If, July-August-October, 1964
Putnam: New York, 1964
|315 pages||October 2002|
What is Heinlein's real story here?
Robert Heinlein's fiction often provoked violent disagreement from its readers; his willingness to present controversial ideas ensured this. Both Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land still provoke debate, decades after their original publication and their Hugo Awards. But one of Heinlein's books provokes very little debate. The racist implications of Farnham's Freehold, with its society of cannibalistic black Muslims ruling white slaves, are apparently more than even Heinlein enthusiasts want to defend.
But this isn't really what's going on in this book at all. Read carefully, it's not a racist work, but a work attacking racism. Heinlein carefully led his readers down the garden path and over the precipice — so carefully that, to his misfortune, hardly any of them noticed the fall.
This may seem a paradoxical reading. But the evidence for it is in the actual text; many readers have simply gone right past it.
The basic situation is this: A suburban Colorado family, with their house guest and their black servant, take refuge in a bomb shelter when a nuclear war begins. There is a massive impact — and they come out in a pastoral land with a near-tropical climate, despite having the same terrain features as present-day Colorado, which thoroughly confuses Heinlein's characters.
Halfway through the book, they are discovered by the land's inhabitants, a technologically advanced black society that maintains the area as a wilderness preserve. This society holds whites as slaves; indeed, it actually views them as a different species, less than fully human, and uses them as meat animals — though it also uses them as sexual partners. Its rulers are not even sadistic brutes; they are calmly certain that they are giving the best possible care for their human domesticated animals. The scenario is one to awaken the worst fears of a paranoiac white racist. To add to the anxiety, the black rulers are Muslims, in a novel written when the Black Muslims were a newly visible movement in American society.
But there's a logical corollary to this. If the institutionalized racism of Heinlein's future society, and its degradation of white people to subhuman status, is an evil, then the less severe degradation of black people to subhuman status in the United States of 1964, when Heinlein published Farnham's Freehold, is evil in exactly the same kind, though not in the same measure.
Heinlein was trained in mathematics; "all other things being equal" is a classical mode of mathematical argument. The hypothetical white racist reader of Farnham's Freehold has his face rubbed in the idea, This is what it feels like to be on the bottom in a racially oppressive society. Heinlein may have overestimated the intellectual sophistication of such readers by expecting them to see the logical symmetry — but he makes the point explicitly, more than once.
For one example, in Chapter 22, Barbara Wells asks Hugh Farnham
Farnham accepts the point, objecting only that
In fact, he goes on to say that he himself could not be trusted with that kind of power, and that his own earlier actions (portrayed in previous chapters) show that he was capable of abusing power.
For a more emotional example, in Chapter 17, Farnham is speaking with his former houseboy, Joseph, now a member of the ruling class in the future society, and pleased by the change. Farnham objects to Joseph that he was not a slave but a decently treated employee. Joseph answers,
Heinlein clearly expects the reader, even while seeing Joseph's accommodation to the black-ruled society as corrupt, to empathize with the bitter resentment of white racism that motivates it. Heinlein doesn't emphasize the point as much, but when Joseph remarks to Farnham on his past treatment by Farnham's wife and son, the implication is that Farnham too has made his own accommodations with racism, choosing to keep the peace with his family rather than confront them. This explicit use of black and white as each other's mirrors is profoundly subversive of racist beliefs in dissimilarity.
Note also the scene where Farnham's son Duke says to him "There never was a nigger bastard that wouldn't rape a white woman if he had a chance." Farnham describes this as "poisonous, insane nonsense," and when Duke starts to argue, tells him "Shut up!" This kind of reaction is rare in Heinlein's fiction, but one previous occurrence was in "If This Goes On —", in a scene where the hero, having seen the lynching of a Jew, provokes his older, more knowledgeable roommate to rage by wondering why the Jews won't accept Christianity as the true faith, since the Christians have told them it is so often. That is, Heinlein finds it natural to show his sympathetic characters becoming personally offended, even enraged, by racial bigotry.
At a deeper level, the novel isn't only about racism; it's about the abuse of power in any form. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein put forth the theory that in a properly functioning system of institutions, authority balances responsibility; the person who makes a decision pays its costs. This same equation underlies the political theory of Farnham's Freehold, or its negation does. In a relationship of ruler and subject, the ruler has all the authority and none of the responsibility, and the subject has all the responsibility and none of the authority — and both are corrupted by the experience, a point this novel illustrates in a variety of ways. In this novel's specific case, everyone in a racist society is corrupted by its racism.
In the 18th Century, Jonathan Swift published "A Modest Proposal", advocating that the English rulers of Ireland should relieve Irish poverty by fattening up Irish babies for their own dinner tables, creating a new industry and a new culinary delicacy. Most readers now get the point that Swift was not advocating cannibalism, but using it in a brutal satire on English rule.
Heinlein's satire of American racism is equally brutal; but since he invites his readers to imagine themselves, not as cannibals, but as victims of cannibalism, it's possible to take his book as a simple expression of fear of blacks, and not as an ethical warning against unequal power in any form. But the alternative reading offers a richer understanding of Farnham's Freehold, one that takes account of passages in the text that a white racist interpretation can only pass over in silence.
The portrayal of the Chosen as Muslims has also drawn accusations of axe-grinding: since they were Muslims, and since they were black, they were taken as Heinlein's portrayal of the Black Muslims. There's no way to prove that this interpretation wasn't in Heinlein's mind, of course — since this would involve proving a negative. But the Islam of the Chosen doesn't much resemble the Islam of the Black Muslims — or any other form of Islam existing in the 20th Century. Heinlein makes a point of having his protagonist find major differences between the two.
In fact, the Islam of the Chosen is a fairly ingenious piece of worldbuilding. It's logical to have a largely African-descended culture adopt some version of Islam as its faith; but Heinlein has also given the Chosen a matrilineal descent system (very different from the enhanced patriarchal values that the Black Muslims supported), with theological adjustments to follow, such as giving God ("Uncle the Mighty") an older sister, too holy even to be prayed to or sworn by. The implications of this matrilineality are worked out quite carefully; I remember finding their logic fascinating when I first read this book in my teens, shortly after it was originally published. If Heinlein's goal were to portray the Chosen as melodramatic villains, there was no need for him to go to the trouble of giving their culture an internal logic so elaborately traced, or so different from that of 20th century America.
This kind of worldbuilding is one of the things traditionally admired in science fiction, and Farnham's Freehold offers a respectable example of it, which readers put off by its surface are missing.
They are also missing some of Heinlein's most complex characterization. Hugh Farnham is a man with a variety of practical skills, but he's also a man with many flaws, trapped in an unrewarding life. The Farnham household is not an idealized 1950s family, but a group of troubled people in deep conflict with each other, much like characters in the "realistic" fiction of the 1950s and 1960s.
And its willingness to explore harsh realities goes beyond most of what Heinlein had written previously, or wrote subsequently. This book might have been the seed of a Heinlein who would do for adults what his classic juveniles did for adolescents, had it fallen on less stony ground.
© 2002 William H. Stoddard