Aug 17 2010 11:00am

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.

Jo Walton
1. bluejo
The cover on the British edition I own is even worse than that. And googling to find it, I wonder whether this book has ever had a nice cover, my goodness!
2. tomnackid
Jeez Jo don't scare me like that again! The thought of an alternate universe where Heinlein's diverse, thought-provoking and often confounding bibliography has been replaced with shelf after shelf of "The Methusela's Children Series" is a chilling one! One can only hope that in this deprived dimension Tor is publishing the series and is at least giving them it some awesome cover art. ;)
Karen Grant
3. Summer
My copy has a nice cover. You can see it at Amazon:

David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
You can get a decent overview of covers here for a variety of languages. A lot of them are fairly generic, but one or two look OK. Definitely none of them are as creepy as Jo's British edition.
5. tomnackid

I can tell exactly what happened with that disastrous British cover. The illustrator got a brief from the art director that just said "The title is Methusela's Children and its a sci-fi paperback." I'd be willing to bet that the AD never even read the manuscript. At the time European publishers didn't give much credence to the idea that the cover should reflect the contents of the book--not with SF anyway.
David Dyer-Bennet
6. dd-b
A detail I remember fondly is the humans inventing some working life-extension technologies after the Howards escape Earth. Since they didn't manage to extract the "secret" they worked to discover it independently, and they found some things that worked.

Of course, they also worked on Howards, so it only closed the gap somewhat.
Clark Myers
7. ClarkEMyers
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.

I suspect the connection with real clay eaters at the tag end of the depression didn't make it to Wales?
- though many clay eaters by name and also practice had a Scotch-Irish heritage and environmnet and of course some obviously less so.

Clay was even offered in Chicago super markets for a long time.

Tamara Allen
8. tamaralynn
Methuselah's Children was the first Heinlein book I read, and it's why I immediately became a fan, and why he's my all-time favorite author, and the only famous person whose death moved me to tears. My favorite Heinlein novel, though, has to be Number of the Beast. It may not have been his best, but it's the one I can lose myself in no matter how many times I read it.
David Dyer-Bennet
9. dd-b
tamaralynn@8: Just curious, were you already a fan of Oz or Burrough's mars? For me the book started somewhat promisingly, but quickly went off the rails and became episodic and fairly boring. I've never read Oz books or Burrough's mars. (I'm amused by his quick take on the Lensman universe though.)

This leaves TNotB as my least favorite Heinlein by a large margin. I'm not a fan of the late books in general though; there's nothing in the first rank after Time Enough for Love for me (though of course plenty of earlier works are also not of the first rank).
10. Brian2
Like a solo by Scotty Moore (Elvis' early guitarist) versus, say, Eric Clapton in Cream. The nature of the book trade doesn't seem to permit publishing anything this short any longer, but I do miss it ...

As for earth eating, I'm sure it's not what Heinlein had in mind, but there is something called geophagy, and it's done for quite practical reasons. Clay, for example, contains essential nutrients that might be hard to come by in a rural or preindustrial society. In some areas of the American South there was a saying that if you had a child, you lost a tooth, which was true because there wasn't calcium to support both the pregnancy and the mother's own body. Eating clay was one way of compensating for that. Actually, the practice is much more common around the world than you might think, across all social classes.

For that matter, in some parts of Africa, people eat termites. This is a useful thing to do because the termites contain bacteria which help them digest fibrous food, and the bacteria colonize the human gut and enable people to do that as well. What impresses me about practices like eating dirt and eating termites is how sophisticated they really are, in context, and I wonder how they arose in the first place.
Robert James
11. DocJames
Lovely review, although I'm not sure I would call it pulp, since it is a fair exploration of the concepts of the self, the individual vs. the community, the dangers of a government that doesn't respect civil liberties, and the value of science in advancing human possibilities. Pulp typically doesn't explore anything other than a thrilling read (which is a dammfine thing in and of itself), but when a story is about something, and more than one something, pulp is not a good term of description. After all, if you've been able to re-read it so many times, that has to be something more than plot there.
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
I first read this book when I was 10 or so, and I had no doubt that this was Heinlein's most intriguing and best character. The first half of the book was much better than the second, and I found the Mary Spurling character somewhat hard to believe but still, there's a lot to like about this book.

