Heinlein's Turd: A Book Review of
Beyond This Horizon
Robert A. Heinlein is my favorite author. He's not a particularly skilled writer when it comes to putting pretty words down on paper. His writing style could best be described as "utilitarian"—he basically describes what's happening with as little amount of detail as possible.
Fortunately it works for him, and he's able to evoke fascinating sci-fi environments without really describing them at all. My favorite example being that at one point (in the book I'm reviewing here, in fact) he says simple that a door dilates out of a character's way. He doesn't have to describe the door, because we know what a dilating door could look like. At another point in the book he describes a (male) character as wearing simply a fancy evening gown. He doesn't go into any other detail (except he might say that it's red), so the reader's imagination immediately fills in all the gaps.
This all helps to make a lot of his writing have a timeless quality. Since he doesn't describe bell-bottoms or beehive hairdos, the reader can imprint upon his sparse descriptions whatever the current popular vision of the future is.
My favorite author though he may be, I still know how to take a good, hard look at everything he wrote and evaluate whether it is actually good or not. Sometimes his work was very good (Have Space Suit, Will Travel; The Door Into Summer), sometimes they were only pretty good (Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy), sometimes they were f--king genius (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land—which is famous enough to be a lyric in Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire). And sometimes, as is the case this time, he wrote gigantic piles of steaming turd. I give to you now the worst thing that Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote:
Beyond This Horizon
Please not that I am not inducting Sixth Column as his worst work because he was forced to write that book and never wanted to in the first place. But if you want to read another steaming pile of s--t, by all means pick it up. It sucks.
Anyhoo, Beyond This Horizon is the tale of a far-future Earth which has achieved a fierce stability and prosperity due to an interesting version of the "social credit" economic system. That and the fact that most citizens walk around with guns strapped to their hips so that there's a kind of enforced politeness because nobody wants to get shot. Also, a lot of people speak with distinctly awkward 1940s jargon.
Despite the prosperity of the times, the main character of the book is vaguely unsatisfied. The human race, because of the stability, has become stagnant. It isn't doing anything. It isn't going anywhere. Even long (by which I mean looooong) and detailed descriptions of the economic system aren't enough to convince him otherwise.
In going out to dinner with one of the controllers of the economy, this friend accidentally drops some food on a female diner on a lower level of the restaurant. Although her male companions (didn't take me long to notice that the future is markedly sexist) don't challenge the main character to a gun duel right then and there, a drunk diner across the balcony from him does. The main character only wings him to avoid ruining everyone's meals.
You've probably noticed by now that I haven't said the main character's name. That's because I'm so loathe of this book that I don't even want to bother cracking it to remind myself what his name is. His name is irrelevant anyway.
Anyhoo, it turns out that the main character is the culmination of several generations of genetic combining (in this future almost every single person is genetically selected, like the citizens of Gattaca. Although unlike in Gattaca, the un-selected people are highly valued as a "control group" and are given a high monthly monetary bonus just 'cause their folks boinked to produce them rather than turkey basted) to breed for survivability. The geneticists (the lead of whom was one of the people who got food dropped on back at the restaurant) want the main character to combine with a selected female in order to produce a specific offspring that is of some interest to the geneticists. The main character, dissatisfied with the way humanity is not going anywhere, doesn't feel like bringing another life into the world.
In order to convince him, they send the girl to his apartment. Within two minutes of meeting her he has belittled her, brutally slapped her, stolen her gun, and forcefully kissed her twice. I can see why she likes him so much.
Sometime before this point there are pages and pages of textbook-dry descriptions of how DNA works and how zygotes are made and how genes are passed through generations.
Anyhoo, it turns out that the person he had a duel with in the restaurant is part of an dissatisfied underground rebellion movement. They think they can run things better than the current runners-of-things. The main character, being also rather dissatisfied, gets swept up into their ranks, and gets deeper and deeper and more and more involved with the rebels. But when the climax comes and the rebellion actually happens he brutally helps to quell it, thereby saving the world from what would surely have been a despotic and entirely too harmful of a ruling group.
After reading this far I took a side-view look at the book in my hands and realized that the plot of the story had completely wrapped itself up at barely more than halfway through the entire length of the book. Uh-oh.
The rest of the book is a completely tacked-on and almost completely out-of-the-blue search for the afterlife, brought about by the main character's baby (after saving the world he decided that it wouldn't be such a bad place to raise a kid after all) being born with some telepathic ability (which is what the geneticists were after, apparently). The kid looks at the unborn baby in a mother's uterus and clearly identifies it as a woman who has just died. Thus reincarnation is proven as fact. The end.
What the f--k? I had to slog through pages and pages of dry, discourse-like writings on economic theory and genetics in order to eek out a tepid story of the quelling of a rebellion. Then once I'm finally finished with the plot of the book I have to slog through almost the same number of pages about a completely different subject that has little or nothing to do with the first half of the book.
Part of the blame may lie in the fact that Beyond This Horizon was not written originally as a novel, but rather as segments for one of the Sci-Fi magazines out there at the time. It was later collected in one volume. Perhaps it would be more palatable if it were presented as two completely separate stories that just happen to contain some of the same characters (i.e., if the reincarnation part were presented as the sequel to the rebellion part). Perhaps... but probably not.
I don't know about you, but I don't read nonfiction Sci-fi adventure books so that I get to read 40 pages of dry scientific textbook for every 20 pages of actual story, even if the story is sexist and awkward and the dialogue is about 60 years out of date.
Maybe it's just me. But I've read the book one-and-a-third times (I dare anyone to read it more than once all the way through without screaming and throwing the book across the room) and I can still perceive a vague scent of feces in the air after putting it down.
In conclusion: Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein = ½ star