Book Review: Beyond This Horizon, Robert A. Heinlein (magazine publication 1942, novelized 1948)

(Sandy Kossin’s cover for the 1960 edition)

2.5/5 (Bad)

Beyond This Horizon (magazine publication 1942, novelized 1948) was Robert A. Heinlein’s second published novel and one of the few non-juvenile works he published until the late 50s and early 60s.  Interesting tangent: Starship Troopers (1959) was originally conceived as a juvenile but rejected by his normal publisher due to its more serious content.

Unfortunately, Beyond this Horizon is plagued by an utterly contrived first half and a frustrating tagline that governs Heinlein’s world-building — “an armed society is a polite society.”  The second half is remotely more readable but I was so disenchanted by that point that I was desperate for the conclusion.  David Brin points out that the tagline was the brainchild of Heinlein’s editor — John W. Campbell, who first published the work in Astounding — who compelled him to integrate it into the plot.  I suspect this type of oversight influenced Heinlein’s decision to publish solely juveniles for almost two decades afterwards (well, and the market).  If anyone knows more about this period in his writing career I’d love to know…

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The world Heinlein creates and the snappy dialogue (as always) between characters are the most appealing aspects of the work.  This future Earth is governed by a doctrine of eugenics: “To keep the race strong as it is and to make it stronger requires careful planning.  The genetic technician eliminates in the laboratory the strains which formerly were eliminated by simple natural selection” (25).  In short, prospective parents choose the sperm and ova from a bank depending on a desirable genetic makeup instead of genetically manipulating the sperm and ova.

This pseudo-utopia emerged from an earlier eugenic focused society that actually modified the genetic structure of humans — in short, creating certain traits instead of selecting traits already existing in the gene pool: “Romantic writers of the first days of genetics dreamed of many fantastic possibilities — test-tube babies, monsters form by artificial mutation, fatherless babies, babies assembled piece by bit from a hundred different parents.  All these horros are possible, as the geneticists of the Great Khans proved, but we citizens of this Republic have rejected such tampering with out life stream” (39).  The great Khan “bred over three thousand types including hyperbrains (thirteen sorts), the almost brainless matrons, the clever and repulsively beautiful pseudo-feminine freemartins, the neuter ‘mules'” (27).  This resulted in multiple devastating genetic wars…  I can’t help but speculate that the Great Khan, a genetic superman, inspired Khan Noonian Singh in Star Trek: The Original Series.

Almost every citizen, although generally not women, carries a side arm with them at all times and engage in duels over incredibly silly things — like dropping food from a balcony onto another table.  If an individual drinks too much then they generally put aside their weapon and done a brassard indicating their unarmed state.  Of course, those who chose to wear brassards instead of weapons at all times are considered of lower social status.  Most people choose not to work but are able to live the life of the wealthy — Heinlein engages in numerous preposterous political lectures about how this is possible…

Heinlein also speculates on the skills that eugenics will select for — and naturaly, his ideas are firmly rooted in earlier conceptions of the ultimate ideal of a scholar, pure memorization.  Heinlein’s “encyclopedic synthesist”, using their eidetic memory, memorize massive amounts of information in order to create new technology… Critical thinking skills and imagination are all absent from the repertoire of this type of ultra scholar.

The plot follows Hamilton Felix, a genial/brilliant/disease-resistant/ultra strong manly man with a ancient revolver at his side, as he ambles through life.  The genetic planners know that Hamilton is the most advanced human although he lacks the eidetic memory needed to be a synthesist.  The planners desire for Hamilton to produce a child.  Unfortunately, getting hitched is the last thing on this superman’s mind.

Eventually, he falls for the snarky weapon carrying Longcourt Phyllis whom the genetic planners consider the ultimate woman.  Apparently Heinlein believes that if you rant at women about how much they NEED men they fall for you every time: “I know your type.  You’re one of these ‘independent’ women, anxious to claim all the privileges of men but none of the responsibilities.  I can just see you, swaggering around town with that damned little spit gun at your side, demanding all the rights of an armed citizen, picking fights in the serene knowledge that no brave will call your bluff.  Argh!  You make me sick” (54).  1940s opinions of women aside, Longcourt Phyllis does prove to be an equal of Hamilton Felix in gunfights and intelligence.

In between chapters which read like political treatises, Hamilton Felix uncovers a plot along the same lines of the earlier Great Khan — i.e. produce supermen by genetically modifying embryos.  Also, Hamilton’s friend gets swept up in the movement’s false message.  It’s up to gun wielding manly man Hamilton Felix and little weapon carrying ultra woman Longcourt Phyllis to put down the rebellion and produce some ultra special babies!

Final Thoughts

I recommend the novel to rabid fans of Heinlein (of whose ranks I am not a member) especially those interested in where the first kernels of Heinlein’s alternately intriguing/frustrating political philosophy were developed.  Other readers interested the more political and sociological strains of 40s science fiction might also be interested.  Everyone else, stay away!

My last Heinlein novel (I’ve read 20 +) for a while….

(Sandy Kossin’s cover for the 1964 edition)

(Gene Szafran’s cover for the 1973 edition)

(Gordon C. Davies’ cover for the 1978 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1989 edition)

(David Mattingly’s cover for the 1997 edition)

(Patrick Turner’s cover for the 2001 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Beyond This Horizon, Robert A. Heinlein (magazine publication 1942, novelized 1948)

  1. If I haven’t gotten confused in my Early Heinlein Books I Haven’t Read In Ages And Only Dimly Remember Even When I’m Reading, isn’t this the one where one of the genetically superior types has a job modifying pinball playing fields so they look like new games?

