Retro Review: To Sail Beyond the Sunset

3 Feb

-Robert A. Heinlein


I cannot help, but wonder if Heinlein knew that To Sail Beyond The Sunset would be his last completed novel before his untimely death.

He must have done, I think. Taken as a story, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is a very strange book. Taken as one final chance to outline his philosophy – and address some of the obvious issues with his thinking – it makes a great deal more sense. To Sail Beyond The Sunset is both story and semi-dramatised lecture, construction and deconstruction … a final grim look at the state of the world and a paean to how technology can make everything better (as well as bringing new problems of its own). It reads as much more of a dramatised autobiography than anything else, in my opinion, but there is enough meat in it to get one thinking, even if one doesn’t agree with Heinlein and/or his characters. As such, like so many of Heinlein’s books, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is worthy of respect.

That said, it does have issues that should be addressed up front. To Sail Beyond The Sunset is divided into two interlocking sections and, while the first can be read alone, the latter practically requires you to have read the other books Heinlein wrote in his final years. Too much of the latter section of the book makes no sense at all without prior knowledge – and even with that knowledge, there are sections which are somewhat incoherent. It also ties into some of Heinlein’s earlier books – as he tried to retroactively establish his future history – and while this served as an effective (if flawed) narrative device in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) it reads as somewhat clunky here. Hazel Stone’s cameo in TMIAHM is sweet, if ill-fitting, but linking To Sail Beyond The Sunset to The Man Who Sold The Moon devalues the latter. YMMV, of course.

The story opens with Maureen Johnston waking up to discover that she’s in bed with a cat and a corpse. Completely bemused, as one might expect, Maureen calls for help … only to rapidly find herself accused of murder and locked in a prison cell. This is merely the opening stage of an adventure that ties into a war between the time-travelling corps – led by Lazarus Long, of whom you may have heard – and a mysterious force of revisionists. (Heinlein never really had the chance to develop this aspect of his universe any further, I think.)

However, this is merely the framing device for Maureen to think back to her childhood, growing up the daughter of a doctor in Missouri. Maureen’s father, a deep thinker in many ways, teaches his daughter to both think about the fundamental reasons behind social and religious laws and how to break them, when necessary. As Maureen grows to adulthood, she turns into something of an ethical slut, enjoying sex and yet being careful not to run into real trouble through mistakes. Her father tells her about the Howard Foundation, which will pay Maureen and her future husband (eventually Brian) for having babies … babies with the potential for a very long life. Maureen eventually marries, has children (including Woodrow Smith, who grows up to be Lazarus), divorces, reinvents herself as a successful businesswoman and eventually gets hit by a truck …

… And wakes up to find herself in the far future, where she meets her son and joins the time corps. At this point, the two storylines converge and turn into a rescue mission, dedicated to saving Maureen’s father from death in World War Two. And then they all live happily ever after.

In some ways, that is a very poor summery. A great deal happens to Maureen and her family that should be mentioned, but – at the same time – not all of it is important. The recounting of her life is entertaining, yet it also strips out doubt … will she survive? Yes, obviously. Like I said above, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is really more of a philosophical work. Maureen gives us her opinions, based on her life in a rapidly-changing country, and invites us to question them. I have a feeling that too many later readers will focus on the questionable parts of her life, rather than the philosophical thoughts. And that is a shame, because there are aspects of To Sail Beyond The Sunset that have striking relevance – and importance – today.

Heinlein does a very good job of bringing the world of 1882-1970 America to life, showing both the joys and sorrows of growing up in an era without the technology we take for granted today. There are many nice touches that show, not always clearly, how people’s lives are restricted, both openly and covertly. ‘Mrs Grundy’ – the woman who peeps from being curtains, just waiting for a chance to spread nasty rumours about young girls – is an ever-present threat, as is the danger of an accidental pregnancy. Maureen learns to embrace the hypocrisy of being a picture-perfect girl in the open, then being something else altogether in complete privacy. For all the claims that Heinlein was a sexist, he is far more understanding of the limits placed on young women of that era than many modern writers. (Maureen cannot go study at a nearby (by our standards) college because it isn’t a safe trip for a young woman.) And he also attempts to explain why they exist in the first place.

