Ace/Putnam, 1987, 416 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-13267-8
(Or: To sail beyond the boundaries of adequate editing…)
Even in a field as smart as Science-Fiction, Robert A. Heinlein stands tall intellectually. His influence is enormous enough that we should probably dedicate the whole field of SF to him and move on to other matters. He’s the man who wrote Stranger in a Strange Land yet he’s also the man who gave us Starship Troopers. Beyond my personal liking for the man’s work, he has attracted a tremendously fanatical following—even now.
Yet all fans, and most critics, consider that Heinlein’s career suffered immensely during his later years. Following a severe period of bad health in the beginning of the Seventies, Heinlein’s latter novel, they say, are overindulging, under-edited, sex-obsessed and more concerned (in the words of Alexei Panshin) about “opinions as facts”. Heinlein’s opinions.
To Sail Beyond the Sunset was Heinlein’s last published novel before his death in 1987. How does it measure up to his other works?
Not very well. TSBtS is the autobiography of Maureen Johnson, the mother of Heinlein’s favourite literary alter-ego, Lazarus Long. Her history is also the history of Heinlein’s famous “Future History” cycle. This novel chronicles her life, from her birth in 1882 onward.
The first thing one must accept about this book is that it’s all about sex. From Maureen’s Electra complex to her first boyfriend to complex “family” affairs to her rescue of her father (and subsequent elopement, we presume), this is where Heinlein Says to his readers “Listen up; I have a fascination with It and I thing everyone who’s prude is seriously pucked-up.”
Mix in some philosophy on the Downfall of American Society (Such uncultured barbarians we all are nowadays!), Good Wars, Bad Presidents… The only good persons here are Maureen, her father and her son Lazarus Long. Everyone else is an idiot, a puppet or inconsequential. The Encyclopedia of SF‘s is right when is says that “in praising one family over everything else, Heinlein has cheapened everything else.” The final nail in the coffin is that, for a novel that’s entirely cantered around sex, the sex scenes are lousy. Can’t have everything, I guess…
Still, despite these considerable flaws, TSBtS manages to entertain considerably. Always readable, Heinlein’s style is distinctive and pleasant. Never mind that the no-nonsense, street-smart monologue of Maureen could have been generated from the same place that Richard Ames’ narration (In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls) came from…. it’s still loads of fun. Then there’s Maureen/Heinlein’s obsession with cats- (Okay, so I lied: TSBtS isn’t all about sex. There’s a cat in there too. But you get my meaning.)
Yet, the prose may be light, but the meaning is sombre, even bitter. Heinlein is more concerned about preaching than amusement. Maureen makes explicit speeches about such subject as religion, government and other things… which brings us to the touchy subject of editing.
A competent editor could have looped off a good hundred pages. I’m still not sure if this would have been an improvement, or at least not a dramatic improvement like a good editing of I Will Fear No Evil.
Even then, this is Heinlein’s Last Novel. Treasure it, burn it or tolerate it… There will be no more things like this.