I started my journey through the works of Robert Heinlein with a used paperback of Farnham’s Freehold, which I’d never read before. Sure, I’d heard of it. A few years ago I read a few websites and books about survivalism, and Farnham’s Freehold is popular among those types. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the actual novel, though. I didn’t read any spoilers of any kind.
Fair warning. The rest of this review DOES include spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, and you want it to remain unspoiled, then bookmark this post and return to it in the future, after you’ve read the book.
As I was saying…
Hugh Farnham is an older man with a wife and two kids. He’s hosting a bridge party when the bombs start dropping. Luckily, he has a shelter, to which he rushes his family. They’re accompanied by his daughter’s friend and the family’s servant.
Hugh’s wife, Grace, is an alcoholic. She’s portrayed throughout the book as being more or less useless. At one point, Hugh reminisces about how great she was when she was younger, and at another point, they mention that she’s a good cook, but other than that, she has no redeeming qualities.
Hugh’s son, Duke, is a lawyer, but he’s at odds with his father for most of the book. He doesn’t seem especially unreasonable to this reader, but at various points, Hugh and Duke threaten to kill each other for various reasons. The first time this happens, it’s because Duke refuses to obey his father’s orders unquestioningly.
Hugh’s daughter, Karen, is a college student. There’s not much to her character, but she and her father clearly adore each other. In fact, at a couple of points in the book, the hints are more-than-obvious that they’re almost a little too close.
Karen has a friend named Barbara, who is also quite taken with Hugh. They eventually become lovers and then husband and wife.
Joe, the household servant, is a black man. He also has little to do.
The plot revolves around the family’s efforts to survive and restart civilization, but they face a surprise when they emerge from their shelter. There’s no wreckage or sign of destruction. Outside the bomb shelter is nothing but pristine wilderness.
The family theorizes at first that the blast catapulted them into an alternate dimension where there is no human life, but they eventually realize that they’ve been transported several thousand years into the future.
In this future, white people are enslaved by the ruling class, which is made up of black people. And not only are they slavers, they’re also cannibals. In spite of that, they don’t seem like such bad people.
This section of the book reminded me a lot of Planet of the Apes.
In spite of the outlandish premise and the book’s faults, there is much to enjoy about Farnham’s Freehold. The scenes where they’re trying to re-establish a civilization for themselves are interesting, especially when they’re discussing practical matters like how to handle plumbing, food, and other realities of survival.
On the other hand, the writing is uneven. Heinlein comes across as a racist and a chauvinist, although my understanding is that he was neither in real life. His attitude toward women and minorities probably seemed enlightened in the early 1960s, but now they’re hopelessly dated.
The implied desire for incest is creepy and off-putting, too. I get that he was trying to demonstrate that the rules change when you’re dealing with a society that only consists of half a dozen people, but still…
At any rate, it was an okay book. I gave it three stars on GoodReads, but perhaps I was too generous.
Here’s what some other people on the Internet have said about Farnham’s Freehold:
- “The prose is lean and the plot is definitely event-driven, so I enjoyed it, but I guess one could knock it for thin characters. ” – Brian J. Noggle
- “The book is popular with survivalist groups as it combines the civil engineering and physics of fallout shelter survival with the social dynamics of autocratic authority under extreme conditions, a theme further explored in depth in The Number of the Beast.” – Eclectic Obsessions
- “Farnham’s Freehold is infamous for how badly it’s aged and how racist it appears today, and in some ways it showcases how a writer can fail (in my opinion) to rise above the limitations of their own world view.” -Cat Rambo