioning in this passage. You will note the comment that "people like Papa Schultz don't die they just go on forever." Personal immortality was always a theme of Heinlein's, whether in practical biology like Methuselath's Children, solipsist parapsychology like in "Elsewhere" (1941 by "Caleb Saunders"; retitled "Elsewhen" in 1953 for Assignment in Eternity), or just as a tossed-off comment like in this case, at different levels.

Somewhat more realistically, Bill and George discuss the nature of "survivor types". The definition of survivor types seems to be completely empirical survivor types are the ones who survive. It also seems to be subject to constant test and revision; as George puts it: "'At least we've come through this one.'" [p. 180] It was perhaps just as well that the more aggressive and grander attitude towards survival found in Starship Troopers (1959) was not yet fully evolved.

To contrast with survivors, Heinlein also has parasites. One of these parasites has popped up on Ganymede in spite of everything. (And you thought the Colonial Commission had been working hard to prevent malign life forms from being imported. People they couldn't sterilize, unfortunately.) He started being trouble on the Mayflower: "And another fellow named Saunders who was continually in trouble for trying to live his own life, wild and free, no matter what it did to the rest of us." [p. 88] Why does that sound so much like a description of Lazarus Long, Jubal Harshaw, Jacob Burroughs, Richard "Colin Campbell" Ames, et cetera, et cetera?

Consider his other defining characteristic. Saunders pops up and pops off in Chapter 14, "Land of My Own", at the time that Bill was making his own soil. It seems silly to duplicate effort, Saunders says, when there are tons of rich gumbo mud clogging the ship channels in the Mississippi Delta. Why didn't the Colonial Commission just ship that fine rich soil, just going to waste, to Ganymede?

Likely because it would take one full load for the Mayflower per farm [p. 142]. As George puts it: "Bill, why is it that some apparently full-grown men never learn to do simple arithmetic?" [loc cit]. Mathematical ability was Heinlein's defining standard for rationality, remember. What we have here is a case of double standards; someone "trying to live his own life, wild and free," at the expense of others. Whatever the Heinlein Individual does, he lives his own life depending on himself, not at the expense of others.

You can understand, therefore, why George hinted that Saunders should step back from the rock-clearing blast on page 141 about a mile and a half or so. And why later on page 148 Bill chased Saunders off his farm with a rake. Saunders will do more fleeing later.

As for the third point, I thought I should tell you about my great-great-grandfather John S. Shepherd of Hickman County, Kentucky. I had had to look up his 1870 census records in the process of going over my family tree. That was the year they started listing all the names of the people in the household, and among Mr. Shepherd's household names was listed one James Madison Todd, relationship: field hand. I knew that name; that was my great-grandfather, who on October 7 of that year married Nancy Jane Shepherd, my great-grandmother and John's daughter. Interesting way to get acquainted.

Why is this relevant? Well, let's go back to when Bill Lermer was a field hand on Papa Schultz's farm. He started out by meeting the family, among them "a girl as old as I was and nearly as big. Her name was Gretchen and her hair was red like her father's . . ." [p. 133] (More cousins of Lazarus Long, I see.)

One would think that there was something in the air. At least George thought so; when Bill avowed that the Colonial Commission would have a long wait before he had a family, "Dad just grinned, as if he knew something I didn't know and wouldn't tell." [p. 137]

Or maybe Bill can't know: when Gretchen rather broadly hinted that she would really like to help her future in-laws move into their new house, good old slop-brained Bill failed to pick up on the cue:

I suggested that we ask [Scout troop leader Sergei's sister] Marushka as well, since there would be lots of work to do. Gretchen said "Suit yourself!" and seemed annoyed, so I didn't. Women are funny.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 151

If Bill continues with that attitude he can expect to have a long wait before he has a family. No wonder that Hank Jones was to say (albeit in another context): "Good old Bill! Hit him in the head eight or nine times and he can latch on to any idea." [p. 120] This would seem to be derived from a constraint of the series; the idea that boys have no sex drive. Given that we know that Bill is over sixteen, that seems even more incredible. There were hints along that line, but Panshin's criticism that the hero seems to be totally sexually unaware seems more appropriate here than for Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).

Incidentally, to take up another of Panshin's criticisms, that comment is the only line of dialogue attributed to Gretchen. Of course, the whole family is described as talkative, and except for Papa Schultz none of them have any more to say than that. It seems to be more a lapse of characterization on Heinlein's part than anything else.


