Retro Review: Methuselah’s Children

31 Mar

The evil days come for the Howard Families. Luckily, Lazarus Long is on the case.

It is roughly a century after the events depicted in Revolt in 2100. The world is ruled by the Federation, under the Convent (basically, a version of the US Constitution). However, all is not well. The Howard Families, a group of humans who have been literally bred for long life (the oldest in the group is over two hundred years old), made the mistake of revealing their existence to the rest of the human race. Convinced, incorrectly, that the Howards have a secret to long life – a secret that they are apparently unwilling to share – greedy and desperate men whip up a storm of public feeling against the immortals. Their complete destruction is apparently at hand.

Lazarus Long, the oldest Howard, finds himself in an uneasy alliance with Slayton Ford, the planetary administer. Ford, once convinced that there is no secret, covertly assists the Howards to steal a starship and flee across the interstellar void; the Howards leave, reluctantly, because the only alternative is being ripped apart for a secret that simply doesn’t exist.

This might be enough adventure for one book – Heinlein does a good job of showing how Ford is forced into a position where he must commit a horrific crime or stand aside and watch someone else do it – but the story doesn’t end there. Travelling across the stars, accompanied by Ford (who deserted his post when it became clear that he was on the verge of being deposed), the Howards stumble across two very different alien civilisations. The first, a seemingly-harmless planet of religious aliens, is dominated by very real (and unseen) gods; the second, a planet of advanced telepaths, is ruled by a race that improved itself beyond belief … and, quite kindly, offers to do the same for the human settlers. Horrified, perhaps convinced that home is best, the settlers fly back to Earth …

… And discover that a frantic research project has discovered the secret of eternal life after all! (The government dared not admit that there was no secret, after it had drummed up support for a campaign against the Howards.) Amused, the Howards trade the secret of FTL to Earth and are reintegrated into society. Lazarus, suspecting that Earth has no place for him, promptly starts making plans to go out again.

I’ve often figured that one of the reasons Heinlein remains popular is that his characters are recognisably human, even when his technology is a mixture of strikingly advanced and surprisingly primitive. This is true of both the personal – Lazarus is not that alien for a man in his third century – and the social. Heinlein shows us just how easy it is to whip up support against a despised and envied minority, from politicians who seek to gain advantage to men who simply don’t want to die early. (This was the original motive behind the Howard Foundation.) The desperate desire not to die drives people to do horrific acts in the hope it will save themselves.

This creates a trap, as Heinlein shows, for politicians who might otherwise be quite reasonable. Ford knows that trying to drag the secret out of the Howards is pointless, but if he tries to tell his people that he’ll be lynched. He finds himself torn between exterminating the Howards, and copping the blame for destroying the ‘secret,’ or letting someone else do it; he even talks himself into believing that a quick extermination will be the kindest solution, as it will save the Howards from being tortured to death. And the hell of it is that he might be right. Some problems simply don’t have solutions; Ford’s administration runs aground on simple bad luck, rather than incompetence.

The Howards themselves, for all of their great age, are also recognisably human. When faced with a sudden and seemingly all-encompassing threat, they respond in a number of different ways; some try to argue for their rights, some try to stick their heads in the sand, some even propose a racial war between long-lives and short-lives. However, it is clear that they lack the mentality to fight; they scrabble over trivial points until it is far too late, debating the value of spilled milk when there is no way they can put the genie back in the bottle. They also react with a certain amount of fear towards Lazarus Long, regarding him as a sheep might regard a sheepdog protecting him from the wolves. The problem, of course, is that – to the sheep – a sheepdog looks very much like the wolf. I don’t fully hold with the sheep/sheepdog/wolf hierarchy, but there is a lot of truth in it.

They are also afraid of death, something which is true of just about everyone in the novel (with the possible exception of Lazarus Long.) Ford even admits that, if there was a secret, he would have torn the Howards apart to get it. What humans will do to avoid death is, in some ways, the driving question of the novel; the early Howards are bred for long life, the government throws everything it can into a research program to prolong lives, Mary decides to give up her individuality and join an alien hive-mind rather than die as a human. And yet, it is clear that long-life isn’t an unmixed blessing. Lazarus himself admits that his mind is slowly starting to crack under the strain of living for so long.

Heinlein shows us many things that would be recognisable today, for better or worse. His outline of the events that led to the First Prophet and the establishment of the Theocracy bears a disturbing amount of resemblance to events on college and university campuses today. (This was something he would address in more detail in To Sail Beyond The Sunset.) The dangers of mob rule and media manipulation are made clear, long before Obama and Trump used social media to speak to the masses. It is quite possible to think that the First Prophet got a boost from the chaos of excessive liberalism – just as Pompey eventually became de facto dictator of Rome – and, unlike Pompey, he didn’t stop cracking down when the immediate problem was removed.

On a smaller level, the characters themselves read a little oddly. In Lazarus Long’s case, it is somewhat justified; he’s over two centuries old and reads like a man who stepped out of the past and into the future. There is a considerable amount of values dissonance; on one hand, he has no compunctions about stealing what he needs, but on the other he has a number of recognisably sexist attitudes. (He gets better in later books.) Ford is very much a ruthless and practical man, caught up in a crisis that is not of his making and defies conventional solutions. Mary, honestly, is very much a foolish woman without a gram of sense … and while this might be understandable in a teenage girl, she is supposed to be old enough to know better.

