Beyond This Horizon
by Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There have been frequent criticisms of this novel for being a bit rambling and incohesive, several reviewers citing it as Heinlein's weakest effort. I disagree for several reasons. Yes, it is atypical for a Heinlein story, with quite a few anti-climaxes along the way, and one might get the impression RAH couldn't decide on which part of the plot he should concentrate. On the other hand, I feel he approached the work as one representative of life in general; rambling, with various highlights at different times, without a discernible goal in sight. In my opinion, there are only two things to criticize about this book. First, a lot of the conversations are filled with colloquiallisms obviously common to RAH from his own Midwest experience, but it is not likely many of them would have survived into his futuristic society. Another is the way he portrayed the relationships between the men and women. That should not surprise many people, since RAH has been accused many times of being a misogynist, an opinion I do not share concerning the full body of his work, but which was a bit of a problem for him in his early stories.
This novel was originally published as a two-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction, in April and May of 1942. It appeared under the byline of Anson MacDonald, mainly because it had no connection with the "Future History" stories Heinlein had been publishing under his own name for the previous two-and-a-half years. Other than the novellas "Waldo" and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" (both most recently reprinted in The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein), this was the last of his writings to see print until after World War 2. The novel was revised, expanded and published in book form in 1948. Out of print for several years, it has been recently reissued by Baen Books, which means at this time there are only three (all juveniles) of RAH's thirty-two novels out of print. All of his story collections are also available, a testament to his continued popularity.
The first thing that is noticeably different about this story is that the society depicted is a relative utopia with very little social conflict, quite unlike most any other Heinlein scenario. Yes, there are a few disaffected individuals who wish to reshape society to their own vision, but it is apparent they are an extreme minority and essentially ineffective. For the most part everyone else is content, enjoying an unprecedented vital and stable economy. The majority of the population has benefited from many years of planned genetics, which has eliminated almost all disease and previously heritable defects. There is a small contingent of "control naturals," individuals whose makeup has not been manipulated due to inadequate qualities in their ancestral gene pool from which to select. They are the only ones who still suffer from any of the ailments of which we are so familiar, but their lives are subsidized by the government, and while they are second-class citizens by their society's standards, they are much better off than the majority in our time.
The cover of the current edition might lead someone to think this is in someway connected to Clarke's 2001 : A Space Odyssey, what with the "star child" image. It actually is supposed to represent the genetic theme, but unlike another novel with which it has been frequently compared (Aldous Huxley's Brave New World), the gestation and birthing process in Beyond This Horizon is completely natural. Only the process of conception is controlled by the geneticists. There is a star child in one sense of the term though. The main protagonist, Hamilton Felix, is the culmination of a star-line, his genetic makeup the result of generations of careful mixing to maximize all the best traits of his forebears. A person's surname being pronounced first, in the same manner as Oriental custom, reflects the society's emphasis on ancestral lineage.
Felix is a puzzle to the planners however. His intelligence should have led him into the fields of science or mathematics, or at least some other endeavor which would more benefit mankind. What he has chosen to devote his energies towards is the invention of a succession of recreational games. He is highly successful and rich beyond his needs, but the planners feel he has wasted his life. Early in the book we find out why. What his career desire had been, that of a synthesist, was denied him due to his lack of an eidetic memory. A synthesist, which RAH spoke of in other novels and several essays, is akin to the perfect librarian, one who not only can find all of the information necessary to answer a question, but also one who can see all of the connections between various educational disciplines and bring them together for the ultimate solution.
Felix has no desire to have children, a situation most distressing to the planners, as the next generation of his line promises to be the pinnacle of their achievement. What is more, he sees no reason for the human race to continue at all. Mordan Claude, a prominent member of the planning council who later becomes a good friend and confidant, teases him with a glimpse of the woman they have chosen for him, but Felix is adamant in his refusal to participate in their scheme. When the woman, Longcourt Phyllis, has the affrontery to invade his privacy and imply the union of their chromosomes is an inevitable fact, it only causes Felix to resist the plan all the more.
I will avoid any further spoilers in describing how Felix's mind is changed in this regard. Several of those previously mentioned anti-climaxes occur, in the midst of one of which Felix agrees to Mordan's wishes in return for a most unusual request. He insists a scientific search should be undertaken to answer one of the most fundamental questions that has always plagued mankind - what is our destiny, what happens to us when we die? Heinlein, who is usually regarded as a rational and logical scientific thinker, was not without his speculations of a spiritual nature. One incident in this novel reminds me of an anecdote related by Spider Robinson in an essay in Requiem: Tributes to the Grand Master, published in 1992. In answer to the question of why he insisted on not allowing his body to be cryonically frozen after his death, RAH supposedly retorted, "How do I know that would not interfere with reincarnation?"
While this novel did not make my Heinlein Top 10, it was an honorable mention. Aside from the weaknesses previously mentioned, I think it is rich in speculative details, not only in the structure of the future society, but also in its description of its financial underpinnings. There have been great strides in genetic research in the sixty years since its initial publication, but I don't think many of its statements in that regard need much revision. Heinlein was a keen researcher, and his stories always reflected the most recent knowledge at the time of the writings. The disjointed nature of the thematic structure, rather than being a detriment, actually works in its favor if you consider the full scope of the ideas explored. Baen Books is to be commended for bringing this seminal work of Heinlein's back into print for the enjoyment of all of the Grand Master's many current (and future) fans.
UPDATE: This novel was awarded a Retro Hugo in 2018 at WorldCon76 in San Jose, California.
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