by Brad Nelson 11/4/13
I believe this is the first Robert Heinlein book I’ve read. I’m not sure of that though. But it’s obviously one of his earlier novels, written (I’m guessing) when he was about 34. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but essentially interesting.
Beyond this Horizon isn’t noteworthy for its great plot or characters but for its superb speculative philosophy—the way it plays what-if with morality, technology, and politics…something that the best science fiction will do.
But in writing good sci-fi, you have to do more than just play what-if. I can certainly imagine in my mind, for example, that there are cows living on the dark side of the moon. But it’s important for good science fiction that the what-if’s are reasonably plausible and that the ideas are relevant to the mortal, mundane, lives of real human beings.
This book excels at all that, although for the life of me I can’t figure out what the heck the all the dueling and pistol-carrying is about. It’s like Heinlein had an idea that he either didn’t develop or just didn’t want to let go of for some reason.
But his grasp on bio-ethics is decades ahead of its time. His utopia (or perhaps dystopia…this book offers a mostly pleasant vision of the future, but there are some rough spots) is a much more believable one than the (intentionally) exaggerated futures portrayed by either Orwell or Huxley. There’s a place for both, but his less bellicose future seems quite plausible and thus I think presents some of the real problems of utopia in a more digestible way.
Stalin was every bit as bellicose and exaggerated as Orwell portrayed his world in “1984,” and then some. But would a precise decription of the huge proportions of Stalin’s Communist terror state be believable in a work of fiction? I doubt it. It would seem too over the top.
It’s amusing in this novel that government is so refined at running whatever version of social-capitalism they’ve got going that government actually produces an unending surplus which it dispenses to citizens in various ways. People work if they want, but many don’t have to. And if they do work, it’s often a four-hour work day. Food is free.
None of this is realistic (so far as we know), but as it’s presented, it doesn’t seem outlandish. This is a society that has – finally – learned to optimize human beings without the nightmare of forced eugenics. This is just gently coerced eugenics, but with constitutional protections. And the leaders of this state seem quite happy with not grabbing ever-larger chunks of power and in respecting the integrity of its laws.
This is not the Madisonian-style government in which ambition counters ambition because all men are not angels. Heinlein’s utopia actually seems to be a government that perhaps has bred out some of the worst traits of humans and relies on voluntary benevolence, restraint, and respect for the law (and for others) as the way to keep a benevolent order (which is basically the libertarian dream) instead of relying on a near police state.
It’s a world where the state seems to have ultimate power and control but daily decides not to make full us of it – which I think most of us might agree is an unlikely situation. But if we humans are changed at the genetic level and constant improvements are made? Perhaps then it could work.
The issues regarding genetics are interesting and anticipate realities that we are only now just beginning to deal with. But the best part of the book deals with human destiny and purpose. The state directors themselves ask self-consciously what criterion can they use to define improvement? Better at what? That’s an incredibly profound question, and seemingly one so simple that it escapes notice. Against what do we measure the ultimate success of ourselves, our society, and our entire race?
In taking up that topic, this book takes on some weighty and interesting metaphysical questions and (except for delving into ESP, which I thought was sort of stupid) handles them very well. This is sci-fi at its best. And certainly it was his ability to bring great relevance to his fiction that made Heinlein so popular. This is not candy-coated fantasmorphic slop. This stuff makes you think.
So what is life for? What is my life for? What is the society we spend so much time being a part of and sacrificing to for? What is the human race for? Well, I really didn’t expect even the best of science fiction writers to answer that question. Those who believe in the various hundreds of religions on this planet think they have the answer. Atheists think they have the answer: utter pointlessness. Most answers ultimately are pragmatic. But even if you say “Life is about the enjoyment of my job, my friends, my children, my art, my hobbies” that’s perhaps not really getting to the root of things either. That’s not answering the ultimate questions.
I’ll have to try a few more of his books. This one went pretty fast. And I expect that they get more refined later in his career. This one is a bit rough around the edges in parts. It needed to be better focused, to explore further some relevant subjects it addressed, and dispense with other stuff (such as the sidearms and duels) that seemed superfluous. But a pretty damn good effort by Heinlein.