After reading this quote in Farah Mendlesohn’s book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, I jumped back to reading Heinlein’s first work of fiction, For Us, The Living:
During 1938, Heinlein started casting around for work and, cushioned by that military pension, decided to try fiction. His first attempt, For Us, the Living, was an Edward Bellamyesque utopia, loosely plotted and heavy on the lectures, which never reached the public during his lifetime. However, for the rest of his life he would mine this unpublished manuscript for ideas, so that we can see the working and reworking of the thoughts of the young Heinlein using the skill and critical eye (and sometimes mature cynicism) of the older Heinlein. While it did the rounds of publishers Heinlein embarked on his first venture into the pulp magazines.
She was right. I could see where Heinlein pulled “The Roads Must Roll,” “Coventry,” and Beyond This Horizon from this trunk novel, as well as a good portion of his Future History timeline. Not only that, but Heinlein’s first novel sounds very much like his last novels. I always thought Heinlein’s later novels, which I dislike, were badly written because Heinlein was old and in decline. Of course, Heinlein could be like me now that I’m old when I spend a lot of time thinking about ideas I had when I was young.
At seventy I have this urge to go back and reread Heinlein to see why he made such an impact on me when I was a teen. It’s obvious from For Us, The Living, that Heinlein was preoccupied with the same ideas his whole life. But I also believe the writing techniques he used also revealed aspects of his personality. I don’t know if we males are allowed to call another male this, but Heinlein was one helluva of a mansplainer. Heinlein should have been a preacher because he loved to give sermons. I get the feeling that Heinlein was more than a little annoyed with our society and political system and was dying to redesign it.
I’ve been making fun of how often Heinlein brings up nudity and getting naked, and in For Us, The Living, nudism is a way of life. The book is like many of the utopian novels of the 19th century where a writer finds a way to put a character from their time into the future. The story becomes a travelogue through a utopia where the reader must listen to various people lecture about how the future society works.
The opening scene has Perry Nelson dying in a car crash and waking up in 2086. He’s rescued by a young woman, Diana, living alone in the mountains. When he wakes up Perry finds himself in bed, naked under the sheets, with Diana bustling around the house naked too. At first, Perry is embarrassed to get up when she asks him to join her for breakfast. Perry can’t understand why she’s not embarrassed too. Eventually, Perry assumes, when in Rome do as the Romans.
When I was a kid, and read Stranger in a Strange Land and The Puppet Masters, I was titillated at all the nudity in those stories, but I had not noticed how often Heinlein’s other characters in other stories went around in the raw. When I reread Methuselah’s Children recently I kept seeing scenes as Heinlein wrote them and I’d go “Eeeewwww” in my head. In For Us, The Living, the characters wear clothes sometimes, especially if it’s cold, but clothing is optional. Perry sometimes wears a kilt (evidently only a kilt), which was what Lazarus Long wore in Methuselah’s Children. Heinlein also had a thing about redheads – they are everywhere in his stories. In all the scenes where the characters are naked in For Us, The Living, I keep picturing how ugly that world would look. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few unclad females walking around a little more often than I do now, but a world full of visible scrotums would just be wrong. (I don’t know why all women aren’t lesbians.)
But maybe that’s Heinlein’s point. He wanted to spread the gospel of nudity, the glory of the human body. I’m afraid I’m an atheist of that religion too.
For Us, The Living is a clunky novel. There are a couple dramatic scenes, like when Perry dies, or when he goes into a jealous rage and punches Diana’s old boyfriend. But those are few and far between. The punch in the face is a setup to explain how the U.S. of 2086 is a libertarian utopia, where Perry is taken to be evaluated for mental illness. In this future society, any kind of violence is considered a mental illness, and violators are given a choice. They can get treatment or go to Coventry. Coventry is a reservation for people who do not want to follow the rules. In Heinlein’s later story, “Coventry” the main character punches someone out and selects Coventry. But he eventually learns he doesn’t like a totally free society. Perry chooses treatment.
As part of his treatment, Perry must study the ways of the future society. There’s a long painful section where Perry is lectured on economics that even includes a long algebraic formula. In this fictional future, everyone has a guaranteed income. It’s enough to live comfortably, but if you want more out of life, you earn extra money. Perry can’t understand why this society supports so many layabouts. This gives Heinlein a chance to lecture on how he believes our society should work.
