Annotation: For Us, The Living

I started reading Robert Heinlein when I was in seventh grade. Ever since then, I’ve been a big fan of his work, largely due to his ability to weave social, politic, and scientific commentary into an engaging story, replete with well written dialogue and good pacing. These comments directly influenced my own opinions on many topics, in a positive way. When it was announced that the Heinlein estate was publishing his first novel, I was intruiged, though wary (while most of his work was stellar, there were a few duds, such as I Will Fear No Evil). There were probably good reasons why that novel was not published previously. My suspicions proved to be true, though not in an unpleasant way. This “novel” is not truly a novel. It is a series of expositional essays on the topics of politics, economics, religion, morals, and society, all wrapped very loosely in a skeletal story.

I say skeletal because the story can largely be ignored. It is used entirely as a tool to segue into the next expositional lump. The premise is this: a man named Perry Nelson, Naval Officer and engineer (as was Heinlein), gets in a car accident in 1939 and is somehow whisked forward nearly 150 years to the year 2086. There he is discovered by a young dancer named Diana, who proceeds to help him become acquainted with the structure of society in 2086. That’s the story. The extent of twists and turns the story takes is when he gets jealous of Diana’s dance partner and hits him, and ends up in therapy.

You would think that this undeveloped story would hinder my enjoyment of the book, but I generally didn’t mind. Instead, I kept on noticing where he had salvaged bits and pieces of the novel and placed them in other stories. This was the prototype for all future Heinlein work, the principles discussed in it making appearances in every other story he wrote. Additionally, rather than blending his opinions into the background of a story, they are direct and at the forefront in giant expositional lumps.

Expressing opinions, even for one as opinionated as Heinlein, would not account for the length of expositional lumps he created. What makes these opinions (and thus, the book) worthwhile is that each is meticulously detailed, defined, and rationalized. He doesn’t simply say that “this way is better”, he explains why it is better. And by and large, I agreed with him. As an example, his take on the role of government is simultaneously a combination of socialism and ultra-libertarian ideas. National health care and national banking, but strict privacy protection for all citizens and constitutionally banning “victimless crime” laws. The entire country’s population receives a “social credit” check from the government each month that covers basic living expenses, so no one HAS to work (though most people choose to). And it all makes sense, scarily. The mathematics and logic behind his arguments is sound.

As in other books, Heinlein had no real use for religion. He found most organized religions to be corrupt and interested in controlling the masses rather than helping them, and had a very low opinion of the church. An idea reused directly in other books, Heinlein had his society get tired of the corruption, and allow the religious zealots to secede from the country, creating a place called Coventry out of the region of Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Religion was still allowed, but was not allowed the degree of influence they previously had on our governing laws. Personally, I absolutely agree with him on that. I find it upsetting that the “Religious Right” has such a stranglehold on our government, pushing through laws that legislate “morality”. Morality is not something you should be able to legislate. If it isn’t harming another person, whose right is it to dictate what is right or wrong for anyone but themselves? Barring a very small minority who deliberately choose to “do wrong”, everyone feels they are in the right, so who is to say that one is “more right” than another?

Something that I found somewhat unnerving was the accuracy of his predictions of future events. He anticipated the formation and powers of the European Union, though he did err in thinking it would be run under a monarchy, and had it collapse after that monarch’s death, sparking a 40 year long civil war that reduced the continent’s population to a fraction of what it was and reduced their technological level to something resembling the start of the industrial area. The current developments with our own political system (decreasing liberties, higher religious influence, personal wars) were also called with startling accuracy, though again he took it a few steps further, with the President declaring a state of emergency and performing a military coup. (Though I suppose we’ll see what happens over the next few years.)

His opinions on military policy were also ones I really liked. The emphasis was shifted to defense, and the constitution was amended such that in order to send our troops overseas in battle (ie, go to war in another country, rather than defending our own shores), a national referendum was required. Those voting in the referendum would be limited to those who would be sent to war. If you were too old or too young or otherwise invalid as a soldier, you weren’t allowed to vote on the matter. Furthermore, if the referendum’s results indicated going to war, those who voted yes were to report for duty the following day. Those who abstained were the “second line” (should they become necessary), and those who voted against were the “third line” (again, should they become necessary). I think this is a brilliant way to handle war. I think it is absolutely absurd that in a supposedly “democratic” nation, people at no risk to themselves dictate whether the nation goes to war.

By and large, I really enjoyed For Us, The Living, though I wouldn’t say the story itself was overly well written. The lack of good story was more than made up for (in my opinion) by the well written, cogent ideas discussed, as well as the chance to peer inside the brain of one of my favorite authors. I would recommend it, though more to an individual studying sociology than someone studying fiction.

Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.