Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Door Dilated

Robert A Heinlein: Beyond This Horizon (Baen Books, 2001; ISBN 0-671-31836-5)

I'm in the process of re-reading this book for the first time in quite a while, so a review (retro-review?) will come in a bit. A few impressions and thoughts in the meantime.

First, my impression several years ago that the recently-discovered For Us, The Living was, in large part, the genesis novel for this book is confirmed. There are several parallels in terms of character, plot and more. Beyond This Horizon is a much better novel though. If you need a multi-page footnote to explain something in a fiction novel, you are in trouble even if your name is Heinlein!

Second, I noticed a interesting parallel with Isaac Asimov. It is a talky book. Very talky. Not so much action, lots of talk. One complaint I've heard over and over about Asimov, especially The Foundation Trilogy (we'll restrict ourselves to the original for this) is that it is too dang talky. You never hear the same complaints applied to Heinlein, but read the book. Lots of dialog, lots of talking, lots of "preaching" disguised as introspection or dialog. I wonder how many other Golden Age authors suffered from the same affliction?

Third, it's a book that inspired an essay. Read it here.

More to come!

O.K., the review in a nutshell. The book has a couple of story threads that play out over the course of the tale. First, we have the overall story of Felix Hamilton (or Hamilton Felix, as all the characters are named in reverse) and his genetics. He has several desirable traits, and his genetic counselor would like to see his line, and others, brought to fruition. Felix does not, and cites his personal privacy when pressed (this is something that Heinlein first used in For Us, The Living and in other stories such as Methuselah's Children). He runs into his intended and they eventually do fall in love, get married (or the futuristic equivalent) and have children. End of story.

Well, not quite. Another thread concerns a rebellion by a group of technocrats who want all the power for themselves and wish to start the Third Genetic War. Another thread concerns Felix's friend Monroe Alpha and his quest to find satisfaction, both in terms of what he does and in love (the odd thing about this thread is that it kind of vanishes about two-thirds into the book, leaving us wondering what ever happened to Monroe Alpha!). Another thread concerns a man from the past (preserved by a sort of suspension of time and an obvious nod to the character of Perry Nelson in For Us, The Living—but allowing him to travel through time in a much saner fashion!) who allows us to experience some of the customs of the future (and who influences the future by re-introducing sports such as "feetball", but with some interesting twists).

Finally, there are introduced other themes that Heinlein will touch on in many other works. A armed society is a polite society. Odd economics. General Semantics. Race. Sexuality. Equality. Individualism and self-determination.

There are even a couple of brushes with the paranormal. One thread deals with telepathy. Another deals with life after death and reincarnation.

Much, much, much more readable than its ancestor, For Us, The Living. Not much action, lots of talking, but...luckily, rather painless lecturing.

The lecturing made me realize something about Heinlein's style, though. He was a master at tossing in tidbits about the future. The door dilated. The waterbed. "Ray" guns. You would read a sentence, and as Harlan Ellison pointed out (in the Samuel R. Delany essay that I linked to, above)...bam! You realize you are in the future. You are in a science fiction story!

Less successful is the lecturing. Heinlein obviously believed passionately about some things—economic alternatives, General Semantics. But, in trying to teach about some of this, he was less successful than the casual toss-offs.

Look at it another way: Heinlein's treatment of race. Oftentimes he would drop in a hint that a main or secondary character was, what we term, a minority. Bam! It hits you later that this person is just as competent as you, that average white guy. This was more successful than when he hammers you with it (such as Sixth Column and Farnham's Freehold).

A good re-read. It gave me a new perspective on the real first novel, as well as seeing things in other novels differently. A nice way to celebrate the Heinlein Centennial. I think I'll continue to celebrate, concentrating on short works. Maybe next year I'll work my way through some of the young adult works again. Who knows? Maybe I'll get my daughter hooked.

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