(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For Us, the Living is the story of a man who finds himself miraculously translated from the time of his normal existence to a future many years hence. The circumstances under which this novel was published bear more than a passing resemblance to its fantasy premise. For Us, the Living is the first novel written by Robert A. Heinlein, an enormously influential writer of science fiction and the first writer of genre science fiction to crack the fiction best-seller list. Heinlein wrote the novel in 1938, while an as-yet-unpublished author and shopped it around to several publishers who rejected it. He shelved the manuscript, but within a year he was publishing regularly in science-fiction magazines. Although the book's existence was long known about, a copy of the manuscript did not surface until 2003. Thus, Heinlein's “first” novel finally saw publication sixty-six years after it was written.

It is easy to see why For Us, the Living did not find favor with publishers in the 1930's and why Heinlein chose not to bring it out of the trunk once he was an established writer. Although a work of speculative fiction, it is not a novel but rather a tract with a political agenda. Four years before he wrote it, Heinlein had been actively involved in Upton Sinclair's failed run for the governorship of California on the Democratic ticket. Involvement in politics led Heinlein himself to a failed run for the California state assembly in 1938. The future utopia depicted in the book is clearly built from planks of the author's progressive political campaign. For Us, the Living is a fine example of an author writing what he knows, but Heinlein was still new to the literary craft and had yet to master the nuances of fiction writing. The novel's characters relate the history of their world and the principles on which their society is founded in lengthy, sometimes pedantic, monologues. In time, Heinlein would find more creative ways to allow “back story” details of this kind to emerge naturally through plot and character development.

Although For Us, the Living reads more like an essay than a novel, it is an important book for understanding Heinlein's oeuvre and for appreciating the design and objectives of utopian fiction. As Robert James notes in his afterword, the novel is very much in the tradition of the best-known utopian tales of its time, notably Edward Bellamy'sLooking Backward (1888) and H. G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes(1899), both of which feature characters who are magically transported more than a century into the future to a world that has rationally overcome the problems of their times. In Heinlein's tale, Perry Nelson, an engineer in the year 1939, awakens after a car crash and finds himself in the year 2086. Although Perry died, his consciousness has transmigrated to the body of Gordon 775-82, a psychologist who specialized in the study of extrasensory perception. He is rescued from a snowstorm by Diana 400-48, a young, single woman who is renowned as a dancer on television.

In the days that follow, Diana and her friends get Perry up to speed on the previous 148 years of history to help him understand the political and social changes that have made the world an idealized descendant of the place he knew. Perry and Diana become lovers, which causes problems when Perry punches her dance partner, Bernard, for taking what he considers liberties during a rehearsal. Violence of this type is “a major atavism” unheard of in the late twenty-first century, and Perry is given a choice of self-exile in Coventry, a reservation for persons who do not fit in with society, or psychiatric rehabilitation. He chooses the latter and is eventually cured of his possessive jealousy with the help of Olga, a psychiatrist who becomes his lover as well. The “realistic thinking” therapy Perry undergoes has an unexpected dividend when it helps engage him in modern aeronautics. The novel ends with Perry embarking on an exploratory trip to the far side of the moon.

Like most futuristic tales, For Us, the Living presents a world that differs markedly from modern times. Superficially, civilization in the year 2086 is distinguished by technologic advances common to genre science fiction. Apartments are outfitted with locks keyed to the owner's voice. People can remotely access library archives from wall consoles in their homes and view audiovisual tapes on the equivalent of a videocassette recorder. The televue, a two-way audiovisual system,...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)