To Sail beyond the Sunset Themes
by Robert A. Heinlein

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

To Sail Beyond the Sunset, published on Heinlein's eightieth birthday, proved to be his final novel. While some critics have seen the novel, along with his other late works, as an expression of solipsistic despair, it seems more a defiant affirmation of life in the face of debilitating illness and approaching death. Indeed the title and the epigraph are taken from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses," in which the hero refuses to rest after his long journeys and instead sets out once more:

Come, my friends
'Tis not too late to seek a newer
world.
Push off, and sitting well in order
smite
The sounding furrows; for my
purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the
baths
Of all the western stars, until I
die.

The heroine and narrator of her own story is Maureen Johnson, known to Heinlein's readers as the mother (and later lover) of his most famous character, Lazarus Long, hero of Time Enough for Love (1973). Maureen, who was rescued from death in the twentieth century and whisked to the forty-fourth century by Lazarus and his extended family in The Number of the Beast (1980), spends most of this novel in prison on a parallel earth, which allows her to tell us the story of her life. Maureen gets to do what Heinlein characters love most — talk.

Perhaps the central concern of Maureen's story is sex — a theme common to all of Heinlein's novels since Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), but increasingly important since I Will Fear No Evil (1970). More precisely, it is a celebration of sexuality and a scathing attack on prudishness, repression, and attempts to limit sexual expression to socially approved forms. In fact, at one point Maureen suggests that the only unnatural sexual practice is monogamy. Maureen is a devotee of sex — with a man, with a woman, alone, in couples, in groups, as often as possible. And when she is not having sex, she delights in talking about it. But while Maureen is in many ways attractive in her unabashed sexuality, the novel's treatment of sex is ultimately unsatisfying. Part of the problem lies in the book's length (over four hundred pages) and in the frequency of the sex scenes. While Heinlein is by no means pornographic and rarely even very explicit in his sexual descriptions, the coy sex scenes grow increasingly tedious.

A second and more serious difficulty is that Heinlein's ideas about sex are not complex enough to demand elaboration over several hundred pages. His ideas are in fact simple: Sex is good — perhaps the highest good. Anyone mature enough to have sex should be free to have sex with any consenting partners. The only rules of sexual morality inferable from the novel are the necessity for consent, the importance of good sexual hygiene, and the absolute need to make provision for any children.

Heinlein has always been a trenchant social critic, and there is good satire of the hypocrisy of American social norms for sexuality. But the model of sexual life proposed here — a large and constantly expanding group marriage that seems free of tensions or disputes — is not rendered in a convincing way. Aside from a few reservations, explained as holdovers of an obsolete moralism, none of the numerous husbands and wives experiences any difficulties. The greatest writers have always recognized the exhilarating and agonizing complexities of sexual love. While there is certainly justification for celebrating sexuality, a more complete vision would also recognize the darker side of sexual obsession, jealousy, manipulation, and betrayal, as well as the countless ways that people have used sex to control and hurt one another. Heinlein sees that darker side as a by-product of traditional morality, but he fails to make an effective case. His Utopian view seems too simple and unrealistic.

Fortunately, both Maureen and Heinlein have other things on their minds. The heart of the novel is a loving recreation of life in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century mid-America — especially Missouri, where Heinlein grew up. There is a pastoral, elegiac tone, a fondness for that time that is deeply moving. It is rather ironic to suggest that a great science fiction writer — a man who taught a whole generation to think about the future — wrote the best part of his final novel about the past. But then, it is only our past up to a certain point. What becomes increasingly clear is that Maureen inhabits an Earth, indeed a universe, that is a close parallel to ours — a world in which the Japanese attacked San Francisco, not Pearl Harbor, and in which Leslie LeCroix was the first human to land on the moon. Most importantly, it is a world in which the stories from Heinlein's well known Future History series are the reality.

This combination of fictive autobiography and a parallel universe allows Heinlein to retell twentieth-century history in his own way. He can use one time line to comment on the other, for example, to contrast the internment of Japanese-Americans in our time line with the riots that killed thousands of Japanese-Americans in Maureen's. Thus he can suggest that the policy of internment was not as cruel and unjustified as most Americans now believe. At other times, Maureen simply editorializes about what went wrong in the twentieth century — the decay of education, the disappearance of good manners (which Heinlein sees as a sure sign of disaster for a society), the loss of patriotism, and an obsession with rights to the neglect of responsibilities. As always, Heinlein is hard to pigeonhole. While his characters are, like him, profoundly skeptical about democracy, they are intensely patriotic Americans. While Maureen seems at times a conservative's dream woman — deferential to her man, proud to call herself a "brood-mare" — she is also a woman who takes no guff from men, who earns degrees in science, law, and philosophy after raising seventeen children, who becomes an influential member of the board of directors of a major industrial concern, and who articulates stinging criticism of male sexism. Heinlein celebrates free love on one page and expounds on the need for strict disciplining of children on the next. Heinlein is his own most complex character, and the novel's structure allows him free reign to comment and complain about American society.

One other theme warrants at least brief mention — Heinlein's notion of "the world as myth," the idea that we create what is usually called reality. It is a sign of Heinlein's ability to surprise that in his last few novels he asks a question normally associated in science fiction with Philip K. Dick: What is "real"? To what extent is the world shaped or even created by our senses — our minds? Heinlein even appears to have fun with critics who have long identified solipsism as one of his central themes. Here (and in The Number of the Beast) Heinlein proposes — perhaps jokingly — Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism, the notion that all of the countless universes are just something we all got together and imagined. While Dick's explorations of the fragile nature of what we call reality are often disturbing and even terrifying, Heinlein seems mostly to be enjoying himself and offering a heartfelt tribute to the power of human imagination.