"Science Fiction's Most Controversial Novel"
Time sneaks up on you.
This isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. Almost every writer has taken a swing at the sneakiness of time and how it pads about on little kitten feet. It’s a concept that we all have an intellectual grasp on from the moment we start to read, whether that first book be Goodnight Moon or Hippos Go Berserk or, in my house, Crime and Punishment.
While we’re all aware of time as a concept, it’s harder to get an emotional sense of time’s tiptoeing. You can only feel it when you are forced to do the math. Like the following little nugget: most of my current crop of college students were born in the same year that I graduated from high school. And yes, they are starting to look like fetuses, what with their unlined faces and everything-but-gray hair. I can only imagine what college sophomores will look like in 10 more years. Zygotes, maybe.
Robert Heinlein’s books are also like my college students, in that they serve to remind me of how old I am. Nearly 25 years have passed since I read my first Heinlein novel, which was Friday. I find this hard to believe, frankly, but the 2006 reissue of Farnham’s Freehold -- one of Heinlein’s more troubling novels -- forced me to do the math. Later today I plan to buy a walking cane.
Last time I read Freehold -- to quote Rhett Miller -- Reagan was still king. Money, it was believed, would trickle somewhere. My favorite album -- yes, vinyl -- was Rio. Once every couple of weeks, we did emergency duck-and-cover drills in my junior high as preparation for the day when the Soviets would nuke the planet back to the Stone Age.
(My college students tell me that the same drills are still done -- you know, crouch under your desk and move away from the windows -- as preparation for killer weather, like tornados or hurricanes, which just goes to show you that it’s always a good idea to keep teenagers terrified about the uncontrollableness of the universe. Those lessons never leave you; I do still consider hiding under my desk in times of crisis.)
It is against this backdrop that I read Freehold, which was already two decades old in the mid-80s. In the intervening years, I forgot about it. Then I saw that Baen had reissued it in October 2006 because there is currently a push by several publishers to reissue less popular Heinlein titles in honor of his upcoming centennial celebration. Most of them are less popular for a reason. It’s not that they are bad -- even bad Heinlein is pretty good -- it’s just that they’re bland, lacking in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, given that most of these reissues (like Space Cadet and Red Planet) were books intended for kids and Heinlein complete-ists.
There’s more to Freehold than mere Heinleinian goodness. There’s also controversy -- at least according to the Baen editor who approved the subhead on the cover that calls it “Science Fiction’s Most Controversial Novel.” All I could recall about the title was that it was about a nuclear war, one started by those darn Ruskies. In my head, Freehold and the miniseries The Day After had become conflated. Both involved fallout shelters. One had Steve Guttenberg. How is radiation sickness controversial? Clearly, there must be something about Freehold that I’d forgotten.
As usual with the adult-market Heinlein books that I’ve reread since acquiring both a mortgage and children, Freehold has what I’ve come to think of as the Heinleinian ickiness trifecta. There is silly sex between a much older man and a much younger woman who, incidentally, has irresistible hooters (page 33). There are offers of sex between a parent and a child (page 104). And the majority of the women in the book are simpering caricatures, even the ones who readers are supposed to be rooting for (starts on page five).
But none of that is controversial, really, just unpleasant. Perhaps the controversy spouts from Heinlein’s exploration of race in Freehold. One of the main characters is black and, at the start of the novel, a servant in the Farnham household. After the war, the Farnham survivors face an alien culture that is run by black-skinned people, who prove to be just as racist as the Farnham folk are.
It’s hardly an earth-shattering conceit now -- but it raised quite a few eyebrows when Freehold was first published in 1964. I can understand how Heinlein’s use of the “n-word” as well as his take on the essential humanity (both in a positive and negative sense of the word) of African Americans would play when the South’s Jim Crow laws had just been overturned by federal legislation.
By the time I read Freehold in 1984, the racial implications failed to make much of an impression, frankly. No, black people and white people weren’t holding hands and singing “Ebony and Ivory” much, but the essential argument had shifted from people of different skin colors also being people to fights about the levelness of the field we were all playing on. The difference may be subtle, but in terms of how the racial aspects of Freehold were viewed by this reader, it made all of the difference.
And by 2007, this “controversy” over whether or not African Americans are human seems as quaint as a nuclear war. Half a dozen books are more likely to leap to mind when you want to discuss controversial SF: Brave New World, The Fountainhead, The Left Hand of Darkness, Dhalgren, Heinlein’s own Stranger in a Strange Land. Freehold doesn’t even start to make the list.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t an enjoyable read. Freehold is decidedly one of Heinlein’s lesser works in terms of scale and accomplishment, yet it still serves to remind you that Heinlein’s lesser works sparkle more brightly than some other author’s masterworks. Freehold’s prose feels effortless. The plot is tight enough to bounce quarters off of. There is a genuine sense of suspense, of being forced to turn the pages to find out what happens next -- which still happens even to those who’ve read it before. While details about the plot would resurface five pages before they happened, the advanced warning did nothing to hamper my delight in discovering how Heinlein told the tale.Controversial? No. Enjoyable? Yes. And Freehold does have one of Heinlein’s rare birds. The character of Farnham, who you could pretty much read as Heinlein himself without too much skull sweat, lacks the omnipotence of most of Heinlein’s older male characters. Farnham makes mistakes and actually cops to them. He isn’t universally adored, nor unquestionably respected. This is unusual for a Heinleinian alpha male. In some ways, Farnham feels like Heinlein’s Prospero and Freehold his Tempest. There is a sense of the author taking a reckoning of his life so far and coming up wanting. Read from that perspective, Freehold takes on a gravitas that it can almost support. If I reread it in another 20 years -- if I should be so lucky -- who knows what else it may reveal.