In Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein is all over the map — the celestial map.
The novel starts on Earth, approaches the sun. hightails it to one Earth-like world with human-ish residents and then gets sent off careening through space to a second Earth-like world with a population of beings that seem pretty human but aren’t. Finally, it’s off to a third world, even more like Earth, and then the central character, the 200-plus-year-old Lazarus Long, decides to go off on an expedition to explore the Universe.
It’s also all over the science fiction map in the sense that Heinlein envisions a cadre of long-lived humans who voluntarily breed with others like them to create families of people who can live, well, like Lazarus, 200 years and more. (He, though, is the oldest surviving family member.) He envisions controlled weather and a jury-rigged inertia-less space ship drive. He envisions a group soul and a civilization in which the members of a human-like race are the domesticated animals of another.
In Methuselah’s Children, the story arc is so convoluted and the pages are filled with such a grab-bag of ideas that the novel is a mess. Yet, it’s a wonderful mess.
Credit Heinlein’s wondrous story-telling. Although he lapsed into pomposity and preachiness more and more after the great success of his 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein was gifted tale-teller.
Keeping the reader hooked
Consider this from the second page of Methuselah’s Children:
Mary had no intention of letting anyone know where she was going. Outside her friend’s apartment she dropped down a bounce tube to the basement, claimed her car from the robopark, guided it up the ramp and set the controls for North Shore. The car waited for a break in the traffic, then dived into the high-speed stream and hurried north. Mary settled back for a nap.
Heinlein had a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach to writing that hooks the reader and keeps the reader hooked.
On the previous page, the reader learned that Chicagoan Mary Sperling looks to be in her late 20s and is being courted an older and prominent “prime catch.”
On this page, the reader is given a glimpse of a future world through descriptions of amazing technologies that Heinlein tosses off one after the other after the other — a bounce tube, a robopark and an automatically guided car.
On the next page, the reader will watch as Mary drives her car into Lake Michigan, steers her car into an artificial cave on the lake bottom and enters a meeting hall where, among the 50 or so people present, she takes the chair because she is the oldest.
Those are story-telling hooks.
“Kicking and gouging”
This novel was originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, and later expanded and published as a full-length book in 1958.
Since the book centers on the Howard Families who have found, through breeding, they can live for centuries, there is a thread running throughout the book about Death.
For instance, Lazarus has been out of contact with the Families for a century or so, and Mary brings him up to date about the various cosmetic things that are done to family members so that their bodies don’t age. But immortality, she says, isn’t in the cards. Senility does eventually arrive.
“Of course [she says] most of our cousins don’t wait — a couple weeks to make certain of the diagnosis, then euthanasia.”
“The hell you say! [responds Lazarus] Well, I won’t go that way. When the Old Boy comes to get me, he’ll have to drag me — and I’ll be kicking and gouging eyes every step of the way!”
Much later in the novel, the two have another conversation, and Mary says:
“Lazarus, I don’t want to die. But what is the purpose of our long lives? We don’t seem to grow wiser as we grow older. Are we simply hanging on after our time has passed? Loitering in the kindergarten when we should be moving on? Must we die and be born again?”
Many of the aspects of Heinlein’s messy novel raise questions about what it means to be human. Mary’s question is a part of that: “What is the purpose of our long lives?”
When, at the end of the book, Heinlein has Lazarus head off into space to explore, he seems to be saying that exploration and curiosity and action are at the core of life.
That doesn’t exactly clear up the mess that life is. But it does give direction.
Patrick T. Reardon