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Road RAH


By John Clute

E verything about this novel is interesting, even the experience of reading it. For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs was written in 1938-1939; it is Robert A. Heinlein's first extended piece of fiction, and was never published because in 1939 it was not simply unsold: It was probably unpublishable. Over the 20th century, didactic novels of a utopian bent had been increasingly perceived as unmarketable (dystopias like Huxley's Brave New World [1932] or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949] do very much better); but more specifically, For Us, the Living promulgates the kind of arguments about sex, religion, politics and economics that normally gain publication through fringe presses, not the trade publishers Heinlein submitted his manuscript to, Random House and Macmillan (which did all the same publish B.F. Skinner's Walden Two in 1948).

For us, though, in 2004, For Us, the Living, as far as its arguments go, is pure Heinlein; indeed, because almost every radical notion he ever generated appears here in utero, the book rewrites our sense of Heinlein's entire career; and because Heinlein's career, as we understood it, has always seemed expressive of the nature of American SF from 1939 to 1966, this small, slightly stumblebum first novel rewrites our understanding of those years, especially the early ones, when John W. Campbell Jr. was attempting to shape the nascent genre into a weapon of future-purification.

It has certainly been well known that Heinlein (unlike the younger Isaac Asimov) found Campbell's personality and diktats less than persuasive, but the degree to which he corralled his imaginative intellect, in order to help create the SF that missed the boat, has never I think really been guessed. In a nutshell, the ideas about sex and privacy and government that inch into view—just a little pruriently, perhaps—through the finger-wagging pages of For Us, the Living are exactly the ideas that the professional writer Heinlein only let himself begin to utter again in 1959, with Starship Troopers. I'm not about to suggest that if Heinlein had been able to publish openly in the pages of Astounding in 1939, SF would have gotten the future right; I would suggest, however, that if Heinlein, and his colleagues, had been able to publish adult SF in Astounding and its fellow journals, then SF might not have done such a grotesquely poor job of prefiguring something of the flavor of actually living here at the onset of 2004.

Watching the Competent Man being born

A short notice of this text cannot begin to articulate the minutiae of similtude and difference between early Heinlein and late. Central to both periods is the concept of the absolute privacy of the individual citizen of America; as the new Constitution of 2028 states:

Every citizen is free to perform any act which does not hamper the equal freedom of another. No law shall forbid the performance of any act, which does not damage the physical or economic welfare of any other person. No act shall constitute a violation of a law valid under this provision unless there is such damage, or immediate present danger of such damage resulting from that act.

This is a radical doctrine, as Heinlein clearly argues, for it means

the end of the blue laws, and a grisly unconscious symbiosis between the underworld and the organized churches—for the greatest bulwark of the underworld were always the moral creeds of the churches.

And so forth. These two quotes, which appear 200 pages apart in the text, are, as one might put it, just like Heinlein. The consequences, direct and cognate, which For Us, the Living doesn't really go very far to dramatize, run from the absolute and genuine separation of church and state, to the liberation of women, to very widespread private nudity, and to what we call, in this world, "open marriage."

The story through which these arguments are put—they include long lessons in Social Credit—begins typically. A young man named Perry from 1939 is, more or less magically, transported to 2087, where he learns about the brave new world which has evolved. He is necessarily as stupid as most of his fellow visitors to utopia—else there would be no reason to tell him everything down to the last detail—but gradually changes into a Competent Man, piloting the first spaceship around the moon in a slingshot ending, though before he gets Competent he has to spend a while in a psychological rehabilitation unit after biffing the nude male friend of his new nude lover Diana because he has failed to grasp the implications of privacy as applied to sexual freedom. The language in which this is all laid down (the word "breasts" never appears, though "breast"—designating a vague frontal region—shows up lots) is perhaps the most poignant residue of the claptrap writers had to grapple with just a few decades ago.

