Before you judge my review of this “classic” purely by the low rating please read my defense and reasons. First of all, if I was still a 13 year old boy this would have been very good, however, even then I would have been slightly disappointed by how much Heinlein has to offer and how little he actually develops in Methuselah’s Children. I understand how important this novel is in the Future History works of Heinlein but sadly, as a stand-alone story, it falls woefully short of greatness.
Summary (contains spoilers): Heinlein first wrote the story in 1941 before expanding it into a full-length novel in 1958. It traces the Howard Families, the product of a very old eugenics program to extend life, through the persona of Lazarus Long (a beloved character of Heinlein fans – whose life is explored in detail and length in the 1973 novel Time Enough for Love).
The Howard families are persecuted on Earth since they are believed to possess a secret to longevity although its just selective breeding which results in living so long. They hijack a space ship and head for a distant planet. The creatures they meet are domestic animals and higher intelligences that want to make the new colonists subservient as well. They continue on to another planet where group mind creatures which can change plants and animals forms and tastes etc… So, they have a large meeting and with Lazarus Long’s prodding they decide to go back to earth, now an easy three-month long task because of technological advances learned from the aliens.
Pros: Heinlein fills this novel with fascinating ideas. The concept of domestic aliens (in some aspects more intelligent than humans) subservient to a greater intelligence – that’s enough for an entire novel.
The technology for a massive space ship that can hold a 100,000 people and the social ramifications that might follow, again, that’s enough for an entire novel. A group mind alien civilization etc… The resolution of the novel, that humanity is somehow drawn to earth, is a powerful concept that many later writers explore in detail. Considering the time Heinlein wrote this story, the concepts are fresh, and fascinating. Lazarus Long is a great character as well: funny, likable, rakish, and morally upright. All this should make a great novel but –
Cons: The bane of so many writers is that they think they can take twenty brilliant ideas and meld them flawlessly together into a coherent novel. Heinlein fails at this, essentially Methuselah’s Children is multiple short stories pasted together with little connection besides “seven years went by.”
What is worse is that when he comes to something interesting instead of having the characters discover it themselves, he writes a detached essay on the topic of group creatures, or seven years of space ship life etc… The characters are thus not actively involved in the action – this is a massive flaw, which halts forward movement and excitement. Most of this is due to the fact that Heinlein had a page limit but he could have easily just written more than one connected novels. Heinlein soon learns from this mistake with his next work, Starship Troopers, which is focused and crisp. Besides Lazarus Long, the characters are one dimensional and wimpy. Again, this is a feature of the time so it can be partially forgiven except that Heinlein DID succeed in making Lazarus’s character. Why did he not put that skill to Mary Sperling? Or Captain King?
Heinlein simply falls short. He offers so many interesting concepts that they overload and ultimately, make no deep impression on the reader. Many juvenile novels from the time explore a single technology, or social idea and make a story, I wish Heinlein had kept this in his original short story form.