Review by Paul Weimer: Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love is, in retrospect, his first attempt at a capstone novel for his career, and perhaps the most successful of these attempts. And this review is my personal re-engagement with one of the first SF novels I tried to read.
Forget Jubal Harshaw. The Computer Mike can be put aside. Oscar Gordon is in the shade. The character that in the end defines, delineates and makes Robert Heinlein who he is, is in the end, a character that emerges out of the Future History and into the grand epic that ties that future history together and, for a short while, ties the career of Heinlein together. Lazarus Long.
Lazarus Long, a man of many names, and twenty three hundred years of age (as of the present time period set in the novel) has had many careers, and many adventures. Before Time Enough for Love, Long appears definitively in only one work by Heinlein, the novella Methuselah’s Children, although there are a couple of works of his where it may well be Long under another name, or a shadow version of him. (Doctor McRae in Red Planet, for instance). Time Enough for Love uses Methuselah’s Children to tell his story, and the story of Diaspora humanity, in the bargain.
Time Enough for Love was one of the first SF novels that I tried to read, and failed. I was a young teenager, precocious, reading everything my brother would lend me off of his bookshelf. (I would shortly be raiding the used book store and the library for my own choices). The cover was interesting and it is a scene or a imagining of a scene from a book–a grumpy man in a kilt, with several women in ancient Greek dress around him. It is a book to make a young man like me wonder “Who is this guy, why does his dress not match the women around him, and WHY are they all around him? Is he some sort of Scottish chief or something who has conquered Greece?” (I was big into Greek Mythology at the time)
Reader, I was not ready for Time Enough for Love and I bounced off of it. I also lost the copy of the book, which angered my older brother for years. To this day, hand to heart, I don’t remember just what happened to his copy. Did I lose in school? Somewhere else I was reading? I don’t know.
It would be ten years later before I got a copy and gave it another go. By this point, I had read Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow anthology, which collects almost all of the Future History work Heinlein wrote, including the aforementioned Methuselah’s Children. I had read Revolt in 2100, aka “If This Goes On…”, which is about the only missing piece. I knew Heinlein’s future history pretty well.
And so, Time Enough for Love. This time I did not bounce off the book. This time I read it, and enjoyed it. The “Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, the aphorisms that take up two chunks of the book (above and beyond the very quotable bits throughout the book) seemed like wisdom to my younger self. (I feel differently, now). The tragedy of Lazarus Long, a man who has lived so long that he longs for something new or death, moved me. It was part and parcel of a long Heinlein phase I was in at the time. Many an enjoyable hour on the NYC subway going to and from College was spent reading the book, Heinlein’s longest to date.
And now, decades later, more experienced, and wiser, I decided to read it a third time. And that is the story of this review.
There was much I remembered from my long ago read, and much that was a complete and utter surprise. But let me back up and explain the book’s framing device, nature and style for the uninitiated reader. The framing device struck me right away, as it tells the story of the rejuvenation and the coming back to wanting life of Lazarus Long. I remembered some details of this, the fact that he was ready to die, didn’t want to live any longer. A man ready to die, and one that his descendants were determined to save from death.
The story, and it is explicitly called out in the text itself, is a “Reverse Scheherazade” where Ira (Chairman Pro Tem of the Howard Families, always Pro-Tem in deference to the Senior himself, Lazarus) gets Lazarus to tell him stories about his life, to keep his mind off of the idea that he is sick of living. So there are a number of stories mixed into the framing device. At the same time, Ira and his friends and companions work to find the Senior something new.
The weird detail I did not remember, but makes me think of Soylent Green, is the idea of voluntary suicide being a right. It’s marked out in the text as THE right. Lazarus is horrified that in his hospital room that he doesn’t have a suicide switch, as is his right and privilege to use. I was somewhat less surprised that, once it was installed, we later find out that it was gimmicked so that it didn’t work–and that the Senior had tried to use it, several times, in the depths of his slough of despond. The right to die, how it is a fundamental right of this society…and yet, is a right that the powers that be deny that right to the Senior for their own selfish reasons, is a fascinating strand in the book. It eventually gets dropped once the Senior finds his reasons for living again, but it is a marked theme in the book.
Theme. I should mention the word theme. The title tells it all: Time Enough for Love. Time and Immortality, in Heinlein’s, in Lazarus’ view, only mean something if you have something to make that time worthwhile. There is, in the end, only one thing that makes that time worthwhile, in Lazarus’ view, and that is Family and spending time with Family. Family means, just like in the Disney film Lilo and Stitch, that no one gets left behind, or forgotten. The story of Time Enough for Love, is reconnecting Lazarus with his Family, and helping him to remember that, on a variety of levels and in a variety of ways.
Family in Lazarus’ view does start with the direct biological meaning of the term. There is a lot of matter in the book about the kinds of Family that Lazarus Long engages with. In the framing device, it starts with descendants like Ira, and his relations, and people like the clinicians Galahand and Ishtar. It should be noted that all of these, with Lazarus, all wind up together in a Household on a new planet together. They form and create a Family. When Justin Foote, who visits Lazarus and company, is invited to join the Family, it is made explicitly clear what is expected and the bonds and freedoms and responsibilities of that family relationship.
But there are other kinds of family, too, and we see those in the stories Lazarus tells throughout the book. The story of the twins that weren’t is a story of these two siblings who are haploid pairs to each other, and who form an intense bond are a family, and form a family for a time as the wards of the Senior. That, too, is a family. The longest story in the book, the story of Lazarus and Dora, is a story of a man who comes to form a familial bond with an orphan, and eventually a family in the more traditional sense, and in the classic pioneer sense. Yes, the story of the Adopted Daughter (who becomes a Wife) is a pioneer story, this is the one where Lazarus and Dora, for reasons, decide to, in an age of spacecraft and the like, to take covered wagons and cross a mountain range in search of land to homestead.
