Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Farnham's Freehold, by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein's "reverse-racism" dystopia is not that bad, but not that good.

Farnham's Freehold

Signet, 1964, 256 pages

Hugh Farnham is a practical, self-made man, and when he sees the clouds of nuclear war gathering, he builds a bomb shelter under his house, hoping for peace and preparing for war. But when the apocalypse comes, something happens that he did not expect. A thermonuclear blast tears apart the fabric of time and hurls his shelter into a world with no sign of other human beings.

Farnham and his family have barely settled down to the backbreaking business of low-tech survival when they find that they are not alone after all. The same nuclear war that catapulted Farnham 2,000 years into the future has destroyed all civilization in the northern hemisphere, leaving Africans as the dominant surviving people.

In the new world order, Farnham and his family, being members of the race that nearly destroyed the world, are fit only to be slaves. After surviving a nuclear war, Farnham has no intention of being anyone’s slave, but the tyrannical power of the Chosen race reaches throughout the world. Even if he manages to escape, where can he run to?

Gotta love those 60s covers. I mean, what the hell is even happening there? I literally cannot make sense of what most of those images are.

Heinlein, Heinlein, Heinlein. I have invoked the name. Many people reading this review will bring their RAH baggage with them. I rarely see so much arguing over reviews as when Heinlein is the topic. To some, he's the pinnacle of classic sci-fi, the greatest of the Grand Old Masters. To others, he's a racist, sexist fascist.

(Hint: the latter are very stupid people, at least about the "fascist" part. Sexist and racist — well, that's arguable, as I will get to.)

So, Farnham's Freehold is somewhat notorious even among Heinlein novels because it's his "reverse racism" novel. As the breathless vintage cover above proclaims, it is "What happens when a middle-class American family" survives World War III.

"Middle-class" circa 1964, meaning all white plus their black house-servant, Joe. What happens is they all retreat into the bunker Hugh Farnham, the family patriarch, had constructed when they hear on the radio that the Russians have launched missiles, and when they emerge, it's 2000 years later and black people have taken over the world.

I was kind of expecting it to be as bad as I've heard, but it isn't, quite. Heinlein was a capable writer who thought about human experiences even when he was cranking out novels to pay the bills, so to dismiss Farnham's Freehold as a gimmicky role-reversal trying to show that racism is bad by putting the shoe on the other foot is to ignore a lot of detail. That's not to say this is a perfect (or even particularly great) novel, or that it isn't "problematic," as the kids these days say, but it is not, contrary to what I'd heard before reading it, about futuristic black people turning into cannibals.

Well, it's not just about that.

First of all, the world Heinlein constructs for the future society in which the Farnham clan finds themselves is fleshed out in some detail. The "black people" are not just of African descent — they are what we'd call "mixed race" today, or the more fashionable/PC "people of color," mostly African but some Indian and Asian, about what you'd expect after 2000 years of racial mixing. White people, however, have mostly remained an unmixed ethnicity, since they have been an oppressed slave class since the war that ended the old civilization. Heinlein's explanation for this is that World War III basically destroyed North America and Europe, leaving Africa and Asia to do most of the rebuilding, and once they began expanding again, the white Europeans and North Americans were held responsible for ending civilization and thus were not allowed to regain power. Over the centuries, this situation evolved into a rather static society that has achieved advanced technology but very little innovation, with the decadent overlord class being divided between wealthy estate (plantation) owners and a few poorer individuals unable to own slaves (an obvious analog to the antebellum South), while whites do all the real labor, including those who have risen to a sort of privileged overseer class.

So, this is all somewhat interesting and classic speculative SF, and not such a played-out idea in 1964. Hugh Farnham, his wife and daughter and son, his daughter's friend Barbara, and Joe, their African-American employee, all emerge into a vast unspoiled wilderness and proceed to start building themselves a settlement, with lots of Heinlein's famous attention to survival skills and technical details. Hugh, being the kind of Heinlein character who builds bomb shelters, has lots of conversations with his family and with Joe and Barbara about society and survival and politics and race and sex, which, typical of Heinlein, is sometimes thought-provoking and sometimes cringe-inducing and often both at the same time.