In that one dire night the population of Ganymede dropped from thirty-seven thousand to thirteen thousand. This and Peggy's continued inability to cope with the pressure made up George's mind for him; it's great to be back, and so the Lermers are to go back to Earth. Maybe not all of them. While waiting to apply for repatriation ("replanetiation"?), Bill scans the lists of returnees. "Noisy" Edwards has somehow survived everything, and is now looking to exercise his obstreperous talents in a wider field. So, curiously enough, is Saunders (oh pooh). Completing his scan, Bill concludes: "You know, George, I don't like being classified with these lugs." [p. 183]

So Bill will stay with the lugs of choice (and Gretchen?). It turns out that the rest of the family will stay as well, in spite of George and Molly's determination to give Peggy a livable environment:

Then about two weeks before they were to leave in the Covered Wagon, Peggy died, and there wasn't any reason for any of us to go back to Earth. . . . She was dead and there was nothing more I could do about it. She was dead and it was all my fault . . . if I hadn't encouraged her, they would have been able to get her back before it was too late. She would be back Earthside, going to school and growing up healthy and happy right back in California, not here in this damned place where she couldn't live, where human beings were never meant to live.

I bit the pillow and blubbered. I said "Oh, Anne, Anne! Take care of her, Anne She's so little, she won't know what to do."

And then I stopped bawling and listened, half way expecting Anne to answer me and tell me she would. But I couldn't hear anything, not at first . . . and what I did hear was only "Stand tall, Billy," . . . very faint and far away, "Stand tall, son."

After a while I got up and washed my face and started hoofing it back to town.

Farmer in the Sky, pp. 184-5

Some people should have read this; but they wouldn't bother, since considering this passage would not be in accordance with their preconceived concrete-solid opinions about how before the modern age of progressive concerned literature males were not supposed to express, much less have, such deep emotions. Such an expression of despair is realistic, given the circumstances. Taking responsibility for the actions of others is a common trait, but in the end a self-defeating one. You will note that after communing with his own Old Ones (the idea for Stranger In a Strange Land also got started in 1949), Bill recovered from his spasm of grief, got up, and went about his business.

I wonder how it was that Miss Dalgleish let pass the "D"-word?


Heinlein didn't like submitting outlines. In fact, he didn't think much of writing to outlines, submitted or not. This habit was to influence his writing more than people, including he himself, would think. How did he handle this? In a letter dated August 31, 1956, he told his agent Lurton Blassingame:

Oh, I use what I call an outline but a sort that no editor would accept; it's actually simply musing on paper then when the idea begins to take fire, I start at once to write the story itself and become acquainted with the problem and the characters as I go along. Sometimes this results in blind alleys and surplusage which has to be removed (Door Into Summer had Martians in it for half a day, then I chucked a few pages and got back on the track) but by the time I am well into the story I am writing with sureness, hearing the characters, seeing their surroundings, and having the same trouble coping with their problems that they have.

Grumbles from the Grave, letter of August 31, 1956, p. 109

Had Damon Knight or Alexei Panshin obtained this letter, it might have confirmed their suspicions. Knight had only two problems with Heinlein's writing style: "(1) His plots are weak. (2) He uses slang." [In Search of Wonder p. 77]. Panshin was more specific about the type of plot weakness involved:

Farmer in the Sky begins in close focus and then gradually slips away until large amounts of time are covered in sentences. Heinlein then tries to recover his story with a large chunk of closely detailed action.

Heinlein in Dimension, p. 154

We had noted earlier the problem of selective recreation and the author's role in being selective. How are we to reconcile these equally valid and squarely opposed considerations? Looking at Heinlein's writing methods detailed above, one can perhaps understand the constraints that produced these results. This story could have ended in anyone of several places and ways. It could have cut off with Peggy's death, and Bill's determination to go on anyway. It could have brought Bill's life forward, with perhaps Vatti Schultz's matchmaking finally succeeding and the happy couple then settling down on a farm in the sky of their own. Or as actually happened, other things could have followed on the events described.

Heinlein was justifying his procedure of not submitting outlines. The problem is that it seems that often he did not have any idea himself where things were going. This procedure is not an unworkable one J. R. R. Tolkien composed The Lord of the Rings in much the same way. He himself had no idea who Aragorn was when he introduced the character to the hobbits in Bree, for example.

