Heinlein’s Worst Novel

In the 1988 Hugos thread, a discussion broke out about which is Heinlein’s worst novel. Gardner Dozois thinks it’s a toss up between The Number of the Beast (1980) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). Nancy Lebovitz thinks it’s clearly The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1985).

As you probably know if you’ve been reading my posts here for a while, I’m very fond of Heinlein. He’s a solid favourite of mine. I can even find good things to say about his bad books. When he was good he was very very good, and even when he was bad he was consistently compelling. He did write a number of books I don’t much like—and my advice for where to start with Heinlein is “anything less than an inch thick.”

But I have a firm opinion on which was his worst book, and for me it’s unquestionably To Sail Beyond the Sunset. I haven’t re-read it recently and I’m not going to re-read it, even though I do re-read all of the others from time to time. So I’m going to do something I very seldom do and talk about a book from my memories of it without revisiting it, because I just don’t want to read it again. It’s the only Heinlein book I really don’t like.

All of Heinlein’s late novels are too long and insufficiently plotted. As I understand from Grumbles From the Grave, his postumously published selected letter collection, and what he says about writing in Expanded Universe, he plotted organically—he started off with characters and a situation and let the situation evolve and the characters do things until he had a book. This is a perfectly valid way of writing—by which I mean I do this myself. It does require being able to hold the whole story in your mind and look at it from on top, or else things start to spiral in a bad way, so that every character action leads to every other character action but the shape of the story gets out of control. It’s like planting a hedge and whacking it until you have topiary. You’ve got to hold on tight to the shape of the story to make this work, or you just have an undisciplined hedge. It’s quite clear to me that this is what happened with Friday, and indeed with all his books from I Will Fear No Evil on. I have heard that Heinlein may have suffered a stroke or some other kind of organic brain damage that prevented him from seeing the shape from on top.

But this problem is a problem with all of late Heinlein, from 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil onwards. It’s perfectly possible to dislike all of late Heinlein. For me, there are compensating virtues—I might prefer properly pruned topiary, but I’ll take a hedge that’s bursting out all over if that’s all that’s going. For one thing there’s the wonderful Heinlein voice. For another, the plot might writhe out of control but it has some lovely moments along the way. They are all flawed to a greater or lesser degree, but I can find something to enjoy, to keep bringing me back, in all of these books except To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

I Will Fear No Evil is doing brave if weird things with the concept of gender and identity. Time Enough For Love (1973) has the embedded short stories which I love. The Number of the Beast (1980) is at attempt at doing alternating points-of-view, which I don’t think he had ever done before, and while the plot is all over the place it has its moments. I genuinely love Friday. Job also has its memorable moments. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is weaker, and the rescuing Mike plot is infuriating, and it would strike me as the worst if not for To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

I bought To Sail Beyond the Sunset in hardback as soon as it came out—new Heinlein!—and I sold it again because it left such a bad taste in my mouth. Then I thought I must have been unfair to it—I’m always ready to blame myself for not enjoying a book. I bought it again in paperback and read it again, and no, it really did have the problems I thought it did.

There are two huge things that make me dislike it. Firstly, To Sail Beyond the Sunset spoils the short story “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” which is one of my favourite of Heinlein’s short stories. If you want me to hate something, give me a sequel to something I love that invalidates the original work. I do not believe that George from “The Man Who Sold the Moon” was involved with Maureen, the central character from To Sail Beyond the Sunset. If he had been, the story would have been different. No. No, no, no. This is a retcon that absolutely repels me. (See “rescuing Mike” problem with The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.)

To Sail Beyond the Sunset is about Lazarus Long’s mother Maureen, who appears first in Time Enough For Love. So it’s a female voice, something with which Heinlein had variable success—Podkayne doesn’t work well for me, but Friday really does. So the book starts in the nineteenth century—and this is my other huge problem with it. It starts in the nineteenth century and the very early twentieth century, and it’s jogging happily along at buggy-whip speeds, and then suddenly it jumps to the twenty-first century and space rocket speeds. In other words, it entirely elides the present, going immediately from the past to the future. Of course Heinlein has done this before, but here he’s telling the story of one person’s life, and she must have lived through the present to get to the future. Leaping over the decades of the twentieth century cracks the spine of the book—in 1987 it should have been possible to have a little bit of how Maureen reacted to the sixties or indeed anything between WWI and space travel—but instead it leaps over it in a way that gave me whiplash. And this is, incidentally, why the title “In Dialogue With His Century” seemed so inappropriate for a Heinlein biography—by the end of his life Heinlein and the Twentieth Century didn’t seem to be on speaking terms.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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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