How Not to Write About Atomic War
Robert Heinlein’s ‘Farnham’s Freehold’ is a nuclear disaster
The late Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers, one of the Cold War’s best military novels — a scifi adventure set in a frightening, fascistic near-future and exploring universal, unchanging truths about combat, leadership and soldiering.
Heinlein, who died in 1988, also wrote one of the Cold War’s worst novels — the execrable Farnham’s Freehold, which I picked up on a whim last week at Angel City, a quaint used-book store in Santa Monica.
It was $2.95 well spent, but only in a cautionary sense. Farnham’s Freehold, a sorta-satirical speculative adventure about surviving atomic World War III, is as silly, alienating and tone-deaf as Starship Troopers is weighty, engaging and timeless.
Spoilers follow. But trust me, you don’t need to read this book. Now, where to begin …
Farnham’s Freehold, first published in 1964, concerns former U.S. Navy Seabee-turned-middle-class survivalist Hugh Farnham, his petulant grown son Duke, hysterical alcoholic wife Grace, teenage daughter Karen and her friend Barbara plus Joe, the family’s … ugh, I can’t stand writing this … household servant.
It should go without saying that Farnham & friends are white. Joe is black. Sadly, this is very important to the book’s perplexing, uneven plot.
It’s an evening in the mid-1960s somewhere in the American West and Hugh has organized a bridge party. And by “party,” I mean that Hugh, his wife and kids and Barbara sit around playing hand after hand of the now-obsolescent card game. Which Heinlein describes in endless, tedious detail.
Seriously, if you’re big into bridge — meaning you’re probably over the age of 80 — you’ll probably really enjoy Farnham’s Freehold.
A massive Soviet nuclear attack interrupts Hugh’s bridge party. Duke carefully pockets the cards before joining his family and Barbara and Joe in the shelter that Hugh built under the house. Oh — and Joe brings his cat Dr.-Livingstone-I-Presume, too.
Cats — their habits, naming conventions, breeding behaviors and fickle affections — feature prominently in Heinlein’s off-putting post-apocalyptic novel, for reasons that are never clear. The jacket copy on my edition of Farnham’s Freehold claims the book is about surviving World War III. Which is true, I suppose. But it’s equally about bridge and housecats.
Reading this book, it was evident to me that no one actually edited Heinlein’s first draft. Every drunken late-night half-notion, every sordid alpha-male fantasy, every dark impulse of Heinlein’s id survived intact the journey from the author’s pen to the printed page.
How else to explain what happens as the Soviet nukes rain down on Hugh’s shelter? The former sailor doses his gin-fiend wife with sedatives, orders the bunker’s occupants to strip to their underwear — purportedly for their comfort in the elevated temperature — then invites his daughter’s pal Barbara, who is half his age, to join him “keeping watch.”
Barbara complains that her bra is totally chafing her and asks if Hugh would mind if she removes it. “No biggie,” the stalwart war vet says. Admittedly, I’m paraphrasing. But Hugh is so stoic, so imperturbable, so utterly lacking in anything resembling actual humanity that he’s essentially a cipher. But a cipher only for middle-age straight white men, who at their worst should totally dig the creepy little subterranean world that Hugh rules.
No one seems all that upset that the world is ending. The characters “have souls of wood pulp,” Kirkus complained in its 1964 review — and that’s being generous.
Barbara seduces Hugh, of course. They declare their love for each other. Barbara occupies herself for the remaining 200 pages getting pregnant, secretly fawning over Hugh and assuring him, over and over, that he’s in charge. “You say it, I’ll do it,” she gasps.
And for a while, what he commands is survival. Everyone must work together to maintain the shelter. For a chapter or two, there’s a lot less bridge-playing — although, to be clear, the Farnhams et al. continue to indulge in the game at every opportunity.
During the survivors’ stint underground, the novel mostly concerns itself with the practical details of bunker living. Air and food supplies, storage strategies, sleeping arrangements, waste management, liquor rationing, pet care.
It’s weird how technical and seemingly realistic Farnham’s Freehold becomes when it’s about bomb shelters and logistics. Especially considering how unrealistic the novel is when it comes to its characters and world-building.
The Farnham clan emerges from the bunker onto a lush, green landscape. They immediately conclude that one of the nuclear blasts launched them into an alternate reality. Actually, it turns out the atomic bomb propelled them into the future, but whatever.
Both the cat and Karen are pregnant. The cat squeezes out her kittens just fine; poor Karen dies in childbirth — but only after Heinlein treats us to a graphic description of Karen’s labor and Hugh’s internal debate over whether he should check the baby’s position by inserting his fingers into his daughter’s anus.
Grace loses what’s left of her mind. Dean sides with his mother. They plan to split. Hugh doesn’t really care, because he’s happy to repopulate the planet all by himself with Barbara, although he does propose sharing his girlfriend with Joe.
So we’re more than halfway into Farnham’s Freehold and suddenly the book changes subjects again. Some dudes show up in flying cars and abduct everybody.
In this future world, blacks are the rulers. The surviving white people are their slaves. You might think Hugh wouldn’t mind — unlike Dean and Grace, he’s always been fair to Joe. But the African lords of future Earth are also cannibals, I think. I have to admit, I started skimming at this point. The cannibals imprison Barbara, enslave Dean, make Grace their concubine and adopt Mr.-Livingstone-I-Presume, which is nice.
Determined to exploit the patriarch’s great wisdom, the slave-masters stick Hugh in a private chamber with a 14-year-old white sex slave named Kitten — I shit you not — but Hugh, being such a stand-up guy, declines to rape her. They do cuddle a lot, though. Hugh spends several pages concocting a code by which he can communicate in writing with Barbara.
It’s tedious stuff. And pointless, because the slaver-king offers to send Hugh and Barb and their babies back to the past as an experiment. They arrive a couple hours before the atomic war, promptly decide their friends and family aren’t worth saving, pack a car, rescue some kittens, find an abandoned mine — oh, and some cows, too — and trudge deep enough underground with all their animals to ride out Armageddon a second time.
And then they open a restaurant for war survivors. Seriously.
Is Farnham’s Freehold dark comedy? Satire? A survivalist manifesto? A treatise on race relations? A primer on bridge and bunkers? I have no idea. And neither did critics. “Preaching against racism, Heinlein resurrected some of the most horrific racial stereotypes imaginable,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. “Farnham’s Freehold is an anti-racist novel only a Klansman could love.”
What’s especially weird is that Heinlein’s contemporaries in the late Cold War produced some of history’s best and most affecting anti-war books and movies. On the Beach. Threads. The Day After. Hell, even Heinlein’s own Starship Troopers refutes Farnham’s Freehold in theme, tone and quality.
The prospect of World War III inspired some great works of fiction. And at least one truly shitty one.