Methuselah’s Children first appeared 81 years ago this summer, in the July, August, and September 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. In 1948, Erle Korshak gave Heinlein a $200 advance to publish the serial at Shasta Press. The revised and slightly expanded version should have been Heinlein’s third hardback book, but it didn’t get published until 1958. In 1967 Methuselah’s Children was included in The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein’s giant collection of Future History stories. The Past Through Tomorrow was widely distributed by the Science Fiction Book Club, so I expect many people have read this novel. Methuselah’s Children was first reprinted in paperback in 1962, having an extensive reprint history.
This past week while convalescing after surgery, I got hooked on reading early Heinlein. I needed reading material I could consume on my iPhone, and I’ve been meaning for years to reevaluate my adolescent love of Heinlein’s fiction. This seemed like a good time, and it made me feel more productive while lying around all day. I’ve finished Methuselah’s Children and The Sixth Column and working on Revolt in 2100. These are Heinlein’s first three novels (depending on how you measure wordage).
I expect to read even more from Heinlein’s pre-war stories. I feel like an academic studying his early work. I used to think that Heinlein had four periods where the stories were distinctively different. I grouped them into the Pre-WWII stories, the 1947-1959 stories, novels from the 1960s, and the later novels. Some of his books from the 1950s I have read many times, and are my favorites. Heinlein’s books from the 1960s I’ve read at least three times each, I think. I read most of the pre-WWII stories only once, except for the more famous anthologized short stories. I’ve read those several times. For his later work, I’ve only read those books either once, or I didn’t finish them.
I’m now realizing that Heinlein changed far less from period to period than I previously thought. A lot of the perceived differences were due to the markets that published the stories. His work at Putnam showed Heinlein at his most verbose. I’m now seeing those personal pet ideas he expounded on at length in his later novels revealed in his earlier works as mere asides. Despite editorial restraint or the limits of length, Heinlein expressed himself one way or another.
Heinlein was incredibly prolific before WWII. One estimate suggested that 20% of Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 was written by Heinlein using his own name or under pseudonyms. After the war, five of those stories were published as novels, even though they were very short, or fix-ups. Most of the famous Future History stories were written during this period. Before Heinlein quit writing to join the war effort in 1942, he wrote five tales that would be published as novels. I’ve read the first and last three times each, but the middle three only once.
- Beyond This Horizon (1948, Fantasy Press) (Astounding April, May 1942)
- Sixth Column (1949, Gnome Press) (Astounding, January, February, March 1941)
- Revolt in 2100 (1953, Shasta) (Astounding, February, March 1940)
- Methuselah’s Children (1958, Gnome Press) (Astounding, July, August, September 1941)
- Orphans of the Sky (1964, Putnam) (Astounding, May, October 1941)
When I first started reading Methuselah’s Children I thought I must have first read it when I got The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was considered the last story in Heinlein’s Future History, and the one that was set second furthest in the future. The characters in “Universe” and “Common Sense” (reprinted as Orphans of the Sky) lived the furthest in the future in Heinlein’s fictional universe. When I started writing this essay I remembered borrowing and reading Methuselah’s Children from Homestead Air Force Base Library in 1965 because that library had all of Heinlein’s Gnome, Fantasy Press, and Shasta’s editions. I distinctly remember its cover (see above).
I have not read Methuselah’s Children since then, and I barely remembered it. I can’t say it’s a great story. You can tell Heinlein was just learning how to write a novel. It’s rather episodic, with three main story arcs that go along with being serialized over three issues. And Heinlein hadn’t figured out how to plot a long story yet, nor was he particularly good at developing dramatic scenes. I believe Sixth Column had better plotting, and Revolt in 2100 had some better dramatic scenes. However, Methuselah’s Children is full of exciting science fictional ideas, referencing many of his other early stories that fit within the Future History timeline.
I’m not sure I’d recommend Methuselah’s Children to modern readers, although at Goodreads there were many reviewers who raved about it. Now that I’m rereading old Heinlein I’m also pondering why as I go along.
