Robert A. Heinlein,
Beyond This Horizon
(Fantasy, 1948; Bain, 2000)

First published in 1942, Beyond This Horizon gives clear evidence of the genius and writing power that Robert Heinlein possessed -- but this early novel is definitely less than perfect. In the process of churning it out for publication in Astounding Stories (published under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald), he privately confessed to editor John W. Campbell Jr. that "it stinks."

The ideas behind the story fascinated him, yet he struggled to distill a good story out of them. In my opinion, Heinlein set his sights too high for this short novel, as it basically revolves around the very reason for man's existence.

The premise is quite promising: genetic engineering has produced a "perfect" world, one free of disease, war, poverty and hunger. "All of them should have been happy," as Heinlein begins the narrative, yet they are not. The protagonist in particular is not happy and has no desire to bring children into a seemingly pointless existence. This is a cause for concern for the local sociopolitical moderator because Hamilton Felix hails from a true star line of men. His genetic code represents one of the more impressive accomplishments of social and genetic engineers working over the course of three centuries, and his line will be essentially perfected in the course of two successive generations -- if he can be induced to father a child. Of course, one of a very select group of females must be selected, and the chromosomes of the match must be carefully manipulated, but society needs him to reproduce. In fact, the powers that be agree to begin a scientific search for the meaning of life in order to talk him into becoming a father.

Thrown into the mix of all this is an attempt to overthrow the government by a group of men intent on creating their own genetic ideals and a man from 1926 unfrozen and forced to adapt to a strange new world, a world in which, to his dismay, football no longer exists.

I found the story confusing at times. For some reason, I could never keep the three most prominent characters straight. The basis of society was never completely explained, although Heinlein used it to give voice to some rather unusual ideas. For example, there was a convoluted, ritualized honor code between men who wore guns and those who did not; the concomitant notion that an armed man is a polite one is rather odd. I enjoyed the passages in which Heinlein paused to offer limited explanations for such social realities, but I would like to have seen them further fleshed out.

I think it is worth nothing that the traditional means of procreation are never mentioned here, largely due to the editorial restrictions Heinlein was working under in the early days of his career. Marriage itself is a peculiar institution in this world, especially in cases where genetically engineered individuals choose to marry inferior "naturals." The conclusion of the novel is rather weak yet satisfactory, rather inexplicably incorporating the concept of telepathy to serve as a deus ex machina.

Heinlein just tried to do too much with too many lofty ideas here, but these shortcomings are understandable given the fact that Heinlein was just then developing his writings skills and science fictional vision.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 13 August 2005

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