cover“For Us, The Living”
Robert A. Heinlein
NLB Call No.: HEI (fiction)
ISBN: 0743491548

This book made me see Robert A. Heinlein in a whole new light.

For one, I didn’t know he ran for politics (he didn’t win of course).

And I’m beginning to understand why he’s deemed as controversial.

In the Editor’s Note in the book, it says:

This novel was written by Robert Heinlein between 1938 and 1939 and was never edited while Heinlein was alive. While the novel is presented in its original form, minor editorial changes have been made for clarity and style.

This was way before WWII started.

The plot, in brief:

It’s 1939 and Naval airman Perry Nelson suddenly drives off the road, plunges down a cliff, and finds himself in the year 2086 instead of being dead. He’s befriended by a woman who inducts him into how life in 2086 is conducted. Perry finds himself learning and adapting to the customs and notions about the idea of marriage, economics, politics and even the psychology of love. Then Perry does the unthinkable and hits another person. He is sent for rehabilitation and even that comes with some surprises.

In the book, Heinlein challenges the concepts of marriage, parenting, personal privacy, politics, economics, race, sexual relationships. Although some of the ideas seem like common occurrences today, you have to remember that Heinlein wrote this in 1938, which was radical and controversial in its time.

For instance, in the novel in 2086:

  • Marriage was more of a private contract between two people, and optional too. It can easily be started and dissolved. And it was the norm to have several marriages over one’s lifetime (see chapter II, p.10)
  • Parents sent their children to “development centers” for a year or two, and where children could opt to stay in development centers if they wished (e.g. p147, the half-brother of Diana chose to stay in a development center because he didn’t like either of his parents)
  • People worked because they chose to. Otherwise, the government provided allowances based on a heritage allowances
  • Food was prepared and delivered automatically by a pushing buttons on walls in the home
  • Space exploration and travel to the moon

I had to remind myself several times that Heinlein wrote this back in the late 1930s!

In the “Introduction” chapter, Spider Robinson hypothesises that Heinlein wrote the novel not as a Science Fiction novel per se, but as a social commentary and political manifesto disguised as a novel. Upon having the manuscript rejected, Heinlein might have realised that it was far more pleasurable to write novels than to run for politics.

Heinlein doesn’t just suggest those ideas. He challenges the reader to think about alternatives (one doesn’t necessarily have to agree — only to read).

For instance, Diana makes Perry explain the concept of marriage to her, and then explains how it worked in 2086. I was inevitably drawn into the discussion as a 3rd party listening in to their discussions.

Or the part where Perry was asked to explain how the banking system worked in his time and how it changed in 2086 (hint: the government removed the private banker’s ability to lend money based on reserves and hence, limited the money-multiplier effect). There’s a segment where you, the reader, are asked to actively play a game to understand an alternative economic system. I thought students of Economic theories should try this book for a book discussion!

Chapter IV read like an “alternate history” of global politics and developments, but some of which is evident today. For instance, Heinlein posits a “unified Europe” ruled by an elected Monarch (and today, we have the European Union).

It’s not just this book, but all of Heinlein’s novels that I find he’s not being controversial for its sake.

You don’t have to (and you’re not expected to) agree with all of what Heinlein had to suggest in the novel. I didn’t, though I found myself agreeing with a lot of it — or at least acknowledging that he does have valid points and makes a convincing case for certain ideas.

The last part of the book shares more about Heinlein’s personal life.

Some favourite quotes from the book:

P.293 – [When questioned about the usefulness of exploring the moon, Perry responds thus:]

“Useless? Perhaps. But Pasteur didn’t know what use there was in it when he studied one-celled life. Newton thought his calculus was a mathematical toy. I don’t care whether it’s useful or not, but you’ve no way of knowing that it won’t be. All I know is that there is another face to the moon that we never see, and I’m going out there and seeing. After me someday will come a man in a better ship, who will land and walk on the moon, and come back to tell about it. Then in the next few years and centuries the human race will spread through the planets like bees swarming in the spring time — finding new homes, new ways to live, new and more beautiful things to do. I won’t live to see it, but, by God, I can live long enough to show them the way.”

P. 314 (“Afterword”):

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” Heinlein’s writing does just that, stretching our minds, teaching us to think and learn, even while entertaining us.

I most certainly agree!