Novel November

Beyond this Horizon

by Robert A. Heinlein


Reading Review by Michael Channing

Beyond this Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein

This was my first Heinlein. I have copies of Starship Troopers, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and Stranger in a Strange Land on my bookshelf. But did I choose any of those for my first Heinlein experience? Nope. I grabbed the first one I saw at the library one day. I figured anything from the Grand Master Heinlein had to be great. I was mistaken.

This was one of Heinlein's early novels, and it suffers from a lack of direction and focus. He throws so many themes into the mix, we end up with a stew of events and ideas that weaken the final taste. Which is a shame because it starts with great promise. Far into the future, society has been sculpted by selective breeding. By choosing the best and most favorable genes from parents, the resulting child has all of the best abilities and traits available with none of the frailties. Do this over hundreds of generations, and the population is now made up of the smartest, strongest, healthiest people possible. They live ultra-long lives and produce goods in overabundance. Life is easy, money is practically free, and work is optional. Everyone should be happy, but Hamilton Felix notices that the majority of people he encounters during his daily routine are glowering sour-pusses. Even he, the end result of the "star-line" of genetic selection, is bored with life. He has no desire to reproduce, doesn't even see why the human race itself should continue onward. Things are static.

One of the things that society has installed to keep itself amuse--and to help kill off "weaker" members of the species that would otherwise live extraordinarily long lives--is the concept of public dueling. Most men, the ones who aren't frail girly-men anyway, carry sidearms at all times. "An armed society is a polite society," the book claims. Any breach of politeness is met with the challenge to duel it out, possibly to the death. Backing out of a challenge marks you as a lesser man. The problem I have with this concept is that men in this book are ready to draw their lasers at the smallest discourtesy. "You, sir, have briefly interrupted my conversation. Prepare to die!" Maybe Heinlein is pointing out the negatives of luxury by saying that when life becomes this easy, even the slightest annoyances become major aggravations, surmountable only by lashing out violently at the source. But the book is so enamored with the concept of manly dueling that we can't help but feel it truly believes this is the way society should be.

There is a group of rebels within this world who think they can do a better job of captaining humanity's course. They reach out to Hamilton Felix, asking him to join them. They want his superior genes as part of their pool once they assume control. The geneticists who are currently in charge of pairing the best and brightest males and females to ensure the bestest babies also attempt to draw Hamilton into their fold. Hamilton is the peak of humanity, but humanity can do one better, if only Hamilton would agree to reproduce with a chosen mate. At first he wants no part of either faction, seeing as how the human race isn't worth continuing. But the geneticists make him a challenge. Using reverse psychology, they bet him he can't infiltrate the rebel group and survive their scrutiny long enough to figure out their plot. Can, too, Hamilton says, and I'll show you. Oh but if you die, then your super awesome genes are lost. So what if you leave us some "plasm" and if you die, which you probably wont, but if you do we'll use your batter to cook up some super babies? Deal.

So Hamilton, refusing to throw away his shot, goes undercover and gets in good with the rebel faction. What follows is actually pretty good. Hamilton attends secret meetings, hiding the fact that he's a double agent, but he also has to keep up his regular life while concealing his nocturnal plottings. For a while, I wasn't sure if I, the reader, was supposed to side with the rebels or the established society of selectively bred macho men. Not knowing was frustrating but effective in keeping me turning the pages. Then--twist--Hamilton spots his best friend at one of the secret society meetings. What should he do? Continue as a double agent or drop his cover and try to steer his friend back over to the light side? I have to say, I was intrigued. And then... Well, I'll tell you if you want to know but you'll have to meet me on the other side of Spoiler Pig. The password is "Swordfish."

Let me finish up before then. This book has a great premise, but the second half is not very good. Plus there are a few details that just don't work. There's a time-traveler that appears for no reason other than to have a character explain the world's economy model to him and, by extension, us. Still, it makes no sense, even when explained to a simpleton from the early twentieth century. Being written in the 1940s, there's an inescapable sexism that permeates a good part of the book. Even in the future, men are dicks. Hamilton's arranged wife is supposed to be his equal, but he's given full rein to belittle her and tame her like the wild filly she is. Then there's the conversation in which the time-traveler drops an n-bomb. Hamilton replies, "What does your color have to do with anything?" Really? This is hundreds of years in the future. A guy drops the n-word, and our hero basically says, "Oh, you mean black people?" Why is that word even still part of the language? We're supposed to believe that we can survive multiple "genetic wars," improve our economy to the point where no one has to have a job, lengthen our life span by decades, invent flying cars, colonize a few planets (even Pluto for god's sake), but we still have racist and sexist holdovers? I expected better from Heinlein. This was only his second book, though. Maybe he got better as he went.

All right. That's it. The review is over. Nothing else to see. There's certainly not a clandestine meeting on the other side of this spoiler alert.

Spoiler Pig

Hey, you there. What's the password? Okay, you're good. So you want to hear how the uprising pans out in Beyond this Horizon? Well, first of all, it turns out those guys are a bunch of bastards after all. They plan on doing all sorts of genetic experimentation on people, creating a race of fish folk and super soldiers to do their bidding. So it's a good thing they have absolutely no idea what they're doing. Their rebellion has about as much a chance of succeeding as the one in Red Zone Cuba.

Hamilton ends up in a fire fight at the plasm storage facility, on the right side of course. He and a few others hold off against the insurrection quite handily. Rebel bodies pile up as they drop like week-old flies. Seriously, their plan was get a few dozen guys together and overthrow the government one weekend. How could they not lose? So the rebellion is thwarted, the day is saved, and we have still have over a hundred pages left in the book.

As everything returned to normal I was lost as to what the rest of the book was going to be about. Were we ever going to figure out how and why a single guy from the 1930s was zapped into the future? Nope. Were the rebels going to strike back? Nope. The action comes to a grinding halt, and the book takes off in a completely different direction. Hamilton convinces the geneticists that what they really need to do with their abundant time and money is prove the existence of an afterlife. Any afterlife will do. So that becomes the crux of the second half of the book. Hamilton and his spirit-broken wife have a kid, and we watch him grow up and develop ESP. All the threat of unrest and rioting? Gone. The time-traveler? He comes back briefly, gets into a duel, and the narrator actually tells us that his outcome is not important and moves us on to a new topic. Why the hell is he in this damn book? Why are these two completely different story lines jammed together into one useless plot? Why is Heinlein so renowned?

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. That concludes our meeting of people confused by this book. If you'd like to join my rebellion against William Faulkner, there will be a meeting two full moons from now under a big W. Watch the newspaper for signs. You'll know them when you see them. For now, good night. Read well, and read often.

old timey typewriter

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