Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Robert Heinlein's "Beyond This Horizon" (novel): A society of supermen

Quote from the novel titled Beyond This Horizon by Robert HeinleinMain thread of the story is plausible enough, if psychologically extremely uncomfortable: a couple can choose to have the best child they can possibly have by carefully selecting a specific egg/sperm pair over their productive life, rather than an average child they normally have by random egg/sperm combination.

While the story treads on much darker things possible with genetics, I find even the apparently sensible thread extremely troublesome. While Heinlein's advocacy is generally limited to sane things like choosing children less immune to diseases, couples will eventually apply their own (obviously) definition of best. Results, even of a simple application like sex selection, can be extremely dangerous - as is currently happening in the Indian state of Punjab - the worst sex ratio in India, & still worsening.

Since such selection & more is going to be possible in days ahead, we might as well begin getting uncomfortable today - for whatever good it will do!

Even apart from the dark subject, this is not quite a normal Heinlein story. His political & economic views are muddled here, & the story keeps going on many irrelevant tangents.

Main thread of the story reads somewhat like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World". I collect the quotes here.

Story summary.
I think the story is set 100 or 200 years in future; I don't remember the dateline - it's provided indirectly. Place is the Capital of a Republic - some future version of some place in the US; and it appears to be part of some larger worldwide political grouping.

Gene selection is common in this society, though you can choose to stay natural. Naturals are the lower caste.

There is a benign government, "Policy Board" at highest level we meet in the story. They maintain the various gene lines; they advise who will mate whom; they choose the best kids; they raise most kids in well run nurseries. Too much wishful thinking, if you ask me.

The economic system has a very substantial communist tilt - something very unlike every Heinlein story I've read to-date.

Hamilton Felix is a man derived from the best genetic stock. His marriage to Longcourt Phyllis is being pushed for by Claude Mordan, a government bureaucrat who will eventually become a good friend. Longcourt is a "fifth cousin" of Hamilton, is also derived from the best stock, & they together have promising gene combinations.

Hamilton is resisting; girl is willing; eventually they will marry & have two kids - Theobald, a boy, & younger Justina. Turns out Theobald is telepathic! But that is a different thread.

This whole arrangement sounded like a very typical Suraj Barajatya film - replace horoscope match with gene compatibility, old friend of the dad that does marriage fixing with government bureaucrat, & minus a lot of color that makes these movies lovable - at least for first viewing.

Then there are villains. Very Hitlerian right-wingers. Want to keep the best genetic stock; breed people to meet government's needs; & kill off the inferiors. There are some ugly scenes, but they don't last long. They are led by McFee Norbert. When the revolution comes, it is quickly crushed.

And that is where the story should have ended. But it continues for half as long again, & this remaining part is very lame. Main thread is about the joys of parenting. A second thread is a governmental project to "enumerate and investigate all of the problems of philosophy", enlarged from originally proposed & simpler "effort to investigate the question of survival after death"! Third thread is the telepathic ability of Theobald.

All through the story, yet another lame thread is also running: life of Hamilton's close friend Monroe-Alpha Clifford (code number 32-847-106 B62!); his divorce with his orthowife Larsen Hazel; his erratic love affair & eventual marriage to Hartnett Marion; & his adventures with revolutionaries.

There is yet another significant thread through the story: a young man named John Smith Darlington was conned (when drunk) in the year 1926 to enter a stasis machine, & he ends up arriving in the time of this story! We see his confusion adjusting to this world. Best part of this thread is a humorous description of the game of US football; see near the end of quotes.

Fact sheet.
Beyond This Horizon, novel, review
First published: Originally published as 2-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction, April/May 1942, under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald
Rating: B

See also.

  1. All stories about technology assisted human baby making.
  2. This story ranked (by quality) among all stories.


Kleinecke said...

The story is set a long time in the future. I do not know what the book publication says - only what was in the 1942 magazine version. There have been several major epochs and world wars. The final one reduced the old world (Asia, Africa and Europe) to savagery. The savages are slowly rebuilding but nothing much is said about them. The country is the New World (North and South America) and is portrayed as homogenous in language, race and so on. Such matters were clearly important to Heinlein in this story and should be handled correctly.

There is also an interesting episode in Sequoia National Park in California where Heinlein calls the General Sherman Tree the oldest living thing on earth and miss-estimates its age. His engineering was better than his botany.