Farnham's Freehold

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Farnham's Freehold
first edition cover
Author Robert A. Heinlein
Cover artist Irv Docktor
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher G.P. Putnam (US)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)

Farnham's Freehold is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. A serialised version, edited by Frederik Pohl, appeared in Worlds of If magazine (July, August, October 1964). The complete version was published in novel form by G.P. Putnam later in 1964.

Farnham's Freehold is a post-apocalyptic tale, as the setup for the story is a direct hit by a nuclear weapon, which sends into the future a fallout shelter containing Farnham, his wife, son, daughter, daughter's friend, and black domestic servant. Heinlein drew on his experience in building a fallout shelter under his own house in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the 1960s.

The book is popular with survivalist groups as it combines the civil engineering and physics of fallout shelter survival with the social dynamics of "lifeboat rules," or autocratic authority under extreme conditions, a theme further explored in depth in The Number of the Beast. To paraphrase Mr. Farnham, "How do you know who is the officer in the lifeboat? The one with the gun."


Hugh Farnham, a middle-aged man, holds a bridge club party for his wife Grace (an alcoholic), son Duke (a law graduate), daughter Karen, a college student, and Karen's friend Barbara. During the bridge game, Duke berates him for frightening Grace by preparing for a possible Russian nuclear attack. When the attack actually occurs, the group, along with Joe, the family's African American servant, retreat to the fallout shelter below the house.

After several distant nuclear explosions rock the shelter, Hugh and Barbara become sexually involved; after they copulate, the largest explosion of all hits the shelter. With only minor injuries, but with their bottled oxygen running low, the group decides to ensure that they can leave the shelter when necessary. After exiting through an emergency tunnel, they find themselves in a completely undamaged, semi-tropical region apparently uninhabited by humans or other sentient creatures. Several of the group speculate that the final explosion somehow forced them into an alternate dimension.

The group strives to stay alive as a pioneer family, with Hugh as the leader – despite friction between Hugh and Duke. Karen announces that she is pregnant, and had returned home the night of the attack to tell her parents; Barbara also announces that she is pregnant, although she does not mention that her pregnancy resulted from her sexual encounter with Hugh during the attack. Karen eventually dies during her labor, due to complications, and her infant daughter follows the next day.

Grace, whose sanity has been challenged by all these events, demands that Barbara be forced from the group or she will leave. Duke convinces Hugh that he will go with Grace to ensure her safety, but before they can leave, a large aircraft appears overhead. The group is taken captive by people of African ancestry, but is spared execution when Joe intervenes by conversation with their captives' leader in French.

The group finds that it has not been transported to another world, but instead is in the distant future of their own world. A decadent but technologically advanced African culture keeps either uneducated or castrated whites as slaves. Each of the characters adapts to the sudden black/white role reversal in different and sometimes shocking ways. In the end, Hugh and Barbara fail to adjust to the new situation and attempt to escape, but are captured. Rather than execute them, Ponse, the "Lord Protector" of the house to which they have become slaves, asks them to volunteer for a time-travel experiment to send them back to their own time.

They return just prior to the original nuclear attack, and flee in Barbara's car. As they drive, they realize that while Barbara had driven a car with an automatic transmission, this car - the same car in every respect but one - has a manual transmission, and Farnham deduces that the time-travel experiment worked, but sent them into an alternate universe. They survive the war, then spend the rest of their lives trying to make sure the future they experienced does not come to pass.

Themes and criticism[edit]

Both Farnham's Freehold and Sixth Column, another novel by Heinlein, deal extensively with issues of race, but whereas Sixth Column is perceived as racist by some readers, Farnham's Freehold depends for its impact on twisting the racial roles: in a future dominated by people of African ancestry, a culture technologically advanced enough to develop time travel also practices race-based slavery and institutionalized cannibalism.

Some[who?] have argued that the portrayal of the black ruling caste as cannibalistic, polygynous, drug-providing tyrants with a preference for Caucasoid women uses most of the available racist stereotypes about Africans and African-Americans. Another interpretation[who?] posits that the cannibalism and sexual predation of the dark-skinned masters is allegorical, representing the way that black slaves were historically taken advantage of by their masters. This is similar to the "Durham's Pure Leaf Lard" theme in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Proponents of the allegory theory point out that in the second half of the story, Farnham describes a place in the West Indies where the blacks are cultured and sophisticated, and whites are feckless and shiftless, and that Heinlein then plays out a traditional slave narrative with Farnham as the narrator. From this point of view, the story is not about Africans and Caucasians, but rather about masters and slaves, regardless of race. Farnham's second in command was not his son, but their black domestic servant. This servant, Joseph, was also going to college to become an accountant, and was also described as the best bridge player of the group.

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