Farnham’s Freehold… Meh

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I was so confused about how I felt about this book that I decided to wait a few days before writing this review.  Five days later, I’m still not sure how I feel about Farnham’s Freehold.  Initially I decided to withhold a star rating, the reason being that FF is a mishmash of genres and messages that I don’t think I will ever be able to reconcile.  Let me tell you why.

I’ve started and restarted this review many times and have at least 2000 words down as proof.  For my sanity, because this book has truly confused me, I will break this down to a handful of points:

  • Summary – Let’s start with a brief summary for those of you who aren’t familiar with this book.  Farnham’s Freehold was written by Heinlein in 1964.  FF chronicles the story of Hugh Farnham, his wife Grace, his daughter Karen and son Duke, Karen’s friend Barbara and the family servant, Joe after they have taken cover in their basement bomb shelter under threat of a nuclear bomb at the commencement of WWIII.  Under circumstances I am still unable to fully understand, they are somehow catapulted 2000 years into the future.  They emerge from the bunker not to devastation and destruction but to verdant fields, a clear flowing river and abundant wildlife. There do not appear to be any other human beings in existence.  The first half of the book is essentially a survivalist tale that chronicles the choices these six people make about food, safety, and shelter, and reproduction for the survival of the human race.                               The second half of this book is a bit more bizarre.  Hugh and his family are enslaved by technologically advanced people of African descent.  Their customs and religious practices are odd and yet oddly familiar.  Here, Heinlein has created a future where the “tables have been turned”.  Black people have become the benevolent (in their own minds) ruling class that enslaves  white people.  Be sure that my description here is very much an oversimplification, but I do this to keep from going too long and also to prevent giving away any spoilers in the instance you would like to read FF.
  • The characters – I’m not one of those people who believes that the validity of a story is dependent on how well I like the characters, which is a good thing because I can honestly say that I do not care for a single one of the characters in this book.
  1. Hugh Farnham, the main protagonist is the only character I could stomach.  He is a take charge type of guy who is motivated and practical.  Unfortunately, he was also a man of questionable morals as he impregnates Barbara, his daughter’s friend under the nose of his wife who was sleeping one room over.  Later in the tale he appears to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.  His son Duke frequently accuses him of bullying, but quite frankly Hugh seemed to be the only person willing to make the tough decisions.
  2. Duke uses every available opportunity to oppose and question his father even when his ideas make little sense and are based on little more than an apparent need to be contrary.  He is clearly racist referring to their servant Joe as a nigger on a couple of occasions and generally treats Joe with contempt.  He has the understandable need to protect his mother, however this desire often overrides any sense of propriety.  He has a very codependent relationship with his mother.  Can we say Oedipus Complex?
  3. Grace is described as being fat, but not in the pleasingly plump way.  She is a spoiled rotten, useless, freak show of a lush.  Like her son, she is also openly racist and contemptuous toward Joe.
  4. Karen is a shell of a character.  She has no strong opinions and the most important thing she does in this story is die.  She has no definition and little significance in this story that I can determine, other than, perhaps the vehicle through which to shock the reader.  She has a disgusting little discussion with her father about how they might continue the human race.  I won’t provide blow by blows but I will say that there are only six people and four of them are closely related and no one wants to multiply and be fruitful with the black guy, Joe.
  5. Barbara is Karen’s friend.  She is also is a shell of a character.  She is a follower and has no strengths unless you count an utter willingness to follow and stand by her man, who happens to be old enough to be her father and married to Grace.  She becomes pregnant with twins.  I think that she is the worst kind of woman.  Wholly unlikable.
  6. Joe is the “Negro” servant and college student who according to Duke is only a Negro as long as he stays in his place, otherwise he is a nigger.  Joe has the most character development/growth in this story, if you can really call it that.  I’m more inclined to say that Joe’s change is no change at all but more accurately a natural reaction to a change of circumstances.  He starts out the kind, modest, humble, endearing and smart Negro.  By the end he is essentially still all of those things except perhaps endearing.  As a person of African descent, he is not enslaved with the rest of the group when they are taken captive by the African ruling class.  He is considered “a Chosen” and is given rights and privileges that put him on nearly the same level as his captors.  He later takes on the same condescending benevolent master attitude as their captors.  He likes his new station in life and much prefers it to being kicked around by his former employers.

Overall I found the characters to be wooden and empty of real spirit.  Especially loathsome however, are the women.  Heinlein has written them all as insipid, thoughtless, child-like creatures with only as much depth as has been afforded them by the men in their lives.  They are all followers and weaklings.  While all have decidedly different personalities, none of them are unique or interesting, and all are forgettable.  Grace is the only woman, disgusting freak show that she is, that incited any real emotion in me.  I wanted to bludgeon her.  But even that is better than not caring about her at all.

