Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Farmer in the Sky

Writers sacrifice to strange altars in order to secure a paycheck. Robert Heinlein wrote at least three stories about boy scouts, published in Boys' Life, which publication I hadn't even known existed until a couple of months ago. If you ever hear this wolfman say "scout's honor" don't believe it!

I've run into two of the stories during my perusal of various RAH material I'd missed up until now. A Tenderfoot in Space is pretty obviously written to order, cramming every page full of references to uniforms and merit badges and The Scout Law leaving little room for the Venusian "boy and his dog" adventure it proclaims itself. Its forty-odd pages flow decently thanks to Heinlein's indisputable flair for dressing jargon in banter, but still, not something you'd bother reading unless ten years old and/or already a fan-atic of either Heinlein or scout boys or both.

Farmer in the Sky on the other hand I must characterize much as I did Have Spacesuit, Will Travel: an interesting self-contained Science Fiction novella which should never have been subjected to publishers' pigeonholing. Better yet, it doesn't suffer from Spacesuit's laughably overdone late-game heroics. Like other "Heinlein juveniles" its most juvenile quality is a willingness to think. It focuses on challenges and acceptable risk, loss and recovery and progress instead of the maudlin navel-gazing and the glorification of the mundane human condition which characterize accepted Literature. Despite any recriminations against "genre fiction" it doesn't allow any plot elements to completely dominate the story. The hero brings his Boy Scout uniform along but this is obviously treated more as emblematic of his trying to maintain continuity in his life than an endorsement of or advertisement for paramilitary youth organizations. Amusingly, despite the forced shoehorning of references to the organization every dozen pages or so, Heinlein subverts his own pandering by showing the hero gradually outgrowing his concern for Boy Scout membership.

Plot: teenage boy re-settles on Ganymede with his family to become part of the terraforming effort, which in this case consists of a helluva lot of farming. Simple enough, until you realize you've gotta make your own soil. Of course the image of wild west homesteaders being used to terraform a planet piecemeal instead of more planned, sweeping, decisive industrial processes may be questionable, but that's the beauty of the whole thing. It raises questions. It makes you picture the mindset of those who would breathe rarefied air at one-seventh earth gravity, watching Europa drifting across the face of Jupiter above a plot of makeshift lifeless regolith and think "I'm home" and take charge of their situation. It's another rare example of that romantic pioneering spirit which used to be at the heart of Science Fiction during the days of Wells, Doyle and Verne but was subsequently lost in the commercialization of science itself, in the deluge of space operas and planetary romances, of petty motivations suffocating intellectual curiosity.

Heinlein had an amazing knack for mixing prosaic realism with the justified expectation that the universe is perfectly capable of amazing us at every turn. That such measured, rational neophilia is considered juvenile speaks more of the stultified nature of this decomposing all too human society than of the fiction it will only deign to publish as "juvenile." Perhaps we should consider Bill's decision in the end not to return to California to further his education but to build up a new system of higher learning on Ganymede itself.

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