Consideration of Works Past: Farnham’s Freehold

(Picture from here.)

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a bit now. Heck, I’ve been avoiding reading Farnham’s Freehold for a while now. There is a whole lot of controversy on that book. While race showed up regularly in his work, FF was the only book where he attempted to actually confront it.

There was a controversy about Podkayne of Mars. It is nothing compared to the controversy around Farnham’s Freehold.

Spoiler alert: it’s a bad book and not worth re-reading.

But not for the reasons one might think. Or, at least, not solely for those reasons.

Here’s the plot, FF’s main protagonist is Hugh Farnham, a self-made millionaire. He’s one of Heinlein’s Perfect Men: He’s older, handsome, able to shoot a gun and appreciate a Picasso, incredibly wise– so wise that everyone defers to his wisdom even when they completely disagree with him. So intelligent that other people appear stupid around him– wait a minute. Other people are stupid around him. Farnham has a reasonable IQ and everyone else is a Delta Moron. Did I pick up Idiocracy by mistake? Nope. Heinlein’s name is on the front page and it’s a book, not a movie. Hm.

Anyway, Farnham has built the worlds greatest fallout shelter in his basement and, because Farnham is always right, a nuclear holocaust occurs. They all go to the shelter: Hugh, his worthless son, Duke, his whiny useless wife, Grace, his somewhat useful daughter, Karen, Karen’s hot friend, Barbara, and Hugh’s black servant, Joe. All of them act out all sorts of Generation of Vipers shtick to show how smart Hugh is and how callow everyone (but Barbara and Joe) is. Everyone goes to sleep except Hugh and Barbara. And they have sex. After all, what should a twenty-something beauty do during the apocalypse than have sex with her grandfather?

The big one hits and blows them forward in time a thousand years. They don’t know this originally. They just know that they’re in exactly the same spot as they were but everything is beautiful and rustic.

They eke out the pioneer life with Hugh as boss. Karen is also pregnant– predating nuclear holocaust because, well, reasons. Hugh will not consort with Barbara because he is an Honorable Man and still married to whiny, bitchy Grace. So it looks like it’s going to be a Karen/Joe and Barbara/Duke future Eden. (Except that Karen tells Barbara that if Hugh would have her, she’d pick him. Incest be damned.) But Karen dies in childbirth.

Then, they are discovered by the true rulers of earth: Black People.

Turns out that Africa wasn’t harmed by the nuclear exchange and ended up colonizing the USA and Europe. All white people are slaves. Our merry band of misfit toys would be slaughtered for just being there (it’s a park, sort of) but for Joe. Since Joe is black, they must be his slaves and therefore they won’t be hurt but Joe is held responsible.

Long story short: Hugh makes himself indispensable to the Lord Owner. (Surprise!) Grace ends up Lord Owner’s consort– which she likes. She finagles her son (Duke) to be with her but that requires Duke to be castrated. She’s comfortable with that. Since he’s getting good drugs, Duke is, too. It is discovered that not only have the Black Lords enslaved white people, they are eating them. White people are the main meat staple of the culture. For thousands of years. I’m guessing cows, pigs, chickens, kangaroos, armadillos, dogs, cats, possums and rats were in short supply.

Got to say this about human beings. We’re as hard to kill (and as uplifting) as a cockroach.

Lord Owner sends Hugh back to his own time with a device to make it accurate so he can commercialize it. Hugh, of course, dumps the device. They find a mine shaft and stock it in the time they have left and then sweat out the apocalypse with the idea they will be able to change the future. Or it’s a parallel world. Something. Afterwards, they make themselves into good frontiersman libertarians. The end.

Okay. That took longer than it should have.

Here’s what I think Heinlein was trying to do. And I’m being charitable here. So don’t shoot me. I think Heinlein was less malicious than he was inept.

First, I think deep in the abscesses of Heinlein’s mind he was thinking that he really wanted to treat any black characters as he would treat any other character. He probably thought the sameness was a virtue. I’m sure he thought he was combating racism. Hugh had to be white– he was espousing all of Heinlein’s pet ideas. He was, in effect, Heinlein himself: he had to be white.

