When I finished reading this book, I was a little torn. For the most part, I really liked the ideas and the story, but I also wasn’t too fond of the characters. I still haven’t decided if I actually liked the book.
The book divides pretty neatly into four sections, which I’ll call the prologue, survival, captivity, and an epilogue. Each section focuses on very different things, but they all flow seamlessly from one to the next. That makes for a nice, simple story that’s easy to follow. Within each section, though, are a lot of complex ideas that give the book a surprising amount of depth. When I started reading it, I wasn’t sure if this was one of Heinlein’s youth books, or an adult novel. It quickly became apparent that the book falls into the latter category.
The characters were the hardest part of the book for me. Each character is very different, and they all have their own motivations for their actions, which seem to stay pretty consistent throughout the book. Hugh, the protagonist, is an idealistic pragmatist. He takes each situation as it comes, adapts his actions to best suit his purpose, but always maintains his core values. The problem is that, while he always tries to do the right thing for the group, he completely discounts the opinions of others. He has an absolute certainty that he’s right, and even though he’s willing to listen, or even abdicate his authority, he only does so with the sure knowledge that everything he has done to that point was justified. That’s a difficult character to like. I found myself agreeing with several of his monologue’s about freedom vs. slavery, or about government, while at the same time thinking that he was going about it in completely the wrong way. Hugh’s a well written character, but a difficult one to like, especially if you disagree with some of his philosophies.
The peripheral characters were similarly complex. Joe was my favorite. He seemed straight-forward and upright, until he was given an opportunity to advance himself above the rest of the family. Duke had the same moral certainty as Hugh, but lacked the conviction to back it up with his actions. Ponse rides the line between benefactor and tyrant, and is called evil by Hugh, though I disagree. The women are not as fleshed out. Barbara is shown to be resilient, but also seems to lack any ability to disagree with Hugh. Grace is a vapid drunk, and Karen, possibly the most interesting of the three, has so little time given to her that it’s hard to tell what she’s like.
The ideas presented in the book are really the driving force. At first, the book questions humanity’s ability to survive without modern devices, but that quickly changes to an examination of the mentality of the free versus the captive. All the while there is a exploration of race and how racial relations impact people on both a personal and societal level. That’s some pretty deep thinking. I’m still processing some of the ideas. While Heinlein was definitely a product of his time, and there were moments where that shone through, the general themes are still very relevant today.
I was thinking about really diving into the racism in the book, and how perspectives can change when situations do, but that’s way more in depth than I want to get in this post. Maybe one day I’ll put my literature degree to use and actually write an essay about racism in science fiction and use Farnham’s Freehold as my primary text. (I doubt it though, that sounds too much like homework.)
This was more of a thought provoking book than an entertaining one. While I wasn’t sure that’s what I was in the mood for when I picked it up, I’m glad it turned out that way. I’ll be thinking about the book for a long time, and will probably be looking for similar ideas in the next Heinlein novel I read (at least until he presents some other idea that’s hard to get out of my head).