For example, Hugh and his daughter Karen have a very serious and totally-not-creepy discussion about the pros and cons of her becoming his second wife.

For example, Hugh upbraids his son Duke for being a racist and calling Joe a nigger (Duke, immediately wary of Joe wanting to get at all the white women, is a louche asshole who stands in for the unthinking cardboard racist of Heinlein's day), and is not particularly disturbed by the possibility of either Karen or Barbara getting with Joe, but his own ruminations about race and why it is that Negroes are good at singing but bad at everything else is... well, not particularly enlightened even for the racial theories of that time.

For example, while Hugh is theoretically okay with Joe screwing either his daughter or his daughter's friend, they are both quite firm that while Joe is "a sweet boy," they'd literally rather screw Hugh.

For example, Hugh being a Heinlein character, of course his daughter's friend becomes his lover (though this being relatively early Heinlein, his daughter does not, even though they talk about it).

What about Hugh's wife, Grace? Well, she's turned into a fat, alcoholic, small-minded, hysterical harpy, so it's all good. Hugh gives Barbara a talk about how he owes loyalty to his wife for standing by him in adversity when he was young and penniless, and the fact that she does have good traits, but unfortunately none of them materialize in the book, and Hugh's loyalty to his wife doesn't extend to not screwing the younger model under their roof.

Eventually, though, our doughty pioneers find out that they've built their little colony on the vast estate of a "Lord Protector" who arrives in giant hovercraft to take them back to his palace. This is when Hugh finds out about the nature of the futuristic society that non-white people have built. It's of course a decadent and patriarchal one, in which male slaves get to spend time as "studs" before they are castrated to become domestic workers, while female slaves are literally called "sluts" and spend their lives as "bed-warmers" for the Chosen and higher status slaves. Hugh, once the Lord Protector figures out he's somehow been cast forward from thousands of years ago, becomes a privileged servant since he can read the old texts, and soon he's offering the Lord Protector advice on how to make money by reinventing the concept of board and card games. Yes, in hundreds of years, non-white people have developed neural whips and anti-gravity technology, but no one ever thought about what to do when you're bored at home.

Barbara and Grace, meanwhile, have become "sluts" and are now living relatively fat and happy in the Lord Protector's harem. Hugh, being in love with Barbara, conceives a plan to escape with her, and Barbara, being a Heinleinian woman who is smart and capable but always does what her man wants, agrees. Meanwhile, Joe, who has been elevated in his new role as a member of the master race, unsurprisingly allows the power to corrupt him and Hugh, unsurprisingly, underestimates how much Joe resented being a "nigger" back in the old world.

So, as a story, this was a typical Heinleinian adventure. Not one of his better ones, but it's still got a fair amount of interesting bits, and Heinlein knew how to tell stories. If nothing else, he was quite good at pacing, plot twists, knowing when to ramp up the tension, and most importantly (what I personally think is the biggest failing of many modern authors), writing a satisfying ending.

What about the, uh, racial and sexual issues? Well, it's typical Heinlein. Women are sex. Even (especially) smart, competent women are sex, period. In this book, women are actually more passive than in most Heinlein novels. Usually his women at least do things and have skills and talents of their own, but in Farnham's Freehold, they are all relegated to being, literally, "sluts."

As for the racial angle, it's easy to see what the author's intent was, and also easy to see how he went off the rails. To say that Heinlein was a racist is grossly unfair and inaccurate. It's very clear that he considered both real-world and fictional racism to be a bad thing, and that's what he was trying to demonstrate. And while "reverse racism" stories today understandably provoke eye rolls (probably in part because of books like this), it's not an invalid lens with which to examine the topic. But yeah, a book in which non-white people take over the world and not only turn whites into sex slaves but [Spoiler (click to open)]literally ranch them for food is not the most elegant implementation of this idea...

Verdict: Taken as a product of its time, Farnham's Freehold is as entertaining as most of Heinlein's yarns. It is not his worst novel (so far I still award that to I Will Fear No Evil), but it's definitely not his best. 6/10.

Also by Robert A. Heinlein: My reviews of Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones, and I Will Fear No Evil.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, robert heinlein, science fiction

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