Methuselah’s Children – Robert A Heinlein (1958)
‘The ‘Howard families’ were the product of a genetic experiment, an interbreeding program which had produced one hundred thousand people with an average life-expectancy of a century and a half.
Now, at last, their existence was known on Earth, and the entire world demanded to share the ‘secret of eternal youth.’
Blurb from the 1971 New English Library paperback edition.
Originally serialised in a shorter form in ‘Astounding’ in 1941, ‘Methuselah’s Children’ has an interesting premise, in that in the Nineteenth Century, Ira Howard, obsessed with the concept of longevity, set up a Foundation whose trustees were instructed to use the money to actively pursue the lengthening of the human lifespan. Unsure of how else to proceed, the trustees sought out individuals who had four living grandparents and informed them of a substantial settlement should they choose to marry one of a number of other individuals in the same position.
This odd and improbably successful initiative produced what was to become known as The Howard Families; a group of one hundred thousand people, living secretly within human society and interbreeding amongst themselves, many of whom were by now over a hundred and fifty years old.
Their calamitous decision to announce their presence to the general public results in the families being arrested and forced into a reservation, drugged and tortured to reveal what the public at large believed was a secret immortality drug.
To this point, despite some rather dated characterisation (Heinlein was never too good at anticipating social change, although his notions of future fashions were reasonably prophetic , since many of the men wear kilts and public near-nakedness is acceptable in some circumstances) the novel moves along solidly, but loses its way when Lazarus Long, a two-hundred plus year old maverick tough guy, masterminds the hijack of a new space-craft and escapes with the Howard Families in search of a new home on a new planet.
Putting aside the logistics of getting a hundred thousand people onto a ship, along with supplies, once the escape is effected the tension of the plot is lost.
In their quest to find a new home, the Families at first encounter a planet of benign humanoids who turn out to be nothing more than intelligent pets of a vastly more intelligent race. Moving on to the next planet they meet a race of highly advanced telepathic gestalt beings who create a paradise for the humans to live in.
The lesson is learned that humans deteriorate without the stimulus of challenge, and the ship heads back for Earth where, in the interim, the secret of longevity has been discovered, and all humanity is now part of the Howard Families.
Had Heinlein confined the story to Earth or at least The Solar System, and concentrated on the theme of persecution within one’s own culture, this would no doubt have been a more consistent and important book.
For some, it is one of Heinlein’s best, and despite the disjointedness and the rather cliched alien races, it is an enjoyable read.
Interestingly, Lazarus Long mentions having once met Pinero, the protagonist of Heinlein’s first published short story ‘Life-Line’, who attempted to establish the date of Long’s death, but finding the answer absurd, refunded Lazarus’ money.