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.

3 responses to “Farmer in the Sky”

  1. Reinder says:

    A rare insight? Rare in 1765, perhaps. The quoted passage is bog-standard Malthusianism.

    As I get older, I use “bog-standard” more and more in connection with Heinlein’s work. I haven’t read this particular novel, but based on his other work I’d expect your original 3 out of 10 rating to be well-deserved.

  2. brankl says:

    Ah, so it was just an insight. I am afraid I am not entirely up to speed about everything Malthus said.

  3. brankl says:

    I’d like to add that though Maltus may be well-known, his ideas haven’t necessarily caught on. When Chinese population growth control measures are discussed in the West, it is usually with large amounts of derision.

    This derision (on both sides of the political fence) could have been caused by a deep understanding of the issues described above—i.e. that the government control of population growth is ultimately doomed to fail, and that therefore Chinese policy is little more than keeping the peasants down. In the West nobody dares to question the introduction of effective medicine to poor countries without introducing these countries to means of sustained growth. As a result the Third World population has grown enormously the past fifty years without developing the means to support that growth. If the West did not trust intervention in population growth, and was well aware of Malthusian mechanics, why did it then intervene in the Third World by introducing effective medicine there?

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