Robert A. Heinlein: Farnham’s Freehold

I did something recently that I haven’t done for a very long time. I stayed up late–ridiculously late–to finish a book. Farnham’s Freehold was written 50 years ago, but while it kept that long, it turned out I couldn’t wait one more day to see how it turned out.

I was aware of Farnham’s Freehold as being well-known in certain circles, though more casual fans might not have heard of it. Without recalling specifics, the things I had heard were mixed. Even so, I was a little surprised to pick up my new Baen edition and see the cover splashed with the words, “Science fiction’s most controversial novel!”

What’s funny is, at this point, I still didn’t have any idea what the plot was. I knew there were supposed to be some strong political arguments behind the text, perhaps even to the point that it would be more like allegory than a workable novel with a well-hewed plot. But these were vague impressions based on half-remembered and brief commentary. Truth be told, I basically went into this book having almost no idea what to expect.

So here’s a somewhat overlong elevator-pitch version: it’s the 1960s (the novel’s opening was contemporary) and the Cold war is at its height. A middle-aged man is enjoying dinner with his wife and two visiting adult children, plus a girlfriend from school his daughter brought along, and the household’s coloured (to use the parlance of the times) servant, a young man. Oh, and their cat.

Then the Big One comes. Everyone rushes into Hugh’s bomb shelter, hoping to avoid a direct hit. It’s nuclear war. A goodly number of pages are spent in that bomb shelter, with Hugh establishing dominance and setting the ground rules for everyone’s good and ultimate survival (how do you identify the lifeboat officer? He’s the one with the gun). This is very dark, and it sets the tone for the whole book. It’s a grim necessity, but, so Heinlein thinks, drawing on his military training and sensibilities, a necessity nonetheless, to impose martial law in a life or death situation like this, even if you have to shot your own son.

By itself, this works as a pretty good “bottle” story, a character study of all these people trapped in this small space together in a life-or-death situation, trying to keep it together. It could almost be taken as a stand-alone novelette or novella, ending, perhaps, with them cranking open the shelter door and stopping there.

But in fact this is just the prologue. Eventually they have no choice but to open up the shelter or die. They crawl out to find, well, they aren’t sure what they find, but certainly it’s not what they expected. Indeed, it seems the last blast literally blew them through space and time. They’ve skipped the nuclear holocaust, shooting centuries or more into the future, in a world that appears unpopulated and rewilded.

So now it becomes a sort of Swiss Family Robinson story, at least for a time, but the troupe eventually discovers that, in fact, they are not the only remaining people in the world, though they are relics from a previous age. No, this new world is the one that built itself back up after most of the Northern Hemisphere blew itself up. The countries and populations that were least touched by the nuclear exchange eventually built up a new world order (obviously their governments didn’t survive even if enough of the citizens of these countries did).

The new civilization, an empire, really, is technologically superior but stagnant and decadent. Worst of all, the ruling class has brought back that “peculiar institution” of the Antebellum South and made it a global affair. As a twist, the ruling class is composed of those dark of skin, while lighter-skinned people (although they aren’t technically considered “people”) are their chattel (in every sense: both slaves and a food source). Only the presence of Joseph, Hugh’s dark-skinned employee, saves them from immediately being killed, when it turns out the abandoned land they are on is in fact an imperial game preserve, of sorts.

/end superlong elevator pitch

There are so many things to unpack in this novel, this could quickly turn from review to doctoral thesis, but obviously the most important one is what Heinlein meant to say about race and how that meshes with modern sensibilities. Controversy breeds controversy and Heinlein was perhaps misunderstood more than most, because readers might often come in expecting to disagree with him.

In matters of race, however, Heinlein seems consistently to have been ahead of his time. It seems to me that he felt public attitudes on the subject needed a major overhaul in his country and was doing his best to keep the conversation going (it was the tail end of segregation as this novel was written). We get a lot of opinions in this novel and I certainly don’t agree with all of them, but I do agree that every man and woman is born with certain unalienable rights, and these rights are not and can not be colour-coded.

Slavery is odious independent of whom are the masters or the slaves. Although it’s not legally institutionalized, it’s astounding to think that human trafficking actually still exists today in the United States, even if it’s on the fringes of society. How can we possibly allow that? But Heinlein was also making a clear point, summed up by a little soliloquy of Hugh’s later on in the novel, about human nature in general.

We have the potential, each of us individually and in our species and society as a whole, to do great good as well as great evil. Anyone can be a slave or a master if we allow the liberal values and civilized trappings we’ve painstakingly built up over human history to slip back just a little. It takes effort and slow, steady social improvement to overcome our worst natures. And who gets the short end of the stick is really just an accident of circumstance, as Heinlein shows. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about one ethnic group being on top and another being on the bottom, as even a cursory study of the history of nations makes clear.

But man, this is a dark, dark novel. It’s almost on the edge of science fiction and into the realm of human psychology or social satire, à la Brave New World or Lord of the Flies or even The Road. The contemporary setting, even after the contemporary characters are thrust into the future, makes everything seem a little more rough and real than it might otherwise be. This isn’t a far-removed, alien future. This is, side-by-side, right now (or it was, when he wrote it) and where we might be headed, perhaps even without a nuclear war, if we don’t get our acts together.

This is a huge departure for Heinlein. But if you don’t mind some bleakness, some ugliness, some grime, and a few very discomfiting moments (what was it with incest in 1960s SF anyway?), it’s actually an incredibly gripping story, and a thought-provoking one. Read it when you’re ready for something dark and intense.

(Baen, 2006)

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