July 28, 2015

Book Review: Farnham's Freehold

(I first reviewed this book just about a year ago. Several things happened that made me want to go back and read it again. Naturally, that meant I had to write a new review!)

Early reviewers, including myself, pointed out that there were multiple typographical errors throughout the Kindle text of this book, including several paragraphs that were completely illegible. Now there is only a single typographical error in the entire Kindle book. At about the three-quarters mark an "I" is replaced with a "1". The mass of errors people pointed out in older reviews have all been corrected. I don't know when, but at some point the text received a much needed update. If you have this book on your Kindle and have not done so already, go to "Manage my Kindle" and update it. You will be pleasantly surprised.

When I first wrote this review, there were only a couple dozen reviews, now there are over 150 and growing. At the time, I found the book less entertaining than I remembered but still prophetic. Now I have to say my mind has changed completely. At this point in my life, after plowing through hundreds of inferior science fiction books, coming back to this one and reading it for the fourth time I am thrilled with the characters, the plot, and the blunt honesty of the narrator, along with the challenging questions about racism, freedom, and tyranny the book addresses.

Keep in mind this book was first published in 1964, which means it was written in 1962-1963; long after Rosa Parks argued with a bus driver but not long after Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for his "I have a dream" speech. The chaos of the civil rights movement was on Heinlein's television every day while writing, "Farnham's Freehold". Some of the conflicts seen within the family of the main character echo arguments being held in families all across America. The personality differences between Karen and her brother Duke echo a dramatic shift taking place in American pop culture that finally culminated in the "Summer of Love" in 1968. Each character in this book stands in not as a person, but as a representative caricature of how different people all across the United States are responding to overwhelming cultural changes they only half understand. Changes which are also rocking the Heinlein household.

In this book remnants of Heinlein's love of socialism are still lingering. This is seen in Ponse's passionate defense of "rescuing" savage free whites living in poverty in the mountains and again at the very end when he insists that if Hugh had just been a little bit more patient, Ponse himself would have put him in touch with the underground railroad and arranged for his escape. Heinlein is still clinging to a core belief that in the right hands, a benevolent dictatorship ruling over a welfare state is the epitome of civilization. Even though Hugh embodies Heinlein's growing fascination with self-sufficiency and libertarianism, his brusque, hostile personality reflects Heinlein's concern that libertarianism is far too close to anarchy to be practical.

It will take seven years of heart and lung problems before Heinlein abandons all thought of socialism completely and builds his utopia on the idea of rugged individualism and pure libertarianism. This is why there is often seen to be two phases in Heinlein's work: the phase that culminates in "Time Enough for Love" and the short-lived phase before his death that opens with "The Number of the Beast". Even many diehard Heinlein fans prefer one phase or the other. Very few people truly appreciate both phases of his work. This book, "Farnham's Freehold", coming as it does at the apex of his early career, clearly shows these two philosophies warring against one another in his mind. This internal dichotomy is one of the core factors in the huge controversy surrounding this book shortly after its release. Either side, the socialist or the libertarian, can find in these pages justifications and illustrations in support of their position; throwing racism into this volatile mix only insures a bigger bang when the mixture finally detonates.

I am going to offend many people, but I think one of the reasons this book has generated so many negative reviews here at Amazon.com between about the 50th review and the 150th review is largely because today's world has been taught that everyone is secretly a Duke or a Joseph and anyone who pretends to be a Ponse or a Hugh is either lying or deluded about their own true nature. It is very hard for anyone in today's world to understand and appreciate the strengths and benefits of the either cannibalistic, slave-owning Ponse or the crotchety, freedom-loving Hugh. Our modern world has divided itself into two camps clearly symbolized by Ponse and Hugh. Each camp loudly and angrily accuses the other of being a Duke or a Joseph: pretending to kindness while hiding hatred deep in their hearts.

About that cannibalism, by the way, it really should not surprise anyone who has read a decent amount of science fiction. In H.G. Wells, "The Time Machine" we find exactly the same scenario, a master race of violence and cunning feeding off of a gentle race of naivete and compassion. Heinlein took his inspiration from the same place he always takes it: classic writers who came before him.

Let me close with one last thought: Hubert Farnham, the book's protagonist, has done everything he can to prepare his family for life after a nuclear holocaust. Nonetheless, he finds his carefully thought out plans and preparations fall far short of the reality he encounters after being projected into a wild country without access to modern conveniences and luxuries. There is tale of caution that those who fancy themselves to be "preppers" should read carefully and take to heart. Forget zombie apocalypses and katanas, what will you do when your daughter has a baby with no proper sanitation and no expert medical assistance? How will you get fresh water when there is no plumbing? What will you do for entertainment when there is no television? The problems this family encounters when they first exit their bomb shelter are very realistically drawn and raise important questions that any serious prepper needs to be asking themselves.