Robert James' afterword to For Us, the Living, which is far more useful than Spider Robinson's rather unfortunate introduction, provides some personal background. Heinlein's second wife, Leslyn (they were married in 1932 and divorced in 1948), was a political radical (Heinlein's enthusiasm for Social Credit and Upton Sinclair comes clearer), an advocate of nudism (which they practiced with Theodore Sturgeon and others) and a proponent of open marriage (which they practiced). As the biographical note on page 261 indicates, she clearly "inspired many of his female characters." (That Spider Robinson gives Heinlein's third wife, Virginia, entire credit as muse for his early work, and does not mention Leslyn at all, is one of the several oddnesses of his introduction.) When For Us, the Living failed to sell, Heinlein immediately sat down and wrote "Lifeline," which sold immediately to Campbell, beginning the career he only really escaped from in 1959.

The Heinlein that might have been

Robinson imagines Heinlein having an epiphany at this point, through the realization that he was a storyteller, an SF storyteller:

In the terminology of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, he took on his Aspect, and raised up his Attribute, and was born a god. In that moment, he ceased being Bob Heinlein, shipwrecked sailor and unemployed engineer, and became RAH, the Dean of Modern Science Fiction—the Man Who Sold the Moon—Lazarus Long, who cannot die.

I myself prefer to imagine that some sort of consolatory sense of empowerment may have braced the young Heinlein in 1939, a realization that—even in a market dominated by the redneck bluenose Campbell—he could tell and sell Story. Which is enough. The rest is loss. The rest is the knowledge (it may be) that he could not populate his Future History with real people, that the Future History he was about to create would be a cartoon. That instead of being a great writer to the world, he had a chance of becoming RAH to the gang.

There are a few more duff moments in Spider Robinson's boyish intro. Here is the first paragraph in its entirety:

Most authorities [including the knowledgeable Dr. James, who discovered the manuscript of For Us, the Living, and who wrote the Afterword] are calling this book Robert A Heinlein's first novel. I avoid arguing with authorities—it's usually simpler to shoot them—but I think it is something far more important than that, myself, and infinitely more interesting.

We can perhaps put to one side the unfortunate echo here of a famous response by Hermann Goering to questions of culture, as Spider Robinson does repudiate his impulse to shoot authorities in the following paragraph; and we can perhaps pass over the moment, a couple of sentences further down, where he informs us that When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), published one year after The War of the Worlds, comes from "the last stage" of H.G. Wells' career, after he had given up trying to do Story (a judgment which is itself a nonsense). But no. We can't really let this go, because it is in fact relevant (it is, to begin with, the sort of thing an "authority" might not have buggered up). It is also relevant, now that Robinson's confusions have been purged, to remember that, at the end of the 19th century, Wells could assume that the readers of his earlier Scientific Romances would have no difficulty assimilating, in When the Sleeper Wakes, a utopian discourse woven into Story.

In 1939, Heinlein found that the world had changed (certainly the utopia, as a literary form, had become nearly extinct); and in 2004, the Futurama simplicities of life in a utopian novel seem even less usable. So For Us, the Living does not work as a utopia, because the formularies of utopia no longer make us feel urgent. The point of For Us, the Living, in the year of its publication, is something rather different, as Robinson, when he settles down to work, does make clear: With its privacy anthems, its sex, its nudity, its rolling roads, its Coventry, its lust for space, it is everything Heinlein later made become. It is also, sadly, something else. It is the road not dreamed, a rage of making not made (RAH's famous superba about his ostensible peers surely comes, in part, from his knowledge, throughout the 1940s, that he could have done so much better; and the bullying solipsistic disappointedness of his late work might be explained by the fact that he had had to bottle himself up so long, and that by 1960 or so the world had lost him).

He missed the train. So did we. He was the train we did not catch.


John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times. The Washington Post, Omni, F&SF and elsewhere. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays, and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes almost all of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Forthcoming is An Historical Dictionary of Horror Literature.




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