December 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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For Us, The Living : A Comedy of Customs by Robert Heinlein
Simon and Schuster / Scribner HCVR: ISBN 074325998X PubDate: 01/01/04
Review by Peter N. Glaskowsky

288 pgs. List price $25
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Robert A. Heinlein's first novel,  For Us, The Living was written in 1938-1939, rejected by publishers, and discarded by the author himself. It isn't a very good novel, even for a first novel; it's basically a collection of lectures about utopian political and economic theories joined by a thin narrative framework.

Superficially, the story is about one Perry Nelson, Navy aviator and engineer, who dies in July 1939 in a car wreck. Instantly, he finds himself in January 2086, hundreds of miles away, being rescued from a snowstorm by Diana, a television celebrity. Heinlein leaves the miracle unexplained; it plays no further role in the novel.

By page five, Perry and Diana are sitting in her nearby house-- naked, because in 2086, people don't wear clothing at home. Diana is perfectly willing to accept Perry's story without any evidence. It takes more effort for her to convince him of what's happened, but soon enough he comes to terms with his situation.

She invites him to stay with her while he learns about the years he's missed and the world of the future. They fall in love, he gets a job. The end. There isn't much more to it than that.

The hardcover book is 283 pages, of which 235 are the novel. By my count, the story only accounts for 30 of those. Some 41 pages comprise a single expository scene, a conversation among three characters in which Heinlein gives a history of the US from 1939 to 2085. Most of this history is only weakly relevant to the themes of the novel. There are numerous other lectures that also do little to advance the plot.

But you know what? It's a good book. I wouldn't say it's a good novel, in the normal sense, but I've certainly read many worse examples of this type of story. Where the typical first libertarian novel is based on an unsophisticated understanding of political theory and even weaker writing skills, For Us, The Living presents mature and well-considered theory and top-notch writing.

Exposition isn't always out of place in a novel. Atlas Shrugged, for example, has far longer expository scenes. That book is about 11 times longer, however. Rand's exposition is not out of place in its context, but Heinlein's is. (And in case you're curious about this, as I was: Ayn Rand's novel We, The Living, published in 1936, has absolutely no significant similarities to this Heinlein book. Nevertheless I wonder if there was some common origin in the culture of the 1930s for these titles. Heinlein's title is specifically from the Gettysburg Address, but Rand's? I don't know.)

Though Heinlein didn't provide a lot of plot, there's a good deal of specific political and economic advice in this book. Heinlein's utopia is not merely libertarian, it's specifically Libertarian. He wasn't referring to the political party, which is 32 years younger than this book, but he might as well have been.

Heinlein trots out an authority figure to speak approvingly of a law that requires a public referendum on declarations of war in the absence of foreign aggression, for example. Voting would be open only to those eligible for military service, and those who vote for war would be immediately inducted. This is an interesting idea, but like all of the political ideas presented in the book, it plays no role in the plot.

Heinlein even refers to a whole new Constitution for the United States of 2085, summarized by this passage:

"Every citizen is free to perform any act which does not hamper the equal freedom of another. No law shall forbid the performance of any act, which does not damage the physical or economic welfare of any other person. No act shall constitute a violation of a law valid under this provision unless there is such damage, or immediate present danger of such damage resulting from that act."

Though I think this proposal is not particularly well expressed, the notion behind it is good orthodox Libertarianism. There are some economic prescriptions that are neither Libertarian nor practical, but Heinlein obviously believed them necessary. Heinlein never did figure out the missing element of political theory needed to make Libertarianism practical, but then, the Libertarian Party never has either. (I have, but this is not that essay.)

It doesn't bother me that the economic conclusions in this book are wrong. Heinlein's beliefs, derived from C. H. Douglas's Social Credit theory, seem to be based on an honest study of the conditions of 1939. This theory was intelligently and independently developed, and Heinlein presents it well. The fact that Social Credit is, sensibly, no longer taught in economics classes shouldn't prevent us from enjoying Heinlein's explanation of it.

The theory probably shouldn't be taught in a novel, either. Heinlein refers indirectly to Social Credit in his later books Beyond This Horizon and Time Enough for Love, in passages that helped me to start thinking seriously about economics-- but those scenes weren't lectures.

I doubt For Us, The Living would have had a favorable effect on 1939 society if it had been published then. For one thing, society would have reacted badly to Heinlein's description of it:

"But most of all he came to despise the almost universal deceit, half lies and downright falsehood that had vitiated the life of 1939. He realized that it had been a land of hokum and cheat. The political speeches, the advertising slogans, the spitlicking, prostituted preachers, the billboards, the ballyhoo, the kept press, the pussy-footing professors, the incredible papier-mache idol of 'society', the yawping Neanderthal 100% Americanism, paving contracts, special concessions and other grafts, the purchased Senators and hired attorneys, the corrupt judges and cynical politicians, and over and through it all the poor desiccated spirit of the American peasant, the 'wise guy' whose motto was 'Cheat first, lest ye be cheated' and 'Never give a sucker a break.' ...The whole tribe, lying, lied to and lied about, who had been taught to admire success, even in a scoundrel, and despite failure, even in a hero."

I suppose Heinlein learned the Swiftian lesson one book too late-- it's much better to be critical of an obviously fictional population, far separated in time and space from his audience. On the other hand, I found it interesting to see Heinlein writing about his own people and not the Brobdingnagians; there was no need to try to figure out how much of the message was aimed specifically at the reader. (Of course, we don't have to worry that Heinlein might be talking about us... do we?)

The published version of For Us, The Living comes from a manuscript located by Dr. Robert James and passed along to Heinlein's estate. A page in the front matter says "minor editorial changes have been made for clarity and style", but I don't believe anyone even proofread the text very carefully; it contains numerous typos. There's one of these on the very first page, and some of them are extremely conspicuous: the "force of gravity at earth seal level" for example.

Overall, I like this book. It may not have the usual virtues of a novel, but if you like Heinlein, future histories, or theories of politics, economics, or semantics, you might like it too.

2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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