For Us, The Living

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Three-word review: it's not good.

This was Robert A. Heinlein's "first novel", written around 1939. He and his wife Ginny burned their copies of the manuscript shortly before his death. But one copy he loaned out to a would-be biographer was unearthed, and it made its way into publication in 2004.

Based on reviews, I was (obviously) in no hurry to read it. But it nagged at me: to have read every Heinlein novel except this one was too much of an imperfection to bear. So I picked up the paperback a few years ago, and it eventually got to the top of the to-be-read queue, and… well, it took a long time to read because I kept finding better things to do. As I said, it's not good.

There isn't much of a plot, but here's the idea: in 1939, Navy pilot Perry Nelson accidentally drives his car off a California seaside cliff, getting pretty smashed up on the rocky beach below. But (somehow) his conciousness gets transported to a different body the year 2086. He's rescued by the lovely Diana, who introduces him to this strange future world. After a few missteps, he finds a good niche and lives happily on from there.

There are seeds of Heinlein's future stories here: moving express sidewalks ("The Roads Must Roll"); Coventry, where incorrigable anti-social types are exiled; ubiquitous flying cars; the threat of Nehemiah Scudder's theocracy (he was victorious in Beyond This Horizon, defeated here); and so on.

It comes complete with an alternate history, one where FDR was beaten by Arthur H. Vandenberg in the 1940 Presidential election. (In actual fact, FDR stomped all over Wendell Willkie that year.) No World War II for the US, but Europe went dark for awhile. Gradually, the US transformed itself into (essentially) Utopia, a free, prosperous, socially liberated land where a lot of people are naked all the time, cheerfully inhaling vast clouds of tobacco smoke.

The details of the brave new world are tediously laid out in endless pedantic lectures that Perry endures cheerfully. (Me, not so much.) Everybody remarks on the backwardness of 1939 compared to the glorious present. After a while I heard these lectures in my head as being delivered in a high-pitched irritating nasality from bad 1930s movies. The key concept is a wacky socialist sub-ideology called Social Credit, which … well, I kind of skimmed over that part, but Heinlein's lecturers go on and on and on and on describing it, demonstrating its obvious superiority via a simulation game involving chess pieces, playing cards, and… yes, I skimmed over that too, muttering "When. Will. You. Shut. Up. About. This."

I shouldn't be too hard on Heinlein's technological predictions, of course. But: in his 2086, there's no Internet. Or computers. Or even lousy calculators: at one point Perry whips out a slide rule. (Kids who don't know what those were: click here.) If you need to get information from one place to another, you put it in a capsule and (shades of ex-Senator Ted Stevens) send it through a series of pneumatic tubes. And, although rocket ships are used for long-distance air travel, space exploration is just getting started.

And then there's sex, which is uninhibited and free from all those 1939-style taboos. The 2086 people just don't get Perry's hangups, especially when he falls in love with Diana, but can't abide it when her ex-flame shows up.

So, bottom line: a painful read, but at least I can say I've read 'em all. And I'm glad he kept at it.

Last Modified 2014-12-07 5:40 PM EDT