Robert A. Heinlein: Beyond This Horizon
*Review written after reading ‘rocket ship galileo’.
Initially serialized in 1942, and at that time credited to Anson MacDonald, Heinleins’ first novel is a very different affair from his Rocket Ship Galileo. Byzantine and multiple in its themes, it introduced Heinlein as a heavyweight in the world of SF, and one short sentence in particular from the first page of the novel; ‘The door dilated’, has cemented his position in the canon. In many ways, however, this novel only truly becomes science fictional in its closing stages. Despite the ray guns and flying cars, much of the story is a straight modern-day analog with the exception of an economic system in which using up the permanent productive surplus is actually a problem.
It is this theme, the triumph of a steady-state capitalism, that Heinlein is analysing here, with an addendum of libertarianism which allows citizens to bear arms and to duel to the death. Such citizens, or ‘braves’, have rights above those who do not go armed, and it is only men who are expected to so arm themselves, women may but it is unusual and frowned upon. This institutionalised gender disparity is one of the things that irks me about this book, and indeed about Heinlein’s writings as whole, but equally it sits rather uncomfortably with the early portrayal of Phyllis, a strong, intelligent woman who insists on going armed and outsmarts the protagonist several times. Initially it even seems like Heinlein admires this woman who displays his ideal masculine qualities, but pretty quickly she reverts to type and her only function is ultimately to bear a crop of children.
Heinleins’ future society is also represented as being genetically engineered and founded on the widespread practice of eugenics. Most of the time he puts forward a reasonably convincing and surprisingly liberal case for it, but occasionally the dark side of this idea shows through; an underclass of diseased and shunned ‘control naturals’ are alluded to, as well as the fact that these unfortunate human basics are also tattoo’d to show their position. For a writer who allowed nazi’s to be cold-bloodedly slaughtered in his previous novel presumably because of their adherence to a repugnant philosophy, Heinlein’s treatment of eugenics is surprisingly cold and historically blinkered.
For the large part, the novel feels a little aimless, but in its closing stages it becomes apparent that by telling the story of Felix, an example of a superhuman bloodline that also feels like an everyman character, the story is following a rennaissance in the future world in which science turns back to spiritual questions and attempts to analyse things such as telepathy, life after death, and dreams. Only incidentally does this lead to spaceflight and the exploration of the universe. Despite this blossoming of quasi-victorian psychical research the book re-establishes a normative state of affairs, with all the big questions about life answered merely by the act of procreation.
Overall, this book is an interesting read. It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly where Heinlein is actively advocating something and where he is sending something up, because to his credit he does put his notions to the test. The world is well-imagined if a little light on actual detail and the characters are well-rounded and interestingly thought through. The plot is a somewhat piecemeal with little indication of a direction until rather late in the day. A worthwhile read if only for the context of that disproportionately important (in respect to its length) one-liner.