From date of publication Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein is the second of the Hugo award winning novels. This book was given the award for 1951, but it was awarded in 2001. The fact that this book is remembered fifty years later is one of the greatest signs that it deserves a Hugo award. It is also one of the best explorations of what colonization of a new world might be like mixing high and low technologies brilliantly and making you nostalgic for the past and hopeful for the future.
The Story of Farmer in the Sky
This is the type of story that I typically do not care for very much. The reason for that is how simple the plot is and how little actually happens. The basics of this story are that a young man, his father, new step mother and her daughter travel to Ganymede to colonize. It follows them as they travel from earth to the Jovian moon. The moon is being terraformed, but one of the most important processes of this is creating soil to grow crops in. There are a few setbacks during the story but that is largely the entire plot. This could be very dry in a less well written story, but because you care about these characters it always feels as if something is happening.
Characters of Farmer in the Sky
The viewpoint character of this story is William Lemer. William is a teenager and a boy scout. His concerns in the beginning of the book are largely childish, things like his scout uniform and being upset by his fathers marriage. These begin to change early and each event in the book serves as step in his maturity. As the title of the story states he spends much of the story farming and the focus is on the hard work as well as the science of terraform.
His father, George, is an engineer who is most interested in his family's welfare and his stepmother is a very traditional 1950's woman. Both are good characters, but not all that exciting. More interesting as a driving force in the story is his step sister who is unable to adapt to the low pressure and nearly has to return to earth.
The remaining cast of characters is exceptional. The large family of farmers who live near him, a number of boyscouts, pilots, engineers and many others. That so many of these characters are memorable though they are not in the story much is impressive.
The Science of Farmer in the Sky
Nearly sixty years old there is very little in this story that feels dated. There are of course some major bits of technology missing such as computers and cell phones. The cell phones are especially notable in their absence in the conclusion of the story.
The technology of the space ship, energy creation and terraforming are especially interesting. It is hard to imagine explanations of space travel being written in a much more realistic way even now, though at the time the experience was far more theoretical. It uses both acceleration and spinning the ship to create gravity and goes into a lot of detail in both.
The terraforming is almost all done by hand except for the heat shield. Even though many science fiction stories show far more advanced ideas this is the one that seems most likely. They create soil slowly by mixing crushed rock and real top soil and then growing plans that slowly make more soil. This is necessary because of the microbes and nutrients needed. It even goes into the need for earth worms.
Finally you have mass energy conversion which makes all of this possible. While we have not yet achieved this the idea is realistic. You simply convert all of the energy of mass, such as ice, into energy. How this is done is not explained that well, but the amount of energy is explained well.
There are certainly part of Farmer in the Sky that feel as if it were written for young boys. The focus on the scouts is largely unnecessary for the plot and is one of the most dated aspects of the story, but you do grow to care about the characters a lot and because of that everything else in The Farmer in the Sky remains far more interesting. The only difficulty of this book is that the original age group this story was written for is no longer really the correct audience.