    (Modifying playing fields can be quite respectable, admittedly, and at least one great pinball game of the 80s — PinBot — was turned into one of the great pinball games of the 90s — JackBot — by changing the art and making some new rules for the game. But, still, it’s an awfully Vintage 40s thing for a couple centuries down the line.)

    • Hamilton’s job is in games, of which sort is somewhat unclear but they have to do with people (or robots) fighting to the death. I don’t remember exactly… I read this a month ago and I’ve already forgotten a few portions — alas….

      but I don’t remember pinball playing fields. There’s a cryogenically frozen man from the 20s who introduces football…..

  2. I think you’re talking about “The Midas Plague” – the hero isn’t a superman, but has a one-day-a-week job designing games machines in which you gamble ration stamps, which you would otherwise turn in to show that you’ve consumed the stuff that you have to by law (if you see what I mean!)

  3. Campbell was famous for rewriting parts of Heinlein’s books. RAH was getting good pay rates from Astounding Magazine, but he he fell out with Campbell. When Campbell didn’t rewrite large sections of his stories, hel was rejecting Heinlein, asking for changes the he was not willing to make.
    Campbell was one of the greatest Editors in Science Fiction, but he could also be a jerk (Scientology) and wanted to push ESP, social issues, and other pet projects.
    Heinlein eventually sold his stories to other editors and wrote only novels. Some of his juvenile novels were serialized in Astounding, but more were serialized in magazines like F&SF.


  4. A couple of points:
    1. You’re wrong about the timeline of adult vs. juvenile novels. The Puppet Masters, Double Star and Methuselah’s Children were all adult novels that came out during that time period.
    2. I used to have all of the Signet Heinlein paperbacks with the Szafran covers. I don’t know if they count as “good” covers, but mesmerized me when I was a teenager.
    3. You’ve mentioned a number of times how unimpressed you are by Heinlein’s novels, but I’m wondering you’re including his juvenile novels in your disdain. In my view, his juvenile books are among SF’s best (just as his ’60’s and beyond novels are among SF’s worst.)

    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve read all three of those — I’m often unsure which are classified as juveniles or not. I guess those with young heroes etc… And obviously Double Star (unfortunately, in my top five worst novels ever to win a Hugo Award) doesn’t fit in that type of mold. You’re right.

      I enjoy a few of his juveniles — Starman Jones, Farmer in a the Sky, Citizen of the Galaxy, and my favorite, Orphans of the Sky are all readable if unspectacular — and I did read them when I was in my early teens.

      • As to his others, I’ve read all his supposed classics — Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (perhaps his single best work), Farnham’s Freehold, Stranger in a Strange Land, etc etc etc.

        The Cat Who Walks Through put me off from his other works through — incredibly self-indulgent, hokey, and mind-numbingly dull… I tried to read The Number of the Beast, Job: A Comedy of Justice (barely finished this one), I Will Fear No Evil, etc but I find all his later novels almost unreadable.

        • The Moon is a harsh Mistress is his last really good book. Some people don’t like it or Stranger in a Strange Land, but with the books after this, his whole approach to fiction changed and the books are harder to read. It is still Heinlein, but he goes off on uninteresting tangents. They are just barely readable, even to a Heinlein fan.

      • Do not know if anyone else mentioned this but Orphans is not one of his juvenilles. It was part of his Future History and published in Astounding. For some reason it is not included in most of the Future History Omnibus.

      • The two novellas “Universe” and “Common Sense” were both published in 1941. He did not start writing the teenager books until 1947 with Rocket Ship Galieo. Just getting into him. Read “By His Bootstraps”. A great story. Though its similarity to the later “All You Zombies” made pretty easy to see where the whole story was going. The later story is almost like he was trying to one up himself from this one. Have you read those?

  5. I read Beyond This Horizon in the last year or so, and, yeah, I’m a Heinlein fan, but it was one of his weaker efforts. On a brighter note, I read the Heinlein short story “By His Bootstraps” just last week and was very pleased by how good it is, one of the best time travel stories I have ever read.

      • Yeah, I have the Signet D2105 paperback of The Menace From Earth. I guess I have read about half the stories in it. The title story I liked, “Goldfish Bowl ” was not bad, “Project Nightmare” was just OK; people nowadays will probably think “Project Nightmare” is embarrassingly dated.

        In the last year or so I also read Star Beast, the paperback with the Darrel K. Sweet cover, which was quite fun.

  6. Joachim, Nice to see someone else with around 200 books on his to-read pile. I was clipping along at a great pace last year after deciding not to buy any new books until I finished all the unread ones I owned [I didn`t stick to that but I curtailed my buying greatly]. My previous 700 unread book are now 300 or so. I suspect they are reproducing to keep me from my goal.

  7. Pingback: Friday: Complicated SF Classic

  8. I find the review and some of the comments to be a bit shallow, blissfully condemning Heinlein’s underlying themes as weaknesses because they disagree with current pop philosophy.

    • Haha, I find you comment blissfully shallow as you do not understand that I do not care two cents for current pop philosophy — and any comment that dismisses a review due to “current pop philosophy” is by its very nature shallow…

      That said, you are welcome to present a counter argument!

    • What really has happened is that you encountered a review of one of your favorite authors and it doesn’t connect with what you expect us all to think…. So you lash out in an unsubstantiated way.

  9. Pingback: Beyond This Horizon | AQ's Reviews

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