A Heinlein juvenile about a family that joins a colony terraforming Ganymede. I read it as a kid, but didn’t remember much. Continuing my theme of surprise!grimdark, I thought it would be a charming tale of explorer spirit and space farming, and it turned out to be awesomely depressing despite a pasted on yay semi-upbeat conclusion. That is not the normal tone of a Heinlein juvenile, which could have dark aspects but were overall optimistic. It also has my least favorite of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes, Bill. He’s clearly meant to have flaws and learn to be better, but I really disliked him for a good 80% of the book.

Bill, an Eagle Scout, lives with his father after their mother’s death in a glum dystopian Earth with food rationing and few opportunities. (It does have microwave dinners, though – good prediction, Heinlein!) Due to being bad tempered and insecure in that awful teenage way that manifests in constantly trying to prove himself and thinking he’s better than everyone, he doesn’t play well with others. Also, he despises girls and women. The misogyny is partly a sign of the times thing and partly a character trait that he’ll mostly get over, but it’s really grating.

He begs his father to let him go be a colonist and farmer on Ganymede, and is pleased when his dad, after testing him to see if he’ll flip out if his father goes without him, tells him they’re going. But first he has to get married! Right now! To a woman Bill barely knows, with a daughter he’s never met before!

You can see where Bill gets his interpersonal skills.

Bill sulks, is mean to the daughter (Peggy, who is younger than him and clearly adores him), and refuses to go to the wedding. Nevertheless, they embark. The space voyage involves Bill running a scout troop, learning to be slightly less of a colossal jerkwad, and saving a bunch of lives by plugging a hole in the ship with his precious scout uniform after a meteorite strike. There are also multiple pages of math and physics explaining… stuff. I skipped those.

At Ganymede, the colonists find that they have been victims of a bait and switch: the farms they were promised are not available and won’t be for years, and the existing colonists don’t want them. It’s hard or impossible to go back, and conditions suck. Poor Peggy can’t adjust to the low air pressure and has to be lodged in a special pressurized room for as long as they’re there. This is super depressing, but the gloom lets up a bit when Bill sharecrops for a nice family who has successfully farmed, and the family eventually gets a farm of their own though Peggy is still stuck in her room and can only leave it in a bubble stretcher.

The farming part is unusual. Due to the expense of transporting mass, there’s very little equipment and farmers need to pulverize rock into dust, then mix it with bacteria to create dirt. It’s backbreaking labor, and that’s most of the farming we see. I was a disappointed, as I wanted more “Little House on Ganymede” details, Bill learning about cows when he’s never seen one before, etc, but most of what we get is pulverizing rock.

And then! Depressing spoilers!

An earthquake depressurizes Peggy’s room, wrecks many houses, and knocks heat offline for everyone. ALL the farms are utterly destroyed, and two-thirds of the population is killed in a single night. Peggy is rescued alive but dies a few weeks later. This leads to the most affecting scene in the book, where Bill does a complete 180 on “girls suck and Peggy’s a brat,” cries, blames himself, and asks his mother’s spirit to take care of her.

Bill and his family have to start over from scratch, after some soul-searching over whether they even want to. There’s a quick chapter that feels like it came from a different book in which alien artifacts are found. The end!

This juvenile is very noticeably gloomier than any of Heinlein’s others that I recall. Bill is a jerk, “come be a farmer on Ganymede!” is partly a scam, Peggy dies, and two-thirds of the colonists are wiped out. While Bill and his pal make the amazing discovery of the alien machines in a scene that has more sense of wonder than anything else in the book, Bill has appendicitis for most of it and is not only not able to participate much, but spends much of the scene writhing and throwing up, and misses a lot of the ensuing excitement due to being unconscious.

The deaths aren’t gruesome or detailed, but they are portrayed in a distinctly upsetting manner. Peggy slowly declines over the course of the book and her last scene is understatedly horrifying. Bill and his friends retrieve frozen bodies, including those of some of their own parents, for a month after the earthquake and while Heinlein doesn’t go into detail about how much that traumatizes them, it clearly does. Even farming on Ganymede, which is by far the most fun part of the book, consists of nine-tenths backbreaking labor to one-tenth reward.

I don’t know what was up with Heinlein regarding the tone of this book. Having a bad year? Not really convinced that farming Ganymede would be a good idea? Thinking that in real life being a frontier farmer often sucks? Mad at his editor?

Great title, though.

Farmer in the Sky
londonkds: (BLOOD AND TITTIES FOR LORD CHIBNALL!!! ()

From: [personal profile] londonkds


Sounds like an unusual case of a Space Western detailing some of what actually happened during the colonisation of the West rather than a fantasy cowboy story.
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)

From: [personal profile] luzula


There's an actual university course on this book at my department. Well, not only this book, I guess, but it's a joint math/astronomy evening course about what colonizing Ganymede would actually be like, held by a mathematician and an astronomer. I'm pretty sure the astronomer who had the idea for this had read the book.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Everything is less depressing than magical vets!

