For us, the Living, Robert A. Heinlein

Pocket, 2004, 329 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-9154-8

Wonders are all around us if we know where to look, and so that’s how the wonderful capitalistic system conspired to allow me to buy, in very late 2004, a paperback copy of a brand-new Heinlein novel at the local grocery store. Imagine that.

I may never fully understand what possessed me to got check out the paltry selection of books at the neighbourhood Loblaws during an uncharacteristic salad-dressing-and-soy-sauce buying expedition, but there it was, in a smart hip cover: For us, the Living, by Robert A. Heinlein, “the author of Starship Troopers”. Imagine my thrill at dropping the novel onto the conveyor belt at the checkout. “Found everything you were looking for?” asked the clerk as per store guidelines. Yeah, I was tempted to answer, I’m buying a brand-new Heinlein paperback and it tickles me.

It’s not as if I hadn’t heard about For us, the Living previously. The unexpected discovery of a copy of the original 1939 manuscript, shortly before the 2003 Worldcon, was widely discussed in the SF&F field. Reviews seemed unanimous in saying that it wasn’t a very good novel, but it was a mesmerizing piece of work for all Heinlein fans.

I quickly found out what they meant by that. Yes, For us, the Living is a shoddy novel. A study of a 1939 man somehow thrown in a weird and wonderful new future, it’s not dissimilar to the utopian musings of H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Structurally, it’s what I’d call a walkthrough novel, designed to show the audience the achievements of a new age: the plot is loosely arranged to allow the hero to explore facet after facet of Heinlein’s imagined 2086, a world where everything seems to be working remarkably well.

As fiction, thus, For us, the Living isn’t a marvel of plotting, or even of characterization: Our protagonist is designed to be a bland stand-in for the readers. The heroine is saddled with -believe it or not- a three-page footnote explaining her life history. (Yikes!) Dialogue is often of the “As You Know, Bob” variety. (Or, more accurately, “Bob, you ignorant twentieth-century dweeb, this is what you should know.”)

This being said, the fiction may not be gripping, but there’s no mistaking Heinlein’s gift for compelling prose. Even at its most didactic (and believe me, few things are more didactic than a chess game being used to demonstrate the fundamentals of Social Credit), For us, the Living retains an essential interest: It’s just plain fun to read. And some predictions ended up hitting surprisingly close to the mark. Take a look at this quote, for instance: “…if those bankers who were killed in the raid on Manhattan had expected to be bombed and gassed, there wouldn’t have been any war, But they didn’t. They thought the war would be fought far away by the professionals.” [P.88] Hmm!

For Heinlein fans (and I classify myself as only a mild one), For us, the Living is a virtual treasure chest of early discoveries. Pay attention, and you’ll find the early outline of Heinlein’s “Future History”. Nehemiah Scudder is mentioned by name, as is Coventry. Rolling roads are introduced. Open marriages caps off the novel’s last chapter. If none of these things mean anything to you, well, you’re not the target audience for the book.

No, the target audience for the book is composed of SF fans who just want a look at Heinlein’s first finished manuscript, and who will nod in agreement when Spider Robinson, in his introduction, refers to the novel as Heinlein’s “literary DNA.” The kind of SF fans who, upon reading the last line of Robert James’ excellent afterword, “A clean sweep at last.”, will know exactly which of Heinlein’s law of writing is being invoked, and what it ultimately means. The kind of SF fans who, in considering the meaning of “a clean sweep at last”, will feel a rush of blood to their heads and maybe even a dab of salty water in their eyes. A clean sweep at last.

Oh yes, marvels all around us.

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