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)