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Literature / Methuselah's Children

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Methuselah's Children is a Speculative Fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein first published as a serial in 1941 and expanded into a full novel in 1958. It is about a group of naturally long-lived humans who find themselves persecuted by 22nd century society for the (nonexistent) secret of their longevity and are forced to flee on humanity's first interstellar colony spacecraft. On the journey, they undergo First Contact and meet a number of weird alien species, eventually returning to Earth to find that society has invented its own longevity technology in their absence. The combination of rejuvenation technology, prolonged lifespans, and Faster-Than-Light Travel gives humanity the keys to colonizing the galaxy.

Methuselah's Children also introduces the roguish Lazarus Long, the protagonist and instigator of many of the novel's schemes, who would later go on to become Heinlein's archprotagonist, appearing in every novel set in the "Future History" universe until Heinlein's death.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Amphibious Automobile: Mary Sperling's car is an Automated Automobile—-she takes a nap while it drives most of the way to her destination, although she does have to resume manual control when the car leaves the "controlways" for the back roads—-and then turns out to function as a submarine as well, traveling underwater through a lake in order to reach the Howard Foundation's Elaborate Underground Base.
  • As You Know: The book opens with a meeting of Howard Foundation members where one character goes on for several pages, detailing the history of the foundation, its goals, and his plans for the future. While very interesting (to the reader), the entire monologue is framed as an As You Know. As the characters are all extremely long-lived and therefore very patient, they don't mind too much. He is however called on it by Lazarus Long, who has better things to do - mostly involving sex.
  • Body Horror: On the planet of the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, Lazarus finally realizes that humans can't stay there when they start giving birth to "improved" babies with evolutionarily redundant features (such as external ears) modified or removed. Their hosts view this as a gift and cannot understand the horror the humans feel.
  • Clash of Evolutionary Levels: The regular humans aren't very pleased with the Howard Families' longevity, basically forcing the Howards to take the "Screw This, I'm Outta Here" option.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Slayton Ford, the president of the world government, is privately willing to believe the Howards when they claim that their longevity is genetic, but is forced by overwhelming public pressure to intern and torture them because the public refuses to accept that fact. He ends up abandoning his position and escaping with them, but before the Howards came up with the idea of running like Israelites from Egypt, he was seriously considering sterilizing and/or executing every last one of them. He ends up joining them in exile as their de facto leader. Heinlein shows nothing but respect for a man who is prepared to re-enact the Holocaust for pretty much the same reasons as in reality (a minority is vilified by the majority), saying that it's simply democracy in action. The moral (typically for Heinlein) is that democracy is a terrible way to run things because it results in tyranny of the majority.
    Zaccur Barstow: My people are being persecuted!
    Slayton Ford: Your "people"... ...are a fraction of a tenth of one per cent of all the people... and I must find a solution for all!
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Several iterations are used. The New Frontiers is intended to be a slower-than-light, generational colony ship, but Andy Libby invents an inertialess "light pressure drive" that allows the ship to accelerate to near-lightspeed. The first journey to find a habitable planet occurs at a relativistic scale, but then the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens that they encounter on that planet make it clear to the Puny Earthlings that they're not welcome by kicking them and their ship out at FTL speeds. And then the aliens on the second planet they visit teaches them how to build their own FTL drives.
  • Final Solution: Ford reluctantly accepts that the only solution to the Howard dilemma is to kill them all, even knowing he will be remembered as a terrible monster ... for depriving humanity of the Howards' nonexistent secret. If he's lucky, he'll survive the aftermath and be sent into exile.
  • Fountain of Youth: The ordinary humans of Earth are convinced that the Howards possess a means of artificially lengthening their lifespans and persecute them for it. The actual secret, generations of stock breeding, is of course useless to them, but they refuse to believe or accept this. However, when driven to find a solution to the problem by the departure of the Howards aboard the New Frontiers, human ingenuity finally comes up with one, starting with a full-body transfusion of cloned blood and evolving in later novels to complete rejuvenation technology.
  • Generation Ships: The New Frontiers is intended to be this, which explains why the hundred thousand Howards can all fit aboard. As it is, many of them must be put in stasis.
  • Idiot Ball: Gleefully grabbed by the Howards prior to the start of the story. It was getting harder to maintain the masquerade and given the peaceful semi-utopian nature of society, they though they could out themselves to their mayfly cousins. As a psychographer explained at the family meeting, "We should have known better. Seriously. How fucking stupid are we? They're going to kill us all and we should have seen it coming." (paraphrased)
  • Immortality Seeker:
    • Ira Howard was a rich man at 40, but found himself unexpectedly and infuriatingly dying of old age. So he bequeathed his entire fortune into a trust fund charged with finding a way to prolong human life.
    • Also Mary Sperling, the second-oldest human alive (180ish, thirty years younger than Lazarus, though she looks to be in her forties). She's aware that her extended lifespan is about to end and spends much of the book terrified of her impending and largely unforeseeable doom (rejuvenation techniques mean, essentially, that advancing senility and system failure appear suddenly and take place over weeks or months rather than the extended senescence you and I call retirement).
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: FTL Travel is one such device.