Except pre-1990s Newbery winners.

From: [identity profile] helen-keeble.livejournal.com


I am morbidly curious as to how long this streak of SURPRISE! GRIMDARK! in your reading will continue!

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Well, I'm definitely not going to pick up any random YA novels. Or anything with a cute pet.

From: [identity profile] helen-keeble.livejournal.com


This is reminding me of a book called Windhaven, which an SFnal thing about a caste of flyers in a lost-colony setting. I adored it as a kid. Or rather, I adored the first 75% of it, wherein Plucky Beggar Girl Becomes Best Flyer Ever!! I pretended the last 25%, wherein Plucky Beggar Girl Suffers Massive Head Trauma And Will Never Fly Again THE END, didn't exist.

Encountering it again as an adult, I discovered that it was co-written by Lisa Tuttle and GRR Martin...

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Oh, man, that is about the most depressing book ever written. It's so vivid about exactly how much of her identity and happiness is bound up in flying and how she'll never be happy again now that she can't fly.
Edited Date: 2016-10-19 11:47 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile] helen-keeble.livejournal.com


I spent SO MUCH TIME as a kid day-dreaming fix-up fic for that ending. SO MUCH.

Aaaaaaaagh, I am still mad about that book.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I have to say that now that I've been basically living that sort of scenario for a year, my desire to write or read about it remains zero. Most people don't end up living their worst nightmare, and if they do, telling them it will never get any better isn't exactly helpful.

It also felt a bit like, "Don't aspire! Don't have dreams! It will all END HORRIBLY."

From: [identity profile] adrian-turtle.livejournal.com


Thank you for reminding me of that one. I'd been thinking of tracking it down to reread, based on fond memories of the first half. (I read it before injuries stopped me from doing several things that were really important to me. I...don't think I could handle it now.)

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


There's actually a website out there for movies and TV shows that will advance-spoil the question of whether the pet dies: https://www.doesthedogdie.com/

This is clearly needed for YA and MG books. At some point as a kid I stopped reading anything with a dog on the cover because I KNEW the dog was going to die. Weirdly, this led to me skipping several books where apparently the dog is fine.

From: [identity profile] nancylebov.livejournal.com


When I was a kid, I didn't mind Farmer on Ganymede, but I didn't like Time for the Stars for reasons that weren't obvious to me. When I reread it as an adult, I found that the main character was really passive. He didn't even want to go into space.

I was in favor of Rocket Ship Galileo (Nazis in moon tunnels which were abandoned by aliens-- what could be better?), but I only read it once. When I reread it as an adult, I found a lot of post WW2 grimness.

As a general thing, I've found that post-Golden Age sf makes the suffering of characters a *lot* more explicit.
Edited Date: 2016-10-19 11:40 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Time For the Stars is also pretty dark, come to think of it. I liked it a lot more when I read it as an adult than as a kid. Pat is very passive but the reason for it is really interesting.

I should reread Rocket Ship Galileo. I don't think I've read it since I was twelve. I think moon Nazis hit my suspension of disbelief.

From: [identity profile] helen-keeble.livejournal.com


I remember enjoying Tunnel in the Sky (kids get stranded on distant planet, form new colony, are not pleased to be "rescued") as a kid, though being mildly disgruntled that all the girl characters mysteriously disappeared from the plot once the "colony" was properly formed.

If I re-read it now, I am fairly certain that I would discover that this was because they were all off-screen cranking out babies, after the all-male leadership decided that it was essential to populate the planet. AAAAAAAAIIEEE.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Yes and no. One is running things off-screen as vice-mayor or some such. The other one is cranking out babies. :(
Edited Date: 2016-10-19 11:57 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile] stickmaker.livejournal.com



Those interested in the background for Heinlein's juvenile novels should check out the sizeable book _Heinlein's Children_ by Joseph T. Major. Among other complications was a horrible editor who kept demanding significant changes of Heinlein.

Disclaimer: Joe is a friend of mine.

From: [identity profile] ethelmay.livejournal.com


There are varying opinions about Alice Dalgliesh's work on the Heinlein novels. James Nicoll, for instance, wrote "I suspect part of the problem is that is not just modern would-be Heinleins are embracing a misguided nostalgia but also that they lack an Alice Dalgliesh to apply the steel-toed boot of editorial guidance to the adam's apple of authorial ambition. While Dalgliesh had her own issues, she seems to have been just the right editor for Heinlein. I base this on the fact that Heinlein wrote two more juveniles after he and Scribner's parted ways and they don't stand up to the Scribner's books at all."