He also had a very good understanding of male psychology, something often lacking in modern-day works. A man takes pride in being a good provider, in putting food and drink on the table for his wife and kids. Attacking that pride is often taken far harder than a physical attack – and doing it in public can destroy a marriage for good. (That said, Maureen has no qualms about disagreeing with her husband – calmly and reasonably – in private.) Men need applause and emotional reassurance, particularly when they’re feeling vulnerable (such as when they’re having sex.) There are elements here that, in the wake of sexual liberation, should be studied. Maybe men – and women too – should be something, but they’re often not. Understanding why is the key to longer-lasting change. One can easily read Maureen as being submissive, but one can also read her as being practical. She doesn’t waste her time tilting at windmills when she can find a way to go around them.

Indeed, it is clear that Heinlein had a deep respect for traditional ‘women’s work.’ He makes no bones about how hard it can be to bring up children and keep house, particularly in an era where so much was lacking. Maureen may not be a strong woman in the sense she goes out and kicks ass, but there is no doubt she’s strong-willed and very clever. Seeing her develop as a person is genuinely fascinating, particularly for that era; she switches roles without ease, perhaps, but with a determination that keeps her going.

That said, her character is slippery at times. She is smart, but careful not to appear too smart; she is capable of educating people, yet works to convince them to follow her covertly, instead of positioning herself as a teacher … in some ways, she’s a little manipulative, although that isn’t always a bad thing. Convincing someone to learn on his own can be more effective, in the long run, than handing down advice and orders from on high. And yes, she is intensely sexual from an early age. By modern standards – save for a point I will discuss later – To Sail Beyond The Sunset is remarkably clean, but it was no doubt incredibly shocking for its era. Maureen acts – in her own words – like a cat in heat.

On a personal level, To Sail Beyond The Sunset touches on many important truths of how to make a relationship – even an idealised semi-open marriage – work. Good communication is important, but so too is allowing the other party some room to retreat. Maureen enjoys a semi-open marriage with her husband for quite some time, including a handful of gay and lesbian trysts, before Heinlein deconstructs it by pointing out one of the more obvious dangers. Your partner might (eventually) decide to marry the other woman.

The book also – and this is the dubious part, even today – is somewhat approving of incest, providing that all partners take precautions. (Maureen has a very secret affair with her cousin – and, unknowingly, her time-travelling son – as a young woman; she also has an ill-disguised crush on her father.) Heinlein may have been looking to shock, as well as inviting us to question our assumptions; he makes no bones about the dangers of inbreeding and other entanglements that can have baleful effects many years into the future. And, indeed, he deconstructs such a relationship by using Maureen’s youngest children to showcase the dangers. Call me a prude if you wish, but the idea of incest revolts me. Real-life communities that practice second-cousin marriages have immense problems with inbreeding. The science, at least in this case, is settled.

Part of the problem – both on a local and global level – is that, as Maureen notes, society changed during the course of her life. The old model – traditional households – had become outdated to many, but the new model had yet to sort out the teething problems that always come with the birth of a new order. (Many people would argue that we haven’t solved them either.) Traditional religion was having problems – Heinlein predicted a religious dictatorship after Maureen’s era (Revolt in 2100 predated The Handmaid’s Tale by quite some time) – and it was apparently incapable of solving its problems. People were, as now, torn between the old and the new, between a comforting repressing and a terrifying freedom. The world seems incapable of balancing itself between the two.

