Farnham's Freehold

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Farnham's Freehold is a science fiction novel set in the near future by Robert A. Heinlein. A serialised version, edited by Frederik Pohl, appeared in Worlds of If magazine (July, August, October 1964). The complete version was published in novel form by G.P. Putnam later in 1964.

Farnham's Freehold is a post-apocalyptic tale, as the setup for the story is a direct hit by a nuclear weapon, which sends a fallout shelter containing a man, his wife, son, daughter, daughter's friend, and black domestic servant into the future. Heinlein drew on his own experience in building a fallout shelter under his own house in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1950.

The book is popular with survivalist groups as it combines the civil engineering and physics of fallout shelter survival with the social dynamics of "lifeboat rules," or autocratic authority under extreme conditions, a theme further explored in depth in The Number of the Beast. To paraphrase Mr. Farnham, "How do you know who is the officer in the lifeboat? The one with the gun."

Plot summary

Hugh Farnham, a middle-aged man, holds a bridge club party for Grace (Hugh's wife, an alcoholic), Duke (Hugh's son, a law graduate), Karen (Hugh's daughter, and a college student), and Barbara (Karen's sorority sister). During the bridge game, Duke (Hugh's son) berates him for frightening his mother with preparations for a possible nuclear attack by the Russians. When the attack actually occurs, the family, along with Joe (Hugh and Grace's African American servant), retreat to the fallout shelter below the house.

After several apparently nuclear explosions rock the shelter, Hugh and Barbara become romantically involved; after their copulation, the largest explosion of all hits the shelter. With only minor injuries, and with their bottled oxygen running low, the group decides to ensure that they can leave the shelter when necessary; upon exiting through an emergency tunnel, they find themselves in a completely undamaged, semi-tropical region apparently uninhabited by humans or other sentient creatures. Several of the group think the final explosion somehow forced them into an alternate dimension.

The group strives to stay alive as a pioneer family, with Hugh as the leader (despite friction between Hugh and Duke). Karen announces that she is pregnant, and had returned home the night of the attack to tell her parents; Barbara also announces that she is pregnant (although she does not mention that her pregnancy resulted from her romantic encounter with Hugh during the attack). Karen eventually dies during her labor, due to complications, and her infant daughter follows the next day.

Grace, whose sanity has been challenged by all these events, demands that Barbara be forced from the group or she will leave. Duke convinces Hugh that he will go with Grace to ensure her safety, but before they can leave, a large ship appears overhead. The group is taken captive by people of clear African ancestry, but is spared execution when Joe intervenes by conversation with their captives' leader in French.

The group finds that it has not been transported to another world, but instead is in the distant future of their own world. A decadent but technologically advanced African culture keeps either uneducated or castrated whites as slaves. Each of the characters adapts to the sudden black/white role reversal in different and sometimes shocking ways. In the end, Hugh and Barbara fail to adjust to the new situation and attempt to escape, but are captured. Rather than execute them, Ponse (the "Lord Protector" of the house to which they have become slaves) asks them to volunteer (though they speculate that if they didn't volunteer they would have been forced to anyway) for a time-travel experiment to send them back to their own time.

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