Heinlein - To Sail Beyond Sunset

September 21, 2004

Robert A. Heinlein
To Sail Beyond Sunset

This is one of RAH's old age books. And, like a lot of his later work, it has a distinctive set of flaws that make it very different from his earlier work. The best way to describe this thing is that it is three books in one.

The first, the best, and the most interesting, is the fictional narrative of Maureen Johnson Smith - familiar to RAH fans as the mother of Woodrow Wilson Smith aka Lazarus Long. Heinlein tells her tale of growing up in the 1880s, marrying, and raising a family in St. Louis Missouri in the early 20th century - a tale close in time and place to RAH's own biography, and so it shares some of the wonder and exploration of the era.

The second, and the most jarring, is Maureen's channelling of Heinlein's particular package of cranky complaints about the modern world. Some of these will be familiar - Heinlein does not care for the Dr. Spock approach to child care, thinks that the baby boomers and their ilk destroyed the republic through permissiveness and lax laws, and wishes for a world with a higher level of personal responsibility and interpersonal respect. While riding this hobby horse he says some things that are powerful and true - respect for others and for one's self - and some things that are just silly - historians must both tell the truth, stick to the facts, and tell their audience that what their nation does is always good. (More on that on the main blog soon.)

The third, and least interesting part of the pastiche, is Maureen's second career in cloud-cuckoo-land. During the 1980s Heinlein took his future society from the worlds of Lazarus Long, combined it with some time-travel notions, and then used this to meld together all of his various time-lines, all of his various characters, and a few things stolen from Frank L. Baum. He created some sort of a future where everyone is rejuvenated, married, has sex and makes babies, engages in complex lineal marriages, has long conversations in which I really can not tell the various speakers and personalities apart, and sometimes goes back in time to adjust one or another of the various time-lines in his alternate histories of the Earth. Of course, at this point the characters become interchangeable, the plot a bit of wish fulfillment, and we are left with a pretty good guess of what Heinlein's notion of heaven is, and a weak story. Paradise is always less compelling than Hell, and while Heinlein's paradise was reasonably interesting the first time I read it, it quickly became tedious after appearing in most of his later work.

And yet, I turned the pages and finished the book. Maureen is a compelling, if sometimes frustratingly self-righteous character.

Posted by Red Ted at September 21, 2004 11:23 AM | TrackBack
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