book-reviews

Farnham's Freehold

by Robert A. Heinlein

Rating: ★★★

The first half of this book is probably very familiar to Heinlein readers. Patriarchy fetishism, with a side-helping of pioneer settlement and sexual depravity (though of course, all the women only have eyes for Hugh, including, in a rather unsettling scene, his own daughter). I understand the appeal, but I found it quite tiresome, particularly the conflict between the needlessly authoritative father and the imperfectly-in-his-image son.

(Also, it was pretty telling that one of the top priorities for the American characters, after being literally nuked to kingdom come, was the proper accounting for and distribution of all the drugs and alcohol.)

There were bits of this I liked, however. I do find it refreshing when characters aren't so emotional about the why and how of their circumstances to ignore the interesting practical challenges. And I must appreciate how the death of Karen in childbirth was included, to show the imperfection of the father and the lack of circumstantial control. On the whole though, if this were the content of the book it would have been a disappointment.

However, this melts away as the second act begins, and the family are captured and educated about the future world they now know they live in. The purpose of the book, as a statement about racial prejudice and inequality, becomes more clear. Heinlein makes a good reversal test of various attitudes about race, creating a society of black masters and white slaves, and points out some of the conclusions that this thinking leads to, in the form of selective breeding and cannibalism. He is moved, however, to temper this picture by stressing his stand-in's firm belief in the existence of racial differences, though he does not deign to follow the conclusions of that line of thinking.

The future society is an interesting construction in itself, and it's fun to trace some of the elements to possible historic origins. However, the generosity and magnamity of Ponse does stretch the bounds of credibility -- even if Hugh was a favoured curiosity, he is treated far too gently -- and Hugh's dismissive attitude towards both his family and his benefactor make it hard to sympathise with him. Worth reading if you're a middle-aged man fantasising about his daughter's friends, or anyone struggling honestly with a complex attitude about race.