From: [identity profile] jorrie-spencer.livejournal.com


I never read Heinlein juvenilia, though I somehow like reading about them. I did read, at university, Friday, which I remember as being this exciting space adventure book with a kickass woman who got to do all sorts of things. I don't want to reread it now, though, because I've run across descriptions of the book decades later—which don't remotely resemble whatever I felt I was reading at the time.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Weeell, it is also an adventure with a kickass heroine. IIRC, nearly everything he wrote after it was completely unreadable, and not because of sexism.

From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/la_marquise_de_/


I have only read that one once, long ago and don't remember it very well. My perpetual favourite of the Heinlein juvenile's is Starman Jones simply because it was the first proper sf I ever read.

From: [identity profile] lnhammer.livejournal.com


When I was a teen, I thought this was Heinlein's best juvenile. When I was 40, I had no idea what I'd been thinking.

From: [identity profile] movingfinger.livejournal.com


You asked Larry not me, but in reading your review I thought The Rolling Stones might have held up better. All of them have a dump-truck-load of sexism, though.

Are you looking for fun reads right now?

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Eh, I expect some sexism in everything written at that time. It's more a matter of how glaring it is.

Yes, I am! Also for stuff in the less-grim category of "people having a worse day than me." Like, a Dick Francis hero getting handcuffed inside an abandoned car in the middle of a desert is good. Survival-type nonfiction is good. Anything involving animal torture, the Holocaust, cancer, etc is not good.

From: [identity profile] jorrie-spencer.livejournal.com


I thought Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was fun. It's not YA, if that's your target, though it might be pretty good for older teens.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


No, any genre at all is fine. And thanks! I think I downloaded a sample but haven't gotten to it yet.

From: [identity profile] amberley.livejournal.com

Hatchet and Tillerman Cycle


Have you read Gary Paulsen's Hatchet (1987) about a boy stranded in the wilderness with a hatchet?

And Homecoming (1981) by Cynthia Voigt, first of seven books in The Tillerman Cycle about four kids abandoned by their Mom on the way to a relative's, and their journey? I haven't read books 2-6 but bought them all after enjoying the first one very much. Book 2, Dicey's Song (1982) won a Newbery award but I don't see a pet on the cover, so maybe OK?

(It's possible I learned of these from you, in which case, thanks for recommending them, and maybe someone else will learn of them from this comment.)

From: [identity profile] ejmam.livejournal.com

Re: Hatchet and Tillerman Cycle


Hatchet has sequels, some of which are AU of each other, which is interesting on a meta level.

Some of the Tillerman books are a bit grim. Dicey's Song is great, A Solitary Blue ends well but goes through some severe child-emotional-pain to get there, The Runner ends badly but you know it will happen, Come a Stranger is s similar arc to A Solitary Blue, I remember Seventeen Against the Dealer as being depressing but pulling up a little at the end. I have no emotional memory of Sons From Afar except Samuel being awesome.

From: [identity profile] desperance.livejournal.com


I did a gig with Becky this weekend. She's awesome, and the book sounded lovely.

From: [identity profile] calepin.livejournal.com


Do you like Lee Child's Jack Reacher thrillers? Similar to Dick Francis heroes in the "smart but stoic" vein.

From: [identity profile] lnhammer.livejournal.com


I've only a dim memory of some of them, but if I had to put down a title anyway, Citizen of the Galxy, despite its Heinleinian weirdnesses. Not that they ALL don't have Heineleinian weirdnesses.

(Looking at plot summaries, I suspect that Starman Jones is an ur-text for a YA I've been considering writing. Don't know if that means I should or definitively shouldn't read it.)

From: [identity profile] lnhammer.livejournal.com


I only dimly remember that one -- I think I read it only twice because it disappeared from the library.

From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com


I wrote a piece for Tor.com ages ago about how all Heinlein's juveniles feature dystopic Earths.

I think we tend to remember past SF as sunnier than it really was.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I've read some of his other juveniles recently, though, and the tone felt a lot lighter to me despite the dystopian settings.
ext_14419: the mouse that wants Arthur's brain (Default)

From: [identity profile] derien.livejournal.com


You feel like Heinlein juvvies are usually more upbeat? You didn't read Podkayne of Mars, did you?
ext_14419: the mouse that wants Arthur's brain (Default)

From: [identity profile] derien.livejournal.com


Oh, I forgot, the editors made Heinlein change the final version of the story and Podkayne lived.

From: [identity profile] amberley.livejournal.com

Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain


I recommend Richard Roberts' Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, in which middle-schooler Penny discovers she's a hidden genius, and gets caught up in hijinx. It was a lot of fun, as were the two sequels. A fourth book has been written and not published yet.

From: [identity profile] oracne.livejournal.com


I HATED this one as a kid. Not sure I even finished it.

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


This was one of the two Heinlein juveniles I managed to miss when I was a kid, and it's definitely my least favorite. That is probably in part due to not having read it until I was an adult, but I like the other one (Citizen of the Galaxy) a lot more.
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