Saturday of Book Reviewing – Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold

Awkward article heading aside, this book was all kinds of messed up. Robert A. Heinlein was from a ‘different’ time blah blah blah. His writing is straight up hard to digest; it’s hard to delve into and invest in a work so littered with racism and sexism. His female characters are flawed, often two dimensional, and his portrayal of minorities is downright insulting sometimes. These are major problems, however, the reality is, that if we got rid of and erased any and all books with these issues, I’m not sure we’d be able to read much from the past. And to be clear, the themes and ideas that Heinlein depicts in his novels are thought provoking and worth considering.
Saturdays are alllllll about the thinking and considering.

“Well – It’s hard to take the long view when you are crouching in a shelter and wondering how long you can hold out. But – Barbara, I’ve been worried for years about our country. It seems to me that we have been breeding slaves – and I believe in freedom. This war may have turned the tide. This may be the first war in history which kills the stupid rather than the bright and able – where it makes any distinction.”
“How do you figure that, Hugh?”
“Well, wars have always been hardest on the best young men. This time the boys in service are as safe or safer than civilians. And of civilians those who used their heads and made preparations stand a far better chance. Not every case, but on the average, and that will improve the breed. When it’s over, things will be tough, and that will improve the breed still more. For years the surest way of surviving has been to be utterly worthless and breed a lot of worthless kids. And that will change.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “That’s standard genetics. But it seems cruel.”
“It is cruel. But no government yet has been able to repeal natural laws, thought they keep trying.”
Hugh and Barbara pg. 35

Wow. I do not like our protagonist; he certainly embodies a lot of those problematic perspectives I mentioned above. From his casual sexism and mansplaining to the ease with which he discusses eugenics while his country presumably burns and his countrymen die terrible deaths, Hugh Farnham is a hard guy to root for. Already, 35 pages in, and I hope his arrogant self sufficiency bites him in the ass.
As for the quote itself? Well – maybe from the outside it does appear that we are breeding ‘slaves’; people more prone to consuming and zombieing their way through a traditional 9 to 5. near automated lives; people without their own opinions, ones who follow the crowd because it’s easier and popular and sounds ‘right’. But it is hard to argue that it hasn’t always been that way. Only the extraordinary are remembered; methinks old Hugh is wearing rose colored glasses and ignoring the exceptional of the now in favor of putting his version of the past on a pedestal.
Hugh might also be conflating physical dominance with genetic superiority. We’ve seen this kind of thinking in the antagonists of prior novels, see Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June. It’s early in the reading, but already he doesn’t seem like the type of man to recognize value outside of what himself considers the norm.
Gods, even more than all that he’s missing so much history. Calling people slaves so flippantly. I get what he means. But… the way he employs Joseph, a young black man, and sees the way he’s treated by both his wife and son.. the context of his life, of the still fresh wounds of genuine slavery… the willful diminishing of the unnatural atrocity that was actual slavery… he turns a blind eye to that which should be seen. Despite and because of the hideousness of the past, we must stare it down directly so as to never make those mistakes, those crimes, those soul shattering allowances again. Even those like Farnham who didn’t directly commit these sins must be made aware and carry with them the knowledge of prior evils so that they can never transpire again. Some evils, some ills are so wrong, so horrible that they can’t be so flippantly used as a metaphor for lesser acts. It’s about context. And Hugh’s context and conversation paint him ignorant and callous.

‘Someone had put the books back on shelves, but some were open to dry; he fluffed these, hoped for the best.
The last books in the world –
So it seemed.
He felt sudden grief that abstract knowledge of deaths of millions had not given him. Somehow, the burning of millions of books felt more brutally obscene than the killing of people. All men must die, it was their single common heritage. But a book need never die and should not be killed; books were the immortal part of man. Book burners – To rape a defenseless friendly book.
Books had always been his best friends. In a hundred public libraries they had taught him. From a thousand newsstands they had warmed his loneliness. He suddenly felt that if he had not been able to save some books, it would hardly be worthwhile to live.’
– Hugh pg. 84

So close to relatable, and yet, so very very far. Hugh is correct in one sense; books are the immortal part of man, but he does so little to look deeper into what that means. Books without a reader, without someone to come along and question their contents, love their characters, learn their lessons? Are Useless. Books are immortal because they live on in their reader. They are precious, and powerful, and poignant because of what they give, not merely by virtue of their existence. And if old Hugh is so egocentric, and I’m definitely not saying he isn’t, to only see their value in relation to his own ability to access them then he’s once again failing to see the larger context.
I love books. But not solely because of what they give me. They are the best, the truest, part of their authors and if mankind ever wishes to showcase its ‘best foot forward’ that foot will be found in the pages of books. Immortality should be more than just permanence.

This novel was bursting with quirky ‘what ifs’. The best science fiction always is and that creative ‘what may be’ is what drives many of us to the genre. That being said? It’s almost impossible to get passed the -isms in this one… sexism, racism, etc. Heinlein’s work is rather known for this aspect, his weakness to the prejudices of his time, but where some of his other novels are so full of intensely unexpected themes and predictions, this one falls short. Meh. So I’d say if you’re a hardcore scifi fan willing to push passed all then, and only then, is this one worth a read. If not? Check out Starship Troopers!

Jessie Gutierrez

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