Heinlein Society - Scholastic/Academic articles
Robert A. Heinlein's Novel: Methuselah's Children
by NY WSC@AOL.com
(reprinted with permission--the author chose to remain anonymous)
©1997 NY WSC@AOL.com
Robert A. Heinlein first published Methuselah's Children in a serialized version in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction in July through September 1941. He completely rewrote, expanded and republished the novel independently in 1958 and collected the longer version in The Past Through Tomorrow (1982), the version on which this precis is based.
When Methuselah's Children saw light of day in 1941, the Holocaust was well under way with the S.S. rounding up Jews and others deemed undesirable, and shipping them to concentration camps for the "final solution." Just as Eve Barstow, referring to her neighbors, in the novel opined, "I cannot believe they would hate me and destroy me," real living Jews had the same misimpression under the Third Reich's actuality. They became scapegoats, just as the Howard Families do. As the Howard Families would have done given the choice many of the Jews of the Third Reich for the most part simply expressed increasing disbelief, resignation and powerlessness and wound up martyred. Rights were suspended for the minority while the many turned a blind eye or actively supported "cleansing" and genocide. When the novel was being rewritten for its second publication in the 1950s, the citizenry of United States for the first time during the author's adult lifetime were enjoying great material prosperity and becoming far less willing to dedicate themselves to hard chores. There is more than a hint in this novel that he found this defect as disconcerting as earlier lassitude to genocide.
The adventures of Lazarus Long and his branch of the Howards continue well beyond this novel into Time Enough For Love (1973), The Number of the Beast (1980), and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). RAH places Methuselah's Children near the end of his Future History, from 2136 to 2210.
Lazarus Long, t/n Woodrow Wilson Smith, a.k.a. Capt. Aaron Sheffield is the oldest living member of the Howard Families, believed dead, a rapscallion who strives to do unto others before they do unto him, which in part may explain his longevity. He also appears in all the later novels.
Andrew Jackson Libby is a mathematician extraodinaire, who invents a Starship drive approaching lightspeed that allows the Families to escape from our Solar system. He also appears as a youth in "Misfit" (1939), a short story collected in Revolt In 2100 (1953), is an off-stage memory in Time Enough For Love; and, later, rejoins the Long branch of the Howards somewhat altered in Number of the Beast, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset.
Zaccur Barstow is a member of the Families who is speaker for the Trustees of the "Howard Foundation."
Slayton Ford is Administrator of the North American Federation, a political body which has absorbed the United States, who assists the Families to flee Earth, and shares their exile.
Mary Sperling is the "Oldest known Howard," very concerned with her own aging, and their spokeswoman until Lazarus reveals himself.
Eleanor Johnson, a young Howard woman, 27 years old, is a new mother when the story begins.
Horace Foote is a hero.
Because Ira Howard, a self-made Victorian era millionaire, finds himself dying of old age while in his mid-40s, his Will institutes a foundation to encourage discovery of a means to prolong human life. To this end the Howard Foundation contacts people whose grandparents live to be 100 or more and encourages them to marry. For each child born of such union, it awards the parents a monetary bonus. Offspring that intermarry receive the same incentives, and their descendants eventually achieve a natural lifespan exceeding two hundred years. Eleven years before Methuselah's Children begins, these Families agree to allow a small percentage of their number to reveal themselves to the general populace, it having become increasingly difficult to maintain the 'masquerade' of altered identities concealing true ages under the highly evolved and beneficent society under the Covenant created following the Second American Revolution which freed the country from the shackles of religious theocracy. Yet despite their hopes, a frenzy of hatred develops, engendered by opportunistic politicians, abetted by the media. Ephemerals believe the Howards are not the result of reinforced genetics by selective breeding but hiding a secret technology which grants them long life. Discovery by Mary Sperling of plans to imprison and torture the revealed Howards for their 'secret' leads to an emergency meeting to determine their next move. Before plans are made, the Federation suspends the 'Covenant,' takes the Families captive and proceeds with less than lethal interrogation. Administrator Slayton Ford becomes convinced from preliminary results that genetics is indeed the only cause of their longevity, but remains reluctantly willing to destroy all members of the Families through more stringent interrogation, rather than let the morale of ephemerals be destroyed by frustrated desire for the supposed secret to long life.
