Lazarus Long — née Woodrow Wilson Smith — is a 2,000 year old man.
Born in pre-WWI America, he lives to see the proliferation of space travel, the destruction of the nation-state, the colonization of the universe, and the gradual extinction of so-called “ephemerals,” or humans with regular lifespans. Though Lazarus is an exceptional long-lifer — a fact attributed to his canniness and ability to get out of scrapes — longevity is the norm in his future, genetically culled from generations of selective breeding and enhanced by advanced genetic rejuvenation therapy, which can turn a grandmother back into a young hussy.
Oh, and hussies they become: literally every female character in Time Enough for Love, which is some 600+ pages long and spans 2,000 years of human history, is described as either “rutty” or “randy.” Robert A. Heinlein’s sexual politics are idiosyncratic to the point of being baffling. On the one hand, he’s groovy: polyamory is the norm in Lazarus Long’s future world, with all its desirable characters sharing a non-puritannical innocence about sexuality. At the same time, his female characters are basically barefoot and pregnant throughout, or eager to be, and the fine women Mr. Long encounters in his long life are all celebrated for a similar willingness to breed; likewise the manliness is machismo, despite some insinuations of normative homosexuality. It’s niche to say the least: Heinlein reaffirms the most cavemanesque gender roles while simultaneously advocating free love and fawning over so-called “powerful” women.
What do you get when you build it up and tear it down at the same time? You get nowhere, man. I think Heinlein wanted to write strong, empowered female characters because I think he loved strong, empowered women — but he was bogged down with so many hopelessly stereotypical attitudes about female qualities that he could never do it quite right.
His “free love” is misguided, too: Time Enough for Love comes weirdly close to advocating incest about a dozen times, with Lazarus Long even time-traveling back to his childhood (spoiler alert!) to make love to his own mother. And this is only the crowning movement in a series of almost-incest vignettes: a tale of two twins with no genetic relationship to one another despite being born from the same womb, who marry and have children of their own. A parable about a long-lifer adopting an orphan girl, raising her as his own, and then marrying and impregnating her at her insistence. A bit about Lazarus Long bedding a pair of young twins who are his genetic clones, who he refers to as his “sisters.” Etc. Fuzzy.
Still, the book does raise interesting questions about how the world (or universe) might be different if we all lived much longer. The first thing to go is traditional marriage and family, which makes sense — being monogamous for 2,000 years seems needlessly draconian. Lazarus Long, the “Senior,” the oldest man alive, marries, sires children, loves and loses over and over again every fifty years — then gives it up, returning to love again after a generation of celibacy. This is profound: are our families structured the way they are not out of evolutionary advantage but because it’s the most convenient thing for us to do, given our time frame? Might we do things completely differently if we only lived to be 40? Or 1,000? Hence the meaning of the title, and perhaps the novel’s greatest passage: “Although long-life can be a burden, mostly it is a blessing. It gives time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough not to hurry, time enough for love.”
Regardless, and as much of a Heinlein apologist as I can be, I can’t believe this novel is considered a masterpiece (Hugo and Locus-winner, Nebula nominated). It reads like Ayn Rand, its dialogue only the loosest conceit for the various sexist, polyamorous, and nutty libertarian jeremiads for which the “Dean of science fiction” is famous. At the same time, I guess it’s facile to confound Heinlein’s characters with his personal politics, but the lines are unclear: everything comes from the same, heavy-handed, authoritative male voice (like most of the male protagonists in Heinlein’s oeuvre, Lazarus Long is an insufferable solipsist). It’s easy, too, to call Heinlein a “libertarian,” when he was probably just an eccentric with both capitalist and anarchist tendencies; his books can read either as rationalizations of his views or as utopian fantasies where they are entrenched in society. Or, as some more generous arguments suggest, as deliberate seek-and-destroy missions toward various social taboos.
As Ted Gioia points out in his very good Conceptual Fiction review of Time Enough for Love, Lazarus Long is a mixture of Indiana Jones and Odysseus, Disney ride and Jungian archetype — “iconoclastic, independent, resourceful, libidinous, philosophical, crafty and restless;” in short, an Ur-patriarch, a Methuselah for the sci-fi generation. He’s no more “real” (and hence accountable) than Methuselah himself, or even any Biblical or mythical hero — and, indeed, Lazarus Long names all his children after Greek and Roman gods, implying a certain Zeus-dom. In that case, it’s probably easier on the feminist-and-politico-wince-reaction to pretend that Time Enough for Love is, itself, 2,000 years old. That gives it just about time enough to be loved.
From the Archives:
Space Canon review of Waldo & Magic, Inc.
Space Canon review of Farmer in the Sky
Space Canon review of Citizen of the Galaxy
Space Canon review of The Puppet Masters
Space Canon review of Stranger in a Strange Land