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All roads to Heinlein pass through Methuselah's Children
on November 25, 2002
Methuselah's Children is a critical component of Heinlein's remarkably impressive body of work. Not only does it culminate the Future History series of stories, it also points the way toward a better understanding of Heinlein's later writings. Perhaps most importantly, this novel introduces us to Lazarus Long and other prominent members of the Howard family of long-timers. This story opens well after the fall of the First Prophet theocracy described in Revolt in 2100; democracy, liberty, and freedom once again mean something in America-at least until the populace learns of the existence of a large group of men and women with lifespans more than double the norm. Believing that the Howard families possess the secret of eternal life, the government takes action to seize all long-timers using any means necessary, including the abhorrent torture treatments made famous by the hated former theocracy. The embattled administrator of the country believes the Family trustee and representative Zach Barstow when he tells him that there is no secret to be had, that the lifespans of the family are determined by heredity. To the great fortune of all 100,000 long-lifers, the remarkable Lazarus Long decides to return to the Family fold he once left behind out of sheer boredom. His leadership results in the Family escaping earth and making their way out into space in search of a new home planet. Their travels are extensive, and their contact with other intelligent beings is as fascinating as it is intriguing-both culturally and scientifically. Heinlein puts a lot of science into his description of the ship's interstellar voyage and the means by which the people plan to survive for a journey of many light years. The colonists' interaction with the alien cultures they encounter is also delightfully original and compelling. The ending did not display a final blast of power, but it serves as a more than acceptable conclusion to events.
I was most impressed by Heinlein's success at tying this novel in to the series of past Former History stories, going all the way back to Life-line and the genesis of the whole saga. A few characters who seemed unimportant earlier in the stories quickly became important actors in the drama, such as astronavigator Libby from the story "Misfit." I have a much better appreciation of the earlier Future History stories after reading Methuselah's Children; things I saw as unimportant in earlier stories are now revealed in a whole new light and made inherently interesting. Lazarus Long, with his fierce independence, refusal to go around without his kilt (with his blaster concealed underneath), youthful old age, free spirit, and lust for activity or adventure is a singular character one cannot soon forget. His story is only begun in this novel, but it is something to behold from the very start.
This novel is intriguing and entertaining on its own merits, but I would encourage you to read the preceding Future History stories first (which can be found in The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth, and Revolt in 2100). Without this background, you will miss completely some of the subtleties and references that make this novel extra special. Likewise, if you are going to read Heinlein's later novels such as Time For Love this book serves as necessary background reading. I see Methuselah's Children as the crucial intersection separating Heinlein's early stories and later novels, so it is incredibly important whichever way you look at it. The science is well told, oftentimes prophetic, and perfectly believable and the sociological speculation is thought-provoking, but this novel is first and foremost an engaging, thrilling read that no Heinlein or vintage science fiction fan should miss.