Book Review: Beyond This Horizon, Robert A. Heinlein (magazine publication 1942, novelized 1948)
February 3, 2013 § 17 Comments
(Sandy Kossin’s cover for the 1960 edition)
Beyond This Horizon (magazine publication 1942, novelized 1948) was Robert A. Heinlein’s second published novel and one of the few non-juvenile works he published until the late 50s and early 60s. Interesting tangent: Starship Troopers (1959) was originally conceived as a juvenile but rejected by his normal publisher due to its more serious content.
Unfortunately, Beyond this Horizon is plagued by an utterly contrived first half and a frustrating tagline that governs Heinlein’s world-building — “an armed society is a polite society.” The second half is remotely more readable but I was so disenchanted by that point that I was desperate for the conclusion. David Brin points out that the tagline was the brainchild of Heinlein’s editor — John W. Campbell, who first published the work in Astounding – who compelled him to integrate it into the plot. I suspect this type of oversight influenced Heinlein’s decision to publish solely juveniles for almost two decades afterwards (well, and the market). If anyone knows more about this period in his writing career I’d love to know…
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
The world Heinlein creates and the snappy dialogue (as always) between characters are the most appealing aspects of the work. This future Earth is governed by a doctrine of eugenics: “To keep the race strong as it is and to make it stronger requires careful planning. The genetic technician eliminates in the laboratory the strains which formerly were eliminated by simple natural selection” (25). In short, prospective parents choose the sperm and ova from a bank depending on a desirable genetic makeup instead of genetically manipulating the sperm and ova.
This pseudo-utopia emerged from an earlier eugenic focused society that actually modified the genetic structure of humans — in short, creating certain traits instead of selecting traits already existing in the gene pool: “Romantic writers of the first days of genetics dreamed of many fantastic possibilities — test-tube babies, monsters form by artificial mutation, fatherless babies, babies assembled piece by bit from a hundred different parents. All these horros are possible, as the geneticists of the Great Khans proved, but we citizens of this Republic have rejected such tampering with out life stream” (39). The great Khan “bred over three thousand types including hyperbrains (thirteen sorts), the almost brainless matrons, the clever and repulsively beautiful pseudo-feminine freemartins, the neuter ‘mules’” (27). This resulted in multiple devastating genetic wars… I can’t help but speculate that the Great Khan, a genetic superman, inspired Khan Noonian Singh in Star Trek: The Original Series.
Almost every citizen, although generally not women, carries a side arm with them at all times and engage in duels over incredibly silly things — like dropping food from a balcony onto another table. If an individual drinks too much then they generally put aside their weapon and done a brassard indicating their unarmed state. Of course, those who chose to wear brassards instead of weapons at all times are considered of lower social status. Most people choose not to work but are able to live the life of the wealthy — Heinlein engages in numerous preposterous political lectures about how this is possible…
Heinlein also speculates on the skills that eugenics will select for — and naturaly, his ideas are firmly rooted in earlier conceptions of the ultimate ideal of a scholar, pure memorization. Heinlein’s “encyclopedic synthesist”, using their eidetic memory, memorize massive amounts of information in order to create new technology… Critical thinking skills and imagination are all absent from the repertoire of this type of ultra scholar.
The plot follows Hamilton Felix, a genial/brilliant/disease-resistant/ultra strong manly man with a ancient revolver at his side, as he ambles through life. The genetic planners know that Hamilton is the most advanced human although he lacks the eidetic memory needed to be a synthesist. The planners desire for Hamilton to produce a child. Unfortunately, getting hitched is the last thing on this superman’s mind.
Eventually, he falls for the snarky weapon carrying Longcourt Phyllis whom the genetic planners consider the ultimate woman. Apparently Heinlein believes that if you rant at women about how much they NEED men they fall for you every time: “I know your type. You’re one of these ‘independent’ women, anxious to claim all the privileges of men but none of the responsibilities. I can just see you, swaggering around town with that damned little spit gun at your side, demanding all the rights of an armed citizen, picking fights in the serene knowledge that no brave will call your bluff. Argh! You make me sick” (54). 1940s opinions of women aside, Longcourt Phyllis does prove to be an equal of Hamilton Felix in gunfights and intelligence.
In between chapters which read like political treatises, Hamilton Felix uncovers a plot along the same lines of the earlier Great Khan — i.e. produce supermen by genetically modifying embryos. Also, Hamilton’s friend gets swept up in the movement’s false message. It’s up to gun wielding manly man Hamilton Felix and little weapon carrying ultra woman Longcourt Phyllis to put down the rebellion and produce some ultra special babies!
I recommend the novel to rabid fans of Heinlein (of whose ranks I am not a member) especially those interested in where the first kernels of Heinlein’s alternately intriguing/frustrating political philosophy were developed. Other readers interested the more political and sociological strains of 40s science fiction might also be interested. Everyone else, stay away!
My last Heinlein novel (I’ve read 20 +) for a while….
(Sandy Kossin’s cover for the 1964 edition)
(Gene Szafran’s cover for the 1973 edition)
(Gordon C. Davies’ cover for the 1978 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1989 edition)
(David Mattingly’s cover for the 1997 edition)
(Patrick Turner’s cover for the 2001 edition)
For more reviews consult the INDEX