by Robert A. Heinlein



262pp/$25.00/January 2004

For Us, the Living

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In 1947, Robert A. Heinlein published his debut novel, the classic juvenile Rocketship Galileo.   Many Heinlein scholars, however, knew that his first novel was written nearly a decade earlier, although it failed to find a publisher.  Now, several years after Heinlein’s own death, and only a year after the death of his widow, Virginia Heinlein, Scribner’s has brought out the first edition of Heinlein’s long lost first novel, For Us, the Living.

The novel focuses on Perry Nelson, a Naval airman who finds himself living 150 years in his own future and adjusting to the different mores of the futuristic America.  Apparently injured or killed in a car accident on June 12, 1939, Nelson awakens in the body of Gordon 755-82 in 2086.  Heinlein turns his attention to Nelson’s attempt to get acclimatized to the new world in which he finds himself.

Much of the novel is given over to talking head discourse, in which Perry, for instance, will explain what civilization in the mid-twentieth century was like, always taking a somewhat negative view of his own period.  One of the other characters then explains how things are done in 2086 and both tend to agree that everything is better in the future.  Of course, this is somewhat typical of much dystopian/utopian literature, but Heinlein fails to provide much action to support the presented views.

Perhaps because of the sixty-five year lag time, Heinlein’s technological predictions which came true are highlighted in the reader’s mind.  Heinlein’s description, for example, of the televue, a descendant of the television, holds strong similarities to the internet (also described by Murray Leinster in “A Logic Called Joe” (1946) and Lester del Rey in “Helen O’Loy” (1938)).  However, as Nelson points out, many of the items he sees in 2086 were available in more primitive form in 1939 and an engineer would have knowledge of them.

Few readers will come to For Us, the Living without some preconceived notions of Heinlein’s point of view and style, and For Us, the Living will support all of those preconceived notions, no matter how disparate or seemingly contradictory.  For instance, readers who see Heinlein as misogynistic will point to Nelson’s description of gender roles from the 1930s to support their point while those who see Heinlein as a strong supporter of women will have Nelson’s savior, Diana, to hold up as a role model, each reader convinced that his own interpretation is the stronger one.

For Us, the Living traces its ancestry back to the utopian novels of H.G. Wells and other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors.  Although other science fiction writers have written similar types of novels, the style of presentation Heinlein used in For Us, the Living is definitely dated and surpassed by the publication ten years after its composition by George Orwell’s masterful dystopia, 1984.

Unfortunately, the novel will mostly be of interest to the most devout Heinlein scholars and fans.  It forms a polemic which demonstrates all the excesses of Heinlein’s later novels without the craft which he perfected in his first decade of publishing short stories (his first short story, “Life-line” was published several months after For Us, the Living was written.

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.

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