For Us, the Living
The last of the wine,
still sane after all these years
by Spider Robinson
©2003 Spider Robinson, All Rights Reserved
originally appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Oct. 1, 2003
Robert Anson Heinlein died in 1988, and his fans have been more than half-seriously expecting him to return from the dead for fifteen years, now.
At the close of his most outrageous novel, “THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST–“, we learned that The Beast-the monstrous creature that hounded all its characters across multiple universes with malicious glee–was in fact RAH himself and that book ended with an assertion that the Beast had been slain, and the hesitant reply, “Friend Zebadiah–are you sure?” Lazarus Long, the character who throughout five novels most clearly embodied Heinlein, was specifically told at the end of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE that, “You cannot die, beloved.” He was well over two thousand years old at the time.
So it’s almost unsurprising to fans that Scribner, the original publishers of the famous “Heinlein juveniles” (a series written expressly for young adults in the 1950s), is about to release a new Heinlein novel–written in 1939!
Even the irony of its happening to be titled FOR US, THE LIVING is being taken in stride. Of COURSE the very first words the Grandmaster ever typed for money turn out to be a punchline that won’t pay off for sixty-four years!
Perhaps that says it best: there is unprecedented prepublication demand for this new book, even though everyone is fully aware that it was Robert’s very first attempt at writing for publication, that it didn’t sell…and that he himself did his level best to destroy all copies shortly before his death. His readers are all dying to know why…and desperate for one last morsel, however imperfect, of the Grandmaster. (The title Grandmaster of Science Fiction is the highest honour bestowed by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America; the first ever Grandmaster was Heinlein.)
Robert’s desire to suppress the book is in retrospect understandable. FOR US, THE LIVING is absolutely fascinating, packed with the kind of startling, totally outrageous yet logical ideas for which he was justly famous, and its claim to be a novel is unassailable…but it is only just barely a story. What he intended when he sat down at the typewriter was simply to deliver a series of Utopian lectures, to propound some (then) radical ideas whose adoption he felt would benefit mankind. Fully aware that many dislike being lectured, he borrowed from his favorite writer, H.G. Wells, the notion of sugar-coating his lectures with a thin layer of fiction. The fiction content of this “novel,” in other words, is meant to be no more convincing than that of Wells’s WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES or THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME.
But those were works from the very end of Wells’s career, when, in Sturgeon’s immortal phrase, he had “sold his birthright for a pot of message,” and lost interest in telling stories. For Heinlein the process worked precisely in reverse: sometime during the construction of this book, he apparently realized he was having much more fun with the characters than he was with the concepts, enjoying the dialogue way more than the didactics. Within months of its completion he put this manuscript aside, went back to the typewriter, and composed his first published work: one of the most memorable, heartbreaking stories in English letters, “Lifeline.” Two short years later he was the Guest of Honor at the 3rd World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, and it was already clear he dominated his field.
So part of the fascination of FOR US, THE LIVING is that it directly inspired Heinlein’s entire career. Another, even larger part is that he was able to mine it for enough material to write at least twenty of his published novels. Ideas and preoccupations he would return to again and again in the next fifty years are found here in seed form: time travel, multiple identity, transcendence of death, personal privacy, liberty, future arts, the nature of sexual love, flight to the moon, the wicked prophet Nehemiah Scudder, and a dozen other signature concerns.
Still more fascinating are vigorously argued beliefs and theories he later repudiated. Commonly (and inaccurately) believed to have been be an archconservative, Heinlein in 1939 was a 32-year-old left-wing Democrat, an influential member of Upton Sinclair’s radical EPIC party. He later explained to colleague Alfred Bester, “I’ve simply changed from a soft-headed radical to a hard-headed radical, a pragmatic libertarian.” and it is enormous fun to be able to track that evolution from its hitherto obscure beginning. Equally delicious is a detailed, ingeniously worked out “future history” bridging 1939 and 2086…which omits World War Two! (In fairness, FDR claimed to have been equally surprised.)
But the main attraction is not the brilliantly constructed explanations of unconventional economic theory, nor the rich source material for later works, nor the gentle pleasure, more fond than malicious, of seeing a great and beloved talent in his callow, fallible youth (like watching Leno embarrass guests with clips of their early work in dogfood commercials). The reason there’s so much prepub demand that Scribner may have to go back to press before publication, just to have some copies left to show off on Launch Day, is simply that the word is already out: this book contains on every page the unmistakable, aggressively rational, irresistibly folksy, heart-tuggingly familiar voice of Robert A. Heinlein–which so many have missed so badly, for so long. A special gift, for us, the living.
-Bowen Island, British Columbia
5 September, 2003