Fortunately, Lazarus Long, who has managed to evade capture, contacts the Administrator with a plan; and they, together with Zaccur Barstow, scheme to enable the Families to 'liberate' the newly-built exploratory Starship New Frontiers to escape Earth. Ford's collusion indirectly leads to fall of his party's government and impending arrest, and he is forced to flee with the Howards. In an effort to escape ships tracking them, 'Slipstick' Libby installs an experimental close-to-light-speed drive; and within a matter of hours Sol's system is left behind. After long years traveling, they reach the nearest G5 star and find a planet very similar to Earth. It is inhabited by the Jockaira, a race who worship their 'gods' in temples in each city. The Jockaira once had discovered space flight, but tell the Howards their 'gods' soon afterward appeared and forbade further exploration. When the Howards are obliged to adopt worship an existing 'god' of their own to remain Slayton Ford insists on entering a temple, only to emerge suffering from extreme psychoses occasioned by actually encountering that 'god.' The Jockairan 'gods' react by ejecting every last Howard, sans benefit of ship's boats, directly into the New Frontiers, still orbiting in space and remotely control a 17 month journey to a new star. This star holds the planet of the Little People, a "lotus land" having "no seasons ... [i]ts hills were low, its winds were gentle, its seas were placid." Food, which the Little People bio-engineer to whatever taste the Families desire, can be daily plucked fresh from trees. Projects are put off, and put off again indefinitely, while some Howards, including Lazarus, consider this fate with apprehension. To the Families' growing horror, the Little People go so far as to manipulate a fetus in utero, improving humanity in the person of a newborn, the highly efficient (but grossly modified) Marion Schmidt. Then Mary Sperling, who so fears death, 'goes over' to the Little People, her mind assimilated by them into their collective consciousness. The Families split into two camps, those who wish to return to the green hills of Earth, and those who stay, approximately 10,000, including the Schmidts, give or take an unregistered child. The Families return to Earth ready to fight for survival but find while they have been absent its population has actually discovered technological ways to prolong life, ushering in an era of general prosperity through interstellar exploration and colonization.
Aging is one major theme in Methuselah's Children. Today, to avoid looking old, mankind has learned to nip and tuck and liposuction, use hormones, implant hair, dress in flattering fashions and, hopefully, look youthful. The Howards used similar techniques, both to masquerade uniqueness and for mental well being. But no one has ever succeeded in turning back time. At the start of Methuselah's Children, petite and youthfully attractive Mary Sperling explains to her acquaintances her refusal to marry an apparently older man courting her by saying, "There's too much difference in age." She meant her own age, which was 183. To her knowledge, she was the oldest member of the Families. All that lay ahead, despite that she looked to be in her early 30s, was a highly increased threat of senescence. Within 90 days of diagnosis, the result was death. Mary so feared death that she was willing to assimilate her consciousness with the Little People, achieving immortality in the collective memory they possessed. Lazarus Long tells her when she first mentions her preoccupation that she should start another family. That may have distracted her, but not been a solution: the problem would be waiting when new children no longer needed nurturing. She side-steps the issue by "drowning her personality in the ego of the many." Today we face not threat of death after an extremely long life, but death of the mind, with the possibility of a corporeal death long years off. When RAH wrote Methuselah's Children, 'senility' was an expected part of old age. Now we know it to be Alzheimer's, merely a biochemical deficiency that causes apparently healthy and physically fit individuals to suddenly begin losing mental faculties. With extraordinary means available to modern medicos who consider any death a failure to keep the body alive, an empty husk may remain, nourished, hydrated, medicated, tied to a bed and 'life.' In the face of this long twilight existence, presently incurable, certainty within 90 days seems relief rather than threat. The Families had the option to accept euthanasia, an option not lawfully ours. Mary Sperling's desperate 'solution' which is no solution at all anticipates yet another desperate 'solution' attempted by the hero of another RAH novel, Johann Sebastian Smith in I Will Fear No Evil (1970). No solution is really offered here. Merely a counterpoint.
