Robert Heinlein qualifies as one of my favorite authors of all time, and certainly my favorite science fiction author. Part of the reason for that is the quality of his writing and depth of his characters — you can’t get any deeper and more complex than Lazarus Long, a man who cannot die — and part of is because, as a recent Reason Magazine article pointed out he was willing to challenge conventional thinking in politics, religion, social customs, and just about every other topic. Since I encountered Heinlein right around the time I was first becoming interested in libertarian ideas, the attraction was quite obvious.
Which is what makes For Us, The Living so interesting. It was Heinlein’s first novel-length work and, until 2004, it had gone unpublished largely at the request of the author and his wife Virginia. It was only after Virginia Heinlein died in 2003 that the Heinlein estate approved the release of the book.
The plot of the book is similar to many other science fiction novels of the early 20th Century. A man from the past, in this case 1939, finds himself catapulted nearly 150 years in the future to the year 2086. The majority of the book, which consists largely of dialogs between our time traveler and other characters, takes the form of dialogs where the man of 1939 attempts to understand the many ways in which the world has changed. This allows Heinlein to put forward his ideas on issues ranging from politics to religion to banking, male-female relationships, and individual rights.
If you’re familiar with Heinlein, there’s alot about this book that will seem familiar to you. There are elements of Time Enough For Love in his discussions about social customs and male-female relationships in 2086, elements of Stranger in a Strange Land in his discussion about religion, and elements of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in his politics.
There are some differences too, though. This isn’t the same Robert Heinlein who called himself a radical libertarian in the 1960s. This is the guy who had spent time with, and was a fan of Upton Sinclair, and avowed socialist, and there are elements of this early version of Heinlein’s political and economic views in what he has to say about economics and banking.
You may have noticed that I haven’t talked much about the plot. That’s because it’s really pretty thin. For the most part, the characters and the environment they are in serve as a stage upon which Heinlein can put forward his early version of a utopian society. For that reason, this is not the novel to read if you’ve haven’t read Heinlein before. This is really something that will be of interest mostly to fans of Heinlein who will recognize in this first novel elements of what was to come. And, if the writing isn’t up to par in some places and the characters are thin, maybe that explains why Heinlein choose to never have it published even after he had achieved fame.
For Us, The Living is best viewed, then, as the beginning of what was to become a truly amazing writing career.