On a greater scale, To Sail Beyond The Sunset touches on issues that people on both sides of the culture wars would be well-advised to study. On one level, you need to break ideas down to basics for greater understanding – and to explain them to people who don’t share your experience. And, if you can’t break your ideas down so that anyone can understand them, there’s a very good chance that there’s something wrong with them. An unspoken – and thus unchallenged assumption – that brings the whole edifice crashing down. Maureen sets out to explain stock-broking to her readers – just as Heinlein himself explained politics in Take Back Your Government – and succeeds, at least in part, because she’s good at relating financial concepts to the real world.

More seriously, it is easy to alter laws (relatively speaking), but harder to alter cultural attitudes. The modern-day Mrs Grundy, decked out in Social Justice Bully garb, should be aware of how hard it can be to get everything ‘now.’ Naming and shaming ‘call-outs’ – or even simple bullying – might win the battle, but it doesn’t win the war. Indeed, such tactics only strengthen hatred and power the eventual backlash. Does this mean turning a blind eye to injustice? No, but it does mean accepting that someone who trespasses against the new order may not be irredeemable evil.

Maureen herself showcases it when she becomes a director on a corporate board; she asserts herself, but she doesn’t use her momentary advantage to destroy her opponents. Nor does she turn into a bully, the sort of person who will (hopefully verbally) castrate a man for daring to hold the door open for her. A radical feminist may take some satisfaction in lashing out at what she may see as condescension, but her poor victim will remember it – and not open doors (literally and figuratively) for women in future. Activists who go out of their way to alienate potential allies will look up, one day, and discover that the world hates them. And while that may well be deserved, the world will also hate their cause.

Heinlein also briefly discusses the concerns and fears of people faced with migration, although he talks in terms of the American black population. As I noted before, in Farnham’s Freehold, Heinlein was far more understanding and sympathetic to black people than many other people of his era, but he also understood the concerns of whites as well. One might well understand why someone would want to leave a shithole, to borrow Trump’s crude but accurate remark, but others might fear that the newcomers will bring the shithole with them. Modern experience tells us that this is a valid concern.

The book also takes the chance to outline some of Heinlein’s darker predictions for the future, many of which were trends in his day. Revisionist history – in the sense that the US was responsible for all the evils of the world – is a plague on our society, made all the worse by the simple truth that a small degree of revision is required as new research is carried out or documents are declassified and released to the public. The willingness to coddle childish behaviour from grown adults – and even countries – has led to more of it; surprise, surprise. Maureen had no tolerance for emotional blackmail, which may make her seem harsh at times, but more practical than many modern day politicians and teachers. Worse, perhaps, is the growing belief that celebrities are somehow important and their opinions are more relevant than the average person’s. But this may have taken a hit even before #METOO, as there is a wry argument to be made that celebrity endorsements may actually have cost Hilary Clinton the election. What does the average Hollywood starlet know about the real world?

Like he does in Take Back Your Government, Heinlein also proposes solutions. Local control of schools can keep them from being destroyed by bureaucrats so far away that they have no real concept of what is happening at ground zero. Ruthless enforcement of drug laws and a willingness to expel students who don’t qualify for higher education or break the rules can make life better for everyone else. He also believes that the government should be as limited as possible, with good reason. The larger the government becomes, the more it works in its own favour, rather than that of the average citizen. Precisely how well these solutions would work in the real world is open to debate, but many of his ideas are worth trying.

Part of the problem, of course, is that society is endlessly balanced between Conservatism and Liberalism. Both sides have their extremes – too much of one without the other is bad for society – but they also have their good points. Heinlein tried to find a way to strike a balance between the two, a balance we must also find. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ is on one end of the spectrum of bad parenting advice, but ‘be your child’s best friend’ is on the other. Rejecting one rule – one means of social control – doesn’t mean we should reject them all. That way leads to chaos or tyranny.

In the end, it’s difficult to rate To Sail Beyond The Sunset. It is good – very good – in places and weak in others. It has insights, but also moments of iconoclastic delight – smashing icons and taboos for the sake of smashing them. Heinlein glosses over many of Maureen’s problems, while lingering on points that would be better glossed over. And yet, it cannot be rejected or praised. Heinlein’s greatness is still present, but so too are the weaknesses that plagued his later writings. His star was in decline and I think he knew it.

