To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert A. Heinlein

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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November 26, 2012

To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert A. Heinlein

To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert A. Heinlein

I tried. I tried so hard to finish Heinlein’s last book, To Sail Beyond the Sunset and I just couldn’t.

…let me back up. Why was I reading this book anyhow?

Because it was the first Heinlein I ever read (given to 14 year old me by my father) and I thought it would be interesting to re-read it. And I suppose it was, but not in the way I thought it would be.

There are some good things about this book. Heinlein definitely had a way with both dialogue and narrative authority–what I mean by the latter is that as you’re reading, you want to believe what the narrator is saying. There’s an authenticity to it that is really compelling. Structurally, there’s not much wrong with this book.

Content-wise, well. I’ve been calling this book “The One Where Lazarus Long Travels Back in Time to Fuck His Mom” and that’s pretty much accurate. What I’d forgotten is all the other fucking of family members that goes on in this book, too. And that’s pretty much what made me decide that no, I didn’t need to read any more of this–the way that incest is portrayed as a normal and even healthy thing, particularly father-daughter incest. In fact, here’s the bit that made me stop reading:

Thirty-odd minutes later she closed her eyes and opened her thighs and for the first time received her father–then opened her eyes and looked at Jonathan and me, and grinned. I grinned back at her; Jonathan was too busy to look.

What this world needs is more loving, sweaty and friendly and unashamed.

No. No. NO NO NO NO NO. This is not the sort of thing that should be portrayed as normal and healthy. Because it isn’t. Not to mention the weird objectifying that’s going on here and the way that Nancy (the daughter in this passage) is never really fleshed out into a real character. Her only purpose in the narrative is as a sex object for her father. Which is gross and wrong and it makes my skin crawl.

So what’s this book about other than incest? It’s basically the memoir of Maureen Johnson Smith, the mother of Lazarus Long. Born in late 19th century Missouri, the story starts when she’s 14 years old and continues through the rest of her life in the 20th century. Like her son, Maureen and her husband are members of the Howard Families, a genetic experiment intended to extend human life. In this volume, it’s less about life extension and more about spouse-swapping–in between long, nostalgia-tinged digressions into How Things Were Better Back Then as well as discussions of how Maureen didn’t meddle with her husband’s decisions about how they were going to spend their money or have any desire to do anything but be the best darned wife and mother she could. And, of course, since Heinlein has that knack of narrative authority, it all sounds perfectly rational and not problematic at all.

There is a shell story which, frankly, sounds a lot more interesting that the main narrative–Maureen wakes up naked in a hotel room with a dead body. And she’s trying to figure out what the hell’s going on and by the time I decided that I was done with this book, that was the only story I cared about. I didn’t care about Maureen’s inappropriate lust for her father, her clumsy attempts to seduce him, her idealized life as a wife and mother, her constant thinking about sex, the pro-war rhetoric that permeates the book, the out-dated even in 1988 gender roles, or the fact that Maureen’s son thought she was so awesome that he decided to travel back in time to fuck her before rescuing her from a bus accident and bringing her forward in time.

I know there are people out there who think this book is wonderful (take a look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me), but they’re wrong. This book is a piece of crap and I can’t recommend that anyone read it, not even for the lols (as the kids say). There are so many good books out there, I can’t imagine why anyone but the most ardent Heinlein fan would waste their time on this one. If I was hoping to exorcise any remaining affection I had for Heinlein, I certainly succeeded with this re-read. I can pretty safely say that I have no desire to read anything else the man has written ever again.

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11 Comments

  1. Victoria Janssen

    “Narrative authority.” Yes! Definitely a skill he had.
    I never read this one. I think that was a wise decision.

    • Natalie

      It’s a nifty rhetorical trick which, I think, makes it sometimes hard to argue with the text. Because it all sounds so reasonable. Until you start to really look at it and realize that it’s not.

  2. AB

    I agree with you on all levels about Heinlein. I don’t think any of his female characters (in what I have read of his) are as well flushed-out as his male characters. And even taking into account the “it was a different era” bullshit, there’s a whole heap of misogyny in his stories.

    • Natalie

      Yeah, the whole different era bullshit is just that–bullshit. In some ways, I think his female characters are even more stereotypical in some ways–not only are they gorgeously fuckable, they’re also impossibly competent and intelligent. No real woman can possibly measure up.

  3. Liz Bourke

    Ick.

    • Natalie

      That’s what she said.

      (I couldn’t resist. Forgive me.)

  4. Jan the Alan Fan

    Ugh… that sounds wrong on so many levels. 🙁

    • Natalie

      Yeah. I remembered that Maureen and her father had an inappropriate relationship and that her son traveled back in time so he could (in part) fuck his mom, but I’d forgotten the bit where Maureen’s husband has sex with their oldest daughter. Ew.

  5. James

    Yes, there is sex, lots of sex of every kind. It sold books when this was published. The naked lady on the cover probably sold the book to people that never heard of the author before. If you do not acknowledge humans as sexual animals, then you will be disturbed by the book’s cover and not get to the contents.

    The main complaint made by Natalie seemed to be incest. Incest is a possibility in every family that has at least one child. The book is against the offspring of such relationships and explains why (harmful recessive genes ). I once read a book on progressive inbreeding that describes how to eliminate harmful recessive genes from your breeding stock. If you try this, be prepared for a high loss from paired harmful recessive genes and the expense of gene testing for every offspring.

    Read on if you can get past the sexual aspect of the book.

    The author has tried to raise his reader’s social and political awareness by inserting ideological scenarios in his books, articles, short-stories, etc. In this book he also includes factors that influence how people think and act. He tries to encourage people to think for themselves. A self-thinker will take the time and trouble to discover what is the current reality and what is speculative fiction. The rest choose to remain ignorant and suffer the consequences.

    • Natalie

      Dude. No one was buying this book in 1988 except people who already knew who Heinlein was.

      And even people who like Heinlein’s other work generally think this one is terrible.

  6. dichroic

    I know I’m responding to an old comment, but i have to say I still do identify as a Heinlein fan. However, it’s true that I accomplish that mostly by never rereading anything after Friday (and skipping a few before that, notably Farnham’s Freehold. Oig.)

    And getting past the sexual aspect of this book is about like saying a non-fantasy fan would like LOTR if they can only get past the elves. And the hobbits. And possibly the orcs.

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