For Us, the Living
introduction by Spider Robinson
Scribner: New York, 2004
A deliberately lost novel
Whether you should read For Us, the Living depends on what kind of Heinlein reader you are; and if you're the right kind, what stage of Heinlein reading you are in at present.
This long-lost novel, recently rediscovered and published for the first time, opens strikingly as a contemporary man is thrust into the future, a utopian America a century and a half away. Yet as much fine and characteristic Heinlein elements are in this novel, we can also see why he soon gave up trying to market it soon after writing it around 1938 to early 1939.
Heinlein's main viewpoint character here, Perry Nelson, effectively dies in his present (1939) through an auto accident at the very beginning of For Us, the Living — and is shifted or effectively reborn in 2086, a utopian America a lot more comfortable than Depression-era America — and maybe more than ours.
It's well worth looking at what kind of novel this is, to help you choose whether you're the right kind of reader, and perhaps at the right stage, for it. There are a lot of entertaining considerations along the way.
Before we get into the fun stuff and the heavy stuff, I'll mention that For Us, the Living as printed has missed one last proofreading pass by a literate reader. Computer spell-checkers are not literate. I tripped over errors while reading, not quite casually, but not with proofreading intent. Editors tidied up the typescript, but when coming to press after sixty-five years awaiting, it would have been nice if they'd fixed these old or new typos (wrong —> right, below):
A couple of these could be puns: the Coast Highway at Torrey Fines is where speeders get traffic fines; seals being sea creatures, naturally they float at seal level. — I doubt it.
Robert A. Heinlein is our great exemplar of the man of the future: a forward-looking optimist, acutely aware of our heritage of freedom and what besets it, a practical engineer, a man of the world, a visionary of humanity.
His fiction is often exploratory: as he wrote and thought, Heinlein followed ideas and paths that looked interesting. In addition to his ideal background, this helps give his science fiction the slice-of-life realism that eluded so many writers before him. Usually this process worked very well, giving his final draft the distinctive Heinlein blend and flavor.
Heinlein opened his famous Denvention speech this way:
A writing apprenticeship, 1938
Story notes on index cards, even synopses, often turn into quite different novels than the writer expected. In a way that's what happened with For Us, the Living — one stage further along. In this novel we can see ideas germinating in Heinlein's mind by 1938 which got no further than manuscript. But reaching print the very next year, these began fructifying into an entire orchard of stories that we still savor. Economics, politics, freedom; love and sex; the everyday wonders of future technology. Heinlein wanted to write about them all.
In 1938 he was not yet the smooth fictioneer he was about to become with the Future History, with other vivid science fiction like "By His Bootstraps" and Beyond This Horizon, and startling fantasies like "The Devil Makes the Law" and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag". A lot of these coming story ideas are just sticking their heads up in For Us, the Living.
Heinlein was a tremendous admirer of H. G. Wells, for Wells' pioneering science fiction and encyclopedic knowledge, and his ability to combine these as an interpreter-synthesist of our past, present, and possible future. Synthesist, as Heinlein labeled it at the Denvention in 1941 is a grand vocation; what Hamilton Felix would have liked to be in Beyond This Horizon (serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, 1942). Heinlein disclaimed having the immensity of Wells' learning, but certainly was no slouch himself, in depth or breadth, or in caring.
I believe that the kind of novel that For Us, the Living wanted to be when it grew up — after Heinlein grew quickly into a master fictioneer of the future — is very like Beyond This Horizon.
In 1934 the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California with a Socialist campaign, including especially ideas for radical economic reform that strongly appealed to Robert A. Heinlein, still young but forced out of the US Navy by illness. It was a time of political and economic turmoil, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to worry about Sinclair running as a Democrat on an attention-getting platform. The slogan was End Poverty in California (EPIC). Will Rogers suggested that Sinclair after winning the Governor's office should become President.
