What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, David Brin?

Beyond the Horizon by Robert A. HeinleinHeinlein & Beyond This Horizon

RAH was a question-asker.

I consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon (BTH) that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be. And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

Like most Heinlein novels, Beyond This Horizon divides pretty evenly into two parts and it is only the second half that I hold in high regard. Heinlein wrote the first half at behest of the famed editor of Astounding Magazine, John W. Campbell, who was then holding forth on one of his favorite themes . . . that “an armed society is a polite society.”

In pushing this strange notion, Campbell was behaving very much like his arch-nemesis, Karl Marx. A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples. But no matter. Heinlein did as good a job of conveying Campbell’s idea in fiction as anybody could. So much so that the first half of Beyond This Horizon has been cited by state legislators in both Texas and Florida, proposing that all citizens to go around armed! Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon… which RAH suddenly veers away from at the midway point.

This division between halves is typical of Heinlein novels and it makes reading them an interesting, multi-phase experience. Generally, RAH was a master at starting his tales–in fact, I recommend that all neo writers study carefully the first few pages of any Heinlein tale, for his spectacularly effective scene-setting and establishment of point-of-view. (The opening scene of The Star Beast is the best example of show-don’t-tell that anyone can find.) Alas, most of his novels reach a vigorous climax, concluding part one… and then peter out disappointingly in the last half, amid a morass of garrulous talk.

But this is where Beyond This Horizon reverses all expectations. Sure, part one is action and part two is talk, as usual… only in this case, the action is silly and the talk is terrific! In fact, this is where Robert Heinlein displays how broad his intellectual reach can take us.

Here we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simpleminded critics might have us think. Indeed, his famed libertarianism had limits, moderated and enriched by compassion, pragmatism and a profound faith that human beings can improve themselves, gradually, by their own diligence and goodwill.

I was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

When it comes to politics, his future society is, naturally, a descendant of the America Heinlein loved. But it has evolved in two directions at once. Anything having to do with human creativity, ambition or enterprise is wildly competitive and nearly unregulated. But where it comes to human needs, the situation is wholly socialistic. One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

None of this fits into the dogma of Ayn Rand, whose followers have taken over the libertarian movement. If Robert Heinlein was a libertarian, it was clearly of a more subtle kind, less historically or anthropologically naive, more compassionate… and more interesting

But here’s the crux. For the most part, with Robert Heinlein, you felt he wasn’t so much lecturing or preaching as offering to argue with you! His books let you fume and mutter and debate with this bright, cantankerous, truly American soul, long after his body expired. And this joy in argument–in posing and chewing over thought experiments–is the very soul of what it means to be a writer or reader of science fiction.

David Brin can be found online at


Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.


Related Links:

41 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, David Brin?

  1. Heh. I was about to go and paste the link to this on David Brin’s blogspot before I realized who’d written it. D’oh! Only saw the first part of the title in my email.

    I wonder if Heinlein and Piper ever sat down or corresponded. That would be a fun time to be a fly on the wall.

  2. Another wonderful aspect of this novel has to do with Heinlein’s mystical beliefs. When he was a child he had had “past-life” memories that always intrigued him; later in his life he researched metaphysical and esoteric philosophers, and with his friend from Annapolis, Cal Laning, engaged in what the two called “The Quest” — experiments to determine whether telepathy and other parapsychological experiences (including intimations of previous lives) could be proven. (His wife Leslyn practiced “white witchcraft” and was perhaps more convinced about the occult than Heinlein was.) Heinlein wrote _Beyond This Horizon_ during this period of his life, with “The Quest” transmuted into the “Great Research” undertaken by the protagonists. Heinlein is often stereotyped as a “hard” science fiction writer who happened to write a few fantasies, but among his seeming contradictions was an equal interest in hard sciences and esoteric philosophies. The mysticism of _Stranger in a Strange Land_ was no accident. perhaps this is why Heinlein preferred the term “speculative fiction” (which he may have coined) to “science fiction.”

