Sean DeLauder's Reviews > Beyond This Horizon

Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein
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it was ok
bookshelves: harry-sf-book-club, dnf

Before I read this book I had no Did Not Finish shelf. Despite Year Zero, a book I genuinely disliked, I managed to grind through. Beyond This Horizon possessed qualities that necessitated a new shelf. Taken out of context, that's something. It's probably the pull quote a publisher would stick on the back of the book, if I warranted quoting, while ignoring the ignominious reason for the statement.

As a man of ideas, Heinlein was at or near the summit of science fiction writers. As a writer, at least in this book, he was a man tumbling end over end down the mountainside.

For proper perspective, it should be noted this story was initially released serially. In which case you'd expect short chapters with tight storylines and several resolved dilemmas within, maybe, an overarching story. Instead, it's a patchwork of story arcs starring a main character, Hamilton Felix, with an enviable genetic makeup who refuses to pass it on to future generations for the good of society because... mostly because he's bored and doesn't want his children to be bored. Also, he hates children. There's also a rebellion that wraps up a little more than halfway through the story, and a few Melville-esque explanatory chapters addressing Finance and Mendelian genetics.

Were the story released today I'm skeptical it would get published even with an update to the technology and attitude toward gender equality. The story raises interesting overarching questions about the nature of utopia, how humans would prevent utter boredom in a perfect world, but these get drowned in a compulsion to explain ad nauseum and, in spite of some short chapters, take an inordinate amount of time getting where the story needs to go before changing gears violently when it gets there.

Strangely, the story resolves a considerable conflict, the very conflict iterated on the back cover, a little over halfway through the story. Then it keeps going. This likely owes to the initial serial nature. However, the conflict wraps up with little fanfare, with a condescending analysis of the results (the organizers were mediocre people and legends in their own minds), meaning there was never really any threat—a point repeated before, during, and after the conflict—and making the main character’s involvement as a spy completely unnecessary. One would think an editor would have recommended, at the very least, eschewing this strategy to avoid dialing down tension with respect to the driver of the story.

After the end of the rebellion a difficult read became impossible. One could see hints of Heinlein’s burgeoning ability to craft a unique story, but this work was too arbitrary, too tedious, and the main character was all but unbearable. The main story arc addressed on the back cover concludes, perhaps metaphorically, at Chapter 11. The book trundles on for an additional seven chapters. Chapter 12 begins with the introduction of a new sport the society is considering introducing and at that point I decided I couldn’t go on.

It’s interesting to note that all of the endorsements on the back of the book, from Dean Koontz, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Sun-Times all address Heinlein’s career rather than the story—a telling strategy.

This story was more of a haphazard plot stretched out over an idea. The plot was probably of far less interest to Heinlein and the publisher than the idea itself. If that’s what compelled the publisher to accept the work, it makes sense. Because the plot and main characters were not the strong points.

The main character, Hamilton Felix, is an intelligent yet raging self-righteous asshole empowered by his intellect, quick to mistreat people he deemed without value and confident a simple apology was sufficient to amend his error without changing his behavior in the future. Which made the apology worthless because he wasn’t apologizing for being an ass, he was apologizing for misjudging, and it’s a lesson he never learns from because there are no penalties. He still gets what he wants. This is no invective against intelligent people, but rather jerks absent of empathy who flit through the world unpunished for their mistreatment of people because others are kinder than they are. I initially liked this character because he seemed to be the only one thinking for himself where others merely filled roles, but that was before it became apparent he was an arrogant jerk.

Even Heinlein excuses this behavior by stating if women weren’t so forgiving there would be no humanity, as if women possess the civilization-saving virtue of tolerating unapologetic male abuse. The only one who expresses regret for shoddy behavior is the oft-derided Monroe-Alpha Clifford, who literally attempted to murder the woman he loves because she is not a genetically modified human (incredibly, she forgives him), as though only low-wattage, easily influenced males stoop to sincere apology.

Felix, by comparison, is a man who detests children and thinks they don’t require affection, yet feels the compulsion, repeatedly, to disfigure a member of the rebellion for mistreating “barbarian” humans. I suppose it's possible the feelings of contempt for the helpless can be separated from empathy for the abused.

It’s possible we can blame this contradiction of empathy to genealogy and parentless upbringing for some of this attitude. As for the former, it’s shocking this utopia treats Felix’ DNA as the “star line” unless the goal is a society of sociopaths.

