Monday, October 8, 2007

I am ashamed to say that I had never read this book before. Me - the consummate Heinlein fan and I hadn't read one of his major classics. I will freely admit that the purported subject matter bothered me. You see, this is about racism. After having read that I can expand that statement and say that it is an unapologetic, unabashed look at racism and its social, moral, and personal effects on all parties involved in a racist relationship. Its deeply disturbing, as it should be, and deeply thought provoking. On top of that, its grade A science fiction and Heinlein at his best.

This book was published in 1964, and that was at the very height of a very paranoid Cold War. It was also the year the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Johnson. "Integration" and "desegregation" were entering mainstream American vocabularies as words that carried scary and dark overtones. I'll go so far as to give away my age and admit that I remember 1964 fairly clearly and that race, Viet Nam and nuclear missiles were the center of existence in America that was substantially changing - at least socially. We were loosing the naivety of the 50's. Martin Luther King, The Chicago Seven, and "separate is inherently unequal" Supreme Court decisions were forcing the American middle class to re-think some things that they had taken for granted as social reality for generations. My grandfather was absolutely incapable of thinking of anyone black as anything other than a nigger and used that word freely when speaking of persons of Negro descent, even in their presence. His grandparents probably remembered the civil war. (My grandfather was born in 1898). There was one black student in my elementary school. One. In a town that was at least 30% African-American by census. During my elementary school years, there were 4 high schools in my town, one of which was "the black high school". That changed when I hit junior high (what is now referred to as "middle school"). The 5th Circuit Court dictated that each school would racially reflect the overall population and integration began. 40 years later, a well-known author and I can discuss racism in our respective blogs and not break a sweat. But back then, it was radical change in a society that had been brought up to protect the status quo on both sides of the racial lines. It was sometimes violent, always scary and it was as necessary as breathing to the survival of the American society. And yes, I watched violence occur. I knew people involved in race-related fights. It was and is sad that people allow race to affect their judgment of a person's worth, but back then, it was integral to the society that existed in America. Racism was as institutional as slavery had been 100 years earlier. The younger people reading this may have a hard time believing it (I hope so), but racism was part of the make-up of American society in the 50's and 60's. Into that culture, Heinlein put forth Farnham's Freehold.

Hugh Farnham and his family are enjoying dinner when WWIII happens, just as every American was afraid it would in the 60's. The Russians dropped atomic weapons on us. Farnham, being a properly Heinleinesque paranoid hero, had taken precautions and built a bomb shelter. With just a few minutes notice, he hustles his family and friends (and the family cat) into the shelter where they ride out two nuclear strikes in their immediate (relatively) vicinity. A third strike changes everything and they awake in a pristine world of two thousand years in the future. The war had destroyed pretty much the whole of the northern hemisphere. leaving Africa and India completely untouched. Whites are now slaves, referred to as servants, in huge households ruled by the Chosen. The Chosen are all of African and Hindi descent, usually mixed. Whites are considered lazy, stupid and congenitally incapable of higher thought. They are bred, like cattle, to be small and taught, painfully, how to obey and properly respect their "Charities" (read: Masters). All threatening whites are killed. To serve in the household, men are neutered. Women serve the purpose women have always served in repressive societies. In a word, this is the ultimate role reversal story.

Heinlein pulls no punches in his grisly tale. Whites have no access to education in a technologically advanced society. They are slaves with no hope of rebellion except from within the ruling caste itself. But the society is presented as stable, economically viable, and stagnant. Rebellion is a long way off if it is ever to happen. It almost exactly mirrors "The Peculiar Institution" in America, except that this is a technologically advanced and very old culture. Heinlein puts the heroes of the story totally at the mercy of a "benevolent" master. It cannot help but make any reader, no matter what race, think about the high cost of racism. When looking at the costs of racism, please keep in mind the economic thought of opportunity costs. Heinlein proposes that maybe the costs are too high to the masters. He states undeniably that they are too high for the slaves. I agree with him on both counts and I have my whole adult life. Some people share that belief with me and some people don't. Read the book and decide for yourself.

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