Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein is an intimate look at one boy’s adventures in relocating to Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons, as an early colonist looking to start a farm. Unlike other Heinlein stories of this style, I enjoyed Farmer in the Sky for its character development, hard sci-fi description, and overall storytelling.
Plot & Narration
Farmer in the Sky is narrated in the first person by the main character, a teenage boy named Bill Lermer, a boy scout who lives with his father on Earth before relocating to Ganymede. Heinlein is skilled at nailing the young boy voice, which he uses in other books in this series as well. Bill, his father, stepmother, and stepsister move to the Jovian moon, where they learn how difficult it is to terraform the land there. The story takes us through various successes and failures experienced by Bill, who, in the end, learns to love his new home.
The crux of Farmer in the Sky is the terraforming of the moon Ganymede. This is an interesting aspect of the story, as Heinlein goes into great detail and description regarding how it is accomplished. The rocky surface of the moon must be pulverized and have organic material added to it in order to turn it into soil fertile enough for farming. The atmosphere must be thick enough to contain oxygen, among other examples.
The idea of terraforming another planet is something we are currently grappling with today as we try to figure out how to colonize Mars. But it’s not just about making other planets habitable for humans. We must also think about how living on those planets will affect the human body. In the book, Bill’s stepsister, Peggy, simply cannot adjust to the low pressure atmosphere of Ganymede and is forced to live in a pressurized bubble.
It’s not just about how we can affect another planet, but how would another planet affect us?
Another theme in Farmer in the Sky is the reason for moving to Ganymede in the first place. Heinlein writes that Earth is overpopulated and that there’s no hope for its inhabitants unless they offload some of that pressure. According to some theories, Earth’s carrying capacity for humans is between 4 billion and 16 billion people. Overpopulation has serious consequences, including resource depletion and geopolitical strife. Is our only hope interplanetary immigration?
One thing I appreciated about this novel is the character development of the main character, Bill Lermer. This is not something I’ve seen in other Heinlein books, such as Space Cadet or Red Planet. In the book, Bill struggles with the loss of his mother, as well as the challenges in homesteading on Ganymede. He actually grows through these struggles and realizes in the end that Ganymede is his home now. This is just the aspect of storytelling that I felt was missing from Heinlein’s other books.
All in all, I enjoyed Farmer in the Sky. Like many sci-fi novels of this period, there are sections of intense info-dumping in order to describe the science behind what’s happening. This can be overwhelming if overdone, but I wasn’t particularly bothered by it in this novel. One drawback though is that because it’s told from the first person perspective, we are privy to absolutely everything that happens to the main character. As such, I think the book could probably have been shorter. However, because Heinlein handles the character development of Bill quite well in this novel, it doesn’t feel super bogged down by the overdescription. I would recommend this book as a good example of Heinlein’s better work.
Up next, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester!