How Robert A. Heinlein wrote about making dinner: some thoughts on Farmer in the Sky

Farmer in the Sky (1950) is about Bill, an American Eagle Scout who goes on a ship called the Mayflower to colonize Ganymede. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. There’s a long space voyage with scouting and adventures, there’s lots of detail of colonizing and terraforming and making soil, there’s a disaster and the discovery of alien ruins, but it’s all subsidiary to the story of how Bill grows up and decides he belongs on Ganymede. This is one of Heinlein’s core juveniles, and one of the books that shaped the way people wrote a certain kind of SF. I can see the influence of Farmer going very wide indeed, from Greg Bear to John Barnes and Judith Moffett.

Gregory Benford has written some beautiful detailed posts about the science of terraforming Ganymede and his appreciation of this book. I’m going to look at the social science and the people. In fact, I’m mostly going to look at a truly excellent description of making dinner.

This is a particularly dystopic Earth—there’s overpopulation and stringent food rationing and too many regulations. Having said that, they do have flying cars and scouts are allowed to pilot them, so it’s not all bad. They also have space colonies on all the nearby planets and they’re busily terraforming Ganymede. Bill’s mother is dead and he lives with his father, who forgets to eat when Bill isn’t home—it’s clear Bill is caretaking. Then his father announces that he is remarrying a widow with a daughter and the blended family is going to Ganymede. I don’t think there’s any description of how either missing parent died. Now people do die, but when I think of blended families, normally, I think of divorce. One dead parent could be considered an accident, but losing two looks like carelessness some background disaster not being talked about. This is an overcrowded over-regulated Earth anybody would be glad to leave.

Benford mentions that Heinlein predicted the microwaves, except it’s called a quickthaw. I want to take a closer look at this whole fascinating passage, because it’s doing so much in so little space, and predicting microwaves in 1950 is the least of it:

I grabbed two synthosteaks out of the freezer and slapped them in quickthaw, added a big Idaho baked potato for Dad and a smaller one for me, then dug out a package of salad and let it warm naturally.

By the time I had poured boiling water over two soup cubes and coffee powder the steaks were ready for the broiler. I transferred them, letting it cycle on medium rare, and stepped up the gain on the quickthaw so that the spuds would be ready when the steaks were. Then back to the freezer for a couple of icecream cake slices for dessert.

The spuds were ready. I took a quick look at my ration accounts, decided we could afford it and set out a couple of pats of butterine for them. The broiler was ringing. I removed the steaks, set everything out and switched on the candles, just as Anne would have done.

“Come and get it,” I yelled, and turned back to enter the calorie and point score on each item from their wrappers, then shoved the wrappers in the incinerator. That way you never get your accounts fouled up.

Dad sat down as I finished. Elapsed time from scratch, two minutes and twenty seconds — there’s nothing hard about cooking. I don’t see why women make such a fuss about it. No system probably.

Heinlein lived through the thirties, where poor people in the U.S. were genuinely hungry. It was a huge formative experience—Kathleen Norris, a romance writer, developed the idea that food ought to be socialised and free, and it comes up over and over again as a background detail in her fiction. Heinlein remained convinced “we’ll all be getting hungry by and by” until he revised his predictions in Expanded Universe in 1980. But here in this 1950s book, we see a tyranny of food consumption far more stringent than British WWII rationing. Overpopulation was something a lot of people were worried about then too. I find the failure of this prediction cheering.

But it’s also a brilliant piece of writing. Yes, he predicts the microwave, but I’d much rather have that automatic broiler—mine’s identical to a 1950s one. But look how much else is in there. Bill is taking the restrictions and regulations entirely for granted—and Heinlein shows us that by having him pleased to be able to afford “butterine.” Baked potatoes microwave okay, but are massively inferior to oven cooked potatoes—the skins are soft and the texture sucks—but Bill takes them entirely for granted too, along with the “synthosteaks.” He doesn’t lament the texture of the potatoes or miss real meat, he doesn’t know any better. Bill is proud of his cooking ability and has no idea he’s eating food his grandparents would have sneered at—synthosteaks and soup cubes indeed. Bill doesn’t even feel oppressed by the necessary record keeping. But Heinlein very clearly horrifies the reader of 1950 (or the reader of 2011 for that matter) precisely with Bill’s matter of fact attitude to this stuff. Heinlein is correctly predicting an increase in convenience food and kitchen gadgets to save time, but he’s also showing the way people get used to things and think they’re normal. He’s showing us masses about the world from the things Bill takes for granted.

He’s also showing us masses about the characters. He’s telling us Bill’s mother is dead, he’s telling us electric candles are normal, he’s showing us normal family life of Bill cooking a nice sit down meal for the two of them. He’s showing us Bill’s pride and acceptance and that they’re still missing his dead mother. “Just as Anne would have done” is six words which cover an immense amount of ground in Bill’s personality, his relationship with his father since his mother’s death, and the relationship of both of them with the dead Anne. He’s a teenage boy and he’s trying really hard.

Indeed, there’s a huge amount of information in those five little paragraphs about making dinner. This is what Heinlein did so brilliantly. The world, the tech, the rationing and the social structure that implies, and the personal relationships. And it’s all conveyed not only painlessly but breezily and as an aside—Bill thinks he’s telling you how he made dinner that day in two minutes and twenty seconds, not explaining the world, the tech and his family arrangements. Astonishing. You could do a lot worse than read Heinlein to learn incluing—I love the way he weaves information through the text.

The blended family is done well. Bill at first resists the arrangement and then later comes to be comfortable with his stepmother and stepsister and eventual new siblings, in exactly the way teenagers often do react to this kind of thing. But it’s not central. What we have is a story of a boy becoming a pioneer, becoming a man without the usual intervening steps of school or qualifications. There’s enough adventure to satisfy anyone, but it’s really all about Bill growing up.

My favourite thing in this book is the Schwartz’s apple tree. Here we are, barely five years from the end of a war with Germany and there’s Heinlein putting in a German family as significant positive characters. And there’s something about the apple tree, the only tree on Ganymede, and the apples which are treasure because they contain seeds that might grow new trees. The whole thing about proving the claim and all the detail comes down in my memory to this Johnny Appleseed image. You need all the science to support the poetic image, but it’s the poetic image that sticks with me.

I have no idea how Farmer in the Sky would strike me if I read it for the first time now. I’m lucky enough that I read it when I was at the perfect age for it. I wasn’t American or a boy or a scout (and goodness knows there are no interesting female roles in this particular book) but I found the scouting and the American patriotism exotic. I should also admit that I had encountered so little U.S. history when I first read this that I did not recognise the “Mayflower” reference, and in fact encountered the historical Mayflower after Heinlein’s space version. Oh well, it didn’t do me any harm.

It’s a very short book, barely an evening’s reading time. I was sorry to come to the end of it, but I don’t wish it longer—it’s just the perfect length for the story it has to tell.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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