  • The story – The shift from post-apocalyptic survivalist tale to SF/F adventure is a bit disconcerting which I think strips away some of the believability.  Even more troublesome is the fact that Hugh Farnham appears to be the mouthpiece through which Heinlein addresses issues of race, humanity, sexism, classism, and justice.  The problem with this is that a fiction story, while it can act as a vehicle for change or enlightenment should not be so clearly stamped with the author’s thumb print.  By forcing his agenda in FF, the characters have in many ways become caricatures and hollow representations.  None of the characters are strong individuals.  Every single one of them moves stiffly and awkwardly through this story like chess pieces.  They do not have a life of their own.  Heinlein would have done better to write a treatise on the subject of racism and be done with it.  In the fiction mode it can be difficult for some readers to understand Heinlein’s intent.  Too much room is left for misinterpretation.
  • The intent/message – I read several reviews of this book.  It has been described as everything from brilliant to racist rubbish.  I’m not inclined to agree with either assessment, but again, this is the problem with fiction books that have so obvious an agenda.  I believe that Heinlein was making a statement about the ugliness of racism.  I think that he was also making a statement about the inherent nature of mankind, regardless of race, that we are arrogant and selfish and that if given power and opportunity few of us would be able to overcome our base desires and actually do the right thing, and that few of us would truly be humane.  I don’t take offense that he has flipped the script so to speak, or by his use of stereotypes.  I actually think that this was a brave attempt on his part to shock the readers into seeing the truth as he understood it, which is why I think it is incredibly important to remember that Heinlein wrote this book in the mid 60s.  Imagine who was reading this book at that time, and then try to imagine the reactions this book would have garnered.  Brave indeed.
  • My final thoughts – There is something about this book that offends me, and that is Heinlein’s ever looming presence in this tale.  He choked the life out of the actual characters by inserting himself in the narrative.  There were actually times when I had to go back and reevaluate what I’d read.  Was that Hugh Farnham speaking or Robert Heinlein?  Such an intrusion made me feel as if Heinlein was trying to dupe me.  It made the story a literal and literary farce.  Moreover, the tale was told so inconsistently that even if he’d kept out of the story, I could not have appreciated the telling.
I like Heinlein.  One of my favorite books is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which was an awesome piece of writing.  The difference between Moon and FF is light years.  Heinlein treads softly in Moon and the messages are subtle yet clear.  In FF he stomped through the manuscript in muddy boots and left a bloody mess.

I give Farnham’s Freehold .  One star for effort and the other because I feel like being nice.

 

  • Vance P. Frickey

    Khaalidah, it’s not uncommon for a reader to identify one of Heinlein’s characters strongly with the author himself. I had the same feeling about “Jubal Harshaw” in Stranger in a Strange Land, although there are strong variances between Farnham, Harshaw, and their creator (who was happily married at the time he wrote Farnham’s Freehold and for three decades afterward to the same woman)..

    It may be helpful to read the book Grumbles From the Grave, a selection of Heinlein’s letters to his friends and associates edited by his wife Virginia, in order to tell whether or not (as you say in your review) Heinlein actually is overshadowing Hugh Farnham’s character. I personally did not get that impression from the novel. Heinlein’s personality was, I believe, distinct from the character Hugh Farnham.

    Otherwise, you made some strong points. Farnham’s Freehold is not Heinlein’s best work (although according to his letters, his wife and agent thought very highly of it, as did the publisher who accepted the manuscript). He wrote it in 25 days. Almost all the characters are two-dimensional, except for Hugh and Barbara (that a character does things the reader finds immoral doesn’t necessarily make it a badly drawn character – perhaps the best-drawn characters in Stephen King’s The Stand are the villains and the characters who, like Larry Underwood, grow from sniveling grifters into heroes).

    • khaalidah

      Thanks for reading Vance. You make some good points yourself and an even better suggestion. I’m interested in checking out Grumbles from the Grave and I think I will. 🙂

  • Harv Griffin

    Just a bit of additional feedback, Khaalidah: your paragraphs of An Unproductive Woman do not indent on my kindle. This makes it hard to read, but is easily fixed. You may want to upload your book again to make it easier to read. Cheers! @hg47

  • Harv Griffin

    Hey, Khaalidah!

    I enjoyed your trashing of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD. You’re an excellent writer! You and I will have to agree to disagree about this book. I have re-read it several times with enjoyment. It is not clear to me that any white man of his era could write in a politically correct way about race. My take? At the time Heinlein wrote this he was now BIG ENOUGH that he could write whatever he pleased, however he pleased; and as you say, he foisted much of himself into Farnham. I like this novel better than most of his later work, which seem bloated to me. You and I will also have to agree to disagree about the character Barbara. You find her the worst type of women. I find her very smart and clear-headed: she knows exactly what she wants and goes after it. Just my opinion. Cheers! @hg47

    • khaalidah

      Thanks for stopping by. I didn’t really consider this a trashing of FF but I’m pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks for the heads up about my book. Glad to know someone is reading it.

  • Kayode

    I’ve just begun reading Heinlein, and I’m fascinated by his approach to handling issues like race and politics. I enjoyed this review of the book, and your final thoughts in particular.

    • khaalidah

      Thanks for stopping by Kayode. I’m fascinated by Heinlein myself, although I am certainly not a lover of all of his works. He’s pretty awesome and whatever one might think of him, he wrote fearlessly. Kudos for that.