For Us, The Living, by Robert A. Heinlein

for-us-the-living-by-robert-a-heinlein coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Scribner
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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In 1939 Robert Heinlein started writing SF short stories, and his career never looked back. However the year before he had written a novel-length book which was rejected by two publishers and subsequently forgotten. Now it’s about to be published at last. Should everyone be getting excited?

Perry Nelson dies in a car crash in 1939. He wakes up in 2086, in a different body; no one seems especially surprised or interested. Various people spend time explaining their world to him, at considerable length. He offends against the local mores (called Customs) and has his atavistic tendencies cured by rehabilitation. Finally he invents a better rocket fuel and is last seen taking off for the moon.

I don’t normally divulge the whole of the plot in a review, and in most novels it would take more than five short sentences. But this isn’t an ordinary novel; perhaps it isn’t really a novel at all. According to the Afterword, Heinlein had spent the previous four years in politics, in particular promoting a radical economic policy to get the U.S. out of the Depression. He was unsuccessful. He turned to writing partly to boost his own economy, but also, it appears, to continue his political war by other means. So a considerable portion of the book is devoted to an economist lecturing our hero about what was wrong with the U.S. economy in 1939, and how much better things were managed now that they used the method Heinlein had been propounding (in case you’re interested, essentially the government prints enough money to allow consumption to match production — fine for the deflated 1930s, less useful since).

That is one hefty info-dump. Future history provides the other; not the usual history-as-story-background, but history with a ‘this is what will happen if we’re not careful’ feel. This scored one near hit with weapons of mass destruction in Manhattan, though in December 2003 (hey, that’s now!). He gets all the rest totally wrong, and for WWII risibly so, entirely ignoring the USSR and Japan. In fact for the whole of this history the USSR gets hardly a mention, and Asia and Africa none at all. Europe is virtually depopulated by war and famine. Nobody seems to care.

Other predictions are a mixed bag. Women’s liberation, sexual permissiveness and an equivalent of DVDs are definite wins, but there are no computers, and reaching the moon is still an aspiration. However the book is much more interesting for the way it predicts Heinlein’s own future: meet here for the first time rolling roads, refreshers, Coventry and more; even totally off the wall ideas like kilts becoming fashionable. And one that I don’t recall from his other works: the concept of a strict separation between a person’s public and private life, the latter being protected even for the famous and newsworthy (All those in favor….).

So the book is an awkward hybrid of SF and polemic, and it isn’t difficult to see why it remained unpublished. Furthermore the characterization is skimpy even for the 1930s (the character best depicted is a cat); the plot is minuscule, with no attempt made to justify or explain Perry’s resurrection; and the behavior of the characters often fails to ring true. And yet, somehow, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: the writing is good enough, and the plot just sufficient, to keep the reader’s attention even during the duller parts. Add the fun of playing ‘Spot the Sequel’ (“…Wasn’t that bit in ‘Beyond This Horizon’?… and there goes ‘Coventry’…”) and I found the book surprisingly easy to read. Only a Heinlein completist would rate it a must-buy, but most people who enjoy his SF will find enough of interest to warrant a look.

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