|Cover art by Mark Stutzman|
|FOR US, THE LIVING: A Comedy of Customs
Robert Anson Heinlein
Spider Robinson (Introduction)
Robert James (Afterword)
New York: Scribner, 2004
Written before World War 2, during the years 1938 and 1939, preserved only in manuscript (and then only by happenstance), this is the heretofore unpublished first novel of the late Robert Anson Heinlein, engineer and Naval Academy graduate, known during his lifetime as the dean of American science fiction writers.
In his admiring introduction, Spider Robinson disagrees that it should be called a novel (although Heinlein himself called it that). According to Robinson (page xii), "...this book is essentially a series of Utopian lectures, whose fictional component is a lovely but thin and translucent negligee, only half concealing an urgent desire to seduce. At age thirty-two, Robert was already trying to save the world—and perfectly aware that the world was largely disinclined to be saved." Far be it from me to argue with such a Heinlein authority as Spider Robinson (or to apply the simpler methods he advocates). But For Us, the Living is a work of fiction, and since it has 263 pages, a novel is what I will call it.
There are two classical methods of using fiction to hold the sad times and customs1 of one's own milieu up to critical examination: Bring in a character from a far-distant place (e.g. the hypothetical Man from Mars), or somehow pull him out of a different time. Heinlein has used both of them. I would say he prefers the "man-out-of-time" approach, and that is what he uses here. His protagonist, Perry Nelson, is a naval aviator returning to his base at San Diego, California in July, 1939. He dies in an auto accident and wakes up on a snowy mountainside near Lake Tahoe in January 2086, wearing a different body.
The young woman who finds and rescues him embodies the Utopian aspects of the tale. In essence her world is one where people work at what they want, as much as they want. Those who don't want to work can still get by on "heritage credits". There is little crime. Privacy rights have been given the force of law as well as of custom; gossip is dead and buried. The woman, Diana, is astonished when Perry tells her how Walter Winchell once made a good living out of it.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Heinlein story unless personal modesty had also died. Diana casually goes unclothed inside her mountainside home, even when ordering goods or documents over the "televue". So does a historian friend when he drops in to brief Perry. The sequence of events that filled those 147 years includes a three-year dictatorship in America2 and something like World War 2, involving the Fascist states of Germany and Italy. But the U.S. stays out (and so does Japan, apparently), so it becomes a regional war3 of attrition which ends when Germany suffers economic collapse and Hitler shoots himself.4 After that there is a Forty Years War (1970-2010) in Europe. This begins with squabbles over whether Wallis should become Regent after Edward dies. It is the really devastating conflict, the "one that matters"; it almost depopulates Europe.5 Heinlein postulates a radically isolationist U.S. that virtually seals itself off hermetically from Europe at the war's onset and still, in 2086, has little to do with that ravaged continent.
There are technological miracles, of course. Diana's televue setup gives her full-color, broadband, two-way communication along with FAX and what we would call file download (although Heinlein described it in terms of filmstrips — this was 1938, after all). Indeed, the televue system is nation-wide and so good that Diana uses it to earn her luxurious lifestyle, performing weekly interpretative dance routines that she choreographs herself and broadcasts live from home. (She is as fit and beautiful as you'd expect someone in her occupation to be, quite intelligent, totally devoid of modesty — and, paradoxically, she smokes cigarettes constantly.) Transportation is by means of personal air vehicles; they combine characteristics of airplanes and helicopters, and are powered by "chlorophyll batteries". Her house is another miracle. It has automatic doors with voice-pattern locks, and a bubble blown in place from some sort of polymerizing plastic encloses a garden and swimming pool, providing year-round tropical comfort.
But the key development that led to America becoming a virtual Utopia was economic reform. Here's a portion of how the historian, Master Cathcart, explains it to Perry (pages 61-62):
LaGuardia wanted to set up a real bank that would be owned by and used by the people. But the bankers fought him in every way. They controlled most of the newspapers, owned a good piece of the wealth of the country, and held mortgages of one sort or another on the rest. Their position was very strong in machine politics, too. So they set out to defeat him. And that got him angry. It appears from what we can find out that it was never safe to get the "Little Flower" angry. He jammed his banking bill through by a combination of personality and intimidation and announced to the whole country that he was ready to lend money to all and sundry who might be refused credit at the private banks.6 You see the banks had created panic and a wave of fear by calling loans and refusing to loan more money. . . . LaGuardia became determined to break the private bankers.