At one point Perry meets Master Cathcart, a “Master of History.” Cathcart quizzes Perry on what he’s learned about American history from when he died in 1938, until 2086. I get the feeling from this section that Heinlein wanted to predict the future, or at least extrapolate it and show off how smart he was regarding world events. Heinlein fails but fails in an interesting way. Most of his projections sound a whole lot like his Future History chart. Here’s a sample.
“I am to assume, I take it, that you are for all practical purposes an inhabitant of 1939 A.D., well educated in your period, transported by some witchcraft to this period. Very well. You have been studying some records today? Which ones?” Perry ran through the list. “Good enough. Now suppose you summarize briefly what you have learned today and I will explain and amplify and answer questions as best I can.” “Well,” replied Perry, “that’s a large order but I’ll give it a try. At the time of my accident, July 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term. Congress had adjourned after wrecking most of the President’s program. The war in Spain had been won by the fascists. Japan was fighting China and was apparently about to fight Russia. Unemployment and an unbalanced budget were still the main troubles in the United States. 1940 was a presidential year. President Roosevelt was forced to run for a third term through lack of an electable successor to carry on his policies. His nomination by the Democratic convention resulted in the defection of the conservative wing of the party to Republican Party. In the meantime the National Progressives had organized on a nationwide scale and put young Bob LaFollette in the field. The Republicans nominated Senator Vandenburgh. Vandenburgh was elected but polled considerably less than half of the popular vote and failed to get a majority in either house. His administration was doomed from the start. Very little was done for four years except for a half-hearted attempt to balance the budget by eliminating relief, but riots and hunger marches soon scared Congress into providing more and more for the dole. In the spring of 1944 the death in a plane crash of Mr. Roosevelt demoralized the remnants of the Democratic Party and most of them joined the Republicans or the Progressives. The Democrats adjourned their convention without naming a candidate. The Progressives named LaGuardia, the fiery little Mayor of New York, while the Republicans after many ballots picked Senator Malone. President Vandenburgh was as thoroughly discredited by circumstances he did not understand and could not control as President Hoover before him. Senator Malone was a midwestern politician, a typical demagogue of my period, if I’m any judge. The recordings show him red-faced and raucous, a man of the people. Malone ran on a platform of blaming everything on Europe and the radicals. He demanded instant payment of the war debts, which were pretty silly since the second European war was already on. He called for the outlawing of the Communist Party, protection of the American home, and a return to rationalism in education which he defined as readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic and a particularly offensive jingoistic patriotism. He advocated deportation of all aliens, laws to prevent women from holding men’s jobs, and protection of the morals of the young. He promised to restore prosperity and promised everyone the ‘American’ standard of living. And he won, by a narrow vote in the electoral college. LaGuardia said afterwards that since Malone had promised them the moon, all he could offer was the moon with whipped cream, which didn’t seem practical to LaGuardia. “Once in office Malone ran things with a high hand. Congress was willing in the first session to pass almost any law he desired. One of the most important was the Public Safety bill which was in effect a gag for the press and other means of public information. Inasmuch as it was first used to suppress news of labor troubles which resulted from the discontinuance of the dole, the capital controlled press submitted to it without really knowing what they were in for. Then a law was passed which greatly increased the scope of the G-men or Federal enforcement agents and making them directly responsible to the chief executive. Malone staffed these expanded and greatly changed corps from his home state political machine. In the meantime, in spite of his controlled press, the people were getting restless. Even those who were still economically fairly comfortable had had swarms of the hungry, dispossessed, and unemployed turned loose on them. Malone was apparently afraid to chance another election, even a mid-term. Perhaps he never intended to. In any case he declared a state of emergency, using the mobs of unemployed as an excuse, and took over the internal civil government as an absolute dictator. He used the army and navy to quell any local difficulties. With his new secret service and control over the means of communication and propaganda this was feasible. By the way, the record states that he was able to use the army and navy to destroy the democratic form of government. I find that hard to believe, Master Cathcart. You see I was in the navy myself and I don’t believe that the American Services were fascist minded. How do you account for it?” For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (pp. 63-66). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
Later on. he gets one interesting fact right:
“What happened to the dictators?” “Adolf Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself in the roof of the mouth. Mussolini got out much more gracefully. He submitted his resignation to the king he had kept around during his entire tenure and the king appointed a new prime minister, a social democrat. But to my mind the most interesting thing about the peace was the peculiar terms of the peace treaty.” “Some sort of a league of nations, all over again wasn’t it?” “Yes, and no. A very brilliant young Frenchman, a descendant of LaFayette, argued that a continental government or federation was necessary if a lasting peace was to come, and argued further that a constitutional monarchy was the most stable form under which free men could live. And so the United Europe was created. But the romantic part is the man who was chosen to head this polyglot creation. The Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns were out for obvious reasons of bad blood and bad records. The English king was suggested but he aroused no enthusiasm, being rather negative in character and further handicapped by his shyness and speech impediments. None of the pretenders in exile had any real following. But one prince was available, who had long before captured the world’s imagination. Edward, Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated the British throne in 1936 rather than accept the complete domination of his prime minister, became the choice.” “Well, I’ll be damned!” muttered Perry. “I don’t believe that was in the record.” For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (pp. 69-70). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
But where is the Heinlein that’s going to write all the books about exploring space? That’s the Heinlein that I loved as a kid. Well, towards the end of For Us, The Living, while Perry is still in rehab, he and one of his therapists, Olga, go on a tour of a rocket testing facility. In 2086, rockets are standard for traveling around the world, much as we now use jetliners, but they don’t go into space. At the testing facility, they are working on rockets that can achieve escape velocity. Perry and Olga witness a rocket failure, and this lights up Perry’s ambition.