Media stars were thick on the ground for Upton Sinclair, from Will Rogers and Dorothy Parker and the Marx Brothers — to Heinlein's model of universal expertise, H. G. Wells:
Economic ideas were sprouting up like pernicious weeds but promising the green of money for all, if only the right reformers got their hands on the financial machinery to fix the system. Heinlein was deeply involved in the Sinclair campaign and for some years thereafter in California Democratic Party politics. This time of ferment, and the desire to set the world aright, coupled with Heinlein's long reading of science fiction, led directly to For Us, the Living: the happy economics of America-2086, and long economic lectures given to Perry-from-1939.
The title For Us, the Living comes from an earlier American President amidst an even deeper crisis, Abraham Lincoln's 272-word "dedicatory remarks" at the Gettysburg Battlefield memorial-cemetery, 19 November 1863 — surely one of the most important speeches in American history. The dividing comma that Heinlein uses seems to have been in Lincoln's spoken text, but not in the final written one.
Ayn Rand's first novel We the Living (1936), dealing with the bitter aftermath of the Communist Revolution in Russia, had been published shortly before, while Heinlein was still hip-deep in Democratic politics and economic reform. Rand's book made little impression when first published, but Heinlein may have read it or at least seen the similar title. Heinlein is one of the few science-fiction writers later explicitly to mention Ayn Rand in fiction; his friend Theodore Sturgeon is another.
Garry Wills in Lincoln at Gettysburg explores in detail not just the setting and moment of Lincoln's exquisitely careful speech, but the whole mental geography and campaign of the speech. The oratory of the Greek Revival in America; the Nineteenth Century's strong use of funeral orations to remind the living of the bravery of the dead; the Transcendental hope for the future — all are background to Lincoln's call for "a new birth of freedom". In different degrees, these flow through the Gettysburg Address into For Us, the Living.
Whether in the U.S. Navy, in politics, or writing, Heinlein's life work is dedicated to these values.
All his life Robert A. Heinlein hated slavery in any time and place: the defeated Slave Power in America's own past, potential slavery among the stars — see Citizen of the Galaxy for close details of the latter, as well as a poignant mention of Lincoln. How about varieties of economic slavery, ordinary folks impoverished by bankers' greed or incompetence: people doomed to lifelong poverty, or perpetually struggling to cope with the repeated boom-and-bust of trade cycles?
For Us, the Living is a future American utopia created most of all by proper understanding of economics, as Heinlein saw it in the 1930s.
This utopia has a conflicted structural mix. There is centrally-managed banking and money, which allows the government to issue a dividend — amounting to a living wage — to every citizen. Physical violence against another person condemns one to psychological rehabilitation, or voluntary internal exile to Coventry. Love, sex, marriage, and child-raising all are quite loose and free, and the nudity taboo is gone.
Each of these areas is quite complex both in theory and practice. A major weakness of the novel as a novel is Heinlein's failure to explore seriously more than a couple of drawbacks, and only one of these fictionally. That is the tension arising from Perry Nelson's sexual jealousy, an anachronism in America-2086. The other we delve into is the economics, where Perry's disbelief is tempered by curiosity but merely stimulates Platonic lectures. In both areas, America-2086 reeducates Perry-from-1939.
The internal-exile idea is one of many tidbits here that soon got a neat story all its own: "Coventry" in the Future History. Heinlein eventually makes opportunities to explore love and family and marriage exotica in The Star Beast and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and especially Stranger in a Strange Land.
But in the novel at hand, it's the economic tale that wags the future, and in fact almost smothers it. Other background elements are worked in well enough, a premonition of Heinlein's easy genius at integrating futuristic background with the story line. In later stories, his people live in their world, perfectly naturally.
Is economics really that big a deal in the novel? You can bet a silver dollar to a plugged nickel that it's the game for high stakes in the tale of Perry's immersion in America-2086. The financial lectures prove it: all of Chapters IX and X (42 pages) plus an Appendix to Chapter IX (5 more pages), plus other passages — all on economics, with calculations. More than twenty percent of the novel. The lecture on world history between 1939 and 2086 is more interactive, but still drags despite the novelties of Heinlein's looking-forward from 1938.
