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For Us, the Living

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This was the first novel written by Heinlein, probably completed in 1938, several months before his first short story ("Life Line") was printed in Astounding Science Fiction. It was rejected by at least two publishers, and RAH apparently never returned to it for rewrites and never submitted it again, breaking one of his own rules of writing - "You must keep it on the market until it sells." Heinlein himself destroyed all copies in his possession just a couple of years before his death, but at least one copy survived, in the garage of a researcher who had been assisting another in the compilation of the author's official biography.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Being the RAH fanatic that I am, I was going to read it no matter what, but one must wonder whether its publication would have received the approval of either the author or his wife, Virginia. There is no doubt that he knew there were any number of publishers that would have printed anything he cared to submit - that is, once his reputation as the preiminent SF author had been established. And yet they had destroyed their copies. There is no mention of this novel in the posthumously published collection of Heinlein's letters, Grumbles from the Grave (the index listing for "first novel" concerns Sixth Column). Surely there are other documentations of this novel somewhere among the Heinlein archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Perhaps we will have to wait for the upcoming authorized biography, being written by William Patterson, to get the full story. I have purposefully held off reading both Spider Robinson's introduction and Robert James' afterword, in order that they not influence any of my thoughts for this review.

Regardless of my misgivings, and regardless of the literary merit of the novel (or lack thereof), I am still glad that it was published, even though it is likely to spark much debate (and a lot of it will be negative) concerning Heinlein and his political and social views. One thing that should be laid to rest (but probably won't) is the notion that midway through his literary career he lost track of his ability to tell a story and instead started preaching to his readers. It is evident now that that had been his intention all along. However, it is also apparent that he was intelligent enough to realize, in the aftermath of this novel's original rejections, that in order to do so he would first have to develop his story-telling technique or else he was in danger of never being published.

Okay, that out of the way, on to the review.

Short version: Is this a well-written novel? No. Was it worth reading? Yes!

The only thing wrong here is that the points RAH was trying to make were better suited to an academic essay rather than a science fiction novel. It seems obvious he was using a couple of other literary utopias as a pattern. One he mentioned several times as a particular favorite, H. G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes, and the other must certainly have been Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Even though both are from an older tradition, utilizing Socratic dialogue in a narrative format, neither were as tedious or boring as Heinlein's attempt. But if you can wade through his economic lecturing, there are many interesting glimpses into the formation of ideas RAH would utilize the remainder of his career.

For Us, the Living is much what Beyond This Horizon would have been if it had been told from the perspective of John Darlington Smith, the "Man from the Past," released from a time stasis after several hundred years. Here, it is Naval airman Perry Nelson, inexplicably propeled 147 years into his (or an alternate) future following an automobile accident. His ego apparently resides within the body of an escaped mental patient, rescued from a snowdrift by a young woman near her Lake Tahoe home. Her name is Diana, and she is a well-known and respected dancer, and obviously a strong and free-spirited individual. Many people have stated over the years that RAH's strong female characters had been heavily influenced by Virginia, but Diana was a creation of his long before he met his third wife. It seems obvious he had already known other such women, possibly his second wife Leslyn, or maybe even his mother. Since his most famous creation, Lazarus Long, was obsessed with his own independent, strong-willed (and red-haired) mother, that might be a reasonable speculation.

As Diana attempts to educate Perry on the society in which he now finds himself, and gives him a tour of San Francisco, we see several elements that would later appear in Future History stories. There are rolling roads and Coventry, and even Nehemiah Scudder is mentioned, although in this branch of the future he was defeated in his political ambitions. Even though not specifically mentioned, the Covenant seems to have been implemented here as well. When Perry becomes jealous of another man's attentions towards Diana, and physically assaults him, he is given much the same choice as David McKinnon in "Coventry," But rather than accept banishment to this segregated community he submits to therapy, which seems to consist mainly of tests and semantic debates designed to reorient his thinking along more modern lines of tolerance and civility.

One aspect of this future which is different from the Future History with which we are already familiar is in the realm of space exploration. Even though rockets are utitlized for travel to different areas of the Earth, they have yet to be utilized for even a moon flight, let alone trips to the other planets. Perry, as an aviator himself, and one who had already dreamed of a flight to the moon, becomes obsessed with the tests being conducted along these lines. As the novel ends, he is about to embark on his first moon voyage.

Unfortunately, I think the feature of the book that most reviewers and readers will dwell upon is Heinlein's economic models. I am no economist, never had any economics courses in college either, so I am not qualified to speculate on either their merits or their faults. As a matter of fact, even though I did read every word of the novel, I did not concentrate that much on these passages, but rather skimmed them to get back to the more traditional narrative. From what I could gather, it seemed similar to the economy as presented in Beyond This Horizon.

The most amazing part of this reading experience was in realizing how quickly after this Heinlein was able to polish his narrative technique, and in just a few short years became the most important writer in SF history. He remained so until his death in 1988, and if there is any justice he will continue to be regarded as such for many years to come. The weaknesses of his first attempt at fiction should not be held against him, nor should the political and social views he held at any point in his life obscure the fact that he is, and will ever be, THE Grand Master of Science Fiction.

 

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Author
Robert A. Heinlein

Published
2004

Available from amazon.com