And yes, there are people who will read this book out of context – and with little appreciation for either Heinlein’s era or the time span of Maureen’s life – and declare it problematic. And yes, there are moments that even I would declare problematic. Heinlein was a man of his era and, in many ways, he never quite grew out of it. He was trying to ask questions that needed answers, but the answers he came up with weren’t always correct. In some ways, he was ahead of his time … and then, suddenly, he was behind his time. He never had a time of his own.

But as I reread the closing section of the book for the last time, it struck me that – in some way – Heinlein was making a droll point of his own. Maureen and many of his other characters doubt the existence of God, choosing to regard religion as a means of social control rather than a pathway to heaven. And so – aided by super-advanced technology – they built a heaven of their own, where they are forever young and no one ever dies. And they all lived happily ever after.

To Sail Beyond The Sunset is a strange book. It isn’t one I will reread time and time again. But, like all of Heinlein’s works, it is worthy of respect.

6 Responses to “Retro Review: To Sail Beyond the Sunset”

  1. Charles Harris February 3, 2018 at 5:03 pm #

    > It is good – very good – in places and weak in others.

    I got that feeling for most of Heinlein’s later works. It is almost as if they were cobbled together from a file of story ideas. Some bits read like early Heinlein, and then things drift. I believe Heinlein had a thing about rewrites — don’t — that might also have been in play.

  2. G February 3, 2018 at 8:26 pm #

    Heinlein was a true conservative–government should be minimal, staying out of both people’s economic and personal lives. Today, both “conservatives” and “liberals” are dyslexic–possibly even hypocritical–“conservatives” want minimal government intervention in economics and business, but they want the government to interfere and restrict social issues like immigration, gay marriage, or abortion; “liberals” want maximum social liberty with open immigration and sexuality, but they want government to interfere and restrict business and economic life with more regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy, etc.

  3. Bruce Underwood February 4, 2018 at 1:10 pm #

    I always liked his philosophy that if enough people believe in a story it becomes real. Example in Number of the Beast; the characters visit Oz. I’d like to think of some of the worlds I read are true somewhere somehow.

  4. sam57l0 February 5, 2018 at 1:42 am #

    It has been a loooooooooooooong time since I read that book, and it will be longer for it is somewhere in storage. There’s a lot I don’t remember of it.
    Regarding the shithole comment, that was reported only by Sen. Durbin. I have not heard any confirmation that he is correct, so I am presently skeptical.

  5. georgephillies February 6, 2018 at 3:17 pm #

    I read the book at the time. It is particularly noteworthy in that Heinlein had a very sharp memory of what life was like when he was young, and recreated large parts of it so far as friends familiar with the question could tell accurately. America’s entry into World War 1 is particularly good.

  6. William Ameling February 10, 2018 at 11:12 pm #

    More than any author I read, while young and relatively young, Heinlein opened my mind to other ideas and viewpoints about our society, culture, and it’s history. My parents’ were not religious or very conservative, but their families and local culture were. It is hard now to image how much culture has changed since then, but I was not even aware that homosexuality (the word gay was not used in that context back then) was even possible until I was well into college or even grad school. AIDS and HIV, a few years later, forced a major change in public discourse and what could be seen in print.

    Heinlein was at least discussing Some of these cultural (not just sexual) issues and attitudes long before general public discussion of them. Starting even in the later 1950s books and more so with the 1960s books. Even with books like Citizen of the Galaxy, Star Ship Troopers, and Tunnel in the Sky he was already discussing things different than the contemporary American culture. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress opened things even more on cultural matters. I think I read Stranger in a Strange Land as a high school senior (Moon a year or two before that) which really gave a different viewpoint on many things in contemporary culture and it’s trends.

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