Methuselah's Children

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(CC) Photo: Hayford Peirce
Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti circa 1979.

Methuselah's Children is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein. Originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in the July, August, and September 1941 issues, it was expanded into a full-length novel in 1958.

The novel is usually considered to be part of Heinlein's Future History series of stories. It introduces the Howard families, a fictional group of people who achieved long lifespans through selective breeding. The space ship in this novel, the New Frontiers, is described in the Future History timeline as a second-generation ship, following the Vanguard, the vehicle for Heinlein's paired novellas "Universe" and "Common Sense".

According to John W. Campbell,[1] the novel was originally to be called While the Evil Days Come Not. The provisional title stems from a quotation from Ecclesiastes, which was used as a password on the second page of the story.

The novel was the origin of the word "masquerade" as a term for a fictional trope of a hidden society within the real world.

Plot summary

Starting off a grocer, Ira Howard became rich as a sutler wholesaler during the American War of the Secession but died of old age at 48 or 49 years old. The trustees of his will carried out his wishes to prolong human life by financially encouraging those with long-lived grandparents to marry each other and have children. By the 22nd century, the "Howard families" have a life expectancy exceeding 150 years and keep their existence secret with the "Masquerade" in which the members fake their deaths and obtain new identities.

The Masquerade helped the Families survive the dictatorship of Nehemiah Scudder, but as an experiment, some Howard members reveal themselves to The Covenant, hoping that the free society established after Scudder's defeat will be friendly. They are mistaken since others refuse to believe that the Families obtained their lifespan by selective breeding but insist that they have developed a secret method to extend life. Administrator Slayton Ford, leader of Earth, believes that the Families are telling the truth, but cannot prevent efforts to force Howard members to reveal their alleged rejuvenation abilities.

Lazarus Long, the eldest member of the Families, proposes that the Families hijack the colony starship New Frontiers to escape Earth. Using an inertialess drive invented by Howard member Andrew Jackson "Slipstick" Libby, the Families leave the Solar System with the deposed Ford. The first planet they discover has humanoid inhabitants domesticated by indescribable godlike natives. When Earthly humans prove incapable of similar domestication, they are expelled from the planet.

The second planet is a lush environment with no predators and mild weather. Its inhabitants are part of a group mind, with the mental ability to manipulate the environment on the genetic and molecular level but do not distinguish between individuals. That becomes evident when Mary Sperling, the second oldest of the Families, joins the group mind to become immortal. The Families are further horrified when the group mind genetically modifies the first baby born on the planet into a new, alien form. A majority of the Families returns to Earth to demand their freedom; Libby, with the help of the group mind, builds a new faster-than-light drive to take them home in months instead of years.

The Families, returning to the Solar System 74 years after their original departure because of time dilation, discover that Earth's scientists have artificially extended human lifespan indefinitely by replicating what they believe is the Families' secret. The Howard members are now welcomed for their discovery of travel faster than light. Libby and Long decide to recruit other members of the Families and explore space with the new drive.

Personal note

Heinlein was a graduate of the Naval Academy, where he knew the family of Ernest J. King, later to be Chief of Naval Operations during World War II, and had dated one of his daughters and been the usher at the wedding of another. King, who was known throughout his life for his irascibility, took command of the aircraft carrier Lexington in 1930. Ensign Heinlein was assigned to the ship and served under King for the next year and a half and interacted with him frequently.[2] In Methuselah's Children, after the Families have taken over the starship, they appoint a Family member, Rufus ("Ruthless") King, to be its commander.

Critical reception

Alva Rogers, in A Requiem for Astounding, wrote that Methuselah's Children was "Full of adventure, conflict, romance, and enough casually tossed-off ideas to serve as the basis for a half-dozen other stories."[3]

In Heinlein in Dimension, Alexei Panshin wrote, "In many ways this is an important book. For one, its main theme, the problem of escaping death, is one that keeps cropping up in Heinlein stories, and for another, an amazing number of brilliant ideas are tossed out along the way."[4] He also says that he is "not as pleased with the situation as Rogers is. I wish he had written those other half-dozen stories and put his ideas to better us." Floyd C. Gale called the book "a classic".[5]

Reappearance of characters in other Heinlein novels

Lazarus Long first appears in this novel. Other Heinlein novels featuring him include Time Enough for Love, The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Andrew "Slipstick" Libby, previously seen as a young adult in the short story "Misfit", also features prominently in this novel. In Time Enough for Love, Libby is said to have become Lazarus Long's partner in space travel until his death.


Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for "Best Classic Libertarian Sci-Fi Novel" (1997).


  1. (May 1941) "History to Come". Astounding Science Fiction 27: 5.
  2. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: 1907-1948, Learning Curve, William H. Patterson, Jr., Tor, New York, pages 126—143
  3. Rogers, Alva (1964). A Requiem for Astounding. Chicago: Advent. 
  4. Panshin, Alexei (1968). Heinlein in Dimension. Chicago: Advent. 
  5. Gale, Floyd C.. Galaxy's 5 Star Star Shelf, Galaxy, August 1959, pp. 138–142. Retrieved on 14 June 2014.

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