This will remind many readers of the novel-length chapter "This Is John Galt Speaking" in Ayn Rand's huge novel Atlas Shrugged. Heinlein's main lecture is much longer in proportion, but without Rand's dramatic buildup or plot centrality.
Heinlein has interesting and challenging things to say about fractional-reserve banking, government managed credit expansion, guaranteed minimum income, and so on; and of course, how these add up to a stable, prosperous, and happy society.
The managed economic equilibrium is beloved by kings, technocrats, and socialists; but to lovers of liberty it is a peace that passeth understanding. Perhaps the best of the Communist theoreticians, Nikolai Bukharin, stated as "historic truth" that:
That was said in January 1929, as Bukharin's forcing from power by Stalin brought within sight Stalin's total grip on the Soviet Union. Later that year Stalin would begin the apotheosis of the managed economy, the devastating "revolution from above" that betrayed the workers and peasants of Russia into a slave empire, with famines and mass executions. The widely-loved and respected Bukharin became a special target for trial and execution.
So even keeping in mind the rough Depression years of the latter 1930s (American unemployment in New Deal 1938 had risen again to its 1933 levels), lovers of freedom may want to investigate freer economic alternatives to central planning. There are better theories than monetarism, better mechanisms than managing credit expansion, and better arrangements for the economy than giving it into the hands of professional managers, financial technocrats such as — who? Who are you going to trust with that tremendous power to choose for you?
When human choice and human action are circumscribed, someone still will decide. The American Constitution was designed to minimize, divide, and render accountable its government — utopian hopes and claims notwithstanding.
Heinlein, like many millions in Russia, Europe, and America, would learn to be warier of utopia in power.
Managing credit expansion, whether to buy men's votes right now or to finance a stable and prosperous utopia, has problems in theory as well as in Soviet practice:
Managed currency yields a free society?
Robert Heinlein in For Us, the Living has an engineer's confidence in the applicability of the engineering sort of solutions to the American economy. Much later, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), he would look at it from the other direction: how free people's individual choices — the subjective theory of value — leads to utopian sexual toleration as well as a rather free Lunar economy, including rather free-market banking and money.
Truly free banking is an under-appreciated alternative to what the government schools and officials and the "public media" insist is so obvious and essential: bank regulation by experts (for your benefit), at least some degree of central planning (of course for your benefit — not repressing, just tuning).
In For Us, the Living, Heinlein also goes into fractional-reserve banking as a means of credit expansion — an area rarely discussed in fiction. Again, the management of this is shifted to the utopian central bankers. And again, it is worth our consideration whether the best alternative, in a free society, to Soviet-style bank management is not semi-free banking, but free banking:
Too much economics?
Too much economics in a review of a science fiction novel, you protest? Ain't this supposed to be a fun story, and by Heinlein after all? — No, not too much economics if it's For Us, the Living.
For the Heinlein fan there are a lot of happy little surprises, some fresh but mostly surprises of recognition. Unfortunately the Platonic lectures stop the story (as a story) absolutely dead in its tracks for many pages, more than once. I don't want you to be disappointed in this book. If you are a casual science fiction reader, or haven't yet read much by Heinlein, please wait.
I do not recommend that anyone read For Us, the Living until they have read a number of other Heinlein works, including at a minimum — and specifically — The Past Through Tomorrow (or all four of its component books of the Future History), Beyond This Horizon, and Stranger in a Strange Land.
Adding The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress would be good; the more of Heinlein you've read beforehand, the better. At least the specific three I list in the preceding paragraph.
If then you are curious about the creative origins of all this, and wish to explore what Heinlein was thinking in 1938 before he exploded into the visible science fiction continuum, then by all means read For Us, the Living. I find it fascinating; and stimulating of thought on the nature of freedom and the right way to keep it.
© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson
ReFuture at Troynovant
Coining at Troynovant
Utopias at Troynovant