Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On Robert Heinlein's Lost First Book

For Us the Living was the first novel written by Robert A Heinlein -- an author who went on to have a long career as one of the most influential Science Fiction writers of the 20th century (and a particular favorite of mine). It was written in 1938 (or possibly 1939) but I have only just finished reading it because it was lost twice -- once by the world and once by me.

Heinlein was never able to sell For Us the Living in its original form and he kept its existence something of a secret. One reason is undoubtedly that he liked to claim that he had sold everything he ever wrote and, while it is arguably true that he "sold" For Us the Living -- he reused ideas and plot elements from it repeatedly for other works that he did sell -- he probably found his resume more to his liking with that element omitted. At the time of his death, and later, at the death of his wife, Virginia, they both believed that all copies had been destroyed. Later a review copy turned up. With the permission of Heinlein's estate it was published last year and a copy was given to me for Christmas. My copy was put in a drawer when the Christmas stuff was put away and the book was lost again for several months.

Having finally found my copy, and eagerly read the book, I can now highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Heinlein's work. But it shouldn't be the first Heinlein book you read -- or the second... or even the fifth... maybe it would be OK as the seventh or eighth but Tenth or later would be best. This isn't because it is worse than his other books. (It is worse than his other books, mind you, but that's not why it shouldn't be first.) The reason is that while a "Sense of Wonder" is the main pleasure of his other books the main pleasure in For Us the Living is the "Sense of Deja Vu."

Reading his first novel one can not help but conclude that Robert Heinlein thought broadly before the thought deeply. In his first book he was already thinking about all the subjects that he would ever write about -- ideas, events and characters that would be central to his later work were all there in embryonic form. He was already thinking about all of these later topics but in no case had he gotten very far in the process. Reading For Us the Living is like eating uncooked cookie dough -- all the ingredients are there but in need a bit more time in the oven before they are ready to eat. [If you like eating cookie dough please supply your own simile for something unfinished and unsatisfactory.]

The story is a simple, utopian science-fantasy, quite similar to H. G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes, a book that Heinlein very much admired. It starts with our hero, Perry Nelson -- a retired Naval Aviator, having an accident in which his car goes off a cliff by the seaside. He expects to die but instead he wakes up 150 years in the future in the snow. He is taken in by Diana, a beautiful girl living in seclusion who, of course, falls in love with him, as he does with her. Things go fine until the arrival of one of the young lady's business associates (possibly a former lover) of whom Perry is insanely jealous. Our hero punches the guy in the nose and, charged with antisocial behavior, is sentenced to psychological counseling. The counseling goes swimmingly and our hero, cured of his old-fashioned ideas of romantic jealousy, develops a flair for rocketry and is selected to pilot the first rocket to the Moon. Then... Um... OOPS! I seem to have told you the whole plot! Sorry.

In addition to having no plot to speak of, another thing about For Us The Living will strike Heinlein's fans as odd: its utopianism -- social and, especially, economic. To understand this aspect you must remember that in 1938 Heinlein was turning to writing fiction having recently failed at politics. According to Heinlein his final race was a close thing, other accounts suggest less so, but in any event, he had lost. Heinlein was a friend of the novelist Upton Sinclair and, in addition to his own campaign, had worked on Sinclair's unsuccessful run for Governor of California in 1934.

In the 1930s most intellectuals were socialists of some sort. Sinclair certainly was. He had a somewhat spotty relationship with the Socialist party--sometimes very influential, other times ostracized-- but the disagreements were seldom about theory. His opponents in his race for governor identified his EPIC program (End Poverty in California) as being socialistic but Sinclair denied it. Sinclair's opponents had a point. The odd monetary theory that, supposedly, differentiated EPIC from classical socialism may have offered a plausible straw to grasp at during the Great Depression but it seems merely peculiar today.

But it was during the Great Depression that Heinlein was working on that campaign. As one of the theorists who wrote the campaign material he was all about those odd theories. He threw himself into the campaigning and he believed it all. It was only later, after he followed Sinclair into retirement from politics, that he had time to step back and look at the theories anew. He seems to have changed his mind, or at least developed major doubts, in a matter of only a few years -- but not before he had written his utopian novel, For Us the Living, in which he presents concepts similar to those of EPIC as the reason that poverty has been eliminated in his ideal future.

He hints at that change of mind in an interview he gave in 1973 --
I got over looking for final solutions a good, long time ago because once you get this point shored up, something breaks out somewhere else. The human race gets along by the skin of its teeth, and its been doing so for some hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Human solutions are never final solutions, as least as far as the history of the race up to now indicates.
The fascinating thing about that quote (and this must have appealed to Heinlein) is that it is a very literal statement of the facts -- he tried looking for final answers and gave up -- but it is a statement that everyone (including the interviewer, J Neil Shulman) takes for a figure of speech.