The story of Lazarus Long going back to 1916 and winding up in the coils of his family (and the embrace of his mother) is another look at Family: The Senior’s Original Family. This is a biological family, the straightest definitions of family. And yet, Lazarus gets passed off as a distant cousin (or possibly a lost brother) and so gets inserted into his own birth family. The key detail, the one that Heinlein lingers on, is the flags on the War service flag hanging outside the Smith house. There are three stars–one for Grandfather (who is in the home guard) one for the Father…and one for Lazarus.
Family Matters. Family is the reason to live. Family is the basis of love (this is not explicitly stated in a full on Socratic dialogue on Love, but it is clear that this is the answer to the question posed in that dialogue).
There is the bone I want to pick with this book’s back-matter and advertising matter. Yes, the book is full of incest of various sorts, even if you have the tightest definition of incest you can image. Lazarus Long having sex with his mother is quite literally the Oedipal sex problem that dominates the end of the book. His pride to be accepted by his mother, and his grandfather causes him to stupidly wind up in the war and nearly getting his arse shot off before he is rescued.
But, no, Lazarus Long is not so in love with time that he becomes his own ancestor. This never happens. That’s the plot of “All You Zombies”, which is a different story entirely.
What I didn’t remember is that we find out that the story of Lazarus Long having incest with his mother is pre-figured when we find out that Justin Foote the 45th apparently has had much sex (and frankly is in love with) with one of the greatest courtesans on Secundus…his own mother.
So I probably should talk more about Sex, incest and some of the very conflicted ideas and thoughts that are in this book. I wish I could say that it is a small fraction of the book, that the book is much more about other things. But Sex (because, Family, see above) pervades this book, the book is soaked in it. And a lot of it revolves around incest, what it is, what it isn’t and what Sex is for, and what it isn’t.
Larry Niven once said that one definition of the word idiot was someone who mistook the beliefs of a character in a book for that of the author. And yet I am not sure what to make of Lazarus Long’s outright hostility toward transgender characters (one that would eventually be reconsidered in later novels). Long even makes an allusion to a character and a story that sounds awfully like Johann’s brain being transplanted into Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil. That’s not a novel whose society and events match up with Future History in any other way than this allusion from Lazarus. And he makes his disdain and dislike of such gender transformations abundantly clear–one of the new things that is proposed is that Lazarus become a woman. (And given Heinlein’s education and erudition, I was really surprised that poor Tiresias doesn’t even get the whiff of a mention).
There are some very very brief mentions of non-heterosexual attraction and contact (even given 1973, much less than I would have expected given this culture and society). But in the end, that makes sense because of the other strong focus, along with some very unfortunate lines of thought, and that is on reproduction. Time and again in the novel, I was extremely unnerved by what I was reading and listening to, as the plot and story and musings revolve around genetic fitness and reproduction and stock breeding and much more. There is, frankly, an extremely eugenics tilt to the Howard Families and that comes out in spades. The Families themselves started off as a breeding program for long life, and even to this day, to the far future of 4272, there is still concern about genetic fitness and “defectives”. There is a whole subplot in The Tale of the Twins that Weren’t about that, although the Twins can have sex and children, their children most definitely should not do the same. And again in the Tale of the Adopted Daughter, being alone on a homestead isolated from everyone else, what Lazarus is deeply concerned about is that their daughters and sons will have sex with each other.
And yet, the sex between Justin and his mother, the sex between Lazarus and his mother, and when he gives in, the sex and reproduction he has with his cloned quasi-sisters is all okay because the chances of genetic abnormalities in any unions is very low or children from such unions are impossible. (Lazarus has sex with his mother when she is pregnant, you see) The text, in the mouth of Lazarus makes this explicit — he only considers incest bad when it could lead to “defective” children.
“Except for unions that will lead to defective children, love thou who you wilt” seems to be the message here. And while there are some small intimidations of same-sex encounters, Lazarus Long and his family in general are not into it or for it. The book is overwhelmingly, but not ruthlessly heterosexual in its outlook. But the focus on babies and rearing babies (the purpose of any Family, found or not) is clear. When Foote is admitted into the family, the stipulation is that he can leave at any time, but has to provide for the children existing at the time up to their age of majority.
“Just a dream, beloved. You cannot die.”
That’s the last line of the book, and I come to it as I try to come to a conclusion here. Is the book worth reading? I think, in the end, the book is worth reading by those who are in a position to read it…that is to say, people who have read more than a couple of Heinlein novels. This feels like a capstone to his writing, although it would prove not to be by a decade, but it feels like he was trying to “wrap it all up” here. Echoes of that wrapping up here do appear in The Number of the Beast (which goes even further than this novel in tying together his work), in Job (which goes back to a single love story to wrap up his thoughts on things) and the final two novels. The Cat Who Walks through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, which are kind of, frankly, a mess, to my memory.
So, if you are a Heinlein reader who has read the Future History stories, perhaps sampled Stranger in a Strange Land, or dared I Will Fear No Evil, then, yes, you will want to round your reading with this. It’s essential, even. But if you are not, this novel requires such a grounding, such an enthusiasm for Heinlein and his work, that I can’t recommend the book to anyone else. In fact, you will be happier as a reader and an SF fan if you do not.
Essential or to be avoided, there really is no in between.