Monday, 17 April 2017

Review of “Beyond this Horizon” (1942) by Robert Heinlein—the dean of science fiction writers

 “Beyond this Horizon” (1942) by Robert Heinlein

I was prompted to reread this novel by my current reading of William Paterson’s readable biography of Heinlein “Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue with his Century” (2010).

Rereading Heinlein after all these years!

I first read H. and this novel in my high school days—1970s. For two decades it held the distinction of being a novel I reread every three or four years. I was always tantalised by the nuanced background and eclectic narrative of the novel, however by the early 90s my reading tastes had sufficiently changed (matured?) that I no longer turned to H. to fulfil my reading needs. Therefore it has been three decades since I last perused the pages of H’s first successful novel.

After this long absence I still found H’s writing enjoyable. He creates a vibrant novel that challenges, entertainingly invokes, and criticises social norms. For example, he briefly, but directly states that men wear nail polish, that men wear brightly coloured clothes, even that a main character is both dark skinned, and highly intelligent. Ideas shocking a century ago when the story was written, still now surprising.

What has always struck me about the novel was the rushed pace of the narrative. Too much is squeezed into too shortish a novel. Also events jump from scene to scene without interlinking explanation, even minor events occur without explanation. Better editing would have produced a better novel.

I did not know this in the past—I had an ivory tower image of writers sitting before their typewriters, patiently whittling away their words—but Patterson tells how H. was pressed by the rapidly approaching WW2, and a dozen other needs, to finish the novel as quickly as possible. Whereas if you had asked me half lifetime ago I would have averred that H. had spent a year carefully polishing his masterpeice.

Putting aside the trivial, here is my serious objection to the novel—H’s casual acceptance of violence. H’s brave new world is a gun carrying paradise. An example of this is seen early in the novel. While discussing pistols the protagonist casually describes the unrecognisable damage his new weapon would make of an opponent’s face. No remorse, no introspection, no regard. Just bravado. Cold and empty.

There is also an early scene that has a man with “coldly dangerous eyes”. He and the protagonist almost come to a shoot out over the trifle of accidentally spilled food, in a crowded restaurant. This is followed by a scene when gunplay does occur and a perhaps fatally wounded drunk is dismissed as a “little excitement” that is good for the appetite. So to Heinlein (and his libertarian buddies) casual death is the norm, where the hero calmly ignores any qualms or feelings of empathy over the loss of another human being. Ummm.

Also, we are told later, that any ‘innocent bystanders’ who get hit do so because they didn’t move fast enough—natural selection. Ignoring this ridiculous take on evolution, such a cold disregard for human life is beyond shocking.

H’s indifference and moral pragmatism on the matter of human well being is seen in one major subplot. In the novel a group of rebels attempt to overthrow this paradisiacal future. The coup is suppressed with lots of dead rebels, the deaths of which the main characters approve of (we are told how some are gassed to death). Yet the protagonist protects his best friend, who was also a member of the conspiracy. For the friend no punishment, as the hero believes him to be simply misguided. In this the protagonist ignores the possibility that the other now dead conspirators may also have been equally misguided  and thus deserving of a pardon. The protagonist’s compassion and awareness of shared humanity extends only so far as his circle of friends. The deaths of outsiders are a matter of little consequence. Them and Us.

This level of violence is mandated by the belief that an armed society is a polite society. A belief held now and then by a number of people and groups in our society. For H. it meant that men (more on that in a moment) go around armed, have elaborate rituals verbal and social to ameliorate interaction and disputes, and that a shoot out will occur every now and then. Those men who do not wish to go armed wear a badge indicating such (“brassard of peace”), and surrender some of their rights. Unspecified, but essentially, they differ to armed men.

The reader is also informed, several times, that smart and capable men (H’s type of men) do carry a weapon, but never have to use it, due to their skilful understanding and manoeuvring through the travails of society. Appealing?

Lest I seem overly critical of Mr Heinlein let me say that his description of ‘modern’ technology is second to few: voice control, water beds (a Heinlein invention), space flight as an every day happenstance, showers (the word seems too small for the services provided), all weave an appealing future. Even his libertarian society is not without appeal. There is a Universal Basic Income, various other welfare payments for various categories of citizens, free food for all, an open acknowledgement that unregulated capitalism does not work, and that the government should and does successfully guide the free-market.

Not your Ayn Rand libertarianism.

The theme of the novel is eugenics, and the extent to which genes control us, all in a world where gene engineering is the norm. Heinlein does propose a more sensible proposal than many to deal with the dangers of this technology. Essentially, parents are free to use gene editing to produce the best possible baby they can produce, without artificial enhancements. Shades of “GATTACA” in there somewhere. Heinlein goes out of his way to dismiss both totalitarianism and pacifism as creeds that misuse genetics for their own flawed ends.

H’s morality relies on evolutionary thought. Survival is his mantra. In doing so he does disregard the possibility that a succession of short term survival steps can lead to species extinction.

H’s also expresses a dangerously modern view of religion. Raised in the Bible Belt he quickly threw away his own conventional religion when exposed to rationalism and the great minds of his time. BtH has only one indirect (possible) reference to Christianity, dismisses conventional afterlives, but abounds with references to an unexplained religious belief as the norm: “Great Egg”, “Name of the Egg”, and so forth. This was wonderfully entertaining when I first read, and is still so.

The novel’s attitude towards people is also distinctive. Rather than condemning the poor (of which there were none, due to state intervention in the economy, and welfare), and the unenhanced, H goes out of his way, against prevailing attitudes then and now, to praise human beings. “man is a working animal”—people like to and will work, even when they don’t need to. One of the enviable tasks of the future is to distribute new wealth to the populous. The outcome of this largesse is a cultured and accomplished society. This is in contrast to belief held by many today that giving away welfare money will lead to sloth, indulgence, and so forth.

Governments—governments and politicians—it is a trope that both are incompetent, corrupt, and generally bad, but in BtH the “planners” of the novel are intelligent, thoughtful, and wise people. H’s post-BtH novels return to a more dismissive disdain of governments, but for now he shows a rare regard for those chosen to lead the world. Even democracy is praised, seemingly. The means by which his planners are appointed is unspecified, but they “represent” their electorates, suggesting some form of democracy.

Women—as social forward thinking H is about other matters, in his novel women play a largely subordinate role to men. There are exceptions, but men are in charge of the world. Women have the same right to bear arms, but few do. Also, women like it when men are aggressive. Early on the protagonist wrestles his new love interest into submission and then kisses her several times. This is the first step in their love affair. 

Sub-plots—the story is livened by a skilfully woven series of sub-plots that serve the dual purpose of providing indirect exposition and moving the story along. The most amusing of these is the man from the past: a man from the 1920s kept in stasis for centuries, who, when released into H’s world is seen to be a good man, but one unable to cope well with the modern world he is reborn into. There is also the search for the meaning of life. Not a new idea, but with Heinlein’s characteristic bravado, this age old questions is tackled systematically—with science! Also, immortality, reincarnation? The tropes come fast, but are well handled.

H lacks little as a story teller. Fast paced writing, clear though complex exposition, and a conclusion. In doing so H never veers away from telling you the reader what he thinks about what he is writing about, but he does so in an entertaining and mostly enjoyable fashion (he could have tried to minimise the pages of gene engineering description). H’s writing still sells, decades after his death, which demonstrates something of his writing skill.

My take on the novel after half a century is what it was half a century ago. A good read, an entertaining piece of writing, but I deplore the violence and lack of regard for human life.

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