  • Karma Houdini: Slayton Ford was half a second away from ordering the Howard Families sterilized or executed to the last man, woman and child, as his constituency was on the verge of rioting, thinking they were being denied immortality. He takes Lazarus' alternative of interstellar exile, and even joins them as the mob would see what he had done as theft of a treasure the Howards were hoarding, but the man was essentially Hitler. And since the Howards tended to avoid politics, they are pathetic at large-scale administration - so he is quickly elected as civil head of the New Frontiers expedition.
  • Longevity Treatment: The Howards are forced to leave Earth when people become convinced they have one. While they're gone, Earth does develop one based on blood replacement
  • Masquerade: Howards use a variety of tricks to prevent people from noticing that there's a whole bunch of people around who never get around to dying. In the 22nd century, the world is starting to take notice.
  • Mortality Phobia: Mary Sperling, one of the oldest members of the Long-Lived Howard family, allows herself to be assimilated into an alien Hive Mind because she's afraid of dying.
  • The Needs of the Many: It would be best if humans all had lifespans like the Howards' but the only way to achieve that would be a breeding program that would mean psychological death for all mankind. Exile isn't an option because sending the Howards anywhere on Earth isn't far enough and another planet only delays the problem for a few generations... genocide is the only option, as terrible as it is. The Howards are a cancer, destroying the peace of the Covenant and society is about to get completely insane waiting for the nonexistent Longevity Treatment. Ford reluctantly prepares to give the order knowing it will mean his own very painful destruction...then Lazarus comes along with another option.
  • Noodle Incident: Multiple references are made to the "2012 meeting of the Howard families" but no one will actually discuss what happened. This gag rolls on in to the sequel Time Enough for Love.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The story takes place in the world of the Covenant, after the theocracy of the Prophets has been ousted. Religion still exists, but it's a benign force dying of neglect in a peaceful and prosperous future.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Lazarus's modus operandi. And he respects Ford's willingness to do the same when he has to.
  • Screw You, Elves!: After the Howards out themselves as long-lived humans, regular humans undergo a slow simmer that eventually breaks out in violence against the Howards. Ford is probably the only Mayfly willing to face the truth: the Howards have no secret formula, they're just well-bred. But even he admits that he's insanely jealous and if there had been a secret he would have ripped it from the Howards by any means necessary.
    Ford: Death has been tolerable to me only because Death has been the Great Democrat, treating all alike. But now Death plays favorites. Zaccur Barstow, can you understand the bitter, bitter jealousy of the ordinary man of — oh, say fifty — who looks on one of your sort? Fifty years...twenty of them he is a child, he is well past thirty before he is skilled in his profession. He is forty before he is established and respected. For not more than the last ten years of his fifty he has really amounted to something.
    And now, when he has reached his goal, what is his prize? His eyes are failing him, his bright young strength is gone, his heart and wind are not what they used to be. He is not senile yet...but he feels the chill of the first frost. He knows what is in store for him. He knows— he knows!
    But it was inevitable and each man learned to be resigned to it.
    Now you come along. You shame him in his weakness, you humble him before his children. He dares not plan for the future; you blithely undertake plans that will not mature for fifty years — for a hundred. No matter what success he has achieved, what excellence he has attained, you will catch up with him, pass him — outlive him. In his weakness you are kind to him.
    Is it any wonder he hates you?
    Zaccur: Do you hate me, Slayton Ford?
    Ford: No. No, I cannot afford to hate anyone. But I can tell you this: had there been a secret, I would have it out of you if I had to tear you to pieces!
  • Sleeper Starship: The New Frontiers was intended as a Generation Ship, but the hundred thousand Howards overtaxed the ship's life support and most had to go into cold sleep.
  • Society of Immortals: The Howard Foundation started as an applied eugenics program to prolong the human lifespan and developed into an entire breed of extremely long-lived people who naturally formed their own society to avoid persecution.
  • Stone Soup: Lazarus believes that the best way to get idiots to stop interfering with the decision-making process is to put them on a committee.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: Encountered on two separate planets. The first treat the less-advanced species that shares the planet with them like pets and ejects humanity when they refuse to be so domesticated. The second welcome humans, but attempt to convert them into their Hive Mind.
  • Take a Third Option: Ford was prepared to slaughter the Howards to end what was, essentially, a massive Mind Screw for all of humanity. He was pathetically grateful to learn that Lazarus had eluded detention by the police and was preparing an escape option for the Families.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: The aliens first met by the New Frontiers colonists are kept more or less as pets by unseen intelligences vastly greater than human. Slayton Ford volunteers to serve as the first human who meets such an intelligence directly, and the shock nearly destroys his mind outright, inducing severe psychosis; he later gets over it, but can no longer remember anything about the experience which caused it, which his doctor regards as a healthy adaptation to an insuperable shock.
  • To Unmasque the World: The long-lived Howard families vote to break their masquerade. This quickly proves to be a mistake as the short-lived masses refuse to believe that their longevity is hereditary and start imprisoning Howards to try and force them to reveal their "secret".
  • We Are as Mayflies: Poor Slayton Ford is an ordinary short-lived human forced to live among mature adults twice his age, and he initially suffers a crushing inferiority complex because of it.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Lazarus shows up as the eldest of the Howards and, not for the first time, isn't too happy with his longevity. He's getting bored and forgetful, an unpleasant combination.
  • Undead Tax Exemption: Many tricks are used by Howards to disguise their ages, including fiddling with records, posing as their own great-grandchildren, and more. What sets off the plot is the fact that these tricks are getting harder and harder to maintain over the years.