Published on May 30th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Orphans of the Sky
I haven’t been the kindest critic of Robert A. Heinlein.
The first attempt at reading Starship Troopers resulted in a concession from me, I was unable to finish it and left the rest of the book hanging until I could stand to stomach the un-situationally ironic right-wing aggression.
So being ever the saint, I’ve given him another go, another chance to prove that he can write a good Science-fiction story that doesn’t offend almost everything I believe in and even some things I wasn’t aware I thought.
We have two short novels by him, both of which are part of his “Future History” continuity, which as I understand it, really push the definition of the term “continuous”.
This novel is a tidy 175 pages and the name comes from Methuselah, who is a figure in the Hebrew Bible said to be the oldest man to ever live.
The story initially follows Mary Sperling, a member of the Howard Families, a secret group which has spent the past couple of centuries breeding together people whose descendants have a higher than average longevity, thus enabling their children to live longer than normal people, usually with an average life expectancy of 150.
Mary is 183 years old and therefore in charge, and begins a discussion with some of the key members of the Howard Families in order to inform them of the changes in the situation with normal human beings, who are slowly beginning to find out about the existence of the Howard Families.
In comes LAZARUS LONG, who has lived even LONGer and is 213. In the short introduction where he talks to Mary he manages to put down Mary in a really casual way, provide nothing to the discussion AND steal the narrative for the rest of the novel. Way to go Heinlein, just as I thought that you’d grown out of casual sexism.
The characters are as always dull, boring and appear to lack any real drive to accomplish anything. Everyone and everything is dispassionate, as if nothing spectacular is happening at any given point. This would be acceptable with a little annotation about the characters feeling that way, possibly as a result of their huge lifespans and how the world starts to feel insignificant. But when you’ve been round this tree before in Starship Troopers, you know it’s really because Heinlein is a lazy git.
The story appears to change direction at any opportunity and by that I mean not in the attempt to take you by surprise, but more like Heinlein got bored with his own story some way into writing it, well either that or he just really had nowhere else to go after “Ooh! Lifespans!”
One of the things I found most confusing about this novel is that I wasn’t entirely sure who I was meant to be rooting for at any point. Everyone’s a twat and in the most coquettish and unpleasing way. The humans are ignorant and sloppy, while the Howard Families are insufferably trusting and mild mannered. If that’s what a long lifespan does to you, it’s probably best to buy a wolf jumper and endless McAfees in advance.
Overall the novel feels a little amateur, whether it’s the pacing, the poor development of characters or the unbelievable alien life, because that happens in this book for some reason, there’s something that lets it down, especially the ending, which was essentially whizzed through in one short chapter with a spacey equivalent of “And they all lived happily ever after” tacked at the end.
Orphans of Sky
At 128 pages and feeling considerably shorter than the previous book, Orphans is one of the few books that has made me want rewrite it myself, it was such a waste of opportunity.
Citizens on board the Ship believe it is all that exists, their only world. Legends of the “Captain” and his crew are passed down and diluted to regressed minds, until one boy finds a room and discovers the stars.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Yes, I thought that too.
I suppose what I really wanted (unfortunately as it is) is an adventurous tale of one hero against his people with a vision bigger than anything they could imagine. One where he toils at convincing them that there is more out there than the ship they live on, ending in their unfaltering belief and hope for their race to advance and explore the universe with truth as a forefront to their philosophy. A kind of Science versus Religion thing like most Sci-Fi TV shows do.
Instead what we got is this belligerent prat who literally falls into enemy hands when he is bonked on the head and is delivered to the control room from which he is explained the truth, while that doesn’t sound to bad, when you add in that the captor is a two headed mutant man and the hero is some sort of space choir boy, things like “realism” go a bit AWOL.
After this the boy returns to his people who have a religion and political system that’s incongruously based on the running of the ship and various mission logs and science textbooks, in order to explain the truth so that the people can continue the journey meant for them by their predecessors, it’s here where he is promptly met with another bonk on the head and throwing into a gaol for being a bit nutty.
Without going into too much detail, not a single member of the colony is convinced through any virtuous means, nor is the end resolved without most of the crew dying in a pointless civil war.
This novel is so short that all you really expect is a fun and interesting plot, which in a strange kind of way it does deliver, however at the expense of Heinlein’s credibility as a hard science writer.
Both books suffer from the exact same thing, which is odd tempo and rushed ends, probably as result of having been serialised instead of being a normal novel.
If like a bit of Larry Niven or cheesy 50s Sci-Fi, then you should probably get some better taste. Failing that, then go right ahead.