Published in 1942, Beyond This Horizon gives clear evidence of the genius and writing power that 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. It is my opinion that 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, hunger, etc. "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 existed.
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.
on 6 March 2015
Beyond This Horizon, is the second of Heinlein's published novels, and introduces us to a future utopia where poverty no longer exists and genetic engineering has advanced to a point where it is possible to selectively breed children for increased health, intelligence and longevity. The biggest problem faced by most of this world's denizens is what to do with their time, leading to a society in which decadence is the norm and duelling with sidearms is considered an acceptable way of resolving disputes. Non-advanced citizens also exist, known as control normals, and are seen by the majority of others as a baseline with which to compare the genetic improvements found in the general populace.
The main bulk of the story follows the adventures of Hamilton Felix, a notably superior (others refer to him as an example of a star line), albeit mildly disillusioned citizen of this world's breeding program and his attempts to find a meaning in life. When he is approached by a synthesist (effectively an administrator of the breeding program) with a request to help propagate the next generation of advanced humans Felix's apathy towards the future, along with an unwillingness to propagate initially leads him to decline, but only after he is convinced to agree that if the synthesist can provide him with proof that a man's life is more than just the existence he experiences then he would be willing to reconsider.
Along the way he is also drawn into a burgeoning conspiracy by a group of citizens who feel that the current system needs to be overthrown, and that their society needs to be restructured under their control. Felix agrees to join this group, known as The Survivor's Club, though his decision is motivated more by a sense of loyalty to society, leading him to act as a double agent within their midst, than by any need to change the status quo. When the Survivor's Club do make their move Felix turns against them and helps to overturn their coup.
The second half of the novel then explores the results of Felix falling in love with and marrying Longcourt Phyllis, the woman selected for him by the synthesists. Between them they produce a son, Theobald, who they soon discover has powers that seem to equate to telepathy.
By the end of the book Felix has found a purpose for his life, and his original apathy no longer causes him concern.
Some have suggested that Beyond This Horizon represents one of the first examples of a post-singularity novel and to some degree I can agree with that assertion, though many of the elements required for a true post-singularity world are absent simply as a result of when it was written; computers were barely known of, and the idea of a world-wide interconnected communication network (the internet) was still a few decades away from being considered.
Personally I don't consider this to be one of Heinlein's best, though it's still better than much of the sci-fi of the time. In it he explores themes of reincarnation and the immortality (and possibly even the existence) of the human soul. He also presents a world of social equality, a world where things such as race, creed, faith and gender are simply portions of a person's make-up, and not things to get concerned over. In that respect it was a highly progressive novel for the times, and introduced a number of themes that continued to crop up in his future novels.
In all I still enjoyed re-reading this one, though if you're new to Heinlein I'd suggest starting with one of his later works.
on 27 December 2002
Heinlein started his publishing career with quite a bang, with three novels, a couple of novellas, and numerous short stories all published in a short two-and-a-half-year time span. Due to this copious output, he frequently had more than one story in a single issue of Astounding magazine, necessitating his use of several pen names. This story, as it did not fall into his 'Future History' chart, was first published as by Anson MacDonald, though its style and subject material, being so different from most of what was being published at that time, pretty clearly marked who the author really was.
This is a book of many and various ideas, both social and scientific, some of which may seem a little ludicrous, others of which are very valid and of great import to today's society. One of the most confounding ideas presented here is the idea that government should not be taxing people, but rather should be distributing money to all citizens so as to provide as much new money in circulation as there has been in new production of products. Next up is an idea that an openly armed citizen will command respect and demand polite behavior, while those who choose to go unarmed are to some degree second class citizens - an idea that probably was not very well thought out for all of its implications, unusual for Heinlein. But most prevalent is the idea of managing the human genome to produce a 'better' human, better in this case being defined as 'entity most able to survive under changing conditions'. The converse of this is also shown, of what happens when genetics are manipulated to produce particular types of supermen (or monsters, depending on your point of view). This, written at the height of Hitlerian rhetoric, is remarkable for is perspicacity and its ultimate relevance to today's debate about the ethics of all forms of genetic engineering from cloning to stem-cell research. Not satisfied with just these ideas, the latter half of the novel tackles the age-old questions of life-after-death, reincarnation, and when a fetus becomes a human.
So this book is loaded with interesting ideas, but it is also very definitely an early effort, with numerous indicators that Heinlein had not fully learned the craft of writing. As it is, there is some evidence that at least parts of this novel were a re-write of his first never-published (and since destroyed) novel, For Us The Living, apparently written somewhere around 1937. That date may be significant, for as we start this book, we find a utopia where there is no hunger, no poverty, no need to work to earn a living, though many do. It is also around the time frame of 1937-1938 that Heinlein was heavily involved with the social program EPIC (End Poverty in California) that was championed by Upton Sinclair, and it is apparent that at least some of the ideals from that program provided some of the impetus for the society Heinlein presents in this book. As is typical for first novels, though, there is a tendency to include sub-plots and incidents that don't further the ultimate aim of the novel. The entire first half, with its emphasis on the actions of a misguided revolutionary group, has almost zero relevance to the second half of the novel - it's almost as if there were really two separate books here that have been forcibly mated, to the detriment of both halves. Coincidence plays far more of a role than it should. Characterization is very spotty, with Felix, the protagonist, reasonably well portrayed, but most of the other characters, and especially the women, are very two-dimensional. Dialogue is dated with forties slang, and there is too much telling, rather than showing, of much of the more scientific detail.
But even with all these flaws, this is still a fascinating book, with its multiple ideas and opinions to keep your head engaged, with the action fast enough to hide most of the problems. Not the best, nor even the second best of his works, but still very recognizably a Heinlein novel.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)