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Book Report: Methusaleh's Children

Wow, is YHB behind on these book reports.

So. I was visiting a friend for a week back in the early part of the summer, and I picked up a book from their bookshelves for the visit. When I do that, I prefer to grab something that I have read before, just in case I don’t finish it before it’s time to go home. This time, I found myself at their collection of Robert Heinlein paperbacks and picked up Methusaleh’s Children. I had only the vaguest recollection of the thing. Lazarus Long, the Howard Families escape from persecution on Earth on a stolen colony ship and return to find that the longevity they were persecuted for has become technologically possible. Essentially, I remembered the beginning and the end.

What I had forgotten in the middle was a couple of encounters with aliens who have unimaginably advanced technology. Ridiculous technology, actually. Well, and so do the humans, after Slipstick Libby discovers faster-than-light travel, but that’s all right. In addition to being a genre convention already when he is writing, there’s the sense that there are limits to it; there’s a lot of hand-waving, but there’s an attempt to show that it’s a leap forward from Where We Are Now. The aliens, though, are way beyond that, growing bacon trees overnight and transporting spaceships across the galaxy through the power of their alien minds. Big, big brains. And a lot of mystical stuff that Mr. Heinlein doesn’t so much reject.

My guess is that in the middle of the century, after the atom had been tamed, there really was the sense that anything was possible. That if matter transport was against the Laws of Physics, then the Laws of Physics would be found to be wrong, or more elastic than we thought, or applicable only in earth atmosphere, or whatever. I mean—Mr. Heinlein was born in 1907, and presumably took some physics and chemistry in school (certainly there is the impression of that in his juveniles) and by the time he was revising this one into a novel, it would have clear that almost everything he was taught had been left behind by scientific progress. Why wouldn’t that keep going?

And it has, to some extent, although a lot of the last fifty years or so has involved finding limits to the stuff we learned in the previous fifty years or so. We can split the atom, but revolutionizing our knowledge of subatomic particles (Mr. Heinlein was twenty when Mr. Heisenberg developed his uncertainty principle) hasn’t really led to developing commercial transmutation of elements. We have published a genome or two (incredible, ludicrous, miraculous achievements) and we can genetically modify corn to make farmers have to buy new seed every year, but we can’t grow seed-to-apple in a morning, or make the apples taste like freshly-baked bread. We know that the sun is not actually a mass of incandescent gas, but closer to a miasma of incandescent plasma (when Mr. Heinlein was a kid we only had three states of matter), but we can’t make an artificial sun to provide power to our space stations.

No, I’m just saying there was something that seemed to me optimistic, or even credulous Mr. Heinlein’s introduction of super-advanced aliens. They work, I suppose, within the story, sending our humans home again, home again, jiggity jig. But it was that, really, that made the book seem so dated. Or at least that was what I was thinking this time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,