Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review - For Us, the Living by Robert A. Heinlein

Short review: Perry falls forward into the future and finds a utopia built on nonsense.

Jump to the future
Find a utopian world
Too bad it's nonsense

Full review: This novel was not published until after Heinlein's death, but was written by him in 1938 or 1939, and consequently has been called Heinlein's first novel. When reading the novel it quickly becomes apparent why no publisher wanted to release it when Heinlein originally tried to sell it: the book simply isn't that good. It would also have been unsalable in the 1930s with its open attitude towards sex, and almost offhanded acceptance of lesbianism. The story, such as it is, follows Perry who is catapulted from a fatal accident in 1936 forward 150 years to the U.S.A. of the future. The reader is then treated to a badly written utopian fantasy that only makes sense if you assume that the entire book is merely Perry's dying brain spinning an elaborate delusion in the last seconds of his life.

The novel shows glimpses of ideas that Heinlein would flesh out and make interesting in other books. One can see the first elements of his future history here, including Neimiah Scudder, the development of Coventry as a place to store disaffected exiles, the use of psychology to treat criminals rather than using a penal system, and so on. Many of Heinlein's ideas are here in embryonic form as well: The idea that government should leave people's social relations solely up to them, an advocacy for an open "free-love" type arrangement between the sexes, and so on.

But the novel is saddled with characters so wooden that you get splinters reading about them. The novel is so didactic that much of it is nothing more than characters giving long lectures on the "correct" ways of doing things. The economic system presented in the novel is ludicrous in the extreme (and is clearly one that only an engineer could love) that has so many things wrong with it that it would be difficult to list them all (some of the most glaring are that the system presented is a recipe for hyperinflation, demonstrates an abject lack of knowledge concerning how banks work, and clearly has no grasp of the time value of money). The social system presented (in the same heavy handed moralizing manner as the economic system) is just as silly, requiring characters to behave in inhuman ways to make it work. The novel is almost as annoying as Bellamy's Looking Backward or Star Trek: The Next Generation, littered with repeated statements about how the humans of the future are so superior to those who lived in the past (the extended lecture supposedly demonstrating why Congress is so much better run in 2086 is simultaneously absurd and offensive).

One element that is clear is that the young Heinlein had an almost child-like faith in the ability of government to cure all ills. Political campaigns are regulated by the government, which makes politicians better. The government takes over banks, which makes them better. The government runs the economy on an engineering basis, which makes it better, and on and on.

The end result is a novel that is boring to read when it isn't making your head hurt with the incredibly silly ideas that are presented as being incredibly good ideas. The book is really only of interest to a Heinlein fan looking to see the development of Heinlein's thought process. For anyone else, this book is simply not worth the time it takes to read it.

2005 Locus Award Nominees

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