Surprisingly, for a book written in serial form in 1941 – and later turned into a novel in 1958 – it also manages to include an observation on race that, once again, proves that Heinlein was no racist:

The Negro hated and envied the white man as long as the white man enjoyed privileges forbidden the Negro by reason of colour. This was a sane, normal reaction. When discrimination was removed, the problem solved itself and cultural assimilation took place.”

The idea that African-Americans might resent WASPs – let alone that they might have a good reason to feel resentment – would have been revolutionary in its day. Heinlein was looking forward to the day when colour barriers were nothing more than a distant memory, a day that has yet to materialise (in some ways, because people on both sides don’t want them to materialise, something that clicks with the book). However, this is not a solution to the crisis:

There is a similar tendency on the part of the short-lived to envy the long-lived. We assumed that this expected reaction would be of no social importance in most people once it was made clear that we owe our peculiarity to our genes – no fault nor virtue of our own, just good luck in our ancestry. This was mere wishful thinking [SNIP] what actually happened was this: we showed our short-lived cousins the greatest boon it is possible for a man to imagine … then we told them it could never be theirs.

This faced them with an unsolvable dilemma. They have rejected the unbearable facts, they refuse to believe us. Their envy now turns to hate, with an emotional conviction that we are depriving them of their rights … deliberately, maliciously. That rising hate has now swelled into a flood which threatens the welfare and even the lives of all our revealed brethren … and which is potentially as dangerous to the rest of us. The danger is very great and very pressing.”

What does one do when faced with an insolvable problem? Ford – and Heinlein – point out that there are simply no halfway solutions that might be accepted. The idea of Howards donating sperm to short-lives might work, in theory, but it would simply spark off another crisis. Not everyone wants to be faced with a choice between raising children who aren’t theirs and condemning their biological children to short lives. People with an inferiority complex, people who feel they have been treated unfairly, can do dangerous things. If Harry Potter’s Wizarding World was to be declared real tomorrow, how many of us would wind up like Petunia Dursley?

A decent writer might get a single story out of this crisis. Heinlein told us several, combining pulp fiction with genuine literature … and tossed out a number of interesting ideas along the way. His technological predictions range from excellent to poor – he describes a device that functions a little like a TIVO, with a commercial-skip function – but his socio-political predictions ring uncomfortably true today. Let us hope that the rest of his story does not come to pass.

Overall, Methuselah’s Children reads a little clunky these days – because of the blending of pulp and literature, combined with poor technological predictions, but it remains a decent read and a cautionary tale against mob rule and those who would exploit it.

8 Responses to “Retro Review: Methuselah’s Children”

  1. William Ameling March 31, 2018 at 6:32 pm #

    Methuselah’s Children starts in 2125 when Lazarous Long (aka Woodrow Wilson Smith) was 213 years old, i.e. he was born in 1912 which is correct based on “Time Enough for Love” when he time traveled back to see his parents and grandfather in about 1916 or 1917 (he enlisted and fought in World War 1) when his younger self was 5 years old in Nov 1917 which which is also correct. He was born on 11 Nov 1912 just after Woodrow Wilson was elected president, which is where he got his real name from. He had his 6th birthday in 1918 on the day World War ended, i.e. 11 Nov assuming the dates are the same as in our timeline.

    I am not sure if the main story in Revolt in 2100 actually took place in 2100, or shortly before and was rounded up to 2100 for title purposes, but it was probably close to that date. Which means that Methuselah’s Children is only about 25 years (or so) after the Revolt. We need to check the timeline for Heinlein’s Future History stories to get a better date for when the revolt took place and how long until “Methuselah’s Children”. At the moment I do not have access to my paperback books that have my only copy of it.

    Also, as mentioned in my other post, for “Misfit”, I am almost certain that Andy in “Methuselah’s Children” who invented the space drive they used near the sun to get a boost to near light speed, was the same main character (the young genius) in “Misfit”.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 31, 2018 at 6:36 pm #

      IIRC in Methuselah’s Children, it is established that he’s the young genius in “Misfit”.

    • chrishanger April 1, 2018 at 7:45 am #

      The dating is a little vague.


  2. Daniel April 1, 2018 at 4:32 am #

    This story I only read once but parts of it always stuck in my head

  3. William Ameling April 1, 2018 at 4:56 am #

    Checking the online Wiki copy of Robert Heinlein and his timeline, Nemiah Scudder, the original “Prophet” died about 2060 and Libby was born about 2075 to 2080. IIRC, the original prophet was already dead when the revolt happened. I think that the revolt would have been around 2075 to 2080. So there may have been up to 50 years between the revolt and Methuselah’s Children. Also IIRC, I think Lazarous Long spent the time during the religious dictatorship on the planet Venus while space travel stopped.

  4. William Ameling April 1, 2018 at 4:58 am #

    Andy and Libby are different names for the same person.

  5. WilliamP April 1, 2018 at 6:14 am #

    One of my favourite Heinlein novels, along with The Rolling Stones.

  6. William Ameling April 1, 2018 at 10:09 am #

    One problem with Heinlein’s world (of his Future History story sequence) during the 21st Century: what was going on in the rest of the World during the time of the religious dictatorship in the USA (did it even include Canada or Mexico?) ? IIRC I think Europe got devastated in a War at some point, but that still leaves South America, Asia, Africa, etc.

    In particular the Future History sequence of stories is NOT compatible with “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, or “Stranger in a Strange Land”. Although, the second of those had it’s own lesser version of a religion trying to dominate the USA.

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