Lazarus is the counterpoint to Mary. His basic optimism, in antithesis to Sperling's obsession on her impending death, to 'carpe that old diem,' living until you die, appears in many of RAH's works. In Glory Road (1963) the inscription on Oscar's sword reads Dum Vivimus, Vivamus, "While we live, let us live." The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1965) ends with Manny deciding to go out to the Asteroids. "My word, I'm not even a hundred yet." Mary, in Puppet Masters (1951), refuses to take tempus pills (to extend time) by saying, "I must live each moment and not let it be spoiled by worrying about the moment ahead." The homemade starry flag flies over Farnham's Freehold (1964), and they're still going on. Even Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) enjoys life to the fullest and only works or leaves his enclave when whim takes him. And always there is Woodrow Wilson Smith a.k.a. Lazarus Long a.k.a. The Senior in Time Enough for Love (1973), Number of the Beast (1980) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987), taking big bites, finding so much in living that at 4300 plus years he is still going strong.
Another major theme, however, is individual reliance and wariness of all governments, organizations, and other societal groupings--including one's own family, no matter how benevolently conceived and organized, well ordered and prosperously effected. Lazarus Long, in all of his many appearances in Heinlein's works, epitomizes this. Here, initially, he is instrumental in saving his family only because he "opts out" at the last moment from a planned surrender engineered 'for his own good'. Heinlein believed in "individualism" as strongly as any theme illustrated in his books. No one does it for you better than your own efforts, he argues; and it is suicidal to surrender blindly your own volition to any form of government, leadership, or life no matter how well secured by a "covenant," how honestly led, or how life is made easy by technology. A pierced together version of Woodrow Wilson Smith's own related history shows him fading into the woodwork in self-preservation, again and yet again. The only force which alters this major characteristic is the call of his own "family" for his assistance. And then only the call of "women and children first" will sound loud enough to bring him forth. His interest in Mary is probably his only motive for not immediately fading off into the woodwork in this novel once he breaks free of the hand of the proctors. He had no close relatives who yet lived by the time of Methuselah's Children. At best, his descendants were several generations removed--only the most tenuous binding strings. He had opted out from any leadership role generations earlier following the Families' Meeting of 2012 (which time "Stories Never Written" reveals immediately followed the election of the Prophet, following which the adherents of that individual's religion legislated its creed into law, and the United States plunged into a new Dark Age), and spent the interregnum on Venus and Mars, free of the dictatorship. Yet plainly, genocide, which is on the menu in Methuselah's Children, did bring him back into a leadership role, but only long enough to provide the vehicle, literally, of their escape. He then steps back into his role as observer--ironic, for he fails to observe Mary's fall into failure of confidence in her own identity. Until again, another form of genocide, threatened submergence of the families into the "easy life," into the becoming another species, calls him forward. Long is unlikely to be an altruistic sacrificial fool. His survival instincts are too strong for that. So, a danger like genocide is plainly necessary to involve him. His individualism is plainly a contrast to Mary whose solution to aging and death is the antithesis of individualism, for her solution leads surely to death of her individual self, whatever memory may remain after her merger into the collective consciousness of the "Little People." What irony exists in the name of that species! Children robbed of their birthright of freedom, robbed of any privacy, robbed of self-identity, robbed of life itself by the "easy life" of fully realized materialism. The perfectly-effected communism, the particular bane of the author's time, and of any time.
