For Us, the Living
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Scribner: New York, 2004
263 + vii pages altogether;
novel is 235 pages

June 2004


Back around the time when Sir Thomas More coined the word utopia as the title for his new book, there was a formula for what writers were supposed to do: instruct by pleasing. If you had a plan for a better world, and you wanted people to pay attention, you dressed it up as a story — for example, a story about being cast away on some remote island where people did things differently.

The Twentieth Century produced a few books about similar faraway ideal countries, from Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia to Ayn Rand's Galt's Gulch. From one point of view, L. Frank Baum's Emerald City could fall into this genre. But early science fiction writers had a different location for their better worlds: in the future. Eventually, science fiction writers learned subtler methods than the old guided tour of utopia — encouraged by John W. Campbell's insistence that stories in Astounding had to present a future whose inhabitants took it for granted. But the utopian travelogue was one of the sources of science fiction.

Robert Heinlein's For Us, the Living is exactly that sort of work. Heinlein had ideas about how to create a better world, a world of equal liberty for all, guaranteed annual incomes, universal education in real mathematics and physics, public acceptance of nudity, and sexual relationships without jealousy. In his first attempt to write a book, he could imagine no better way to get them across than to have people explain them. And to give his utopians someone to explain themselves to, he came up with a Man from Mars.

Well, not exactly that. His hero is a man from the past, who falls suddenly into the late 21st Century. How he gets there is only hinted at, but it seems to be a psychic process, like the one that got John Carter to Mars in the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories Heinlein loved. There isn't a physical stasis field, as in his later novel Beyond This Horizon, or a period of suspended animation, as in Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes. Suddenly the hero is there. The jump into the future is only a vehicle.

It's a mark of Heinlein's awakening impulse to fiction that Perry Nelson isn't just a passive recipient, soaking up lectures. Instead, he reads books, and gives his future hosts lectures on the history of their own society, to find out how well he understands it. He plays a game that represents the workings of an economic system. In fact, the game sounds remarkably like the kind of mathematical model of an economy that fills many economics journals now — but Heinlein was describing economic modeling before this sort of thing was fashionable. And at one point, he punches the utopian future in the nose. Even back then, Heinlein had figured out that conflict was what made a story come to life.

It's also interesting that Heinlein gives his future world a history. Its institutions didn't just spring into being fully formed; they were shaped by a series of historical crises. The forces of monopolistic big business and religious authoritarianism have to be defeated. The raw material of drama is there, carefully placed in the backstory so that it doesn't get in the way of the main event, the education of Perry Nelson to accept his new world.

For Us, the Living - Robert A. HeinleinYet Heinlein clearly was not yet ready to be a storyteller. At one point in the novel, he turns to the subject of the future woman who is his hero's primary love interest, and recounts her life and her formative experiences — in a single long footnote. In other words, the very sort of narrative material that would make up the entirety of a realistic novel, and that would be woven into a science fiction story written under the guidelines John W. Campbell laid down for Astounding Science Fiction during his editorship, struck Heinlein as an alien and intrusive element that had to be compressed into narrative summary and encysted in a note before it could be safely fitted into his tour of utopia. Literarily, at this point, the tail of Heinlein's instructive text was still wagging the dog of story.

For Us, the Living is going to be of interest mainly to people who already know Heinlein. It shows very plainly that ideas that showed up decades later, in Stranger in a Strange Land and the books that followed, and were taken as signs that the old man was getting a bit eccentric, were actually things he had thought from the beginning. He just had to wait for the market to catch up to him, so that a publisher would buy what he wanted to write. Readers who care about the growth of Heinlein's views will find this an instructive book.

Libertarians are likely to regard its ideas with ambivalence. Many things that Heinlein puts forth are very close to libertarian views; above all, the argument that no act should be punished as a crime unless it actually damages another person in a measurable way is very close to libertarian views. But Heinlein's economics is decidedly not libertarian. His economic game is a little hard to follow, but if you care to work through it, you will find that Heinlein is saying that depressions come about because, when businesses sell their products, the money goes either into costs or into profits, but the part of their costs that takes the form of interest on bank loans doesn't get spent on anything, resulting in a shortage of purchasing power. The remedy is for the government to create new money to make up for the shortfall. Heinlein's analysis may not be identical to Keynes', but his basic value judgment is the same: consumer spending creates wealth and is good, but private investment causes depressions and is bad. The only true route to wealth is through constantly expanding fiat money.

On the other hand, Heinlein quite accurately predicted a major theme of 21st Century American politics: the conflict between state-imposed religious morality, favored in the South and Midwest, and individual freedom of choice, favored on the coasts and in many larger cities. And his identification of sexual conduct as the "hot button" issue was spot on.

So if you've already read a lot of Heinlein, and want to know more about the growth of his ideas, by all means read this book. The writing has a light enough touch to make it a fairly painless bit of literary history. But if you're thinking of reading your first Heinlein, pick something else — if possible, one of the Scribner juveniles, such as Space Cadet, Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, or Citizen of the Galaxy, in which Heinlein did some of his very best work. The juveniles were also meant to instruct by pleasing, but Heinlein was at the height of his form at pleasing when he wrote them. If they don't persuade you to love Heinlein, nothing will. And if you don't love Heinlein, For Us, the Living isn't the book to make you do so.


© 2004 William H. Stoddard

W.H. Stoddard's review of
Variable Star
by Robert A. Heinlein
  & Spider Robinson

R.W. Franson's review of
For Us, the Living
by Robert A. Heinlein

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