  3. Wow, you got me with this one! I haven’t read that book in forty or fifty years, in fact I had almost forgotten it existed. And even back then, I always felt it was one of the least impressive of RAH’s works, it just never turned me on.

    Nope, if I was going to pick my favorite, it would have to be “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” For a runner-up, I think I would take “Job: A Comedy of Justice.”

  4. David, I think you missed a few points here. A common theme with Heinlein is the ‘armed society’, while this is not necessarily always depicted in the same way a common theme through much of Heinlein’s work is that an armed society is a free society (not necessarily a polite one). Furthermore I think your view of libertarianism and conservatism is slightly skewed. I take it from your opinions stated above that you are a self-described liberal. Being an individual who wavers between conservatism (old fashioned liberalism) and libertarian thought I have no problem (nor do I know any conservatives or libertarians) that would disagree with Heinlein in much of any substance. Conservatives and libertarians do not lack compassion (and some libertarians also contain some pragmatism), where conservatives are often seen as being non-compassionate is because we don;t want to force someone else (you, your neighbor our friends, our greatest enemies, etc.) to help others with monetary means, We do of course believe in helping others and most of us do so all the time, we don’t believe that the government should be playing Robin Hood, that’s all.

    1. Actually, a little Robin Hood would be nice. It’s a shame modern class-envy propaganda has changed what Robin Hood really was. He didn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor, he took the money confiscated in taxes and returned it to the people from whom it had been taken.

      1. You are, of course correct, sorry for that… Of course, in reality, Robin Hood was simply recovering stolen goods…

  5. Ooh, forgot to mention books I like. I still read Moon and Job, as well as a short story collection with Menace from Earth in it. Daughter’s almost old enough to start in on the juveniles. Can’t wait to read Farmer in the Sky with her.

  6. Eugenics is always problematic – what is good for the family may not be good for humanity. Who would knowingly choose a bipolar child, and yet there it is likely that much of the progress we have nade was through the creativity of individuals in their manic phase.

  7. My favorite is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I’m not counting his short story collections as a novel. I think the story “If This Goes On” is thought provoking, but then all of Heinlein’s writing’s do that.

  8. Oooh, how to choose.
    I loved the political world discussed, albeit briefly, in “Starship Troopers”, got some good laughs out of “Starbeast” and “Have Spacesuit Will Travel”, had some introspective thoughts out of “Stranger in a Strange Land” – and I never did figure out which of the ladies showed Michael the wonder of physical togetherness – and was very intrigued by “Time Enough For Love”.
    No, sorry, can’t choose, depends on when you ask, I think. Right now, “Have Spacesuit Will Travel”

  9. Stranger in a Strange Land stuck with me all through my years,70. I think that’s because I lost hope for us as a race then. I haven’t seen much to change my mind, except for an occasional bright person. Then their light dims and my light dims along with them.


  10. Thinking about it, Starship Troopers did influence me towards joining the military. And I do re-read it every few years, along with Moon.

  11. In re Heinlein’s transcendental moments as a child. CS Lewis had these moments and wrote about them extensively.

  12. My favourite Heinlein has always been Stranger in a Strange Land. I first read it l;most 50 years ago, when it first came out.

    It is still relevant today.

  13. The Heinlein book I keep returning to is “The Past Through Tomorrow”, his anthology of “future history” stories. Although it is a collection of short stories written over the years, the stories connect well and cover a lot of widely varying philosophical territory.

  14. I bet there are lots of genes which persist in the population due to hidden tradeoffs. We know about the genetic relationship between malaria and sickle cell anemia, and the similar one between bubonic plague/HIV and West Nile virus. I think the Heinlein solution would teach us a lot of hard lessons about genetic tradeoffs, lessons our genome learned generations ago even if our cultures did not.

  15. Heinlien had many ideas that seemed contradictory, such as his insistence upon self reliance from all, while the basics of life were provided free. I have to admit to liking both. I don’t own a gun but then, I AM 6 foot one and used to be able to bench press a small car, so I’ve really never needed a gun.

