To Sail Beyond the Sunset, by Robert A. Heinlein, New York: G.P. Putnam's, 416 pages, $18.95
A new book by science fiction guru Robert Heinlein is always an event worth waiting for. And this one exceeded my expectations.
To Sail Beyond the Sunset is the "prequel" to one of Heinlein's masterworks, his 1973 Time Enough for Love. That book, written as a memoir, told of the centuries long adventures of one of Heinlein's best loved characters, Lazarus Long (hero of the 1958 novel Methuselah's Children). The present volume is also a memoir, but this time of Maureen Johnson, Lazarus Long's mother.
Maureen turns out to be, as one might expect, a delightful free-thinker who learns her radical individualism at the knee of her Heinlein-like father, Ira Johnson, a worldly-wise country doctor.
In telling of Maureen's life in Missouri, Heinlein fleshes in the background of the Howard Foundation (introduced in Methuselah) and its long-term program of promoting longevity. He delights in contrasting the free-thought mores of the Howard families with the mid-American morality that surrounds them during the first half of the 20th century.
To Sail turns out to be several books in one, however. Heinlein not only draws in the time-travel connection from Time Enough for Love (in which Lazarus returns to 1917 America), but he also links Maureen's later life to many of the characters and events from The Man Who Sold the Moon and other tales from his Future History series. Heinlein fans who have not read these stories in many a year will find themselves eager to reread them after finishing this volume.
He also manages to work in a number of more-recent characters from other "timelines" (that is, from stories not part of the Future History series, such as The Number of the Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls). One who is not a Heinlein devotee will have trouble keeping all of these characters and timelines straight, despite a detailed appendix listing which characters come from which volumes.
All in all, this is a delightful novel, a vintage Heinlein tour de force. One puts it down wondering whether, because of its gathering in of characters and tying up of loose ends, Heinlein may now be bidding us farewell. I confess to having thought so in 1973, due to the memoir-like nature of Time Enough for Love. Yet five novels followed that epic work, some more successful than others. And Heinlein is only a youthful age 80. Let us hope that there are still more wonderful stories to come from the grand master of science fiction.