Eventually, Perry discovers he’s cured. He ends up with a three-way relationship with Diana and Olga and is released from his reeducation. Perry then goes off to train as a rocket pilot, and at the end of the story, three years later, is heading to the Moon. The ending, by the way, reminds me a whole lot of the ending of the 1936 film, Things to Come. But Perry Nelson’s speech is nowhere as elegant as Oswald Cabal’s speech. Thus the ending of For Us, The Living sets us up for “Requiem,” and “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” The ending of For Us, The Living also feels like the ending to Tunnel in the Sky, and other Heinlein stories, where the main character is heading for a bright future on the high frontier.
If you only read Heinlein occasionally, you might not detect his pet ideas. But reading him solid like I am now, starting from the beginning and working forward as he published new stories, For Us, The Living is a fascinating clue to how Heinlein thought.
From reading all the biographies of Heinlein, and his work, I get the feeling he was deeply dissatisfied with our society and was burning to reshape it. Many of the lectures/infodumps deal with customs and beliefs that were common in the 1940s and are still embraced today. I think Heinlein resented the thinking behind them as impediments to his freedom. By the time I started reading Heinlein in 1964, when I was twelve, I had already decided to become an atheist. Maybe I felt a kinship with Heinlein’s quest to be mentally free. But I grew up in the sixties when youthful rebellion was required. We were way beyond Heinlein regarding free thinking.
What I loved about Heinlein as a kid, was all the gung-ho-ness for exploring space. What I’m seeing in my rereading is Heinlein had several ambitions as a writer, and the space stuff was only one of them.
Heinlein always told us that “Life-Line” was his first effort at writing. He’d brag how he read about a writing contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories that offered a $50 prize, but when he finished his first effort, it was good enough to sell to John W. Campbell for $70. He never mentioned For Us, The Living. I vaguely remember reading that Heinlein and his wife burned copies of it before he died because they didn’t want it published. But evidently, he had lent it to a biographer, and that copy was rediscovered. I’m glad his estate went against his wishes. It offers so many clues about Heinlein. It also tells us that Heinlein wasn’t quite honest. That he had secrets he didn’t want us to know. I think these essays I’m writing are a way to deduce some of them.
James Wallace Harris, 9/29/22
4 thoughts on “For Us, The Living by Robert A. Heinlein”
I remember the anticipation I felt when “For Us the Living” hit the shelves. But that sure didn’t last. I soon gave it up. I imagine it was probably resurrected by the publisher to capitalize on the Heinlein name. Happens all too often.
One of my guilty pleasures is Louis L’amour, who died the same year as Heinlein. Some of his out of print books under pen names were reissued, and some posthumously published for the first time, no doubt to turn a profit. Nothing wrong with that, but caveat emptor. By the way, Tom Clancy, a fan of both authors, mentions them in a tribute to Heinlein, “Grumbles From the Grave.”
“For Us the Living” is a curiosity, interesting mainly to Heinlein fans who can study it, as you’ve done, as a precursor to his much better works. His travelogue “Tramp Royale” is another postmortem oddity, but at least it’s supplemented with some interesting photographs.
Like you, my taste runs to his 1950s books. No one, except maybe Andre Norton, was writing better juveniles. P. Schuyler Miller, in Astounding’s Reference Library, regularly commented that their young adult novels were typically better than most adult science fiction being put out at the time. I couldn’t agree more.
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Sorry, that tribute was “Requiem,” not “Grumbles From the Grave.”
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