Sci-Fi Classic: Farnham’s Freehold By Robert Heinlein
I’ve always been a major fan of Robert Heinlein. Actually, scratch that. I’ve always been a major fan of Robert Heinlein’s early work. Old age did not do well by Bob H, and as he got older his biting, pointed writing became bitter and the sexual freedom he espoused in his work turned into the mad ravings of a crazy old man who was clearly, despite his age, still very very horny. His early and mid-career work is genius though, and he’s one of the original fathers of meaningful, modern science fiction. He’s also written a lot of books, forty plus years of material actually, and even though I’m something of a Heinlein superfan there’s still some of his stuff I’ve missed. Stuff like “Farnham’s Freehold”.
“Farnham’s Freehold” fell into my lap courtesy of my brother in-law, who’s blind and therefore has awesome access to all kinds of free reading material online. He has access to thousands of books in plain text format, which he then plugs into a voice program to read it back to him. He had “Farnham’s Freehold” sitting on his computer, and when I saw Heinlein’s name on it I demanded he hand it over. So I spent the next few nights squinting into my Treo, where I’d dumped the text of the novel in a blatant act of literary piracy. Hey, give me a break here. It’s not like you can walk into a bookstore and find it on a shelf. I read whatever I can get my hands on.
As a Heinlein fan I know how hit or miss he can be as an author, but it only took a few pages before I knew “Farnham” was a hit. The book instantly sucked me in, with its Cold War era tale of a family hiding inside a home constructed bomb shelter when the doomsday clock strikes eleven and nuclear war lands right on top of them. The interesting thing about Heinlein’s writing, perhaps here more than in anything else he’s ever done, is the way in which he manages to convey such a vivid picture of what’s happening… but without bothering with actual visual descriptions of the environment in which he thrusts his characters. Rather than describing the way his world looks, Heinlein chooses instead to describe the way his characters react to it, and through them his readers not only get the picture, but sometimes a deeper understanding than you’d get had he described simple surface knowledge.
In “Farnham’s Freehold”, the books’ most mind-blowing, brilliant moment happens early on, as Heinlein’s male and female lead huddle inside their homemade bomb shelter, the floor shaking and the world above them exploding, and with nothing but death awaiting them they engage in a kiss, which leads to hinted at sex. Heinlein may be horny, but the book was written in 1964 and anything more than a makeout session in mid-explosion probably would have been deemed pornography. What’s amazing about it is the way he threads their fear, terror, passion, lust, and all of their emotions in that moment into the fabric of his story to make their horrible, terrifying situation come vibrantly alive . For that moment, you’re there in that bunker with them, with the world ending all around you, in a place where none of the things you used to care about matter, since at best you’ll be dead in a few hours.
Of course the entire book doesn’t take place in a bomb shelter, and if you’ve read the dust jacket on it then you know that the nuclear explosions above them somehow slam their little shelter forward in time to a future where the white man lives in slavery and everything we’ve ever known is buried under thousands of years of dust. The book never works quite as well once Farnham and his little group are forced to interact with that future, but for the first half, when they’re alone trying to eek out an existence, the novel soars.
Whenever I mention Heinlein to other sci-fi nerds their reaction is sometimes dismissive, perhaps because they read some of the inferior work he put out in the 80s during his last gasps of life. If you’re any kind of sci-fi geek though, pick up “Farnham’s Freehold” or my favorite Heinlein book “The Door Into Summer” and give one of science fiction’s original masters a fighting chance.