Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Voice of RAH: Robert A. Heinlein's First Novel

It is for us, the living, rather; to be dedicated to the unfinished work... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom...
—Lincoln at Gettysburg

In 1938, a naval engineer named Robert A. Heinlein was taking the first steps toward his future as the preeminent science fiction storyteller of his century. Thanks to Robert James of the Heinlein Society (who is erroneously listed as author on, we can now read this first effort from the pen of RAH: For Us, the Living.

The story takes less than two pages to dive straight from the present of 1938 to the "far future" 2086: Perry Nelson drives off a cliff, dies—and wakes in the future as a house-guest of the dancer Diana. The rest of the novel covers his efforts to learn about the world he now inhabits, and how it got that way.

Like the Ayn Rand novel of similar title (We, the Living), Heinlein's first-born is dry, more than a bit preachy, and takes hard work to achieve that "willing suspension of disbelief." That being said, Spider Robinson (who wrote the intro) was right to say that For Us, the Living "is so immensely much more than [Heinlein's] first novel. It is all of them, dormant."

So many elements and concepts that Heinlein would develop into full-blown, mature stories are here in embryo: his far-ranging future history, the libertarian and feminist political bents, the skeptic's-eye-view of government or corporation as benefactor—even casual private nudism and the intelligence of cats.

Fans of early Heinlein will be spooked, though not surprised, by the foreshadowing (from 1938, remember) of Hitler's death by suicide, and of 9/11 in an air attack on Manhattan in 2003. Lovers of Heinlein the engineer will rejoice to find dozens of "future" gadgets (yes, including the Internet!) in common use today. Here also is a realistic relationship between a man and woman that pre-dates Robert's meeting with Virginia Gerstenfeld.

Don't expect a fully-realized RAH novel here. Heinlein himself referred to For Us, the Living as a novel, only once repudiating the term in a private correspondence, but it was never published (or even edited) during his life. Its position as first is evident in the awkward story development, lack of polished exposition and reliance on lecture to develop the plot. But as Spider Robinson says, Heinlein's future ascendency as writer and story-teller is "...all here, nascent, in thumbnail view. So is that splendid, unmistakable voice."

For Us, the Living was nominated for the 2004 Prometheus Award, but that honor went instead to F. Paul Wilson's Sims.