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
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
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
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
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.