If you know that the character introduced to the hobbits in Bree was at first a large hobbit named Trotter with the unusual habit of wearing shoes (to conceal his souvenirs of the Necromancer's warm, indeed fiery, hospitality; see The Return of the Shadow for more on this), this makes the conception even more interesting. After all those changes in the initial composition, Tolkien went and rewrote the manuscript all the way through, and there are still plot weaknesses. To take one notorious example, the story still bears many of the signs of romance leading to the originally intended marriage between Aragorn and the Rohannish princess Éowyn, and when Aragorn's final eventual bride is definitely introduced, it seems quite a dissonance. That Arwen was casually referred to earlier hardly seems to make it up.

This writing procedure often produced works that featured a succession of connected events, but events not structurally integrated into a broader conception, until the word limit was reached this book is an example, but later juveniles like Panshin's other examples of Between Planets (1951) and Time for the Stars (1956), or the even more extreme case of Tunnel in the Sky (1955) are much more so.

But does it detract from the book? In the sense that the book is less than it could have been, yes it does. However, if you enjoy the story and don't feel like letting others make decisions for you, no it doesn't. The creative process is as much one of deciding when to quit refining one's masterwork to the final unattainable perfection and get it out as it is actually doing the refining. (I recall a juvenile by Alan E. Nourse on the topic of how humans would deal with their great obstacles. One of them was immortality, and the section on that found the hero investigating the immortals, the great men of their professions, and finding out that with all time before them, they were endlessly refining their masterworks and never finishing anything!) This story has so much good about it that perhaps we shouldn't devalue the great in wishing for perfection. There could be more.


One of those large amounts of time covered in sentences jumps us ahead two Ganymede years. George has moved back into farming, and Molly has given Bill two fine half-brothers. The colony has recovered, even though, or perhaps because, a third ship, the New Ark, has joined the Mayflower and the Covered Wagon in shipping immigrants to Ganymede, helping raise the Ganymedean population to forty-five thousand people. (Besides the previously-referenced method.)

The little problem of the big earthquake has its own solution proposed. Settlement is supposed to be spreading out from Leda along the Ganymedean equator anyway, so why not put backup power stations at selected sites? An earthquake that can destroy three evenly-spaced power stations, each capable of handling all the power needs of the colony, likely wouldn't leave any survivors anyway.

Sergei and Hank are going on one of those survey teams, and Bill wants to go too. By making a place for himself, the new cook does so, and his cooking skills are even more needed. In The Way the Future Was [p. 74-5] Fred Pohl discusses the productivity gains to be found from doubling up one's days, working thirty-two hours and then sleeping sixteen. With Ganymede's six-Earth-day period of rotation, it's possible to take this method even farther and use the entire light-phase as one solid work "day", which gives this procedure its own special twist. That makes those work "days" even more hectic, needing special stimulation to really keep the human animal going. Thus the cook becomes more important than usual. Fortunately, as Bill points out: "I have always been a pretty fair cook" [p. 189].

Which program of work leaves the surveyors with three-day nights of rest to fill, and they are filled in the usual manner with decisions on the Fate of Humanity and the Meaning of It All. Only this time, one of those bull sessions turned out to be a serious discussion. Leading the surveying party is Paul du Maurier, ecologist and chief synthesist. When the topic turns to the question of "Why are we here?", Paul has the real reason. First off, he sets his ground rule:

"The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life the ragged edge of starvation. In other words, if we bled off a hundred thousand people a day, the Earth's population would then grow until the increase was around two hundred thousand a day, or the bionomical maximum for Earth's new ecological dynamic."

Farmer in the Sky, p. 196

This was written in the early days of the Baby Boom, when it was looking as if indeed population would increase beyond the extent of the food supply. Later, in Extended Universe (1980), in his second revision of his 1950 essay "Where To?", [p. 346] Heinlein would admit his misconception, but in no detail as to why. (Recall the preceding discussion of the "demographic transition".) Of course, in this context it doesn't matter, but we would like our problems to have solutions. You won't like the solution Paul has: "'War.'" [p. 197]

There should be considered in this context a later work of Heinlein's where he touched on that topic. In Starship Troopers, in the course of his officer's candidate education, for his History and Moral Philosophy course, Rico is required to write a paper on the topic that the root cause of all wars is population pressure. That this flat statement is immediately qualified by citing the amount of interpretation needed to show, or "show", that the Crusades were caused by population pressure should say something. Consider by way of contrast Asimov's contention that the root cause of all wars was technological changes; when challenged on this specific item, he replied that the Crusades were caused by the invention of the moldboard plow.