In this novel's history, Fiorello LaGuardia, who we know as Mayor of New York City 1934-45, became President after the dictator Malone was assassinated. In addition to reforming the banking system, he built on the groundwork laid by Franklin Roosevelt (before Malone) so that a later president, Winthrop, could legally sever all ties to Europe and thus preserve America from suffering Europe's fate.
The "Little Flower" did succeed in breaking the power of the private bankers. Cathcart's explanation of how he did this, and what resulted, goes on for several more pages. I won't repeat it. The gist of it was that LaGuardia gained the power to regulate fractional reserves. This ultimately led to, in Cathcart's words (page 64), "an economic improvement as a result of the Banking Act which had decreased the spread between production and consumption by lowering the percentage of the cost charges, in a commercial article, unavailable for purchasing power." When Perry says he doesn't follow this, Cathcart advises him, "I suggest that you note it down and wait until you study the current economic system. You were probably educated in the conventional economic theories of your period which were magnificent and most ingenious, but—if you will pardon me saying so—all wrong."
This is all in Chapter IV, specifically the forty pages from 51 through 91 — what might be called the "Cathcart Chapter". And here I wholeheartedly agree with Spider Robinson: These pages are a thinly disguised lecture on political economics. I only wish I understood it better; obviously I need some more study myself.
Soon Diana takes Perry touring to San Francisco and elsewhere in her personal flyer, letting him pilot the ship when away from traffic. (It is of course capable of handling itself on autopilot.) In due course they fall in love. Things go swimmingly until Bernard, an old dance partner and lover of Diana's, shows up to rehearse a new routine. Perry is mightily offended, a reaction Diana finds incomprehensible. He distracts himself with record-tapes as they work — until Bernard kisses Diana after she perfects a difficult move. Then, unable to control himself, he offends Bernard by ordering him out and finally by punching him out. No one but Perry is surprised when Bernard leaves and reports this major violation of custom immediately. Perry is tried, found guilty, and remanded to the State Correction Hospital at Tahoe for treatment.
This treatment, like the trial that ordered it, is very civilized. Diana is even allowed to stay with him, since she chooses to. We see the nature of the therapy in conversations Perry has with hospital staff, and I must say it is impressive. But that "therapy" is a series of Socratic dialogues, and its true target, of course, is the reader. Then comes another lecture on economics, one I understood much better. Everything turns on the definition of money and the fact that, in Perry's time, production always outstripped consumption.7
Well, as you might expect, Perry is cured without much trouble. Diana is strong motivation; and so is the rocket proving grounds just east of Flagstaff he was allowed to visit. He wants to go into space! (It wouldn't be a Heinlein story without this element.) After some more discussion of politics and economics, he enters pilot training, earns his license in three months, and makes a major contribution to fuels technology. The tale ends with him closing the hatch on his ship, ready for the giant leap around the Moon.
It is a reasonably well-crafted story. It is far from Heinlein's best work, in part because it lays the lecturing on so thick, in part because the technology is not as plausible as it is in later works. Still, I found it enjoyable. The social theory seems persuasively presented, and the commentaries by Robinson and James add greatly to its value. I'll recommend it as a read, but not necessarily as a "keeper" — unless you are a true Heinlein fan.
Interjection: I wonder what Heinlein would make of our latest "flap", in which, during the half-time entertainment for Super Bowl XXXIX, Justin Timberlake pulled off a flap of Janet Jackson's costume, exposing her right breast to the viewing public for approximately 1.5 seconds. Actually, I think I know: he would laugh in disbelief at this latest evidence of our hypocritical prudishness, and at the outraged threats of lawsuits and sponsorship withdrawals which resulted.
There was one other thing that distracted from my enjoyment of For Us, the Living: its sloppy editing. For more on that, follow the link below.