Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Pulp adventure and nothing wrong with that: Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children

Methuselah’s Children was written to be serialised in Astounding, and in co-operation with John Campbell. The Patterson biography quotes one of Campbell’s letters to Heinlein about the revision. The book was later revised for book publication, and what I have is the 1966 edition of the 1958 revision, not the 1941 original.

The book is about a group of long-lived people who have been living secretly pretending to be just like everyone else. Heinlein, apparently, wanted them to be long-lived just because they believed they would be, Campbell insisted on scientific reasons. They reveal themselves, are persecuted, flee in a spaceship with a newly invented FTL drive, and have adventures out in the galaxy with aliens. The book is dedicated to E.E. “Doc” Smith, it’s the most pulpy thing Heinlein ever wrote, and it’s really surprising what outright fun it is to read. I never think of it as being one of my favourite Heinleins, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of reading it.

Now for a little science fiction. Sometimes when I read a short novel like this, I can see the shadow of the huge novel it would be if written now. (I don’t know if this is a writer-thing or a reader-thing.) If Heinlein were young now, instead of in 1941, and if he’d written Methuselah’s Children now, the first volume, approximately three times as long as the whole real text, would end with the escape from Earth, on what is page 97 of the 175 page (NEL) book. It would have more characters, or rather more time and space spent on the characters it has, instead of briefly sketching out Eleanor Johnson and her son Hubert, the nurse and the sensitive, they’d get almost equal time with the main plot. Then there would have been a large number of sequels in which the Howard families explore one planet per book. This would have taken up his whole career, perhaps with a few other series started later.

This is perfectly sensible speculation when applies to Methuselah’s Children, a book that benefits immensely from being such a fast read. It’s not when applied to Heinlein, because without Heinlein being there at the time he was and writing the books he did, we wouldn’t have the science fiction field we have, or the kinds of books we have. We’d have science fiction—he didn’t invent it singlehandedly after all—but it wouldn’t look the way it does.

The first thing I noticed reading Methuselah’s Children this time is what a wonderful hook it has. The book isn’t about Mary Sperling, who (spoiler!) literally becomes an alien before the end, it’s about Lazarus Long. But it starts with Mary, a seemingly young woman turning down a proposal from a rich politician because there’s too much age difference. Then she gets into a car that has automatic controls, and hidden features, and goes to a base where she has to exchange code to get in. The reader is already fascinated and full of questions before Heinlein starts to give them answers, explaining the Howard families and the nature of the world quickly and succinctly before moving on to chase and escape.

Almost all Heinlein’s books open this well—it’s not just his “of course” but the way he sets up questions you want to know the answers to, and answers them, but by that time you have more questions pulling you on. Books that rely on this are often very readable without being very re-readable—once you know the answers, there’s no traction. But Heinlein doesn’t have this problem, and it’s not just that I first read them when I was twelve. There’s always more there for the reader who’s paying attention, more details, more reward. In this case it’s the social world where you say casually “service” or more formally “may I do you a service?” and the way the long lived people have a really different perspective on all of what’s going on. It’s also the lovely “of course” details— I still quote “Earth eating fad moves west” when I see some particularly crazy piece of news.

Once the families are off Earth, the book is less engrossing. I found it was even possible to put it down from time to time. Heinlein wasn’t as good at aliens as he was at people. He got better, but these are not his best, and their superpowers are annoying. Interestingly, Heinlein seems to have thought so too later. In Time Enough For Love, a direct sequel written much later, Lazarus dismisses the aliens in a few lines. And in the biography, a Campbell letter is quoted telling him to sharpen them up.

There’s not much deep or profound in Methuselah’s Children. Heinlein wrote it quickly, no doubt he’d have claimed he wrote it for money, and no doubt he did, but that didn’t stop him doing the best job he could. It never did. It is undoubtedly pulp, much pulpier than his short stories of the same period. But it’s better than it needs to be, it has the advantage of being in a fully worked out universe, even the absurdity of Libby’s new space drive is carefully set up. It’s not a classic, but it’s immensely readable, and here I am reading it almost sixty years after he wrote it — and I don’t know how many times I’ve read it before. The world needs books like this, books that are engrossing and enjoyable and just plain fun to read.

Methuselah’s Children 1958 revision cover picture courtesy of Heinlein Book Cover Museum

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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