This is the first short novel of four that comprise the tales of Lazarus Long as he records his memoirs to placate his descendants while he undergoes rejuvenation—a process begun against his will by Ira Wetheral, the current Chairman Pro Tem of the Howard Families. “Chairman Pro Tem” because the rightful chairman of the Families—not a biological family, strictly, but an association of people bred for long life and named for Ira Howard, the philanthropist who funded, back in the 19th Century Gregorian, a project to lengthen the lifespan of humans simply by subsidizing the marriage and production of offspring of people with a genetic predisposition to long life. The Chairman of these families, by tradition, is the eldest member. When Howard’s experiment was not a century old, and Howard himself was already dead, it produced a mutant named Woodrow Wilson Smith. By 2012, Smith, under the pseudonym Lazarus Long, was the oldest man alive, Senior of the Families. It was a position he would hold for the next 23 centuries, and still counting as of Robert Heinlein’s last published work.
Chairing the Families, which meant, lo these many centuries later when Time Enough for Love begins, means running a planet as a pseudo-benevolent dictator. It’s not a job Lazarus wants. He won’t pick up the gavel. He came to Tellus Secundus (Earth Two) only to die quietly. Ira had his goon squad find Lazarus in a cheap flop house, then had rejuvenation technicians revive him and begin restoring his failing body. “Suicide is every man’s privilege” under the laws of the Families, as their less and less likely, with each passing year, to die any other way.
But Ira repeatedly (and sneakily) cheats Lazarus of this privilege. Then he convinces Lazarus to tell him stories while the Howard Clinic brings him back to physical health. The first extended story is the tale of David Lamb, a young man born, like Lazarus, in the early 20th Century, and allegedly a friend of his. David hated “honest work,” because it was “hard, dirty, inefficient and ill-paid.” He loved school because it involved nothing harder than reading. Ironically, after spending 15 hours at the hind end of a mule, plowing a field, he decided to walk 15 miles to the post office and enlist in the Army, hoping to avoid honest work.
Avoiding honest work led to David both inventing more efficient ways of doing things, and to his being promoted, becoming an officer, not liking the long hours, applying to be a pilot, becoming decorated as a hero because he did everything he could to avoid death, eventually being retired at the rank of Admiral. Then he took up farming, because it was a job the government would pay him not to do.
One of the more charming aspects of this tale, besides the capsule history of America in the first third of the 20th Century, is that it’s littered with comments by the Families’ Archivist, disputing the truth of Lazarus’s tale, pointing out its internal inconsistencies. Heinlein deliberately wrote a story which could be shown to not hold up in the light of day, and made me enjoy every minute of it nonetheless. It’s an important facet of his work, especially in later years: he understood that accuracy and internal consistency are less important than the emotional truth at the heart of the tale.
Beyond that, it’s a biting satire on a lot of the foibles of America in the 20th Century, and even now. It attacks the idea of hard work as a de facto virtue, belittles managerial types who overhaul systems and makes them three times more complicated than they were before, lampoons government programs that reward failure, and reminds sometime uppity educators that their smartest students—no doubt much smarter than the teachers—are the ones who try to avoid doing the work.
And it’s not science fiction. Not at all. It’s just a humorous tale of a man of the author’s generation, who may or may not have lived, and who may or may not have been the author himself.