Wednesday, May 4, 2011

For Us, the Living

For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs by Robert A. Heinlein.

This is Heinlein's unpublished first novel, written between 1938 and 1939. It was published in 2004 with an introduction by Spider Robinson and an afterward by Robert James. As a novel, it is simply dreadful. But that's because it isn't actually a novel. It's a lecture about a Henleinesque utopia with only the thinnest veneer of fiction to lubricate its passage down the reader's throat.

Some will say that's an accurate description of most of Heinlein's novels, especially the later ones. To which I would reply, "Yes, but For Us, the Living is even more so."

Here's the set-up. On July 12, 1939, Perry Nelson, an engineer, is forced off the road by an oncoming car. Thrown clear from his car toward the beach below, Perry smacks into a rock and loses consciousness. When he comes to, he finds himself in the middle of a snow storm being rescued by a gorgeous woman in a parka. And it's now January 2086. It sounds like the beginning of a decent story -- I don't really mind that the hero's time travel is accomplished pretty much the same way that John Carter got to Mars. But after that there's really no plot.

When not smoking, eating, or ogling his naked hostess (people in 2086 don't wear clothes indoors), our hero spends his time catching up on 150 years of history either by viewing historical recordings or listening as other characters lecture him about how the world has improved since 1939, thanks to changes in the political and economic system. (The economics is explained in exhaustive detail.) Religion has been pretty much stamped out, and behavior is governed by a code of customs which pretty much boils down to citizens being free to do whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt other citizens. (There is also a strict taboo against breaching personal privacy.)

Naturally, our hero and his hostess, Diana, fall in love and marry, though Perry must first be cured of his primitive sexual jealousy (more lectures!) before they can live happily ever after in a more or less open marriage. Oh, and then he gets to pilot the first rocket launch to orbit the moon and take pictures of its far side. Why? Because it's there. The End.

During the the Golden Age of Science Fiction (which, as we all know, is around 14), I read and enjoyed many of Heinlein's novels. (In fact, I still reread them fondly today.) But they were his early novels, the ones aimed at a largely juvenile audience, in which storytelling was the predominant element and philosophizing was a minor component which, at least to a youngster's mind, added a bit of depth to the author's world-building .

Not so, the later novels, not so! I will always regret that I read Stranger in a Strange Land all the way through. I kept hoping that somehow it would all come right in the end and that the final payoff would make everything else worthwhile. I never made that mistake again. Though I sampled some of his later novels, I never felt obliged to finish them and promptly bailed out at the first sign of heavy-handedness and structural ineptitude.

So why did I read For Us, the Living? Well, I was interested in it as an historical artifact, a sort of archaeological dig into the prehistory of the Heinlein universe. It was fun to see how many elements in this early work turned up in his later novels and short stories: rolling roads; self-lighting cigarettes; alternate forms of marriage; a strong individualism; banishing lawbreakers to "Coventry;" gorgeous, intelligent females who nonetheless obligingly fall for the not overly bright hero; and the wise old man who pontificates on how the universe really works, to name a few.

I had always assumed that the things I disliked about the later novels (such as long didactic screeds on government, religion, philosophy, and sex) were a later development resulting from the author's downhill slide into ill health and a subsequent loss of writing ability. But it seems that Heinlein had them in mind from the beginning, and I assume that they simply didn't make it into his earlier works (especially the juveniles) because of editorial restrictions from his publishers.

So, worth a read if you've read Heinlein in the past and are interested in roots and origins. Otherwise, give it a miss.

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