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
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