Selective breeding and carefully planned marriages with subtle financial encouragement from a secretive group called the Howard Foundation carried out over the last 150 years have resulted in a group of humans that have the extraordinary trait of extreme longevity - Lazarus Long, the patriarch of the Family, born Woodrow Wilson Smith, carries his two hundred plus years quite well! When pressed for his true age, he's either not telling or he won't admit that he truly doesn't know himself! In 2125, a series of events result in the global administration and the remainder of earth's population discovering the Family's existence. A frenzy of enraged jealousy erupts as a maddened, frustrated world seeks to discover the secret fountain of youth they are convinced the Family is guarding for their own use. Hounded by the threat of murder, torture, brainwashing and ultimate extinction by their shorter lived neighbours, the Family flees earth on an untested starship. The discovery of two planets and alien races that pose threats and challenges even more imposing than those from which they fled plus an overwhelming loneliness for the way of life they left so far behind lead them back to earth for a second try.
In Methuselah's Children, Heinlein has crafted an exciting novel, a message, a screenplay and the movie script all at once. Descriptive passages, while compelling and very cleverly written are sparse and infrequent and the plot is almost exclusively driven by razor-sharp dialogue. Heinlein's method of conveying the story through his characters' mouths has got wit; it's got dialect; it's got humour and intelligence; it's got sensible science; it's got humanity and it's got credibility. Their expressions and manner of speaking firmly place the origins of the story in the 1940s USA but somehow Heinlein has managed to inject enough charm to leave it timeless.
For those like me that frequently read for the thrill, the entertainment and the pure joy of a story without looking for any subliminal message or morality tale, Methuselah's Children succeeds in spades. Hard sci-fi runs rampant through every page and fleshes out a superb story line - "refreshers" (think Star Trek's sonic showers), private space yachts, hydroponics used for mass food production, psychometrics (no doubt, first cousin to Asimov's famous "psycho-history"), extreme enhancement of longevity through selective breeding, elimination of national boundaries and the implementation of a global administration, inter-stellar travel at relativistic speeds, super-luminal warp travel "in the dark" reached with instantaneous acceleration, cryogenics and suspended animation for long-term space faring, lunar and Venerean colonies, orbital construction of spaceships, blasters, aliens, communication in an alien language, telepathy, high speed bio-engineering, and lots more. Although Heinlein didn't use the word "replicator", he may well have been sitting on the script team for a Star Trek episode when he had Lazarus order up a customized kilt:
"He sat down in a sales booth and dialed the code for kilts. He let cloth designs flicker past in the screen while he ignored the persuasive voice of the catalogue until a pattern showed up which was distinctly unmilitary and not blue, whereupon he stopped the display and punched an order for his size. Ten minutes later he stuffed the proctor's kilt into the refuse hopper of the sales booth and left, nattily and loudly attired."
For those that wish to dig a little more deeply - don't despair - Heinlein has got much to say that will keep many a party conversation going on a variety of topics: the psychology and, oftentimes, fear of aging and death; mob psychology; prejudice and the abnormal fear of something that is different than we are; the importance of work, activity and a feeling of contributing as a part of the human condition.
This book was more than exciting - it was fun and entertaining in the bargain!