Farmer in the Sky
First edition cover
|Author||Robert A. Heinlein|
|Cover artist||Clifford Geary|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Charles Scribner's Sons|
|Preceded by||Red Planet|
|Followed by||Between Planets|
Farmer In The Sky is a 1950 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein about a teenaged boy who emigrates with his family to Jupiter's moon Ganymede, which is in the process of being terraformed. A condensed version of the novel was published in serial form in Boys' Life magazine (August, September, October, November 1950), under the title "Satellite Scout". The novel was awarded a Retro Hugo in 2001.
The story is set in a future, overcrowded Earth, where food is carefully rationed. Teenager William (Bill) Lermer lives with his widower father, George. George decides to emigrate to the farming colony on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons. After marrying Molly Kenyon, George embarks with Bill and Molly's daughter Peggy on the 'torchship' Mayflower. On the journey, Bill saves his bunkmates from asphyxiation by improvising a patch when a meteor punctures their compartment. During the trip all the children attend class; also, to combat the boredom of the long trip, the Boy Scouts among the passengers form troops.
When they arrive on Ganymede, an unpleasant surprise awaits the newcomers. The group is much larger than the colony can easily absorb and the farms they were promised do not yet exist. In fact, the soil has to be created from scratch by pulverizing boulders and lava flows, and seeding the resulting dust with carefully formulated organic material. While some whine about the injustice of it all, Bill accepts an invitation to live with a prosperous farmer and his family to learn what he needs to know, while his father signs on as an engineer in town. Peggy is unable to adjust to the low pressure atmosphere and has to stay in a bubble in the hospital. When the Lermers are finally reunited on their own homestead, they build their house with a pressurized room for Peggy.
One day, a rare alignment of all of Jupiter's major moons causes a devastating moon quake which damages most of the buildings. Peggy is seriously injured when her room suffers an explosive decompression. Even worse, the machinery that maintains Ganymede's "heat trap" is knocked out and the temperature starts dropping rapidly. George quickly realizes what has happened and gets his family to the safety of the town. Others do not grasp their peril soon enough and either stay in their homes or start for town too late; two-thirds of the colonists perish, either from the quake or by freezing. The Lermers consider returning to Earth, but after Peggy dies and in true pioneer spirit, they decide to stay and rebuild.
The colony gradually recovers and an expedition is organized to survey more of Ganymede. Bill goes along as the cook. While exploring, he and a friend discover artifacts of an alien civilization, including a working land vehicle that has legs, like a large metal centipede. This proves fortuitous when Bill's appendix bursts and they miss the rendezvous. The shuttle picks up the rest of the group and leaves without the pair. They travel cross country to reach the next landing site. Bill is then taken to the hospital for a life-saving operation.
Groff Conklin wrote that although Farmer in the Sky was "conceived as a novel for 'adolescents' ... this book is also one of the best of the month's output in science fiction for adults ... an adventure story with an unusual amount of realism in its telling. It is not childish". Boucher and McComas named Farmer "just about the only mature science fiction novel of the year ", describing it as "a magnificently detailed study of the technological and human problems of interplanetary colonization." Damon Knight found the novel "a typical Heinlein story ... typically brilliant, thorough and readable." P. Schuyler Miller recommended the novel unreservedly, saying that Heinlein's "minute attention to detail ... has never been more fascinatingly shown."
Surveying Heinlein's juvenile novels, Jack Williamson noted that Farmer in the Sky "has harsh realism for a juvenile." He described it as "a novel of education" where the protagonist "tell[s] his own story in a relaxed conversational style."
The book takes up consciously many of the themes of the 19th century American frontier and homesteading - but without the moral stain of dispossessing the Native Americans. In particular, a character who grows an apple tree and offers seeds to other colonists comes to be known as "Johnny Appleseed" (and survives with his family at the moment of disaster by burning his precious tree).
The alignment of Jupiter's four major moons as described in the book can never happen in reality. The three inner Galilean satellites are in a resonance with one another such that whenever two of them are aligned, the third will always be non-aligned and quite often situated on the opposite side of Jupiter.
Heinlein also postulated that the surface of Ganymede was volcanic rock like the Moon. Subsequent discoveries have shown that Ganymede's crust is actually almost 90% ice or frost, covering a subsurface ocean.
The novel refers to the "Space Patrol," the interplanetary peace-keeping organization described in Space Cadet.
Because it was originally written to be serialized in the Boy Scout magazine Boy's Life, Bill Lermer's participation in the Scouts is pervasive, mentioned at least once per chapter.
- Conklin, Groff (February 1951). "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. p. 99. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, June 1951, p.84
- "The Dissecting Table", Worlds Beyond, February 1951, p.93
- "Book Reviews", Astounding Science Fiction. April 1951, p.136
- Jack Williamson, "Youth Against Space," Algol 17, 1977, p.11.
- Abbott, Carl (July 2005). "Homesteading on the Extraterrestrial Frontier". Science Fiction Studies. 32 (2): 240–264. ISSN 0091-7729.