Farmer in the Sky

Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, has been terraformed, and enough time has passed to accept pioneers to homestead a piece of land. The conditions are horrible; lose access to outside (read: Earthly) help, and you are condemned to a certain death. But at least you get a chance to get away from overcrowded planet Earth. Have you got what it takes to be a Farmer in the Sky?

George Lerner responds to the call, and finds out much to his surprise that his son Bill wants to come along. Both belong to the second wave of homesteaders; they need not reïnvent the wheel entirely, but plenty of challenges still lie ahead: during their time on Ganymede they face the total break-down of the climate control system, which wipes out two-thirds of the fledgling population.

There is something very refreshing about the portrayal of characters in this book. Heinlein talks of strong, reasonably intelligent, yet simple folk, to whom adversity is a challenge. He is also very matter-of-fact about things like divorce; the narrator has few hang-ups, except on the topic of women, who are typically displayed as weaker than men. (To some extent this is Bill’s initial feeling about women; the fact that Heinlein attributed this prejudice to Bill, though, means that the boy lives in a sexist environment in this, Heinlein’s view of the future.)

Unfortunately, in Farmer of the Sky personality is a dichotomy; you are either a strong-willed ‘realist’, or a weak-spined complex person. And the author has no use for the latter sort: they die, or they provide comic relief, or dramatic tension, but rarely do we get to see why they operate the way they do. The only exception is formed by Bill’s father and his father’s new wife. But even they provide few insights. Instead, their complexity and weaknesses seem solely included to create the appearance of maturity.

Again, this is Bill’s view of things, but you cannot shake off the notion that Heinlein feels the same way. Bill meets many strong and simple grown-ups — officer material, so to speak. Furthermore, Ganymede is the new frontier, not a theme park ride. But if it is expected that only the strong will survive under harsh conditions, why do the weak tag along?

When finally the climate system breaks down, it is not just the strong people that survive; it almost feels like it is the strong people that deserve to surive. The disaster is at the same time a cleansing.

All in all, I found the book overly simplistic, even for a book aimed at boys. I would have given it 3/10, but the author earns two bonus points. One for portraying a type of character and a type of society that I rarely see in novels. The second because the following part displays rare insight.

(What went before; at a camp fire a number of scouts are discussing what will happen once Earth moves from merely crowded to an over-population breaking point.)

[Paul:] “Your figures are right, but your conclusions are wrong. Oh, Ganymede has to be made self-sufficient, true enough, but your bogeyman about a dozen or more shiploads of immigrants a day you can forget.”

“Why, if I may be so bold?”


“A lot of people have the idea that colonization is carried on with the end purpose of relieving the pressure of people and hunger back on Earth. Nothing could be further from the truth. […] Not only is it physically impossible for a little planet to absorb the increase of a big planet, […] but there […] are never as many people willing to emigrate (even if you didn’t pick them over) as there are new people born. Most people simply will not leave home. Most of them won’t even leave their native villages.”


[Still Paul] “But let’s suppose for a moment that a hundred thousand people emigrate every day and Ganymede and the other colonies could take them. Would that relieve the situation back home — I mean, ‘back Earthside?’ The answer is, ‘No, it wouldn’t.'”

He appeared to have finished. I finally said, “Excuse my blank look, Paul, but why wouldn’t it?”

“[…] Bionomics, Bill. […] Mathematical population bionomics. […] In the greatest wars that the Earth had there were always more people after the war than there were before, no matter how many were killed. Life is not merely persistent, […] life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there never has 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.”


Sergei said: “[…] What is the outcome?”



(The deleted text consists mainly of interjections that the author added in a vain attempt to avoid the impression that he was relieving himself of an infodump.)

I started reading Heinlein after reading a number of mouth-frothing reviews of Paul Verhoeven’s interpretation of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. When Verhoeven read the book, he saw a fascist narrative; and partly in mockery of the book, he made the film one about fascism. These two diverging views of Heinlein’s work made me want to read it. Who would be right, Verhoeven or Heinlein’s fans?

For Verhoeven of course such a consideration was unnecessary. He has lived under the rule of actual Nazis, and can smell a fascist a mile away.

Farmer in the Sky has neither confirmed or denied either side’s position. There is certainly an element of the übermensch in the Heinlein novels I have read so far (which includes Between Planets). Heinlein seems to believe both in survival of the fittest and in societal engineering, and may believe that societal engineering should serve mostly the strong.

