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Farnham's Freehold by Robert A Heinlen

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Farnham's Freehold is one of Robert A Heinlien's most controversial and problematical novels. Some people have used it as proof that Heinlein was a closet racist of a particularly virulent and trollish sort. Certainly the novel is one guaranteed to provoke intense discussion, even if that argument often proves more heat than light.

I first discovered Farnham's Freehold after reading Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank's classic novel of a small Florida town's struggle to survive after a nuclear war. I'd wanted to read more like it, and my search had already introduced me to Walter Miller Jr. and A Canticle for Liebowitz, his vision of an America reminiscent of Dark Ages Europe, not to mention several Andre Norton juveniles.

And at first glance Farnham's Freehold does look to be written much in the mold of Alas, Babylon. We've got growing political and military tensions between East and West, and the prepared family and the houseguest who'll turn out to be a love interest for the protagonist. There's even the genteel racism of that era, in the form of a servant, Joseph, who takes care of the various lowly tasks of the household, and who is polite and deferential, accepting the racial basis of role distribution in his society.

Except the Farnham family is a lot more dysfunctional than the central family of Alas, Babylon. Hugh Farnham's wife Grace is emotionally fragile and shows clear signs of being an alcoholic, while their son Duke is an emotionally stunted momma's boy who covers his insecurity with a front of surly bluster. Their daughter Karen seems a rather vacuous creature who may well soon follow her mother into fretful, useless oblivion. The only other strong person beside Hugh is Barbara, that unexpected houseguest.

And then the alarm comes over the radio, of ballistic objects detected on radar. Apparently the Soviet Union's sudden tractability at the bargaining table was a ruse, or a spoilsport faction has staged a coup and decided to destroy everyone and everything rather than give in. So the whole family and their guest head for the bomb shelter that some family mambers had been ridiculing only moments earlier.

There's a thump, the ground wave of a blast, and the lights go out. And thus begins their ordeal. The first crisis is an unpleasant confrontation in which Hugh asserts his dominance over the sullen Duke in a way intended to render the younger man psychologically incapable of rendering further defiance. Then they have to survive the oppressve heat and rising radiation levels as fires burn outside and fallout settles all around them.

And then the third and largest explosion hits, almost right on top of them. A blast so powerful it knocks the entire shelter askew and destroys a fair portion of their survival supplies. For a while everybody just concentrates on salvaging what they can of the supplies. But they can't stay inside forever, and without any radio signals, nobody else is going to give them an all-clear. So Hugh has to make a judgment call as to when it'll be safe to dig themselves out.

They expect to find a ruined world of crater glass and the vitrified stumps of shattered buildings. Instead they find a verdant wilderness with no hint of civilization, past or present.

So I'm getting mental whiplash from the sudden and unexpected genre shift, because it's now a Robinson Crusoe style wilderness survival story. Or Swiss Family Robinson, but with a dysfunctional family that's tearing apart at the seams instead of pulling together. And far from Wyss's idyllic vision of tropical paradise where the dangers are small and manageable and nobody's ever badly hurt, Heinlein pulls no punches in showing just how deadly the wilderness can be to six ill-prepared castaways with skillsets better suited to a situation in which at least some part of civilization survived (the heroes of Alas, Babylon were part of a community large enough to have a doctor, a bank, and a car dealership, and thus a pretty good mix of essential skillsets). Karen's death in childbirth and her daughter's death the following day are particularly poignant, since they had seemed to represent hope for their little community's future.

Which might well be why the survivors of that tiny community then proceeds to tear itself in two, effectively halving its chances of survival by splitting its resources. Grace wants out, and Duke's going with her, as he announces to his father. But Hugh's already promised that anyone who wants to opt out can, so he feels honor-bound to live by it.

While they're in the process of moving, they find civilization. Or rather it finds them, in the form of a race of slaveholding blacks who don't even recognize white people as human beings and who follow a bizarrely altered form of Islam. Here is the part that so many critics, amateur and professional alike, have condemned as not merely bad writing, but the fruits of a supposed particularly foul racist mentality on the part of the author.

It's always risky to ascribe intent on the part of an author in the absence of a clear and unambiguous statement of such, but given abundant evidence in Heinlein's other works of positive characterization of persons of color (Manny in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers spring immediately to mind) and the economic untenability of farming of human slaves for slaughter as described (even cattle, which have the longest birth-to-slaughter time of any domesticated meat animal, mature to slaughter weight in two years, and hogs, chickens and other common meat animals are ready in six to eight months), I really don't think that Heinlein wass attempting to assert that all black people are by nature vicious slavers, let alone cannibals, as some would have it. Rather, I have good reason to theorize that this part of the novel represents a deeply-flawed attempt at satirization by inversion, that is, the ridiculing of a pernicious attitude or belief towards a particular group by reversing the typical roles such that the group that would usually be comfortably dominant (and to which the reader most probably belongs) becomes the out-group and suffers what it usually hands out.

However, this technique is a very risky one because if the writer doesn't hit exactly the right note, there is a substantial risk that the work will come across as yet another slander against the marginalized group and everything it means to have that identity. This problem shows why many writers of speculative fiction find it more productive to make these points via Rubber Forehead Aliens or the standard Three Races of fantasy. By making one's fictional oppressor group standard pointy-eared elves, or an alien species who differ from Homo sapiens primarily by a bunch of funky skull ridges, the writer can take the reader out of his or her familiar frame of reference and get him or her to really think instead of having knee-jerk reactions in a way a simple inversion of the status quo may not achieve.

However, given that Farnham's Freehold involved time travel to a post-Western future rather travel to a fantasy world or one taken over by aliens, it would've been far harder to invoke such literary vehicles for making his point about the perils of absolute power and the moral corrosiveness of slavery to slave and master alike. But it's still interesting to ponder whether Heinlein might have better made his point about human nature had Ponce and the other Chosen been aliens who just happened to be dark-skinned (perhaps as a result of coming from a planet of a hotter sun with more ultraviolet radiation) and thus willing to see Joe as one of their own kind rather than a runaway slave.

The ending is also problematical, although in a different way. Heinlein has his protagonist pretty much painted into a corner after the thwarted escape attempt. So how is Hugh going to get out of a world that's clearly unliveable for a man of his spirit? Having him go out in a bang of futile resistance would be uncharacteristic of Heinlein, who was never one to glorify self-destructive grand gestures (as opposed to self-sacrifice for the good of others, viz his short story "The Long Watch," which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the military mindset).

Turns out that those scientists Their Charity mentioned way back when have found a way to send people back in time, and need some help in calibrating their equipment. So Hugh, Barbara, and their twin babies are going to be sent back to a point just before the East-West War began, where they're to leave an instrument package at a precise location. Thus Hugh is given his escape route, and a chance to make a different future from the nightmare he experienced.

I do find it interesting to note that Heinlein didn't have them go straight backward in time, but slightly sideways into a timeline that varied in several details (most obviously Barbara's car having manual transmission instead of automatic). I don't know if this novel was the first to invoke a form of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics to have backward time travel without violation of causality, but it's certainly one of the earliest, and even gets in a nod to the theory of quantum immortality. And it even manages to end on a note that's not just hopeful for American culture and society, but funny.

On the whole, I think that Farnham's Freehold is a deeply flawed novel, quite probably among Heinlein's weakest works, but not the evil one some critics would portray it as being.

Review posted December 22, 2011.

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