There and back again: Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, the 1997 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing review-essays of past award-winners that make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom work.  Here’s an Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, inducted in 1997 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

By Anders Monsen

Robert A. Heinlein stands as an unrivaled Titan of libertarian science fiction. His influence runs deep, from the many of the writers recognized by the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus and Prometheus Hall of Fame awards, to the LFS members who’ve awarded Heinlein’s works multiple times, as well as this writer.

I still remember when I encountered for the first time such novels as The Puppet Masters, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Red Planet, Podkayne of Mars, as well as short stories like “Coventry,” “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” and “Waldo,” to name just a few.

Methuselah’s Children, inducted by the LFS in 1997 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, is a short novel by today’s standards, yet it manages to squeeze multiple plots and ideas into just over 150 pages.

The gist of the novel centers around an extended “family” whose members share a common trait, in that they’re unusually long-lived. This Howard family, realizing that any exceptional minority is bound to face persecution — much like the Jews throughout the past two-thousand years — for the most part tries to remain unnoticed, changing identities as they age yet remain young.

A major problem arises when a small percentage elect to step forth into regular society, which elicits envy in the hearts of people who wish to live just as long as the Howard family. Combine envy with power, and you have a recipe for coercion. Certain people in power are willing to set aside any constitutional rights in order to extract this “secret” of long life, a secret that doesn’t really exist (in this novel, individual rights are guaranteed by a Covenant, not the Constitution, but the principle appears identical).

Although there are around one hundred thousand members of the extended Howard Family, a select core gather at the start of the novel, called to an extraordinary meeting as the threat of coercion and exposure has been predicted by some of the family’s scientists. Events come to a head, and they must move quickly to escape capture and imprisonment, exposure and torture, all to extract a secret that does exist. Options are debated, motions are knocked down, and discussions rage on for hours. (Strangely enough, another Heinlein novel I recently wrote about also features a similar scene, where consensus is reached through debate.)

The novel is split into two parts. The first deals with the situation faced by the Howard family and their escape from Earth: a tense, action-driven sequence of events that mixes in hard-science as the key protagonist, Lazarus Long (a character who appears again in other Heinlein novels and stories), works on a plan to hijack an interstellar spaceship able to take the family beyond our Solar System and to their own world.

The second part deals with the worlds and aliens that they encounter in the Beyond. These other worlds and how the intelligent creatures view the world raise certain philosophical questions about existence, choice, and individuality.

As if by the Rule of Three, the Howard Family encounters two alien worlds and alien species, and then in the end decide to return home to face perhaps the most dangerous species of all – humanity. Maybe, Lazarus Long muses at some point, they should have stayed and fought, rather than fled. Nearly a century has passed since they left. Did either side learn anything from their actions?

The Howard family’s ultimate fate extends beyond the novel, but along the way the novel debates a multitude of ideas, from space travel, longevity, individuality vs. a group mind, passive life to an active life, and the rights of minorities.

If I have quibbles about the novel it’s that some of the characters become buried in the plot, or overshadowed by Lazarus Long, the oldest and most opinionated of the Howard Family (and possibly a stand-in for Heinlein himself).

Lazarus himself is a sneaky bastard, conniving his way through life, operating at times behind the scenes to accomplish what he sees as the right way, the only way. He brooks little debate or disagreement, is set in his ways, and it seems at times that it’s his way or the highway. No one convinces him of anything, rather he bullies and convinces others to his way of thinking.

However, setting aside Long, the relentless action of the first half pulls the reader along, while the philosophical musings of the second half cause the gears to move in the mind. We’re exposed to different ways of thinking, and in the end return to where we started, but with a stronger focus, and a more open and better future.

Heinlein packs in a lot of science in this short novel, some tense action, but also a great many ideas on what it means to be human, what long life would mean for individual growth, and a desire by a free and independent group of people to seek adventure and knowledge out beyond the stars.

Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons license)

Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his classic bestselling novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1983) and Stranger in a Strange Land (in 1987), the novel Red Planet (in 1996), the novel Time Enough for Love (in 1998), the story Requiem (in 2003) and the story Coventry (in 2017.)

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: Michael Grossberg’s Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, the 1998 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* Read the introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read  “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quintette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern sf/fantasy genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more productive and fulfilling in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

 

 

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist and How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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