Monday, March 3, 2014

Farnham's Freehold, by Robert Heinlein

When I was growing up, I read pretty much anything Robert A. Heinlein had written.  Of course, most of his great books had been around a few decades by then.  When I was reading Heinlein, he had begun to enter his "dirty old man" stage (late 70s and early 80s).  I think his greatest fiction was the earlier works that are accessible to all ages without the rated-R material of some of his later books.

Farnham's Freehold, first published in 1964, is both a product of the time and a product of Heinlein's great vision.  At the height of the Cold War, Hugh Farnham's concerns about an impending nuclear disaster lead him to build and equip a fallout shelter in his basement.  When bombs start falling, Farnham and his family, along with a friend of Farnham's daughter and a household employee, descend to the shelter and lock up.  Once stillness returns to the world, they find their surroundings completely altered, but somehow familiar.  They learn that they are in the same place, but have been bumped hundreds of years into the future.

The first half of the novel details their adaptations for survival.  Hugh's admirable preparations pay off, and the six of them begin to settle in, making the best of their isolated existence.  But that all changes when human visitors arrive with technologies far advanced of anything they have ever seen.  They learn that in the 2000 years since the war they took shelter from, civilization in the northern hemisphere has fallen apart, and white people exist largely as slaves in a rigidly hierarchical society ruled by blacks.

Heinlein, writing in the midst of the civil rights movement, takes the opportunity to make some observations about race and racism.  Yet the fiercely independent Hugh Farnham isn't willing to accept a life of slavery, no matter the skin color of his captor.  My edition calls Farnham's Freehold "Science Fiction's Most Controversial Novel" right on the front cover.  I suppose Heinlein's views of racial equality were quite a bit more controversial in 1964.  More problematic is the eventual revelation that not only did the black slave owners keep a stable of slaves for sexual purposes, but that some of them ended up on the dinner table.  I can see how that would not go over well with certain readers. . . .

Reading Heinlein is always a delight.  Farnham's Freehold is not one of his best novels, but does exemplify his trademarks: a grand vision of the future, a philosophy of political freedom and individual self-sufficiency, and a story the includes characters to cheer for and villains to hate.  The fact that this is still in print 50 years after its first publication is no mistake.  Heinlein remains one of the great masters of the genre.

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