He wanted to put his white characters in a position of oppression– a role reversal. That’s obvious enough. Black/White role reversal to combat racism has a long history from Watermelon Man (Godfry Cambridge) to White Man’s Burden (Travolta/Belafonte) to John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. (The book, not the movie made from the book.) One cannot fault Heinlein for attempting something difficult in a noble cause. One can fault him for doing it badly.

But he had a problem: Hugh has to be right. This is the salient point of the entire novel. Hugh is always right. But he’s white so if the oppressors are black, Hugh is not going to get much traction. Hence, Joe was born. Joe could have been a partner. A colleague. A friend– but the structure of the novel prohibits that. Hugh can have no peer. Joe could have been family but Heinlein wasn’t that progressive. So Joe is a servant.

Later in the novel Joe ends up throwing in with the black aristocracy. There’s a rather good scene where Hugh upbraids him for doing so. Joe responds that until Hugh has tried to hitchhike in Mississippi, he has no understanding of the situation. It is likely the sole place in the book where somebody stands up to Hugh and isn’t immediately forced to admit the error of his ways.

And that example is one of a few things where I think the book was on point. Joe owed Hugh (or Heinlein) nothing. Shoes on the other foot: fine. We can’t all be saints and it’s clear in the context of the book that Joe is trying to get them as good a deal as he can get within the limits of the culture he’s in and without sacrificing his own neck.

You can make the argument that the blacks were merely white men with black skins. I can see that. The book takes place thousands of years in the future so I would not expect future blacks to resemble current African American culture. You could make the argument that Joe, being a representative of current African American culture should actually resemble said culture. But Joe is on camera so seldom compared to the white folks he scarcely gets the chance. You could make the argument that Joe, being second only to Hugh in importance of the frontier family’s survival and probably the second most important character in the book should have a lot more camera time.

Yeah, you could.

Which brings me to the real problem with the book. Yes to a lot of the criticism of it. Yes it handled race badly. But the core issue of the book is that it is inept. It’s clumsy. It stumbles. It’s broken. It should have been pulled by the editors as a bad book. Not a controversial book.

Like the whole cannibalism thing. Okay, Heinlein was probably thinking that slavery consumes people’s soul. So it’s a metaphor for what slavery does to the human spirit.

Come on, Bob. This book was published in 1964. I surmise it was written in 1963. King’s I Have A Dream speech, Bob. The Medger Evers murder, Bob. The Birmingham Campaign, Bob. The Birmingham Church Bombing, Bob. Hell, I was an eleven year old kid in Thousand Oaks, California, and I heard about these things. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, a book where a black aristocracy is literally eating white human flesh could be, oh, misinterpreted? 

Like Barbara, and every other woman that shows up in the book (with the exception of his wife) wanting to sleep with Hugh. Including his own daughter. I mean, Heinlein’s view of women in this book is little more than sex kitten/breeders but even in that context that’s a bit much.

(It would be an interesting thought experiment to rewrite the book from Grace’s point of view. Hugh is every bit the despicable villain Grace thinks he is. He connives what he does and makes good sounding excuses afterwards. He built the fallout shelter because of a sick, paranoid fantasy. The fact the nuclear annihilation actually occurs is a coincidence. She is sick and distraught at what she has to do to save herself and her son, viewing the role Lord Owner’s consort as consent to rape. Pretty much what every slave woman submitting to master probably thought. That it would have been better to die in the nuclear fire than to have to live here under these circumstances, under these rules. To have Karen think about having sex with Hugh to appease him. Barbara having to view her coming child as a brutal compromise for survival. But I digress.)

Like vast numbers of pages taken up describing interminable hands of bridge. Pages. People agonizing over decisions they made. In bridge.

The book was published in 1964 sandwiched between Podkayne of Mars and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I commented on Podkayne here. Podkayne has its problems. Harsh Mistress is, in my opinion, Heinlein’s best adult book. It’s flawed but he manages to pull everything he’s ever tried to do together in one book. I think it works though it is a product of its time. One of these days I’ll put up a post justifying my opinion.

Harsh Mistress is followed by I Will Fear No Evil, which I had considered the worst Heinlein book I had ever read until I reread Farnham’s Freehold. Clearly, it was the beginning of the end.

