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  • Yehoshua Paul

1948 - Beyond This Horizon

1948. A busy year for the United nations. Construction of the new headquarters in New York has just begun, but in the meantime the organization needs to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, establish the World Health Organization, and recognize Burma. Admittedly, Ceylon, the Republic of Korea (south), and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (north) also gained their independence, but it will take a few more years until they’re accepted into the UN. Meanwhile, the newly declared state of Israel is battling for its survival so the membership application will have to wait.

On Friday, May 14 at 16:00, eight hours before the British Mandate officially ends, David Ben Gurion establishes the state of Israel (see video). The next day the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq invade the country, and the War of Independence becomes that much more difficult. A Syrian tank force is halted near Degania, Tel Aviv is blitzed, Israel’s temporary new government establishes the IDF, the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem surrenders to the Jordanian Army, the IDF fails to retake Latrun – and we’re still only in May!

In the next few months, the IDF receives its first chief of staff, Yaakov Dori, succeeds in conquering Lod, and retaking the Negev and the Galilee. Israel’s Supreme Court is established and the flag of Israel is officially adopted. No. The war isn’t going to end this year. There’s still some fighting to get out of the way, but the state of Israel is here to stay. So what’s next?

The state is officially established, but it still has many identity issues that will need to be resolved – after the immediate survival concerns are taken care of. These issues are far from unique, and related to similar to questions posed by Robert Heinlein in Beyond this Horizon, a story of a post-utopian society that needs to figure out its purpose.

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907 – 1988) was an aeronautical engineer, retired naval officer, the “Dean of Science Fiction”, and one of the “Big Three” of science fiction authors, together with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. His works have won four Hugos and seven retro Hugos (for works that were published before the Hugo awards existed), and much of his writing has been adapted into film and television. Some of his more notable works include Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and his Future Histories series.

Heinlein’s influence is huge, and can be seen in many areas where you would least expect it. Computer aided design (CAD), waterbeds and cellphones are all ideas that appear in his novels. In addition, he coined several new terms that are popular today: “GROK”, “pay it forward”, “Waldo”, “speculative fiction” and “space marine”.

In addition to making science fiction mainstream, Heinlein also helped pioneer two science fiction sub-genres: social science fiction and hard science fiction. Social science fiction is seen in his use of the genre to express his views on race, religion, politics, sexuality, individualism and self-determination. Hard science fiction is seen in his insistence that all new ideas be scientifically accurate and conform to existing scientific principles. Many view hard science fiction as a reaction to social science fiction, but in Beyond this Horizon Heinlein demonstrates how these two areas actually overlap.

The book is about the future after utopia has been achieved. In this period, productivity has increased so much that scarcity is a thing of the past, and work is now optional. The chief economic problem is using up the economic surplus. There is a Council of Social policy responsible for redistributing the dividends from investments among all the world’s citizens, which basically means that people are getting richer each year for doing less and less. Higher quality goods are in such abundance and so easy to make that it is now a mark of social status to use lower quality goods and services. Also, people openly carry weapons in this future and dueling is an accepted way of settling disputes. The assumption is that an armed society is a polite society, and if you don’t know how to use a gun and are dumb enough to pick a fight with someone who does, society is better off without you. People have the option of wearing a marker that visibly indicates they are unarmed, making it dishonorable to pick on them, but this is a mark of an inferior social status.

The protagonist of this novel is Hamilton Felix, the culmination of a three-hundred year program of controlled genetics. The program doesn’t tamper with a person’s genes, but rather using inference techniques, helps pair people with the goal of creating the best offspring from what is possible (and in the process eliminate tooth decay). Felix has perfect health, is a genius, has very strong survival instincts, and sees absolutely no point in having children, which is a problem for the geneticists who want his line to continue. They even picked out a woman for him.

This basically is the conundrum that the book explores. In a world where all human needs are met, there is no need for anyone to actually work, and humanity is passively on a path of constant improvement, what difference does it make whether you have kids or not? There are many questions posed by the book, and some answers are provided (and wrong answers are violently rejected), but mostly I think this book is intended to get people to think about the direction they and their societies are heading towards.

I felt this was an okay book. Heinlein has definitely written better works, and I wouldn’t recommend reading this book for its plot, which is decent, but not amazing. What makes this book stand out is the post-utopian future it describes. It's a future that is matter of factly introduced already on the very first page when a door dilates so Felix can enter. This is not an alien future in which you need to grope to find your bearings, but rather something familiar. The people described are people that think in ways I was able to recognize and identify with, and the questions posed are questions that even today society still grapples with. What this book did was show me a potential for a possible future, and then got me thinking about its ramifications, which is definitely an experience I want to repeat with other Heinlein books.

The Omer today is foundation in kingship, two attributes that are particularly important for the state of Israel and any future it and the rest of the world tries to build. When building a country, it’s always better if you have broad consensus regarding the founding principles behind its establishment. If you don’t have a consensus, you’re going to spend more time arguing about the future then creating it. In Israel’s case the core foundation is that this is a Jewish Democratic Homeland, and our shared heritage is what unites us. However, it’s also what tears us apart. We see it today when for every two Jews, you’ve got a minimum of three opinions on how to interpret Israel's deliberately vague founding principles, and this is causing a strain. This doesn't mean of course that Israel is in any danger of physically falling apart. We've lived with these differences for over seventy years, and the country is still around. We all have a vested interest in continuing on this path together even as we argue about which direction the country should go in. And while it would be nice if we could all agree on a purpose, the fact that Israel is here, the future is here and we’re still here means that clearly we are doing something right.