Science Fiction in Perspective
"Life is short."
"—but the years are long."
"Not while the evil days come not."
The years have been long since Robert A. Heinlein last made any additions to his History of the Future. And, unfortunately, evil days have come upon him in the meantime.
Readers who had hoped his new novel, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE: THE LIVES OF LAZARUS LONG—billed as the culminating work of the Future History—would reverse the trend in Heinlein's writing so painfully evident in I WILL FEAR NO EVIL are in for a disappointment.
As the subtitle indicates, the novel is about Lazarus Long—oldest member of the long-lived Howard Families and here of METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN. But he is not the colorful, cantankerous character we knew of old; at least, not for more than a chapter or two.
Rather than remain true to his original character, Heinlein has simply made Long a mouthpiece for the same sort of vacuous drivel about sex and love that was the New Revelation of I WILL FEAR NO EVIL. Any anyone who didn't like that novel won't think much of this one.
Some years ago, Heinlein planned a novel called DA CAPO, which was to carry on the adventures of Lazarus Long and tie up the loose ends in the Future History. What relation, if any, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE bears to the author's original intentions is hard to understand.
Readers of METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN will recall that at the end of that novel, Long and Andrew Jackson Libby were planning to explore other solar systems together. Long had succeeded in rescuing the Howard Families from jealous ephemerals back on Earth who thought they had some "secret" of longevity, other than heredity.
With Earth scientists having discovered the "secret" while the Howards were off among the stars, the Families were welcomed home again when they finally returned—disillusioned by contacts with alien species with powers far beyond Man's. But new problems seemed sure to arise—Earth was already overpopulated, even without longevity. And for anyone wanting to settle elsewhere, there were still those alien superintelligences to contend with.
Sociologically, North America was still governed by the Covenant, a document framed under the principles of General Semantics to guarantee as much personal freedom as possible while still maintaining social order. And a science of social psychodynamics was in widespread use in efforts to minimize mass emotional disorders of the sort that had characterized the Crazy Years and the Theocracy of the Prophet.
Virtually none of this background figures in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, however. When we meet Long, it is in 4272, 2,000 years after METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN. All the other characters from METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN are long dead, even Libby. Long has come to Secundus, a planet he deeded to the Howard Foundation some centuries back, to die. Only the Howards won't let him—they need his "wisdom."
At length, Long agrees to accept another rejuvenation, help the Foundation move to another planet (Secundus apparently has political problems), and write his memoirs—if the Howards will think up something "new" for him to do. The rest of the book consists of "tales" from his memoirs, interspersed with rambling discussions among Long and other characters—mostly about what real Love is.
SEX AND LOVE
Without going into the sort of parlor psychologizing many critics are addicted to, suffice it to say that Heinlein seems unable to write about sex and love with any conviction. All he can manage is to have Long call everybody "dear," and play cute tricks like having a girl named Hamadryad constantly referred to as Hamadarling and Hamadearest. What he seems to think is an insight is always a cliche—especially coming from a man who supposedly has 2,300-odd years of experience and lives in a culture where sexual freedom has presumably been commonplace for centuries.
The tales are better written than the dialogues, but that isn't saying much. One is about a U.S. Naval officer of the 20th Century—possibly Long himself, though Long says otherwise—who succeeds by being lazy. What it has to do with anything is never made clear. In another, Long frees a slave couple from a backward planet and sets them up in the restaurant business on another. Apart from the sex angle, the tale adds nothing to the theme of slavery and freedom in CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY—which was a lot better written. Yet another tale has Long as a frontiersman on a colonial planet, where he marries an ephemeral girl and discovers the meaning of True Love. But the frontier color and action pales in comparison to that in TUNNEL IN THE SKY.
In fact, none of the planets that are the scenes of action in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE have any more reality than stage sets. And all the important action seems to happen offstage most of the time—supposedly in passages "omitted" from the version of Long's memoirs published by the Howard Foundation. References to events in earlier Future History works are given only in passing—usually during Long's conversations—and briefly.
Thus we learn that the Jockaira gods who scared Slayton Ford out of his wits, and pushed the spaceship New Frontiers off to another star by mind power alone in METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, were somehow wiped out by Long and Libby with a blaster 800 or 900 years later. That sounds like shooting elephants with a pea shooter, but Heinlein apparently didn't want to bother dealing seriously with the problem of superior intelligences.
We hear more of the Little People of PK3722, who adopted Mary Sperling into their collective consciousness—but only because Long has to visit them to check out some ideas on time travel (Mary's absorbed consciousness is still there, but there is no trace of the 11,000-odd other Howards who forsook the New Frontiers to live on that planet). For some reason, no alien intelligences have been discovered on any other planets in the Galaxy.
We also get references to ORPHANS IN THE SKY—the crewmen who escaped the Vanguard father a race of superintelligent savages on the planet where they landed; those left on the ship all died. And the blind space singer Rhysling of "The Green Hills of Earth" is also mentioned—but referred to only as "Noisy."
Evidently Heinlein no longer puts any stock in General Semantics or social psychodynamics, for they aren't mentioned in the novel. For the sake of continuity, there should be some explanation of why they didn't work—if that is the case—but Heinlein doesn't bother. There is considerable discussion of the problem of freedom vs. authority—but nobody seems to have any new ideas about it.
Genetics is also a major topic of discussion. Long is always worrying about it—can the slave twins he freed (who aren't really twins) produce viable offspring? How about bedding two "daughters" he's had cloned from himself? There is a lot of talk about natural selection in the settling of new planets during Mankind's Diaspora having raised the general level of intelligence—but the range of individuals and cultures typical of the era scarcely bears this out.
Towards the end of the novel, the Howards—thanks in large measure to the help of a sentient computer named Minerva who has her consciousness transplanted into a human body in order to experience Eros (the closest thing to a new idea in the book)—finally think of the "new" thing for Long to do: travel back in time to the Kansas City of his childhood to (as it turns out) commit incest with his mother.
For some reason, this part of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE is still called DA CAPO, although it's doubtful the contents bear any relation to what the title originally implied. Surprisingly, it's the best-written part of the book—but totally irrelevant to the Future History, of course. Long's mother turns out to be a secretly Liberated Woman—and before his rescue from a shellhole by his friends from the future after getting caught up in World War I, it is implied both his parents will later be brought forward in time to join the Great Orgy on Tertius (the new Howard planet).
Why does Heinlein insist on writing this sort of thing? Perhaps his judgment and self-critical faculties have deserted him. Perhaps he was irked at critics who sneered at his work for being too "conservative" and decided to prove he could be as "liberated" as anyone else. Whatever the reason, the results are just awful. TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, for the most part, is simply smothered in saccharine sentimentality, tedious dialogue and plotless meanderings.
There seems little hope of any recovery. I WILL FEAR NO EVIL could be considered an isolated failure—but in using the reputation of the Future History to bolster the appeal of the same sort of rubbish, Heinlein has shown himself either incapable or unwilling to honor the commitment to high standards of science fiction that won him the loyalty of a generation of readers.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Fiction in Perspective".