To Sail Beyond the Sunset by Robert A. Heinlein
Cover art by Boris Vallejo
Published by Ace Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
To Sail Beyond the Sunset was Robert A. Heinlein's last novel before his death, and unfortunately it shows painfully the way in which the Grandmaster's powers had waned as the result of the ravages of age and ill-health. A wag once joked that Heinlein had two major periods, his juveniles and his seniles, but this simplification fails to do the man justice. Heinlein's strong period was by no means limited to the series of young adult novels he wrote under close editorial direction in the 1950's.
In fact, his literary career began with his short stories, published during the 1940's in a wide variety of magazines that included such respectable venues as The Saturday Evening Post rather than being confined to the typical sciance fiction pulps such as Amazing and Astounding. It was primarily as a result of the reputation he'd gained with them that he got the young adult contracts.
And it was through the subsequent collections of those early stories, particularly The Man Who Sold the Moon and The Green Hills of Earth, that I became aware of Heinlein the author. (I'd read a number of his juveniles several years earlier, but at the time I was pretty much oblivious to authorship and didn't connect them as being written by the same person). By the time I read them, the Apollo moonshots had come and gone and America's crewed space program had dwindled to an aimless operation of the Space Shuttle, with any expenditure to upgrade or expand it begrudged by various special interest groups. Yet the part of me that had thrilled ten years earlier to look up at the Moon while there were men walking on it felt a fresh excitement at Heinlein's vision of a world that might have been, where a commercial magnate funded the first trip to the Moon in a cobbled-together spacecraft and from there commercial spaceflight expanded until the wealthy routinely vacationed on the Moon and humanity had made contact with the indigenous populations of Mars and Venus (which were imagined as habitable worlds of somewhat extreme climate, something still plausible at the time the stories were written). It was about the same time as I discovered Tolkien, and I found it fascinating how both authors had come up with the idea of creating a self-consistent imagined world, one set in the distant past and the other in a future which at the time had still been possible.
After having sought out and read all of the stories set in Heinlein's Future History, I reached the point where there were no more. For whatever reason, Heinlein had ceased to write stories set in that continuity and moved on to other projects. Maybe because actual events and scientific discoveries had passed his imagined world by, or maybe just because he'd become more interested in other posibilities.
Thus I was happily surprised some years later to discover that Heinlein had returned to his Future History to write once again of that world where the Moon was reached not by a government program, but by a commercial concern, where a charitible foundation could spearhead the selective breeding of a long-lived human strain, and the country was covered with a network of moving sidewalks known as roadcities. Obviously it could no longer be plausibly presented as our own future, but with the growing interest in the subgenre of alternate history, Heinlein could present the Future History as a parallel timeline. The Zeerust that had accumulated over the passing years could become a feature rather than a bug.
Except it was even more complicated than that. In the first chapter we meet Maureen on yet another world, an even more strange one where she's run afoul of the authorities. She's apparently some kind of paratime secret agent, and either her cover's been blown or she's made a misstep that's led to her being treated like an ordinary criminal. So, while imprisoned and needing to occupy her mind, she begins to compose her memoirs, going back to her early childhood in nineteenth-century Missouri when her timeline hadn't yet diverged away from the others (or at least in obviuos ways, since there's never any evidence that Ira Howard and his eponymous Howard Foundation ever existed in any of Heinlein's other timelines).
As a result, this novel has a very different feel from the original Future History stories, and it's not just Maureen's endless obsession about sex and how to get plenty of it within the strictures of her society. The existence of the Howard Families and their system of breeding for longevity by offering financial incentives is the only speculative element in what is otherwise a study of a rather genteel Gilded Age family. Not just the tech base of wood-fired stoves, kerosene lanterns and horse-drawn carriages, but the formal rituals of courtesy like their mealtime seating ceremony, all captured with that precise eye for the telling detail that was always the mark of the vintage Heinlein.
In fact, I found the space devoted to Maureen's sexual escapades tedious, not to mention verging more than once upon Too Much Information. Yet the rest of the novel was sufficiently compelling that I kept pushing my way through them, especially once the recognizable elements of the Future History I remembered started appearing. However problematical certain elements, particularly Heinlein's characterization of Maureen as a sexual being, might be, it never descended to the sort of gassiferous drek as L Ron Hubbard's later potboilers or John Norman's endless plodding sagas of sexual slavery on an alien world. Even when Heinlein used Mauren as a mouthpiece to pontificate upon various political and social views, it always had a certain spark and verve that kept the reader listening. Maueen would offer examples from her own life, giving us further tidbits of information about the lives of minor characters in just the way that people in the Primary World will refer to the experiences of people they know.
And however flawed and irritating Heinlein's Sexy Future may be, with its women forever ready and eager to jump in bed with someone, those women always have agency and intelligence and have no intention of giving it up. In fact, the sexiness and high level of sexual activity of Heinlein Women seem to have been an integral part of his way of showing their agency and intelligence. These were no passive receptacles of male lusts and male seed, little more than bad-conduct prizes for the so-called heroes who thudded and blundered their way through so many other novels of science fiction and fantasy (especially the sword and sorcery novels that led Marion Zimmer Bradley to create the Sword and Sorceress series of anthologies. No, Heinlein's women experienced life fully, including their sexual desires, and acted upon them, selecting the man of their desires rather than waiting and fretting until one or another male came along.
And by telling this story through the first-person voice of Maureen Johnson, we get to see that agency even in a society where it couldn't be openly displayed, where social constraints meant that certain appearances had to be maintained. A Heinlein Woman's intelligence isn't just limited to the abstractly intellectual, but extends to a keen social intelligence. In a time and place when a woman couldn't just sit down and tell her husband certain things that needed take care of, Maureen could work out just the right kinds of hints and feelers to get things to happen.
It's often said of various great men and women of history that their virtues were their own but their flaws were the product of their times. And in the final evaluation it may well be the case with Robert A. Heinlein, although also sadly exacerbated in his final books by a physical deterioration that eroded his once-sharp eye for self-editing which earlier would have pared everything down to those precise and insightful parts, without the blather. One can make a good argument that Heinlein firmly believed in the capacity of women for agency, but he could only conceptualize it as it was understood in his formative years, in masculine terms, and as a result produced female characters who were sexual and sexy in a manner of an idealized male image of women, rather than the actuality.
Which would mean that, like so many of those who were once on the forefront of a trend only to have it leave them behind, he is judged more harshly in retrospect because the present standard has moved so far beyond him.
Review posted December 22, 2011.
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