Farmer in the Sky

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Farmer in the Sky is a 1950 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein about a teenaged boy who emigrates with his family 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.

Passing references by the lead character to the song "The Green Hills of Earth" and to its author, Rhysling, have caused some to consider it part of Heinlein's "Future History" series.

Plot summary[edit | hide | hide all]

The story is set in a future, overcrowded Earth, where 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, Bill and Molly's daughter Peggy embark on the 'torchship' Mayflower. On the journey, Bill saves his bunkmates from asphyxiation by improvising a patch when a meteor punctures their compartment. To combat the boredom of the long trip, the Boy Scouts among the passengers form troops, and all the children attend classes.

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.

One day, 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 shield" 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. Bill is then taken to the hospital for a life-saving operation.

Tropes used in Farmer in the Sky include:

"There are certain adjustments which could conceivably have to be made in extreme emergency. In which case it would be Mr. Ortega's proud privilege to climb into a space suit, go outside and back aft, and make them."
"You mean--"
"I mean that the assistant chief engineer would succeed to the position of chief a few minutes later. Chief engineers are very carefully chosen, Bill, and not just for their technical knowledge."

  • Science Marches On: The alignment of Jupiter's four major moons as described in the book can never happen in reality - the three inner Galilean satellites are in a resonance with one another such that whenever two of them are aligned, the third will always be non-aligned and quite often situated on the opposite side of Jupiter. Heinlein also postulated that the surface of Ganymede was volcanic rock like the Moon; subsequent discoveries have shown that Ganymede's crust is actually almost 90% ice or frost, covering a subsurface ocean.
  • Scout Out: Averted. Because Farmer in the Sky was originally serialized in the Boy Scout magazine Boy's Life, there was no trademark issue. Bill Lermer's participation in the Scouts is pervasive, mentioned at least once per chapter.
  • Space Western: The book consciously takes up many of the themes of the 19th century American frontier and homesteading - but without the moral stain of dispossessing the Native Americans. In particular, a character who grows an apple tree and offers seeds to other colonists comes to be known as "Johnny Appleseed" (and survives with his family at the moment of disaster by burning his precious tree).

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