Phyllis, Felix’ mate as intended by the geneticists guiding human evolution, is a comparatively strong, independent, intelligent female who doesn’t quite fit the submissive mold, even carrying a gun (at which Felix scoffs, since men are the protectors of women), nevertheless falls under the charms of the main character. Though she tends to endure Felix’ uncouth behavior with loving scorn rather than kicking him to the curb. It’s not an abusive relationship, but it’s not a great match considering Felix is a particularly difficult individual. One can rationalize this tolerance as a means to an end—she is dedicated to recovering his DNA.

There’s an afterword written by Tony Daniel who summarizes the question the book poses well: can human individuality (something Heinlein espoused) exist in a utopia and does the utopia he’s created allow for individualism? It’s a valid question with an answer that is both yes and no. Obviously, Felix is very much an individual, but he’s bored. As are most people. Though that may stem from the fact that Heinlein hasn’t given them much of anything interesting to do. The only rewarding activity seems to be work, even for people who receive a stipend that makes working unnecessary. Ignorance, as everyone knows, is bliss, which would seem to support a sentiment that intelligence (though likely the quote refers to a degree of awareness) breeds unhappiness. Alternatively, to quote Harvey Danger, “if you’re bored, then you’re boring.” It seems Harvey Danger got this one right.

He goes on to espouse personal freedom expressed physically in this story through gun ownership and the willingness f individuals to draw down on one another at any moment—a frankly asinine judgment given the petty causes for which people plunge willingly into potentially fatal gunfights (accidents, misunderstandings, tests, etc., issues over which no sensible human would gamble). This might be seen as an effective way to select qualities for intelligent skilled gunmen, but at the same time a hair trigger that belies intellectual calm. For highly intelligent beings, they’re perfectly happy putting their lives at risk over minor squabbles, foregoing intellect by resorting to spurious gunfights rather than judicial review or relying on the capacity to discuss a problem like adults. Despite the purported intelligence bestowed upon this evolved form of humanity there is quite a bit about them that seems developmentally stunted.

The essay becomes even less tolerable than the story can be at its worst. In it, Daniel insists Heinlein is a libertarian, and many of these beliefs shine through, but we shouldn’t judge a story, or its author, on politics even as the author’s story asserts them. It’s absurd to on one hand describe an author’s politics and see the evidence of these politics in the story, then defend the work and the author as apolitical and beyond judgment on the other. As an editor, there are some things I would not have included in this book. Excising the entire afterword would have improved my impression of the book--it reads as though Daniel has taken the wrong fork in the road when it comes to changing societal norms and doesn't like being called out for his outdated mentality, making the afterword as much about himself as Heinlein.

What little I’ve read of Heinlein, and the less I remember, stories have always possessed a thread of intellectualism with contradictory Hemingway bravado. Maybe it’s a product of the genre and the era, but it’s something that pains a modern, smart reader. The contemporary Heinlein conundrum is that he’s too smart to appeal to those who enjoy space cowboys, but he felt the need to include Wild Western machismo in his work, and that mars the story for contemporary science fiction readers who see a society where everyone is carrying weapons as a failure of society, a dystopian, militaristic, or authoritarian world rather than utopian world where people still need to protect themselves from other humans. A utopian freedom, such as gun rights and use linked to manliness (it’s considered emasculating not to have a gun and untoward for women to carry them), shouldn’t potentially impinge on the freedoms of others—most obviously their lives. But this right and its risks are mutually accepted, regardless how nonsensical. Clearly, Heinlein, or maybe Heinlein’s characters, had a peculiar definition of utopia.

Herein lies the biggest trouble with science fiction over the passage of time, moreso when your story relies upon Utopia, a perfect society, as its foundation. Unlike other genres, science fiction looks forward. Its quality is dependent on its ability to predict the future. When it does so badly, and does so without any hint of satire, and cultural views shift in a direction far different than the writer anticipated, this puts the story in a bad spot. A writer who writes about the past or the present draws from what exists. There are no surprises even when we look back on them because we know those human faults were true and we make no claims to utopia. It's very likely any utopia written now, viewed from 50 years in the future, will be an embarrassment. It's probably why so many authors prefer to write dystopias--if they don't come true it's a relief; if they do, well, the writer tried to warn us.

Based on this story, I respect Heinlein as a seminal writer whose politics I likely disagree with and whose stories are thickly padded in a way that makes them dull and unfocused. But I intend to keep reading to revise this assessment, hopefully in a more positive fashion.
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Reading Progress

March 24, 2019 – Started Reading
March 24, 2019 – Shelved
March 24, 2019 – Shelved as: harry-sf-book-club
April 3, 2019 – Shelved as: dnf
April 3, 2019 – Finished Reading

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