Farmer in the Sky
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Originally serialized under the title of "Satellite Scout" in the August-November 1950 issues of Boy's Life magazine, Farmer in the Sky was released in book form the same year by Scribners, the fourth title in Heinlein's juvenile series. Today the publishing industry gets quite a bit of revenue from what they term Young Adult literature, and from those I have read and others I've heard about, most of them are directed to older teens and twenty-somethings. The target of Heinlein's juveniles was originally younger teens, but over the years he increased the sophistication of his characters and scenarios since he knew his readers were aging along with the later books. Farmer suffers from the fact it was one of the earlier in the series, plus its ties to the Boy Scout publication restricted what he was allowed to include in this adventure story.
I was never a Scout, so that element isn't that important to me, other than the way it ties into quite a few character traits that Heinlein used throughout the series, as well as in some of his more adult oriented stories. Honesty, hard work, loyalty, just a few of the qualities anyone would need for the challenges presented to Bill Lermer, his family, and other colonists to Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon. A lot of people still consider Heinlein to be primarily a Hard SF writer, at least early in his career, but he never devoted that much time to explaining the technologies in his future scenarios. He was more concerned with the characters and how they reacted and adapted to those technologies and the situations with which they were confronted, or in a lot of cases, how they adapted those conditions to suit their needs. We don't get details like Robinson gave us in his Mars Trilogy, just enough to know that an atmosphere has been established on Ganymede for human habitation, and not much more said about that until part of that technology fails.
It is not until the later chapters that the book gets interesting. Bill's life on Earth, the trip out to Ganymede, even the first few weeks in the colony, are rather boring. It also hurts that Bill is the only character developed to any extent. There are a few hints along the way of things he has learned from his father, plus memories of his deceased mother, that almost develop into something interesting, but Heinlein doesn't explore them fully. He occasionally learns a good lesson from a couple of other characters, but they are just background players, not fully realized. Part of the problem might be the restriction of the first-person narration, something Heinlein used well in other instances, but in this case, not so much. When he is talking about the challenges of starting a farm, building a house, exploring other parts of the moon, and especially during the sequence after the atmosphere power station fails, the story is much better. However, I do not like the ending. It is possible that Heinlein intended to follow-up on the plot element introduced at the end, but that never happened, so another unfulfilled opportunity. It's not as egregious an error as putting a Nazi base on the Moon as he did with the first juvenile, Rocket Ship Galileo, but it is out of place with the rest of the narrative.
In 2001, this book won a Retro Hugo, fifty years after the fact. As much as I like Heinlein, I think that was a mistake. I haven't researched all the titles that may have been eligible from 1950, but it is possible the voters got it confused with a similarly titled nominee, and the winner should have been Asimov's Pebble in the Sky instead. On the page I did years ago on the juvenile novels, I ranked this one my third least favorite, behind Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadet, which were the first two in the series. I cannot recommend it, and I doubt anyone else would either, unless they are an even bigger Heinlein fanatic than me.
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