Farmer In the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein. Scribner’s & Sons, 1950, hardcover and paperback. Juvenile novel # 4
This, the fourth of Heinlein’s YA (juvenile) novels, is about a teenaged boy and his family who emigrates to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is in the process of being terraformed. A condensed version of the novel was published in serial form in Boys’ Life magazine (August, September, October, November 1950), under the title “Satellite Scout”. The novel was awarded a Retro Hugo in 2001.
On an overcrowded Earth, food is carefully rationed. Teenager William (Bill) Lermer lives with his widower father, George. George decides to emigrate to the farming colony on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. After marrying Molly Kenyon, George embarks with Bill and Molly’s daughter Peggy on the ‘torchship’ Mayflower. During the trip all the children attend class; also, to combat the boredom of the long trip, the Boy Scouts among the passengers form troops.
When they arrive on Ganymede, an unpleasant surprise awaits the newcomers. The group is much larger than the colony can easily absorb and the farms they were promised do not yet exist. In fact, the soil has to be created from scratch by pulverizing boulders and lava flows, and seeding the resulting dust with carefully formulated organic material. While some whine about the injustice of it all, Bill accepts an invitation to live with a prosperous farmer and his family to learn what he needs to know, while his father signs on as an engineer in town. Peggy is unable to adjust to the low pressure atmosphere and has to stay in a bubble in the hospital. When the Lermers are finally reunited on their own homestead, they build their house with a pressurized room for Peggy.
A rare alignment of all of Jupiter’s major moons causes a devastating moon quake which damages most of the buildings. Peggy is seriously injured when her room suffers an explosive decompression. Even worse, the machinery that maintains Ganymede’s “heat trap” is knocked out and the temperature starts dropping rapidly. George quickly realizes what has happened and gets his family to the safety of the town. Others do not grasp their peril soon enough and either stay in their homes or start for town too late; two-thirds of the colonists perish, either from the quake or by freezing. The Lermers consider returning to Earth, but after Peggy dies and in true pioneer spirit, they decide to stay and rebuild.
The colony gradually recovers and an expedition is organized to survey more of Ganymede. Bill goes along as the cook. While exploring, he and a friend discover artifacts of an alien civilization, including a working land vehicle that has legs, like a large metal centipede. This proves fortuitous when Bill’s appendix bursts and they miss the rendezvous. The shuttle picks up the rest of the group and leaves without the pair. They travel cross country to reach the next landing site from which Bill is then taken to the hospital for a life-saving operation.
Farmer In the Sky was well received by science fiction reviewers upon it’s release, and compared favorably to all SF released in the year, adult and juvenile. Though Heinlein loves to show off his hard science fiction chops in these books, some of what appears in Farmer In the Sky is either unlikely or impossible, specifically the alignment of the three moons. Still, there is no sense of “wrongness” while reading, and I liked this one quite a bit.
We now have just four more of Heinlein’s juveniles to go before I do a wrap-up. Next time: Between Planets.