Robert Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve reread many of his books, some multiple times, but this is one I always considered my least favorite of his novels, and I think I only read it once in the early 1970s. After recently reading “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, a post-nuclear-holocaust story, I thought I’d try it again, as it begins, at least, with a similar theme, and was written around the same time: the early 1960s, when the cold war was at its coldest, and the threat of nuclear war ever-present. Fallout shelters, for instance, were then being built all over America in the perhaps futile effort to survive such a war. When was the last time you even heard about one of those?
The book begins with a game of bridge, a very talky one, between father Hubert Farnham, his daughter Karen, his son Duke, and Barbara’s friend from college, Barbara. From the sidelines we also hear from Mrs. Farnham and their African-American servant, Joseph. The first pages could well be a radio play, as it’s nearly all dialogue, other than Bridge strategy. Unfortunately, a lot of that dialogue is more diatribe by Hugh Farnham, a typical Heinlein older male character who thinks he knows everything, and has no problem spouting off on any subject. Their discussion centers on whether current political troubles might bring on a nuclear war, with only Hugh convinced it will. In fact, he’s just recently finished building a fallout shelter under their home as a precaution.
Of course, radio news soon indicates such a war has begun, and they all retreat into the shelter. Soon after they feel earthquake-like tremors, and heat from above, indicating a bomb has dropped nearby. Later, an even bigger hit is felt.
That’s where the story veers off in another direction. I only remembered the beginning and end of the book, nothing of what came between, so I was expecting a story of post-nuclear survival. Instead, it seems the final blast has somehow catapulted them far into the future. They emerge in an apparently uncivilized wilderness, but recognize landmarks showing they are still in the same place. Soon a survival story begins, as they struggle with limited supplies, beginning to learn to live off the land. Things seem to go well for a while, but then take a bad turn.
This storyline ends abruptly with the arrival of high-tech flying machines that land and capture the family group. The fliers can barely understand them, in fact only speak to Joseph, who they assume is one of them. You see, they are all dark-skinned. The family is whisked away to a future civilization that is highly controlled and ruled from above by hereditary families, few and all dark-skinned, who keep vast numbers of servants and slaves, all white-skinned. The survival story becomes a heavy-handed social satire, as Joseph, once their servant, now has the shoe on the other foot, and the rest must start at the bottom of the social structure.
Despite all the things in this story that had me rolling my eyes, and despite the heavy tendency toward opinionated talk, I have to admit I still enjoyed reading it. Like some of Heinlein’s later works, this one lays the messages on too thick, at the expense of character and plot. The Heinlein stock cast is here, their behavior and attitudes are largely predictable, and yet somehow, through sheer inventiveness he kept me on the hook. The skills Heinlein brings to the plot are enough to make even such a topheavy work worth reading. And, though I don’t always agree with his points of view, I respect him trying to grapple with tough social issues, heart in the right place.
If you’ve never read any Heinlein, by all means don’t start here! Try “Red Planet” or “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.” If you’re already a fan, this book, like all of Heinlein’s work, is worth a look. If nothing more you can argue back while you read it, and still have a good time.