For Us the Living :
Last Piece of the Heinlein Puzzle
by Mark Koerner
Some readers know by now that the manuscript of Robert A. Heinlein’s long-lost first novel has been found and published as For Us, the Living. In all likelihood it will also be Heinlein’s last novel; and even if it is bad science fiction, it demonstrates once again that Heinlein followed perfectly the left-to-right trajectory of an aging political intellectual: a radical youth followed by a moderate middle-age and finally a cantankerous, slightly embittered conservatism.
For Us, the Living is bad enough that one can see why its author never wanted it to leave his study; it’s a long, talky utopian tract, not unlike something by H.G. Wells. Heinlein wrote it when he was living in the not-yet-famous Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. At that time he was also living near the left edge of the American political spectrum, having recently worked in Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty In California) movement, though his ideas were apparently closer to the radical “Social Credit” doctrines of Alberta’s (!) struggling wheat farmers. He had even more recently run for the California state assembly as a Democrat.
For Us, the Living tells the story of Perry Nelson, an American from 1937 who wakes up in 2086, finding a much better society free of economic want and sexual inhibitions. It is very much a “thirties book,” overtly hostile to unregulated capitalism. Heinlein was apparently incapable of writing novels that did not reflect the Zeitgeist, though there was probably nothing conscious about this. He absorbed whatever it was and wrote about it as science fiction.
A leftist close enough to the mainstream to remain a Democrat in the 1930’s, Heinlein continued to hold an anti-big-business, pro-government world view well into Truman administration; this philosophy is on exhibit in the juvenile Red Planet (1947), the story of a revolution against “the Company” that has set up Mars as a giant company town.
With the rise of McCarthyism, Heinlein became less concerned about New Deal-type issues, and focused on civil liberties instead; he wrote Between Planets (1951) during this phase, in which the bad guys are thinly disguised FBI agents. Nevertheless, he was still worried enough about the Communists Among Us to execute a classic McCarthyite parable, The Puppet Masters (1951).
When the union corruption scandals broke, Starman Jones (1954) appeared, as close to On the Waterfront as science fiction ever got.
By the late 1950’s, with Soviet-American relations growing even worse, Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers (1959), which arguably anticipated the Green Berets and the re-emphasis on conventional rather than nuclear warfare. Shortly thereafter came Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), just in time to foreshadow the sexual revolution and become almost a holy text for large sections of the counterculture.
Heinlein supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 (he and his wife Ginny formed a volunteer fundraising effort, “Gold for Goldwater”), and then moved even further to the right, outlining a pristine anarcho-capitalism in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1967). This was all shortly after the appearance of a feverish attack on black separatism: Farnham’s Freehold. (Undoubtedly he had watched Edward R. Murrow’s documentary on the Black Muslims, “The Hate that Hate Produced.”)
Clearly, Heinlein was a bellwether intellectual, absorbing political moods as accurately as the bellwether counties that always vote for the winning presidential candidate. He couldn’t help it, and it doesn’t matter, because some of the books are pretty darn good.
But there was one political constant in Heinlein’s writings: from the beginning to the end, he supported civil rights. One of his early short stories, “Jerry was a Man” (1947), posits widespread genetic engineering in which chimps are given intelligence boosts and then trained as household servants. As I try to remember a story that was “old” when I read it in the 1970’s, I recall that to convince the jury that Jerry deserved to be free, Jerry’s lawyer had him sing “Swanee River,” a melancholy narrative about a slave taken away from his parents. When Jerry cried as he sang, the jury knew that Jerry was a man.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Koerner