Yet another theme deals with overpossessiveness and overprotectiveness in child-rearing and education, creating dependency rather than maturity, and its correlative, a tendency to create both obsessively demanding and dependent parents and an equally corrosive chain of obligation toward his parent for a child so reared. This sub-plot involves Eleanor Johnson, a young mother at the inception of the novel, and her partially orphaned child. Heinlein traces what so frequently happens to the object of a too loving parent--an oppressive parental relationship, so stifling that it occupies the lives of both parent and child to the exclusion of any other interests by each. The child who never severs apron strings and the parent who becomes so childishly dependent on the life of the child that neither ever has a life of their own result. Overpossessiveness and overprotectiveness creates immaturity and dependency, each a contributing factor against the independence of a secure self-identity, so this ties in to what is portrayed by Lazarus and Mary, his thematic antithesis. In only one other novel, a juvenile, The Star Beast (1954), did the author portray a parent-child situation nearly as developed (or underdeveloped) as the one between Eleanor Johnson and her son, Hubert. In that novel, it takes a strong woman in her own right, young Betty Sorenson, to break the bond which John Thomas Stuart XI's mother, also a widow, tries too hard to create. However, in Farmer In The Sky (1950), the obverse occurs, when a child, also partially orphaned, tries to exert control over his remaining parent, his father, attempting to coerce him by guilt into remaining a widower. It doesn't work because the father doesn't allow his son's selfish wishes to prevail. In Methuselah's Children, the son Hubert became so desperate to break the maternal bond that, first, he elects to remain behind on the planet of the "Little People" to escape her; and when she changes her mind so as to remain with him, he flees by joining the ship at the last moment. Eleanor, of course, follows at the last second, so the resolution remains uncertain. Hubert may grow up to be his own individual, but, again, he may not. The theme of dependency spread out to society at large is picked up again, much later, in I Will Fear No Evil (1970), portraying a truly dependent society created by poorly-conceived systems of social welfare which provides a modicum of material wealth without effort for all as evidenced by Joe Branca's family and, in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985), in the person of Bill, whose development is so stunted and character so warped by lack of either education or material goods that he proves himself not deserving to continue to exist, so he doesn't.
A fourth theme lightly touches upon the dangerous and frequently unholy symbiotic relationship existing between politicians and the popular Press. Two other novels, Double Star (1956) and Stranger In A Strange Land (originally 1961) follow on this theme.
Finally, briefly touched upon, is the theme of sacrifice. Heinlein often wrote that a gentleman should possess many attributes, among which is the ability to "die nobly." Putting your life on the line of course is the basic theme of one other work, Starship Troopers (1959). Here, at a time when it remained in doubt whether the Federation would be able to determine the identities of the Howards who had not revealed themselves, a man who knew the extent and who had revealed himself, Horace Foote, was captured, rendered unconscious and restrained and slated for interrogation before he could suicide. Before the 'humane' methods of truth serum could be applied to expose his family to genocidal maniacs, he bit out his own tongue. As Zim might say: "His name shines!"
In this reading, unlike my first reading in youth, I am concerned most with the major theme of aging. I understand Mary Sperling's viewpoint. To anyone else, I would describe my age as fairly young. Middle age will always be 20 years older than I am, say I; but thinking my children are approaching the age of having children themselves while writing this precis, it feels old. Mary copped out. Rather than make a firm decision to live her life, she ironically embraced another form of death, the death of her personality. Memories remained, but in a detached manner, like a "stranger remembering what an old friend remembered." Her body will remain alive for a time but, after it leaves, only the "stranger" will remain, sharing a disembodied, indifferent memory. "Is that all there is?" The Little People's planet was manipulated to be perfect. Could humans survive in such a world? In such a collective consciousness? Not according to RAH. In Time Enough for Love, Lazarus Long returns to that planet after 2,000 years to find not one human, not one human artifact anywhere. One cannot choose but wonder if whatever personality of Mary Sperling remained, those many years after, would have considered this choice worth the final payment? No mess, no stress, no joy nor pleasure. On and on, world without end, Amen. Her life would continue, but she would not be alive! Once we lose interest in living, in moving forward, and start concentrating inwardly on aches and pains, on regretting past mistakes or omissions, we become old, no matter our chronological age. On reading Methuselah's Children, 20 or so years ago, I was mildly concerned with Mary Sperling's choice to continue 'living' at any cost (shades of H. Ryder Haggard's She). Today not only am I dismayed and appalled, but down-right annoyed at the waste. I cavil against this plot, wondering why she was not offered anti-depressants. The Families had psychiatrists. Why didn't one pick up on her frame of mind?
©2001-2010 The Heinlein Society