I’ve been rereading some of my grandmother’s old SF. (I read them all in my teens.) Her two favourite authors in this genre were Julian May and Robert Heinlein, and it’s Heinlein I picked up first this time round; one of his Howard Families novels, Methuselah’s Children.
The Howard Families are the result of an ongoing experiment in – let’s not mince words – eugenics: the selective breeding of a species for one or more traits, in this case of people for longevity. The Howard Foundation actively encourages people from families where living to a 100+ is the norm to marry each other and pays them a large sum of money for each potentially long-lived baby they produce.
What I really like about Heinlein is that whereas most if not all other SF writers would have had this result in either tragedy or catastrophe, implying that these people were doing something wrong, Heinlein passes no such judgement and we find ourselves siding with the Howards when they start reaching ages like 150, 200, and it becomes necessary to hide this from the rest of society, the short-lifers.
However, some of the Howards prefer to be open about it, to “come out”. A mistake. It is not so much the envy and bitterness of ordinary “ephemerals” as the fury of the governing classes, who will stop at nothing to get hold of the Howards’ secret but naturally have no intention of sharing it with the plebs.
The arrests and tortures start. There is, of course, no secret to reveal, but no one will believe that.
Enter Lazarus Long, captain of a spaceship, paying a visit to his native Earth – and, as it happens, the oldest man alive.
Can he save the Howards? Of course he can.
Which brings us to To Sail Beyond The Sunset, the story of one of the earliest groups of Howards, set in the United States towards the end of the 19th Century. A historical novel then, but cross-genre, for it takes place within an SF frame.
Maureen, the heroine (who, it turns out, was Lazarus Long’s mother), tells the story of her first life-time as she awaits execution for a murder she did not commit somewhere, somewhen, in the future (approximately 2,000 years hence).
They just don’t write books like this any more, but luckily I have one still to go: Time Enough For Love, which continues the story of Lazarus Long. I’m trying to read it slowly, make it last!