Farmer in the Sky, Robert A. Heinlein (opening chapters)

I’m attempting to read one of Heinlein’s YAs, Farmer in the Sky (published in 1950), because I’ve never actually read one.

In the first chapter our protagonist, Bill, blithely insults more than half the human race (first all the women, then all of China), complains about stupid people, and decides he wants to leave the planet and its rationed food in large part to get away from said stupid people. (His father, who cannot seem to cook or track his ration points, is somehow exempt from the being accused of stupidity, though.)

In the second and third chapters, our protagonist’s disdain for his fellow humans, especially those who know less than him, goes on unabated, and the narrative’s sympathies feel like they’re with the protagonist. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the book is setting up the protagonist to learn better, but so far it doesn’t feel that way, except maybe where his new step-sister, whom he of course considers a brat, is concerned.

I’m actually finding Bill’s disdain startlingly akin in tone to that of a certain sort of female protagonist who disdains her classmates in some contemporary YA novels, except that in contemporary novels that disdain, where it appears, is generally for social, rather than intellectual, failings.

Anyway, the fact that the pages actually are pretty turnable, in spite of the fact that the protagonist is so unsympathetic and the story hasn’t yet sold me on its inherent interestingness, is worth noting. Something’s being done right, craft-wise, in spite of all the things that don’t work for me as a reader.

The descriptions earthside are pretty bland, even though it’s implied there’s at least some landscape about, and the first bit of vividness and beauty we get surrounds a spaceship leaving earth behind. (“Just like that–she was gone. She went up out of there like a scared bird, just a pencil of white fire in the sky, and was gone while we could still hear and feel the thunder of her jets inside the compartment.”) I assume this was deliberate.

Overall, this is feeling, in these early chapters, like a book intended for readers who are already interested in science and science fiction and so buying in to its sympathies and biases rather than having to be won over to them–as opposed to YA science fiction now, where the audience includes but isn’t limited to dedicated genre readers or scientifically minded kids, and so accessibility and getting the reader to buy into the world are greater concerns. The reader of this book, I think, would have already bought in.

But if Heinlein’s YAs were aimed at a much narrower audience than YA science fiction today, that would go a long way toward explaining the disconnect between what older adult SF fans expect of YA science fiction and what contemporary teens expect of it.

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