Most helpful positive review
Heinlein sails beyond the sunset
on March 24, 2004
Robert Heinlein spiked this one into the end zone as he dropped. What an ending to his career.
(The title is a reference to a line in Tennyson's 'Ulysses', having to do with accomplishments in old age, and it's undoubtedly intended to describe what Heinlein himself was up to here. He succeeded.)
A word of warning, though -- if you didn't like _Time Enough for Love_, stay away from this one. Even (if possible) more than its predecessor, this one just oozes s-e-x, including wife-swapping, incest, and other stuff probably not in conformity to the mores of your tribe. In my view, it's all very tastefully and responsibly handled, but then my own opinions on such matters (including my devout antigrundyism) were in large measure informed by massive reading of RAH during my formative years. Just be aware that the usual suspects have dismissed this novel as pornographic trash.
At any rate, this novel was clearly a labor of love for Heinlein. In it, he gets to revisit the world of his childhood (or close to it; he actually has to start a bit earlier than his own birth).
You see, it's the story of one of Heinlein's most compelling heroines: Maureen Johnson Long, of the Howard Families, mother (and co-wife) of Woodrow Wilson Smith (a.k.a. Bill Smith a.k.a. Ernest Gibbons a.k.a. Lafe Hubert a.k.a. Aaron Sheffield a.k.a. Lazarus Long). And she lived just down the road a piece from Heinlein (and Sam Clemens, who makes a nice cameo appearance in her memoirs).
There's a thin shell of story around it, but most of the novel consists of Maureen narrating her life to herself (and us). We learn a lot about her unconventional childhood and her interesting relationship with her father (Lazarus's Gramp, Ira Johnson). We watch her grow up, get married (to fellow Howard Family member Brian Smith), make a home, bear children, and do all sorts of other things.
Of course since the stuff that happened in Heinlein's 'Future History' stories didn't actually come to pass in _our_ world (no rolling roads, for example, and our moon shot was a government affair), Lazarus and his kin must hail from an alternative timeline. And sure enough -- right around the beginning of the Second World War, we start to see events that diverge from our own history. But boy, it turns out Maureen was there behind the scenes for quite a bit of that 'Future History'; she knew Delos Harriman, was sleeping with George Strong, and provided some crucial assistance to what in her world was the first lunar landing.
Great stuff, filled with the wonderful narrative, dialogue, and characterization that Heinlein's longtime readers had learned to expect -- not to mention the Old Man's usual range of soapboxery and iconoclasm, in spades. And it's always good to see Lazarus again.
As I've said elsewhere, I credit Heinlein with three absolutely magisterial SF novels: _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_, _Double Star_, and _The Door Into Summer_. This is one of his near-magisterial second-tier novels; it falls just ever so slightly short because I think there's a wee bit too much 'fitting Maureen into the cracks' of his previous novels.
Speaking of which: Be sure to read _Time Enough for Love_, _The Number of the Beast_, and _The Cat Who Walks Through Walls_ before you read this one; they form a series. At some point you'll also want to read _Methusaleh's Children_ and Heinlein's 'Future History' stories (collected in _The Past Through Tomorrow_; find a used copy). But though helpful, it's not absolutely necessary to have read them first.
Anyway -- this one's a keeper. I can't tell you how many times I've reread it (along with _TEFL_ and the rest). These are some of the _realest_ characters to be found in SF, or for that matter in any fiction. I won't speak for you, cobber, but my own life is much better for having met these people.