Farmer in the Sky aka Satellite Scout by Robert A. Heinlein: 5/10. Review by Branko Collin.

You cannot read the thing you wrote

Robert Louis Stevenson complains that he cannot read Treasure Island; a pity, he feels, because from what he is told, it would be just the sort of book he’d like:

I want to hear swords clash. I want a book to begin in a good way; a book, I guess, like Treasure Island, alas! which I have never read, and cannot though I live to ninety. I would God that some one else had written it! By all that I can learn, it is the very book for my complaint. I like the way I hear it opens; and they tell me John Silver is good fun. And to me it is, and must ever be, a dream unrealised, a book unwritten.

From The letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. (By way of the Distributed Proofreaders’ forums.)

Confusing election results

If anything, I find the results of the Dutch parliamentary elections confusing. Several one-issue parties sprung up (Party for the Animals, who are for animals, and Party for Freedom, who hate anybody who’s not lily-white), but we’re also back to a situation where we have four major parties, two to the left and two to the right.

The two governing right-wing parties say that the voter has agreed with their policies the past four years, in which they managed to end two of their governing periods prematurely. At least this way we get to vote nice and often. Considering the fact that both governing parties have lost seats in the lower house one might be inclined to think they’re wrong; the voter did punish them for the past years. But that would be too simplistic; both parties lost a lot of votes to populist movements on the far left and the extreme right.

But the smugness of the ruling parties has made them rule out any course change. Tonight, prime minister Balkenende was actually announced by one of his people as the man who “stays the course”. Guess who the Christian Democrats (right wing) consider their true boss, eh?

It would probably be doable to chart the possible governments that need to arise out of these shambles, even if it would be a lot of work, and even considering that the ruling parties (the right still has a majority, though a fragile one) really don’t want to change anything. I know they don’t, because they built their campaigns around little else than maintaining the status quo.

But with one-issue parties thrown into the mix, any majority is going to be an explosive one. We might have a minority government, or a fragile majority one, or one who will rule as if it were a minority one, only deciding on broad, safe issues.

The Robber Bride

The Robber Bride is a very, very, very slow book. It could have easily been told in 50 pages instead of the 528 it took.

The blurbs bubble on about how witty and funny it is; I guess I completely missed what this novel is about. But perhaps I can re-tell the surface story; we follow three women in their fifties, reminiscing about the lives they led. Their contemplative mood stems from them meeting Zenia, their nemesis, who they thought dead.

Zenia is portrayed as evil, not just by the women (who are at least willing, to the point of incredible, rage-inducing naïvety, to believe she is good), but especially by the author. Zenia does not care how she derails other people’s lives, almost as if she has no conscience.

Tip: read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale instead.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: 4/10. Review by Branko Collin.

invention #4: registered e-mail

Abstract: there is no such thing as registered mail for e-mail. Such a thing would be simple to set up though, and perhaps we’re beginning to need it?

I have to deal with an organisation these days that conveniently “fails” to receive important mail from me; so far they have done so twice in September. The organisation in question is part of the government, and as a result has an unhealthy amount of power over me. Failure to reach them has consequences.

The solution of course is to send every little note and memo I need to send them per registered mail. I just found out that the national mail monopolist charges approx. 7 euro for that privilege.

I am not going to break the monopoly, but isn’t it time for registered e-mail anyway?

Here’s how it would work: you’d send an e-mail to the organisation or person who absolutely has to receive your message, but you also cc the Registered E-mail Service (RES). The RES stores the copy of the mail on their servers, including a time stamp, and sends you back a copy so that you know the service received your message.

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Hildebrand Nawijn third sexiest politician?

They say voters are swayed more by presentation and looks than by actual politics. A good-looking politician is considered a weapon in the battle for votes. But how well do our politicians look if you unleash their pictures on an unsuspecting audience, on people who have never heard of these candidates before?

The Writer’s Block blog decided to test the sexiness of the campaign leaders for the upcoming Dutch parliamentary elections by posting their portraits anonymously at Hot or Not. Or so they say; I find it hard to believe that the comparison subjects scored so highly.

The results are surprising too. Our supposedly hottest politicians, such as Hildebrand Nawijn, all stem from extreme right or fundamentalist Christian parties.