    I expect, as we move to a Dyson type II civilization, workers in space will be recipients of guaranteed air, water, food and return space fare to earth(or other point of hire), similar to the employment contracts of ARAMCO, in Saudi Arabia. Then everything else they earn will be due to their own efforts. Sounds reasonable to me.

    My favorite titles; Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land and Beyond This Horizon. He was a sometimes cantankerous, humorous and deeply thoughtful man. I wish he was still here and writing.

    Gary 7

  16. Pingback: July 25 Asides
  17. If I read Beyond This Horizon it was far enough back I’ve forgotten it. I’ll remedy that by reading it again.

    One Heinlien book I do read often is a pallet cleanser, like rice in a Japanese feast. That book is Glory Road, I can skip past analysis and enjoy a rousing fine tale. There is good food for thought, but the dominate flavor is persistent entertainment. I love Glory Road’s subtlety. offsetting and separating more complex fare.

  18. Not sure if the screenwriter had the second half of this novel in mind, but a good rebuttal to “best of both parents” natural selection can be found in the movie Gattaca. That utopian/dystopian society blended the above idea with Pluto’s ideal to create, well… go rent the movie.

  19. Brin doesn’t know his history very well. Tyranny results when the STATE is armed and the citizen is not, which is the historical norm, so saying that history abounds with examples of Heinlein’s thesis being flawed is simply incorrect.

    It is the SECOND half of his book where his utopia flies in the face of history. The “chicken in every pot” promise has universally resulted in just the opposite countless times throughout history.

    1. Adopting RAH’s authoritative tone won’t get you through here. All one has to do is examine European history from 460 CE through the high Middle Ages to debunk the assertion that tyranny results from an armed state and an unarmed population. Moreover, tyranny as a concept and political system comes down to us from the Greeks whose theory of the state was based on the idea of an armed rather than unarmed population.

      1. What do you see in European history throughout the Middle Ages? The entire continent was under one tyranny or another throughout the entire period… The vast majority of the Continent was ruled by robber barons of one kind or another, and the serfs/slaves/etc were unarmed. In a period of iron and fledgling steel, the ‘common-folk’ were limited to rocks and wood, primarily. There is a reason that one-third of the entire continent at one point were slaves of the Vikings, they had the weapons and the will to use them along with very few scruples as to who they were used against…

  20. @Mark G, the flaw in the world of Gattaca was not with how children were conceived, but with how they were treated thereafter. There was no indictment of Heinlein-style selection itself, just of a (narrow-minded & highly implausible) social extrapolation.

    A person’s success or failure in life is not (and should not be) solely determined by genetics. Upbringing & environment, as well as qualities of spirit like determination & creativity, all play roles that would be foolish to ignore.

    Indeed, that was Gattaca’s moral.

  21. I recall Heinlein writing more than once that “hemophiliacs should be allowed to bleed to death”, apparently their health problems outweighed their right to exist, let alone any contributions they might make to Humanity. What would he say about Stephen Hawking? would any parent-to-be choose a child with such a terrible disease, even if they knew that the disease actually helped enable that person’s genius?

    I loved most of his books, especially “The Moon- etc”, tho I thought his notion that empowered women (being a minority in Lunar society) would LIKE to be oogled and whistled at and all that ick.

    But he was a Giant, and he had Giant Faults. They go together, I guess.

  22. Mr. Brin a quick question:
    Have you now, or ever in the past had ANY experience among people who habitually go armed in the course of their daily activities?

    Until you do, you have NO idea what “an armed society is a polite society” actually means.

    Most “Americans” are dis-armed, live their entire lives among the dis-armed, and wouldn’t know hot to properly utilize a firearm if presented with one as a gift.

    In other words, they are serfs.

    A “Citizen” is one who has the disposition, the capability, and the means to defend themselves, their companions, and their civilization.

    There are not many left these days.

      1. Being armed and citizens is not necessarily as simple as having possession of weapons, knowledge has a lot to do with it. Are you aware that the entirety of Sicily was once conquered by only 75 knights? This was not due to the populace being unarmed by weapons, but being unarmed by knowledge and will…

  23. “One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?””

