Book Review: Beyond this Horizon

BeyondThisHorizon2by 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. • (1102 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Beyond this Horizon

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    There’s a subplot in “Beyond This Horizon” in which a group of people are planning a coup. They want to take over the government so that genetic engineering of people can get underway into really making society more productive, and that means specializing and enhancing people (often in quite monstrous ways) as was done during the Second Genetic Wars. It’s a subplot that is a bit out of place and not pursued early enough in this book, and not integrated well enough to make a hell of a lot of relevant sense to the overall story. The book has a few things like this which are just 3/4-baked what-if ideas, and I don’t mind that so much if they are pretty good ideas, which these are. It’s just not as polished as it could be.

    And I think it’s likely true that if the government sponsored and enforced the enhancement of human beings, we’d likely have super-soldiers as were produced by the Kahn Empire in this books’ Second Genetic Wars. These were soldiers about three times stronger than normal humans, who could go a long time without food, and who didn’t need to sleep at all. But from reading various speculative ideas regarding genetic engineering from various sources (not just Heinlein), it would seem that if private citizens are left in charge of enhancing their children according to what they want, it’s unlikely they would produce monsters or even super-brainy Einsteins. They would likely create super-sexy children…children, that is, who are physically attractive. And this would, of course, entail lots of talent as well. But not necessarily rocket surgeon talent.

    In the real world, people might be most concerned with producing children that appeal to Star Search sensibilities rather than, as I said, creating true Einsteins who might contribute quite valuable knowledge to the human race, even in obscurity (as most scientists are). Just like we see now with cosmetic enhancements (such as breast implants), you’d be sure to see parents trying to enhance things like that in their children. Oh, they’ll also get around to trying to give them the brains to be doctors and lawyers, but always and forever good-looking doctors or lawyers—at least gauging by today’s sensibilities.

    And probably given the choice, they’ll take good-looking over brainy. We see this happening in the American Kennel Club where great harm is being done to a number of dog breeds because they are being bred purely for aesthetic reasons, not for function. As one author (I forget who) recently remarked, forget about Lassie ever saving the day. Collies are now as dumb as a brick because people have become enamored with that long pointed-nose look. And in order to produce that, they’ve (inadvertently) shrunken the brain case. I expect people to do the same kind of stupid stuff with their own children if given that kind of micro control of genetics.

    Another interesting part of this book (which I wish was explored a little more in detail, as well as taken in a slightly different direction) was when the government (looking for ways to spend its enormous surplus of money) decides to start a massive, centuries-long research project whose goal is to answer scientifically the metaphysical questions that have always interested (even plagued) mankind. Primarily they approach this in terms of trying to figure out if there is life after death, the continued existence of the ego in some way. Heinlein doesn’t have them looking for god, per se. Again, this subject alone would have made for a great book. Heinlein is full of all kinds of ideas, and I’m sure in later books he did tend to flesh out the ideas more rather than just take the shotgun approach.

    Anyway, it’s an unsatisfying ending to the book in regards to how this question is somewhat answered. Through ESP, the son of the main character of the book is able to tap into the dreams of his unborn sister. And this sister is dreaming of things she couldn’t have possibly seen, thus it proves that some memory, soul, or ego is carried over after death, although no one is quite sure whose ego or memories.

    This book is full of bits and pieces of dialogue and philosophy that is extremely interesting:

    “Johann is right,” said Rembert. “There is no subject inappropriate for scientific research. Johann, we’ve let you fellows have a monopoly of such matter for too long. The most serious questions in the world have been left to faith or speculation. It is time for scientists to cope with them, or admit that science is no more than pebble counting.”

    Indeed…pebble counting. The other side of the coin is that it would be likely that by pursuing such a grand research project science would also have to face up to the realization that they are indeed pebble-counters and that mathematical equations and the measurements from scientific experiments do not necessarily imply any greater knowledge of the world then, well, of the pebbles themselves and the count of those pebbles. But on the other hand, the universe (and existence) is, and we have can have every expectation that there is a reason and cause for everything, and that little by little we can make some sense of it. Indeed, science deals only with the “how” questions while leaving the “why” questions totally alone. But it’s conceivable that unless the “why” questions are irrelevant (and I don’t assume this to be so, although some scientists, for sake of getting rid of inconvenient problems, will often do so) that science can eventually have something to say about them. Either that or reality is ultimately incomprehensible on the big points. But we just don’t know that at the moment, and it’s not clear how we could ever know that. So such a Mega Project as suggested by Heinlein in “Beyond This Horizon” would be a lot of fun…not least because of the storm of controversy that would erupt from even proposing such a project.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Having read most of Heinlein’s work, I can mention a number of worthwhile books. Most of his juveniles are first-class, with Citizen of the Galaxy (I had gotten just a few pages into it when I said to myself, “This is why Heinlein is the master”), Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Starship Troopers (which makes a number of interesting political and philosophical points), and Podkayne of Mars. I would also mention a couple of other books with strong political themes, Double Star (in which an actor is hired to double for a kidnapped politician) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (a strongly libertarian novel about a revolution and its consequences).

    I will also mention his early novel For Us the Living, which wasn’t published in his lifetime but had themes recycled elsewhere (including Beyond This Horizon). Most of Heinlein’s works prior to about 1970 are worth reading (after that period, probably the best of the lot was Friday, a fine book but not up to his earlier standards). The Day After Tomorrow (in which a small team of Americans has to reclaim the nation after a conquest by Asians probably modeled on Japan) is another that many would find interesting.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks for the recommendations. I left “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” in limbo several months ago, half-read. Maybe I’ll return to it. And I keep hearing the “Starship Troopers” is a good book but I just can’t get the cheesy movie out of my brain. 😀

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