First, let’s consider the science fictional concepts presented by Heinlein for the readers of 1941.
- Longevity. The Howard Family (the collective name, there were many surnames) began selective breeding in the 19th century by only marrying spouses that had four living grandparents. By the 22nd century, many of them were living close to two hundred years. The oldest, Lazarus Long, was 213 at the beginning of the novel, and somewhere between 50-75 years older at the end. No one knows for sure because of the time dilation of space travel. In 1941 Americans were still interested in eugenics, but the techniques used to achieve longevity in this story were merely animal husbandry. Heinlein should have known this wouldn’t work because we’ve never bred any long-lived farm animals.
- Political Utopia. The story is set after the Crazy Years and the Second American Revolution, under a new constitution called The Covenant. Maximum political freedom was guaranteed. However, The Covenant breaks down when the average citizen learns that the Howard Family has longevity and they want to suspend its freedom and torture the Howard Family members into revealing their secret. It’s a shame that Heinlein didn’t flesh out this semi-utopian period.
- STL and FTL Space Travel. The Howard Family escapes Earth by stealing the sister ship to the one in “Universe” and “Common Sense”. Their ship, the New Frontiers, starts out slow, but Andrew Jackson Libby, a character from Heinlein’s second published story, “Misfit” finds a way to soup up the engines to travel near light speed. Eventually, he learns how to make it go faster than light. That means in two 1941 stories Heinlein explores several ways to achieve interstellar travel.
- Psychic Powers. Even though the Howard Family breed for longevity they still have birth defects (assumed from all that inbreeding). Heinlein is careful to point out how well they take care of these children. Some of those handicapped offspring had psychic powers, and that figured in the plot in a couple of places. Children with birth defects and psychic powers reminded me of stories by Philip K. Dick from the 1950s and 1960s. Heinlein’s aliens also have various degrees of psychic powers. In one instance, reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is interesting for 1941. SF in the 1950s was known for its ESP stories.
- Vastly Superior Aliens. The Howard Family refugees first encounter an alien species called the Jockaira, a pleasant, vaguely humanoid people that welcomes them to their planet. Then the Howards meet the real rulers of the planet and it scares the shit out of them. This is very interesting because John W. Campbell supposedly had some kind of unwritten editorial rule that forbade stories with superior aliens. For the rest of his writing career, Heinlein always claimed humans were the meanest, toughest species in the galaxy, but in this story, we run away with our tails between our legs.
- Lotus Eater Aliens. The next planet has extremely nice aliens. Too nice.
For 1941, this is some impressive science fiction, but is it for 2022? And was the writing all that impressive, even for 1941? Heinlein has a reputation for blazing onto the pulp scene as a far superior writer. I have my doubts in places. This is where I wonder if this story will survive the test of time. Heinlein loved writing stories where people had huge meetings in large halls to argue about their problems using Robert’s Rules of Order. These group meetings happened several times in Methuselah’s Children. To me, this was a cheating kind of infodump. And quite often it allows Heinlein to spout his philosophy using his protagonist. Lazarus Long is a popular character but could be a holier-than-thou know-it-all.
At the beginning of the novel, Mary Sperling is the leader of the Howard Family because of her age. It’s a shame Heinlein didn’t stick with this woman protagonist. Mary was the chairman of the board and the moderator at meetings where the various families send their representatives. But when Lazarus Long admits he’s older Mary gives him the gavel. From then on Lazarus conducts the meetings. Heinlein tries to make him sound like a cross between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but in my mind, he failed. I never felt Lazarus showed the wisdom that a man of 213 years should have.
Heinlein loved his character Lazarus Long and brought him back in several stories. We’re told Lazarus wears a kilt with a gun (blaster) strapped between his legs. The jokes I could make about that. I was never sure he wore anything besides a kilt, but every chance he gets Lazarus will shuck his skirt. I’ve read that Heinlein was a nudist, and that concept shows up over and over again in his stories. I tried to imagine a hundred thousand naked people in a spaceship in zero-g and it brings out the Puritanical prude in me. The thought of being in a cabin with Lazarus long while floating in free space and being forced to stare at his two guns hurt this story.
