Rereading: FARMER IN THE SKY by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover and illustrations by Clifford Geary

Heinlein’s fourth in his series of science fiction novels for younger readers was published in 1950, it follows Rocket Ship Galileo, Space Cadet and Red Planet. Though the books published by Scribners are not a series, and do not take place in chronological order, there are connections. This one mentions the Space Patrol from the second book, for instance. It also mentions the song “Green Hills of Earth” from the story of that name in Heinlein’s connected stories for adult readers known as his Future History.

The Earth of this story is struggling with overpopulation causing many to go hungry. Bill enjoys rare visits to wilderness areas with the Boy Scouts. He lives with his widowed father George and finds creative ways to get enough calories for them, but their life is stifled and claustrophobic. George has an escape plan: a colonist ship is soon leaving for Jupiter’s moon Ganymede where colonists will be given land and an opportunity to farm it. Ganymede is in the process of being terraformed to allow that. George plans to leave Bill behind to attend college, but Bill will have none of it, and is determined to go too. To make himself more eligible, George meets and marries another potential colonist, Molly, who has a daughter Peggy, younger than Bill. The boy is hurt by this move, seeing it as a betrayal of their deceased mother and wife, but in the end, all four are allowed to join the colonists. On board and underway, Bill connects with other Boy Scouts and makes new friends while learning a lot about the ship and the project. He’s almost killed when a small meteorite pierces his bunk room, but Bill manages to save himself and his bunk mates with quick thinking.

When the colonists arrive on Ganymede, they find a very different situation than they expect. The colony is struggling to get started, and the last thing they want is more colonists. They were hoping for a ship full of farming machinery and other needed resources, but do their best to make room for everyone. As Bill and the others learn the realities of their situation, Peggy turns out to be unable to adjust to the low pressure, and George and Molly talk about returning to Earth. Bill is determined to claim his homestead and begin farming it, and with much hard work he’s finally able to get started, but many challenges stand in his way.

Like all of this series, a great read, full of interesting characters, situations and science (even if some of it is now inaccurate). This was originally serialized in Boy’s Life magazine, so Scouting is a theme throughout. Recommended.

Ira Schnapp’s DC Ads: 1954

All images © DC Comics. From ACTION COMICS #188, Jan 1954

In 1954 Ira Schnapp continued to dominate the lettering of house ads and public service ads at DC Comics, though there were a few by others, and a few from previous years were reused, sometimes with changes. An example of that is above. Most of this third-page ad appeared in Dec 1952 issues, but “is Super-TV” by Ira replaces his previous lettering. I’m counting it as a new ad because otherwise it would go uncounted, and that doesn’t seem right to me. Your opinion on this may be different.

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Ira Schnapp’s DC Ads: 1953

All images © DC Comics. From THE FOX AND THE CROW #7, Dec 1952/Jan 1953.

As DC Comics continued to expand its lineup in 1953, the house ads and public service ads they used to promote them had a new aspect: nearly all were designed and lettered by Ira Schnapp. Ads by others had mostly vanished, signaling that the company was now fully invested in Ira Schnapp’s work as the company style, as he was also designing most of their logos, lettering most of their covers, and many story pages. Ira worked on staff every day doing these things, and probably also did some at home. We don’t know how he was paid, was it by the piece or was he on salary? When Gaspar Saladino began working at DC in late 1949, he worked on staff but billed his work by the page as a freelancer would. When I started there in 1977, I was a salaried production staffer, but also did freelance lettering at home to supplement my income. Covers and house ads paid about twice the rate for story pages. Either payment method could have been true for Ira, we don’t know. It’s clear that he spent more time and craft on his house ads and covers than he did on story pages, and hopefully was paid accordingly. The ad above is full of charm and good design with thoughtful use of shapes and black and appealing styles in a variety of sizes. One could feel his enthusiasm for the work coming off the page, and readers loved it and wanted to buy the comics he was promoting even if they didn’t know Ira’s name.

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Ira Schnapp’s DC Ads: 1952

From COMIC CAVALCADE #48, Dec 1951/Jan 1952. All images © DC Comics

In 1952, DC’s creation of house ads increased somewhat from the previous year, and Ira Schnapp’s work on them increased a lot. His work was obviously popular with editors and readers, and in this year it made up about three-quarters of DC’s own ads. The ad above shows Ira now firmly in command of the tools that brought him favor, with layout and design learned from showcard lettering in his past and appealing lettering styles and techniques. The ads were probably written by the editors, but Ira’s job was to sell the product, and he did it well. Possibly he also had some input on the words used. Certainly he chose the ones to emphasize, I would say.

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And Then I Read: SHADOW & CLAW by Gene Wolfe

“The Book of the New Sun” was originally published in four parts from 1980-1983, this is the first two, “Shadow of the Torturer” and “Claw of the Conciliator.” It has been called a tetralogy, but seems to really be one long story. It won many awards, and was on a list of Neil Gaiman’s favorite sf/fantasy books.

Severian, the narrator is an orphan taken in by the Guild of Torturers in the massive ancient city of Nissus, and trained in the skills and duties of that guild. The world of Nissus is known as Urth, and gradually through the book we come to understand it’s our own Earth far in the future when the sun has cooled and many civilizations and empires have come and gone. The one Severian finds himself in has many medieval overtones, but there are always bits of ancient technology and lost knowledge coming to light in the margins. For instance, the tower that’s home to the Guild is made of metal, and is recognizable as a former space ship. Inhabitants of Urth include some familiar plants, but also unfamiliar ones, the same with animals, and among the people are those who seem to be from other planets, though they are uncommon. Nissus is a place of ancient traditions and rituals in a crumbling infrastructure that no one seems to be completely in charge of, though the nominal ruler is an unseen Autarch. Many guilds are present, each with duties and territory, and they are sometimes rivals and sometimes partners in the events of the day. Above them is a ruling class who are mostly absent from Nissus, many live in another huge dwelling to the north, and below them are the common folk who get by as best they can with what little resources they have.

Severian is smart and brave, learning well the skills of his guild and loyal to it until a chance encounter with a revolutionary aristocrat named Vodalus sets his mind on a different course. Later, a beautiful young woman, Thecla, also an aristocrat, is brought to the dungeons and torture chambers of the guild for punishment. She and Severian are attracted to each other, and the Guild assigns him to be her companion. All goes well as Severian rises in the guild until the time for Thecla’s torture arrives, and Severian must take part. His soul secretly rebels, and he finds a way to give Thecla a release.

Severian expects this to lead to his own torture and death by the guild, but instead they send him away to work as an executioner in the far north. Severian’s journey there is difficult and complex. He finds new companions who wish him well and ill, and goes through a fascinating series of adventures that not only inform his own life but fill in many details about the world of the New Sun. At the end of the first book he is just about to exit the massive city of Nissus through a gate in its mile-high wall. In the second book, he takes on his first work as an executioner, but still far from the city of his goal, and in his possession is the Claw of the Conciliator, which seems to have amazing healing powers at times. Severian has come by it accidentally, and one of his aims is to return it to the religious sect which worships it. Severian and some of his companions eventually reach the House Absolute, home of the Autarch and the ruling classes, where more adventures happen, and by the end of the second book they have traveled further north, as Severian is still heading toward his assignment in Thrax.

There’s too much here to really summarize it well, but I enjoyed reading this, and am now working through the second half of the epic. To say Severian is a complex character would be to oversimplify, and having him as narrator is sometimes difficult, as he tends to leave things out and only gradually reveal what really happened at critical moments. Many other characters are equally complex and interesting, and the plot is constantly inventive and surprising. This is a book I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it.

Highly recommended.