Book Review: Methuselah’s Children, Robert Heinlein (1958)

2.5/5 (Average)

Before you judge my review of this “classic” purely by the low rating please read my defense and reasons. First of all, if I was still a 13 year old boy this would have been very good, however, even then I would have been slightly disappointed by how much Heinlein has to offer and how little he actually develops in Methuselah’s Children. I understand how important this novel is in the Future History works of Heinlein but sadly, as a stand-alone story, it falls woefully short of greatness.

Summary (contains spoilers): Heinlein first wrote the story in 1941 before expanding it into a full-length novel in 1958. It traces the Howard Families, the product of a very old eugenics program to extend life, through the persona of Lazarus Long (a beloved character of Heinlein fans – whose life is explored in detail and length in the 1973 novel Time Enough for Love).

The Howard families are persecuted on Earth since they are believed to possess a secret to longevity although its just selective breeding which results in living so long. They hijack a space ship and head for a distant planet. The creatures they meet are domestic animals and higher intelligences that want to make the new colonists subservient as well. They continue on to another planet where group mind creatures which can change plants and animals forms and tastes etc… So, they have a large meeting and with Lazarus Long’s prodding they decide to go back to earth, now an easy three-month long task because of technological advances learned from the aliens.

Pros: Heinlein fills this novel with fascinating ideas. The concept of domestic aliens (in some aspects more intelligent than humans) subservient to a greater intelligence – that’s enough for an entire novel.

The technology for a massive space ship that can hold a 100,000 people and the social ramifications that might follow, again, that’s enough for an entire novel. A group mind alien civilization etc… The resolution of the novel, that humanity is somehow drawn to earth, is a powerful concept that many later writers explore in detail. Considering the time Heinlein wrote this story, the concepts are fresh, and fascinating. Lazarus Long is a great character as well: funny, likable, rakish, and morally upright. All this should make a great novel but –

Cons: The bane of so many writers is that they think they can take twenty brilliant ideas and meld them flawlessly together into a coherent novel. Heinlein fails at this, essentially Methuselah’s Children is multiple short stories pasted together with little connection besides “seven years went by.”

What is worse is that when he comes to something interesting instead of having the characters discover it themselves, he writes a detached essay on the topic of group creatures, or seven years of space ship life etc… The characters are thus not actively involved in the action – this is a massive flaw, which halts forward movement and excitement. Most of this is due to the fact that Heinlein had a page limit but he could have easily just written more than one connected novels. Heinlein soon learns from this mistake with his next work, Starship Troopers, which is focused and crisp. Besides Lazarus Long, the characters are one dimensional and wimpy. Again, this is a feature of the time so it can be partially forgiven except that Heinlein DID succeed in making Lazarus’s character. Why did he not put that skill to Mary Sperling? Or Captain King?

Heinlein simply falls short. He offers so many interesting concepts that they overload and ultimately, make no deep impression on the reader. Many juvenile novels from the time explore a single technology, or social idea and make a story, I wish Heinlein had kept this in his original short story form.

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Methuselah’s Children, Robert Heinlein (1958)”

  1. I read all but forty-odd pages of this book.I should have stopped much earlier.I think your rating is too high,and is really a few points below average in fact.The central theme of immortality,isn’t tackled at all.This is woefully terrible,especially from somebody of Heinlein’s reputation.It’s just a formal backdrop to a novel of a very banal plotline.It started as a book of readable prose,as would be expected of Heinlein,but descended into plotline of nothingless,with no substance.It became unreadable and difficult to know what it was about.

    I can understand what you mean by it would have been better staying as a short story.This was the first Heinlein book I’ve tried to read since my early sf reading days.The last one I read and finished was “The Star Beast”,which was was better than this one.

      1. Well.you were right though.Yes,”Starship Troopers”,which wasn’t perfect,was much better than this,although like TSB,I read it in my early sf reading days.

      2. Starship Troopers is jingoistic crap with some fun action. That’s my rewritten review 😉

        (I never wrote a review of Starship Troopers — I was referring to Methuselah’s Children in my comment to Richard).

      3. Zeno, I suspect there are many many other sites with laudatory reviews where you would be able to discuss his fiction in more depth with people who have not put him on the “do not read list”. I no longer tolerate his SF and will be angsty/general in my comments about him as I have tried to purge those countless volumes I read for some bizarre reason as a kid from my memory (+ Van Vogt).

        If you want more of a discussion from me, then please look at reviews from the last three years or so — much more likely to remember the book!

  2. I meant Star Beast not Starship Troopers. That book would not appeal to me. It seems like reactionary propaganda. Shocked it won a Hugo award. If you had a review to that please give a link.

    1. Meant only interested in reading the old amazon review of Star Beast. Was not going to discuss it with here on the blog. Not clear tonight.

  3. Heinlein,as you say about the even more decadent Asimov,does have a place in historical SF.He was seminal at a time before the later luminaries that started appearing in the 1950s,most of whom he influenced though.In his day,he obviously would have stood out among the badly written pulp magazine SF,and so would have faced little competition then.

    SF authors such as Heinlein appear among much fanfare during periods of blight,but will be overshadowed later by greater authors,as you allude to,but would it have been the same without him? I suppose this should be considered when assessing what you think is his dubious rank in SF.

      1. Yes well,he must have been exponential at the time to have influenced a new generation of SF authors,even though their stuff would succeed where he failed.Some British authors such as Michael Moorcock have have expressed doubts on his merits of his stuff though,and cited Alfred Bester as an influence on his own unique SF.

        I agree with your assessment of his work,and that it shouldn’t overshadow his influence over the development of the written genre.

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