Also, Lazarus often acted like he was ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Throughout Heinlein’s fiction, his characters ignore laws and often commit capital punishment for offenses that the law would seldom execute.
Lazarus Long has an ego the size of Texas. I’m sure Heinlein used all the incidents I saw as egotism as a way to prove that Lazarus was a competent man who could do anything. At one point, Lazarus shows how any man with moxie can bully his way through the telephone system to talk to the world leader. I wonder if Heinlein thought he could call up FDR anytime he wanted?
In another story arc, Lazarus steals an interstellar spaceship, buys a giant cargo vessel, and rescues over a hundred thousand people – all by himself. This really hurt the novel because it’s absolutely unbelievable. Methuselah’s Children would have been a much better story if the Howard Families totaled fewer than a thousand people. At one point Lazarus is moderating a meeting of all hundred thousand using televisors. That just seemed ridiculous to me. Try imagining Donald Trump interacting with a hundred thousand of his fans concurrently who wanted their say too.
And maybe Lazarus Long isn’t Heinlein, but I imagine this character is the person Heinlein wished he could be. Ditto for Jubal Harshaw, and all the other characters people think of as standing for Heinlein. The William Patterson biography of Heinlein hints that Heinlein was an unpopular cadet at the Naval academy and that he was very thinned-skinned.
Heinlein fans have often accused critics of not understanding that writers aren’t their characters. But for Heinlein, I believe he created a dominating character that he wished he could be. For some readers, this works. I’m guessing they’d like to be those characters too. And maybe I did too when I was a kid. Now, Heinlein’s supermen are unappealing, to say the least.
Still, I found Methuselah’s Children to be very readable and thought-provoking. The way the story handles the resentment over genetically enhanced humans was done better with Nancy Kress and her novel Beggars in Spain, so I’d recommend it before Methuselah’s Children.
In 1941 Heinlein was dealing with several ways of achieving interstellar travel. That was amazing at a time when most Americans pictured space travel like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordan series, where alien planets seem no further than the Moon. Heinlein worked to get his readers to imagine the immense distance between the stars and the limitations Einstein had put on space travel. Unfortunately, all that has been done countless times since. So I don’t know if young readers need to dig this far back in science fiction to find rewarding stories on those science fictional topics.
My main enjoyment in reading Methuselah’s Children is finding all the easter eggs linking to earlier Future History stories. Also, I liked that Heinlein kept imagining the United States being overthrown by various other forms of government. Even though I believe this 81-year-old story is unworthy of future pop culture recognition, it still entertained me because I’m a life-long Heinlein fan.
But I’m also seeing that I never really paid attention to Heinlein’s philosophy and politics. What mattered to me were the science fictional ideas. When I was young I wanted Heinlein to be read and loved by everyone. I wanted him to become a classic author like Charles Dickens. That just isn’t happening. If 10,000 novels are published every year, 99.999% of them will be forgotten, leaving about ten to fight for a slot in our long-term pop culture memory. If you look at Wikipedia’s list of 1941 fiction, Methuselah’s Children is there (probably because of an editor who is a Heinlein fan), but so are a bunch of books already forgotten. It’s funny, but from the list, the most memorable pieces of 1941 fiction for me were Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain and “Nightfall,” by Asimov. If we look at Wikipedia’s remembered films of 1941, I see far more that have retained some pop cultural vitality – especially Citizen Kane.
People probably wonder why I obsess over remembering the past, worrying about what will be remembered and what won’t. I’m just fascinated by what history and world culture retain from pop culture. What works of art can speak the furthest across time.
I started reading Heinlein when I was twelve, so maybe I’m now finalizing the project twelve years before I die. I’m seeking both closure and exorcism. When I retired I got heavily into reevaluating my past, but I’ve been doing that for a decade and I realize I don’t want to spend my last years looking backward. I want to get back to thinking about the future.
James Wallace Harris, 9/11/22