Friday, 8 May 1998

Robert A. Heinlein: Farnham's Freehold (1964)

Edition: Corgi, 1976
Review number: 44

When I first read this book some years ago, it came over as racist and sexist. Re-reading it, I'm not so sure; I think Heinlein was trying to do something rather more subtle.

Farnham's Freehold starts as a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale, with a Russian missile attack on the US leading to the Farnham family hiding out in the bunker built by Hugh Farnham and derided by most of the family. Damage to the bunker forces the family - and Barbara, who was spending the evening with them - to leave it early, and they emerge to discover themselves in a completely different world, an apparently untouched wilderness version of the mountains in which they lived.

Here, the problems between Hugh and his son Duke eventually pale into insignificance when they are captured by the people who rule this world, in which they have unknowingly set themselves up in a private park. They turn out to be living in a world ruled by black men, who treat white slaves very harshly though it is not seen in this light by the slaves who have been conditioned to it by thousands of years of breeding. The slaves suffer, among other things, cannibalism (though this isn't how it is perceived, as the whites are not considered human) and sexual relations between grown men and girls of fourteen and less.

The question of racism hinges on the reasons why Heinlein sets up this society. If Heinlein is intending the way in which whites are treated to make a predominantly white readership realise how black people felt in sixties America, then what he is doing is not racist. The exaggerations beyond what would be considered acceptable are there to bring home to the reader the evils of what was going on around them. On the other hand, if the exaggerations are supposed to show how much further black rulers might go, then it is a profoundly racist book. On the whole, I am inclined to go for the former rather than the latter; in his other books, Heinlein only appears racist through lack of thought.

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