As part of the Libertarian Futurist Society’s series of review-essays of past Prometheus award-winners making clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom work, here’s an Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, inducted into the 1998 Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.
So do freedom-lovers who understand that freedom itself is a necessary (but not sufficient) prerequisite for human flourishing, human happiness and the fulfillment possible in life largely through love, family, creativity and achievement.
Yet, anyone who appreciates visionary science fiction by one of the 20th century’s Grand Masters can enjoy Heinlein’s longest and most ambitious work.
Heinlein, perhaps inspired loosely and partly by the Arabian Nights, invites episodic browsing by telling a series of separate stories, linked by an overarching narrative framework set in the far future as the long-lived and well-named Lazarus Long looks back on a rich and storied life.
“The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail,” the first tale-within-the-tale, feels like a fictionalized and semi-autobiographical account of Heinlein’s years in the military, with a sobering but amusingly frank accounting of the routine hazing that younger military-academy students go through at the hands of sadistic older students. Here Heinlein’s bracing realism offers an illuminating perspective about the semi-barbaric aspects of human nature and the perverse customs and strictures of major institutions, such as the military.
More poignant is the romantic tragedy inherent in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter,” set on a frontier planet where Lazarus has led a group of pioneering colonists. Long, keeping his age secret to avoid drawing unwelcome attention to himself and potential persecution, becomes the guardian of a young girl that he saves from a burning house. He later marries her, after leaving the area and returning as a “younger man,” and they start a new settlement that grows into a larger community. But because she is not a descendant of the Howard families, Long’s wife dies of old age, leaving Long to mourn his beloved.
Such is the predictable fate of an immortal in a mortal world. The story feels classic and timeless in the way its plot explores the inevitable complications and mismatch that emerge between a very long-lived individual and anyone he may forge an intimate bond with. But this is also a story easy for anyone to empathize with. After all, back in the real world, It’s not easy living a long time, especially if and when that means outliving a spouse or anyone else you love. We may not live as long as Lazarus Long, but his story reminds us of the losses that millions of people experience in each generation.
“Da Capo,” the final taboo-breaking tale, revolves around time travel gone wrong as Lazarus’ attempt to travel back to 1919 to experience it as an adult is miscalculated. Instead, he ends up in 1916, on the eve of the U.S. entering World War I. He falls in love with his mother, Maureen, and enlists in the army to honor her expectations and his grandfather’s esteem.
These and other stories within the novel invite readers to take their time, and perhaps even take breaks as they read Heinlein’s longest novel.
Time Enough for Love received mixed reviews when published, especially because of its length (605 pages in hardback).
Today, though, Time Enough for Love actually doesn’t seem that long – not in a 21st century where many sf and fantasy authors (from Neal Stephenson to J.K. Rowling) routinely write epic novels of 700 to 1,000 pages. Moreover, today, much more problematically in some cases, many novels – no matter their word length – ultimately end up as separately published chapters in far longer trilogies or (sometimes seemingly endless) series.
Overall, Time Enough for Love is in many ways a fitting capstone to the strung-out saga of Long, previously recounted by Heinlein in stories and novels published over several decades.
Born Woodrow Wilson Smith in 1912 in the United States, Long ranks among the most beloved (and longest-lived) characters in modern literature.
Partly because of a breeding experiment among the Howard Families to increase human beings’ natural lifespan and partly because of a genetic mutation, Long, an early beneficiary of the experiment, becomes the oldest living human.
For libertarians, Lazarus Long is a character to take to heart, since he is an unabashed individualist with a strong distrust of authority – especially the illegitimate and overbearing authority of government unbridled to the degree that it becomes not just bureaucratic and life-constricting but tyrannical and life-threatening. (Long’s many quotable aphorisms were separately collected and published in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.)
What makes Long especially worthwhile for sf fans to spend a long time with, though, is how eventful and impactful his life becomes over more than 2,000 years as he moves from world to world, often as a pioneer who moves on again once the frontier fades and society starts to become too regulated and controlled.
Long also was a central figure – then reportedly only about a “very young” 213 years old – in Heinlein’s novel Methuselah’s Children (serialized in 1941 in a magazine, and rewritten in 1958 in novel version), the first book to feature Long – and the only one to feature him before Time Enough for Love (1983).
Heinlein also wove his beloved character – in some ways perhaps an idealized alter ego representing his lust for life (and love and sex) – into his some of his latter-day and lesser novels The Number of the Beast (1980) and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985).
In all of these works, Heinlein adds to the polyglot legend of Lazarus Long.
That legendary aura seems especially resonant in the later novels that address from a more mature and seasoned perspective the big questions about the meaning of life, the endless allure of love (and yes, sex… lots of sex) and the crucial related questions “what is freedom for?” and “what shall I do with my life and my limited time on Earth?”
But in my opinion, rereading the novel almost half a century after its bestselling initial publication, that legend was never so lovingly burnished and explored by Heinlein than in Time Enough for Love, which truly must be appreciated as not only a summa cum laude and capstone to the character and Heinlein’s career but also a humorous and poignant farewell.
Perhaps this novel is best appreciated like fine wine, but not so much after it has aged but after we have aged – and lived, really lived.
Long is a character that any older man (or woman, or anyone) might long for, and identify with, in a wish-fulfillment fantasy: If only we could live for centuries, largely in liberty and good health. What wonders might we see? What further experiences – love in particular, but romantic adventures not far behind – might we grasp?
This fantasy is at the emotional and metaphysical core of this character and this novel, and it’s a fantasy that many human beings share, in their wilder musings. But it was Heinlein who employed his storytelling talents to bring this character to such long life – in his fictional world, and in popular culture.
Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.
Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his classic bestselling novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1983) and Stranger in a Strange Land (in 1987), the novel Red Planet (in 1996), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the story Requiem (in 2003) and the story Coventry (in 2017.)
* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of H. Beam Piper and John McGuire’s A Planet for Texans (aka Lone Star Planet), the 1999 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.
* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quintette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern sf/fantasy genre.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more productive and fulfilling in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.