Friday, April 17, 2009

'Beyond This Horizon' Review

A couple weeks ago, I read the Heinlein novel 'Beyond This Horizon'.  It was written in 1942, making it one of the first Heinlein novels.

It describes a society that has been using genetic engineering for hundreds of years.  The book does not use the term 'genetic engineering'; that phrase had not been invented yet; but the process it describes is one that allows parents to choose the best combination of traits for their children.  It may be the first book ever to discuss the social consequences of widespread genetic engineering.

It was definitely ahead of its time.  Aside from the genetic engineering, it touches on issues like nihilism and decadence, as well as the traditional Heinlein explorations of the relationship between individuals and society.  It is a good read for anyone who likes the genre, or Heinlein.

But I do have a couple of complaints.  My first complaint about the book is that it reverts to mysticism to solve the problems of the hero and society.  This is depressingly common in Heinlein books, and it ruins a lot of them.  His best works are ones that only feature pure science, and his worst are ones that have a lot of non-scientific nonsense.

My second complaint is more substantial, and leads to a small rant.  This book has the quote 'An armed society is a polite society'.  Heinlein repeats this so often, in various books, that it has almost become accepted as fact.

But it is, in fact, pure and utter hogwash.  The most well-armed society ever known is an infantry unit, and infantry grunts are well-known for being rude and crude, especially to each other.  In my experience, being well-armed, with weapons or martial arts training, always leads to bluntness and honesty, never politeness and formality.

The thing that makes people polite is fear.  People are polite because they fear that bluntness or honesty will cause them to lose something, be it property, life, or social status.  They are afraid of offending someone.  There is nothing inherently good or noble about politeness.  It is simply a tool that helps society function better.  There are other tools that can do the same thing.

In an infantry unit, everyone is armed to the teeth, but they are not afraid of each other.  They know that their brothers in arms will not attack them.  They know that, even if there was a fight, the laws and institutions of the army would punish the aggressor.  In addition, the situations they find themselves in require rapid and honest communication.  People must know their own abilities and weaknesses, and they must be able to communicate without any hesitation.  Nobody has any time to worry about feelings or wounded pride.

Now, it is often true that being surrounded by well-armed people makes one fearful, and therefore polite.  But this is not the natural or desirable state of society.  Any decent society has laws and institutions that punish random aggression.  Any society that allows people to use physical violence to respond to impoliteness or disrespect is broken.  Heinlein seems to encourage and idealize these kinds of societies, and that always bothered me.

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