    Actually the quote occurs as an offhanded remark in a discourse on economics by Monroe Alpha (sidekick) “Food is of course free.” No shock or moral indignation implied, just the way it is.

    And BTW this is just before he accompanies the hero to a pay-restaurant to have some bouillabaisse – which Monroe Alpha is unfamiliar with to the point of clumsiness while attempting to eat it.

    I’ve always wondered if this was meant to suggest that the free food considered a citizens right were something like MREs or basic rice-and-beans. That is, enough to sustain life and health, but if you want variety and quality you’ve got to work for it.

  24. I think everyone would like to claim RAH for their own sociopolitical outlook, especially now that he’s not around to ask.

    Since his political views evolved over time, since he wasn’t writing to push readers towards some nicely-defined -ism, pretty much everyone can claim him; or anyone other than hardcore devotees of property-is-theft communal whateverism, at least. He was an individualist; past that, he’s hard to pin down unless you’re reading him with your own agenda.

    As for an “armed society” being “polite,” the implication I took from it was that the society in question was composed of law-abiding persons and criminals were considered to be outside it, or at least not the healthy portion. For the two conditions of the law-abiding, “armed” or “unarmed,” it seems to me if the lawful are armed, the lawless will tend to be more “polite” — because the lawless are usually able to obtain weaponry. (Even on islands where such are banned — Great Britain, Jamaica — the bad guys show up with handguns distressingly often).

    Within the U.S., there isn’t a terribly close correlation between strict gun laws — the states vary quite widely — and violent crime; to the extent there is one, it is very slightly negative. I don’t think anyone’s done studies to determine if, say, people in LA, Chicago and NYC are less polite than people in Burlington, VT (very wide-open gun laws, honest) ,Atlanta and Indianapolis. Most “gunnies” I have met are polite but they run the usual human range of acceptable social interaction.

  25. Brin said “Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon…”

    Wrong, but typical of gun-fearing liberals. Actually, I believe it was a duel over an insult rather than random violence. Most “armed” groups in this country – practical pistol competitors for example, are heavily armed and quite polite as well as safety conscious to a fault. The police are often exceptions to this.

  26. Here’s the fundamentals of how “An armed society is a polite society” works. A gun that can extinguish the voices of 100 people, effectively has the voice of a hundred people. A hundred people with such guns have the voice of ten thousand….unless we all have such guns. Can we prevent someone from building such a gun for themselves? No.

    Heinlein did not advocate everyone being half-cocked rednecks. He was a pragmatist who was decent with math. The 1% have control over all the “guns” (could be money, prisons, laws, etc…) and as long as the normal person does not have the ability to exert that response on the ones who do have that form of power, balance is not achieved and greed will win. The position of power, whatever that power may be, becomes the goal for the power hungry and not those that hunger for liberty. The altruistic individual has no lust to rule.

    This applies not just to guns, but to oxygen, water, elbow room, etc… When you control something that controls the persons ability to a) live and b) express their own humanity in some outlet, you control/take their voice. Fundamentals for living and existing in a human capacity should be accessed by all as long as the item has that fundamental affect.

  27. David I am disappointed by your continual dishonesty, How long has it been since you read ‘Beyond This Horizon’?. I started to write a point by point refutation but found I would rather read the story than waste time countering your baloney, I suggest reading the story yourself, It is still fun and thought provoking, especially if you can remember it was written in 1942.

      1. A contribution to the discussion beyond simply attacking those who disagree with the post by Brin would probably be preferable to this kind of comment.

        The comment you alluded to was simply a reminder that Heinlein’s work was written quite a while ago and therefore some of the topics have to be considered from within their own historical context, there was no slur on Brin’s memory in the post above, while I think his dishonesty has been fairly apparent to any who read the original article and who have also had any experience with Heinlein’s works and beliefs. It is possible that Brin is not aware of his dishonesty, it is sometimes frightfully easy to lie to oneself, but any kind of an objective view of Heinlein and his work will show that Brin was… significantly off… in his characterization.

Comments are closed.