At another point in the same interview he is asked about two of his books -- Methuselah's Children, written a few years after For Us the Living (in 1941), and its sequel, Time Enough for Love, written 32 years later. The interviewer asks how the sequel would have been different if it had been written immediately after the first novel. Again, Heinlein's answer talks about his views changing over time --
Look, I've lived more than a generation--in human terms--between those two books. It would be surprising if I hadn't changed some, grown some, changed my evaluations a bit in the course of that time, but in any case I did not write it then. And these are works of fiction.

That last sentence "And these are works of fiction" is very interesting. One of the running themes of Heinlein's work is that almost all of his novels have a calm, reasonable, philosophical character that readers assume to speak with Heinlein's voice. Always fatherly -- and often literally the father of one of the characters -- this character always seems to have things figured out. Heinlein always denied that these characters were autobiographical in the sense that they presented his point of view. This denial most likely stemmed from a reluctance to be tied down. His characters can speak persuasively, with absolute conviction on any subject--and not put Heinlein on the record.

For Us the Living has several of these persuasive, authoritative characters who are brought in to expound on different topics. One talks mostly about politics and another about economics and what we now call "lifestyle" issues. If we take these characters to reflect Heinlein's ideas at the time and view them in the context of his overall career two things stand out sharply. The first is that his economic theories changed over time -- the quasi-Socialist monetary theories disappeared after FUTL and were largely contradicted in his later work. The other thing that stands out is that, ignoring the economic component, his politics changed not at all. Robert Heinlein was a libertarian in 1939 and sections of FUTL could have come from Murray Rothbard's Libertarian Manifesto. Heinlein changed over time from a left-libertarian SF writer to a right-libertarian SF writer but libertarian SF was the fixed pivot that his ideology rotated around.

Some of Heinlein's best books are his novels for young adults and Heinlein's recurring "father" character is much of the reason that many of his fans are so loyal, especially if they started reading him at an early age. Most of my close friends count Heinlein as one of the key influences in forming their personal philosophies. I know I do. Much of the specific advice that Heinlein's fatherly figures hand out is sound, although some parts are better than others. But the message behind the message is always the same: If you educate yourself, take life seriously and think about what you are doing you can take ownership of your life.

It is this individualistic thread that underlies Heinlein's reputation as a writer of ideas as well as a teller of entertaining stories. His characters care passionately about ideas. They talk about them. They act on them. They may disagree on particular issues but his protagonists never doubt the primacy of individual reason in deciding correct behavior. For many readers of his "juvenile" novels Heinlein offers their first glimpse of the empowerment of educated reason. It's heady stuff for a teenager to realize that adulthood is not the accumulation of a sufficient number of years, but is properly understood as the end result of study and reflection.

This Heinleinian notion that the path to liberation is through careful attention to one's homework is fully developed in For Us the Living. Perry, our hero, spends most of the book studying Heinlein's "future history". From time to time other characters will come by for a discussion that amounts to a pop quiz, and then it's back to the microfilm reader for Perry. Like all Heinlein novels the book is filled with ideas -- a bit too much H G Wells, Rousseau and William Morris for my taste and not nearly enough of the Burkean sensibleness that would follow a few years later -- but it differs from Heinlein's other works in that Heinlein forgot to give the characters ways show the ideas in action. Heinlein's best books are about characters who act on their convictions. The characters in For Us the Living might have done so if the plot had called on them to act at all.

Leafing through an old book once I came across an essay on Russian history that my grandfather had written in high school. His teacher had written a note at the top suggesting that the essay was deficient in scholarship and, reading the essay I could see the teacher's point. But my grandfather went on to be the Dean of Law at Stetson University and one of the founders of the American Bar Association so, presumably, his scholarship improved. Robert A Heinlein was considerably younger than I am now when he wrote For Us the Living and neither his philosophy nor his writing skills were mature but, if you are interested in Heinlein (as I am) it is a fascinating book because it contains all of the elements of his later work in embryonic form, and also because it gives a point of reference to see how fast he improved as a writer.

The Heinlein quotes above are from The Robert Heinlein Interview and other Heinleiniana by J. Neil Shulman. (Pulpless.com, Inc.) and I will close with a snippit that my friend Brad Linaweaver wrote for the introduction:
...for those of us who burn for technological marvels and want freedom to enjoy them instead of being slaved to a technocratic Big Brother, Heinlein created the blueprint that may get us to a better world. Not Utopia, because he taught us that such a dream truly is nowhere. A better world, on the other hand, is not impossible. It is simply hard to achieve.

These two books should be read by all fans of Robert A Heinlein.
If you are not yet a fan keep scrolling.

You might want to read these first...

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