Pretty Terrible: Archive

Published: November 26, 2012

To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert A. Heinlein: An Attempted Review

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.