What I was hoping to find was a book where a writer whose work I respect had come out swinging at a subject few in SF were considering in 1964. A swing and a miss is still a swing. What I found was a boring slog through the mud. The game was rained out long before it ever had a chance to start.




Consideration of Works Past: Farnham’s Freehold — 8 Comments

  1. Steven, I haven’t read this one and now I never will–uggh. But you have it butted up against I Will Fear No Evil, which I have read (in fact my mother was reading the serial so I was introduced to the digests.) Later on I read that IWFNE was written when Heinlein was very ill, and it was affecting him like a stroke? Was FF created during the same period?

    • That’s what the wikipedia article says. (

      The sequence goes (gleaned from, with my numeric evaluations.
      +4 Starship Troopers (1959)
      +4 (edited, -3, unedited) Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
      +2 Podkayne of Mars (1963)
      -4 Farnham’s Freehold (1964)
      +7 The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
      -4 I Will Fear No Evil (1970)
      -2 Time Enough for Love (1973)
      -3 The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (1979)
      -4 The Number of the Beast (1980)
      +1 Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984)
      -3 The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985)
      -4 To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987)

      So from my perspective, the writing was on the wall long before IWFNE. (BTW: I would place the juveniles (with the exception of Rocket Ship Galileo) all between +3 and +6)

      Supposedly, Heinlein came down with peritonitis during the first draft of IWFNE and was sick for the next two years. But the issues I saw in FF appear long before that. There are parts of the unedited Stranger that are not readable. And there’s a definite squishy bit in The Door into Summer. TEFL has Lazarus Long sleeping with his mother and TSBTS is about that same mother.

      He didn’t seem to write much more about race, though.

      Sometimes I think FF was an attempt to recapture what he’d been thinking about in Citizen of the Galaxy– which I view as an homage of Kim by Kipling. There’s a scene there where Thorby, who first comes on stage as a slave, first meets his cousin. She asks about a tattoo on his leg. He says it’s his manumission mark from when he was a slave. She doesn’t really believe him. He says he doesn’t remember clearly but there are marks on his back.

      I’m doing a bad paraphrase here. It’s quite a moving scene. My point is that Heinlein had strong ideas about slavery– as shown in COTG– and wanted to make them known. He just did it badly.

  2. I enjoyed Heinlein’s libertarian Perfect Man books when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, but I was already saying “meh” by the time I was a senior in college. I’m baffled by the people who hold him up as a Great Author.

    One of the things I find funny about his work is how often he returns to the theme of incest. I had a long list of them, even with completely forgetting about Karen.

    • Well, Freudian psychoanalysis was the flavour of the day. In Freud’s view, all human (and female, in particular) sexuality was inherently nefarious.

      Or maybe Heinlein was just channeling the tropes of the Greek tragedies because he felt they lent literary legitimacy to his work.

      Gawd, did I just write “lent literary legitimacy?” I need some fresh air.

    • His “greatness” has more to do with his context than his quality. Remember, the pinnacle of literary craftsmanship when he started out was E. E. Smith– who I have always found unreadable. There is some real science and real engineering in his books. Characters had jobs. Made livings. They were not princes or independently wealthy.

      I would argue that without Heinlein we could not have had Neal Stephenson or William Gibson or Charles Stross. He created a space in the genre that was not there before.

      That he doesn’t stand up as well as, say, Ray Bradbury or (IMHO) Phillip K Dick does not lessen his influence even a little bit. Saying that does not improve his work nor lessen our desire not to repeat his mistakes. The bad news is no one will ever write another Heinlein novel. The good news is that no one need ever write another Heinlein novel.

  3. I think he was trying to do Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and like you, I don’t think he was close to being a good enough writer to pull it off. FF is bad, but pretty much any place Heinlein tries to do satire or humour lands like a lead balloon (and I’d call myself a fan).

  4. Funny — I read that book as a teen and enjoyed it, although even then I could see that it was, let’s say, deeply problematic. But until today, I had TOTALLY FORGOTTEN about the cannibal-black-people-ruling-the-earth part. I didn’t even remember Joe. I just remember thinking that Hugh wasn’t really as big of a genius as he thought he was.