One thing though, I seem to remember a version of Life-line where Lazarus visits Dr. Pinero, however, maybe its just me combining stories in my mind. If anyone else remembers it, please let me know.
jon meltzer
13. jmeltzer
@12: The scene is a story told by Lazarus in Methuselah's Children; Pinero gives Lazarus his money back.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Yes, I think it's quite clear from the Pinero comment that Heinlein was already thinking of Lazarus living for a long long time. That isn't to say he had TEfL in mind in 1947! But he probably did have that conception of Lazarus stretching out into the far future.
15. James Davis Nicoll
flee in a spaceship with a newly invented FTL drive,

I correct to be polite: it's not an FTL drive, it's NAFAL. Libby came up with a way to mostly cancel inertia and the pressure of the sun's light got the ship up to about (80% IIRC) of the speed of light.

They got the FTL drive from the second lot of aliens they visited.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Yes, you're absolutely right, it's an inertialess drive. (No wonder the book is dedicated to Doc Smith!) The book contains two, or even three, methods of going very fast in a spaceship that were unknown at the start of the book.
17. Michael S. Schiffer
Re Lazarus's lifespan, the Future History chart in "Methuselah's Children" (at least in the edition I have-- no idea if it was revised) shows Lazarus's lifeline extending at least as far as the end of the chart. (Which takes it to "Universe", ~500 years after MC.)

His is the longest, but it's not the only one. (Though it's the only one Pinero could have encountered.) Others include (no surprise) Ford and Libby, but also Mackinnon, Persephone, and "Fader" Randall (all from "Coventry"), and Doyle and Rhodes (from "Misfit") all born in the 21st century and living into the 27th at least.
18. a-j
Re: scary cover.
Well, at least it wasn't a Chris Foss spaceship. All SF books published in Britain in the 1970s (with the exception of NEL for some reason) had Chris Foss spaceships on the cover, regardless of the plot. Something to do with the Common Market I suppose.
For the record, I like Chris Foss spaceships.
Pamela Adams
19. PamAdams
Thinking about this one and Time for the Stars (which I just reread) made me realize that they use similar endings. The characters travel to the stars in both cases. Also in both cases, this travel doesn't seem to accomplish much, but triggers research 'back home' that allows mankind to advance.
Tamara Allen
20. tamaralynn
dd-b@9: I hadn't (and still haven't) read Oz or Burroughs, as neither ever interested me. I was born in 1958 but didn't find science fiction until high school, when Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions was required. I then went on a Vonnegut binge, then found Bradbury, then Asimov, and eventually Heinlein. The difference was, with only a few exceptions, I borrowed most of my books before RAH from the library. Once I got into him, I started buying the books so I could keep them. He's the first author for whom I have a whole shelf dedicated just to his books, and the only other one with that distinction is Spider Robinson.
Robert James
21. DocJames
I love the Oz books; I bought the hardbound reproductions for my kids a few years ago, and we read quite a few of them as a family. Great illustrations!

As for Burroughs, I was insanely mad for him for several months in my teens; tried to go back and reread him a couple of years ago, and could not get past the intense racism of the opening pages of "A Princess of Mars...."

Should the movie ever be made (again -- I had the misfortune of watching the Traci Lords version a few weeks ago), I suspect they will avoid that opening entirely.

Oz and Burroughs were seminal influences on almost every major American SF writer of the mid-twentieth century, along with Lewis Carroll.
John Armstrong
22. JohnnyYen
This fits nicely into your "an inch or less thick" rule, Jo.
The "earth eating fad" alwys made me smile - he had a great read on human silliness - and the ones in Year of the jackpot are just as good.

Writing an immortal character may not be a good idea - Heinlein seems ed to have really soured on lazarus - he's a real dick in the later books and Heinein enjoys making him squirm.

To your point about how this woudl have been spun into a series - even now, when I read his stuff, he throws away things that others - me - woudl build at least one book around. In his, they're just set dressing

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