by Kyt Dotson
When it comes to near-future space exploration and colonization, my go-to fiction would be the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (starting with Red Mars) however, he’s not the only author to examine what type of person and mentality it would take to leap into space and start a new civilization. I picked up Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein in an airport lobby because I lacked a book to read while on a five-hour flight, and needless to say, I didn’t finish the entire book on the flight; but it did manage to capture my attention enough to distract me from watching the in-flight movie.
Heinlein is well known for writing in the golden-age of science fiction and tends to combine fantastic elements with very down-to-earth storytelling.
The book, Farmer in the Sky, tells the story of the terraforming and colonization of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. As a satellite, it’s about twice the size of the moon and mostly rock and unforgiving. Heinlein writes using what is essentially basic science (and a bit of outdated technology) as plot gimmicks and ties that together to promote his narrative where the characters drive the portrayal but their technology drags them along through crises.
The story revolves around a coming-of-age story for Bill Lermer and his family; he’s a teenager and it shows. As the story develops, so does Bill. In a lot of ways, the construction and expansion of the colony on Ganymede works as a foil for Bill’s own maturation and development from a teenager into a young man. Although, to get there he does suffer through being uprooted from what he knows and loves back on Earth and is thrust into the alien landscape of the extremely dangerous still-terraforming moon.
When Bill and his family arrive, they’re not the first to land on the dusty soil of Ganymede. Ahead of them, other families brought their own pioneering spirit and had broken ground. This is best demonstrated when, to keep from going into torpor from sheer boredom, Bill starts a Boy Scouts troop for the moon on board the ship sailing them to their destination. However, after setting up the troop with his best friend, he receives the jolt that there’s already a Ganymede troop.
Workers on the colony, some farmers and some technicians amid others, behave a lot like frontiersmen in a Western town. Some of them came to escape the overpopulation of Earth, others want to make a name for themselves, yet others are looking to make their fortune and eke out a place for their families, and still others did so out of a distrust of authority and governments themselves. Almost all of the resources and land is bought from a corporation-cum-government entity that rents the equipment to the farmers so that they can get their plots running under the expectation that they’ll buy themselves out of debt by selling part of their crop once they start reaping harvests.
Life on Ganymede is no cakewalk. During the book there are numerous hazards that Bill and his family must overcome and some of them are devastating. During their tenure, he slowly grows up, surrounded by the ever looming debt generated by renting equipment from their benefactors and slowly bringing the land up to speed using terraforming equipment. Slowly but surely as the years roll by, he watches the different individuals examine their place in the world and vote on if they want more settlers to come and pick up land. In fact, an entire economy begins to develop off the disparity between newcomers and the new “natives.”
A certain amount of the colonization effort is written by Heinlien as a sort of critique of population bioeconomics based on what infrastructures and governments can support with what resources they have available. The colony on Ganymede may be supported by a lifeline back to Earth; but it’s not perfect and it’s not even available that often. The working community bodies of the colony must to anticipate their needs months in advance and often had to contract for more settlers with each load of supplies.
Finally, true to a lot of Heinlein the only thing to watch out for is the introduction of alien elements. Near the very end of Farmer in the Sky, Bill and a band of men exploring the surface of the planet stumble upon alien artifacts. These artifacts have nothing to do with anything else in the story and their presence and the implications are left almost entirely unattended. In fact, that rather left me feeling a little bit miffed about them being introduced.
It seems likely that Heinlein himself here is prepping the groundwork—or should I say literary terraforming—for a sequel. However, he never got around to it so as a reader, don’t feel too disappointed. This is a fairly good book, with its own flaws and personality. It worked out well for a plane flight from Phoenix to Michigan and kept me awake and entertained for many hours.