I don't think Asimov would have appreciated it if someone had quoted back to him the statement he had made in another context about how you could prove anything if you could make enough assumptions. His theses were of a superior, a more exalted order. Just like Heinlein's. Even when they disagreed.

What we have here is a case of an assumption hardening. Paul hopes that by the time Ganymede becomes populated to the flashpoint humanity will have developed beyond that state. In their book, Rico and his professors don't even consider or mention that possibility.

Given this condition, though, the development of Ganymede as a human habitat which isn't likely to be destroyed in the inevitable war makes perfect sense. Even if you don't agree with the inevitability of war, it makes sense. This is the logic that the L-5 supporters have been presenting in support of building a space habitat, Ganymede having turned out to be heavily iced over and not suitable should Earth suffer an environmental disaster, there would still be humans left. Or to sum it up in one old saw: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."


Panshin commented on a trait of plotting: "In almost every one of Heinlein's juveniles . . . there are small seasonings of mysticism, perhaps included simply for flavor, perhaps to remind us again that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained by The World Book Encyclopedia." [Heinlein in Dimension, p. 52] Perhaps "mysticism" isn't quite the right word. You could put it that having made fantastic speculations the everyday lives of his characters, Heinlein takes a step beyond, to show that there is a next phase.

The section begins in a commonplace enough fashion, with Bill wanting to see more of Ganymede than the inside of his oven. Getting leave, he and his assistant Hank set off to see the world. Then things turn interesting, beginning with a field of crystals filling a new valley. That in turn leads to a cave with even more interesting things:

[We] were looking into the hole.

It was dark inside, but diffused light, reflected off the canyon floor and the far wall, filtered inside. My eyes began to adjust and I could see what Hank was staring at, what he had exploded about.

There were things in there and they weren't natural. I couldn't have told you what sort of things because they were like nothing I had ever seen before in my life, or seen pictures of or heard of. . . you can't even see a thing properly the first time you see it; your eye doesn't take in the pattern.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 205-6

There were wonderful things in there, relicts of a spacegoing culture lost, or abandoned, or cached, unimaginable years ago, but still in working order. And just as well, too. Back when the guys set off on this little trip, Bill had tried to beg off on account of not feeling well. His condition progresses until by the time they get to the cave he is almost totally out of it with appendicitis. (Didn't they teach Scouts the symptoms of that back then? I had to learn them.)

Fortunately for Bill, one of those artifacts is a transportation device, which the semi-conscious Bill calls a "walker wagon" on account of its centipedal method of motion, that still works, and that can be doped out by a worried Scout. Totally validating his First Aid and Mechanic merit badges, Hank loads Bill into the walker wagon and sets out on an epic trek to the base, punctuated by stops to find out where to go next. They get to a hospital before the peritonitis sets in.

It seems odd to make your protagonist and point-of-view character a spectator, and not a particularly observant spectator at that, at the epic climax of the story. One could argue that that makes Hank Jones the candidate for the hero's role. The scene plays to Heinlein's style of process instead of physical description, too. This miraculous ending has been thought perhaps a bit too pat, but if you consider the book as part of a greater series describing human expansion outwards, it can be considered as a signpost, to the greater world beyond.

Flat on his back in the hospital, Bill has the chance to consider the topic of H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy (1962), not to mention Heinlein's own "Jerry Is a Man"/"Jerry Was a Man" (1947). What sort of beings were the machine makers who set things up to save Bill's life?

But they were men in the real sense of the word, even though I don't doubt that I would run screaming away if I met one in a dark alley. The important thing . . . they had they controlled their environment. They weren't animals, pushed around and forced to accept what nature handed them; they took nature and bent it to their will.

I guess they were men.

Farmer in the Sky, p. 216

With that philosophical discussion of definitions and nature over, Bill makes a personal decision to match. George has been pressuring him to return to Earth, to get a good education from a name school. In another context, Oscar Gordon of Glory Road (1965) would discourse on the added value of education at a prestige school. Here Bill takes the other tack, and decides that staying home and building his new world from the ground up will be more valuable in the long run; besides Ganymede is supposed to become self-sufficient and Caltech will be destroyed in the inevitable war. He even thinks of Gretchen.


It's a strange juvenile novel that discusses the nature of being, the progress and regression of humanity, the technical structure of space colonization, the processes of terraforming, and other such "adult" topics. Heinlein was optimistic, optimistic about the mental capacity of children, optimistic about the skills and will of humanity. Rather than write down to children, or write over them to politically correct their errors, he wrote them up, up and onward to the stars.