Virginia Edition Review: Vol. 4 – For Us, the Living

This post is part of a series on the Virginia Edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s works.

This review of For Us, the Living serves as the exception that proves the rule of Heinlein. That is to say, it is terrible. Not only are all of the ideas about economics and social structure in the book outmoded and unworkable, but as a story, this “novel” barely contains a coherent storyline. It’s more of a rambling political tract with scads of dialogic exposition followed by interruptions of authorial exposition—followed by an appendix with more of the same. Veneered in a semblance of a plot about a guy who mysteriously gets jettisoned a century into the future, this book lacks much of anything resembling an actual storyline.

No wonder later in life, after becoming a highly successful author, Heinlein tried to burn all the manuscripts of it. Of course, the academic in me likes that there was one copy left unscathed, but the reader in me thinks it would’ve probably been okay had it never been discovered. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

History

For Us, the Living was Heinlein’s first attempt at writing a book. It is worth noting that this was certainly not his first attempt at writing professionally: He had overseen production of an intraship newsletter (The Observer) while stationed on the aircraft carrier Lexington; that experience led to Heinlein become the managing editor of EPIC News, a political newspaper published by the socialist “End Poverty in California” group.1 Nor was it Heinlein’s first attempt at writing fiction: In late 1929 or early 1930, he wrote a 2,500-word mystery titled “Weekend Watch” for a shipwide literary contest on the Lexington; he did not win (Patterson 118-119).

In her brief biography of her husband at the beginning of Grumbles from the Grave, Virginia Heinlein recounts the commonly told story of how Robert got his start writing fiction:

One day, he found an ad in a science fiction magazine for a contest. So he sat down and wrote a story (“Life-Line”). He felt it was too good for the magazine he had written it for, so he sent it to the top magazine in the field—Astounding Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. bought the story. (Grumbles xiv; also see footnote 4 below)

Without faulting Virginia’s telling of the story—she understandably skips over a lot of details in her bio, which is only a few pages long—For Us, the Living shows that Heinlein’s emergence as a professional science-fiction writer was not quite so serendipitous as all that. In the autumn of 1938, Heinlein was coming off the disappointment of his own failed bid for political office, before which he had likewise failed as both a real estate agent and mining investor, his two attempts of establishing a professional career after getting discharged from the Navy in 1934. While Heinlein had a Navy pension to keep him and his then-wife Leslyn from complete destitution, it was not enough provide for all of their needs. However, the two job prospects that seemed most readily available to him, becoming a teacher or working as an engineer for Douglas Aircraft, were unappealing for various reasons.2

Given the need for money, his experience with writing, his desire not to pursue any other professions for which his skill set made him qualified, and a surfeit of time having recently given up his political career, in 1938 Heinlein decided that he wanted to write a book. After catching up on some reading and making notes, he settled on an idea. As a proponent of the Social Credit plan put forward by British engineer C. H. Douglas, Heinlein wanted his story to offer a fictionalized world in which social credit ideas were worked out—something he could do relatively easily, considering he had written about many of those ideas already in EPIC News. He decided to use the mechanism of sending a present-day man into a utopian future, where he (and readers) would learn about that future society from the characters, much like Bellamy’s Looking Backward. (More on the themes and structure in my review of the story below.)

On or just before Thanksgiving 1938, Heinlein started tapping out the first draft of For Us, the Living and finished it sometime in December (Patterson 221; see also 535, note 10).

Publication

Once the story was written, Heinlein was unsure about its commercial value. With the benefit of hindsight a year and a half later  (July 29, 1940), Heinlein wrote to John Campbell, Jr., that “the book was written by a man who was not then a writer, and written primarily as a means of ordering his thoughts on many matters. The book was completed before I considered trying to publish it. I now know it can not be published.”3 (VE Vol. 39, p. 69)

Nonetheless, in 1939 that “man who was not [yet] a writer” tried hard to publish For Us, the Living. In January, he sent the manuscript to Macmillan, which kept it longer than expected before rejecting it. Not to be deterred, on April 25, 1939, Heinlein reached out to George Munson, a political connection at the American Social Credit Movement, expressing his desire to get the novel published. “Frankly, I don’t give a tinker’s dam [sic] whether I make any money out of this book at all,” Heinlein told Munson. “I just want to push Social Credit and this seems the best way to me” (VE Vol. 40, 60). Somewhat surprisingly, this was just one day after Heinlein received a $70 check from Campbell for his first published story, “Life-Line”—to which he reportedly responded, “How long has this racket been going on? And why didn’t anybody tell me about it sooner?”4 Heinlein may have had an altruistic vision of publishing For Us, the Living, but that vision soon widened into a much more commercial approach to his writing career, even while he was still shopping his novel around.

Heinlein received a positive response from Munson about his query, but after the rejection from Macmillan, Heinlein had already sent the manuscript to Random House for review. Upon rejection from that publisher, he sent copies both to Munson and Henry Holt & Company, the latter of which rejected it (nicely) almost immediately. Munson took his time, first sending a brief initial response that it would be hard to place the book, and then following up five months later (on January 7, 1940) with more detailed feedback describing, in part, what he saw as the main problem with the book:

I can’t really answer your question about salvaging something from For Us, the Living, because I do not think you will do your best work by approaching the problem in that way. If a good story hits you, you may discover that it can carry a good deal of Social Credit content, but if you try to work the other way around, i.e., from Social Credit baggage to a story, you’ll probably find that your story-vehicle is too weak. Story and characters should come first, ideas second.

Munson’s reply provided a number of suggestions for what a good story might entail, which Heinlein apparently did not agree with. Being more comfortable with rejection at that point—not only had his novel been rejected several times, but nearly all of his short stories since “Life-Line”’s publication had also been rejected—Heinlein realized that his time and effort would be put to better use writing new stories than reworking For Us, the Living. Thus, he tossed the manuscripts of it into a file and let them ripen.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of Heinlein’s attempt to turn a profit (or at least break even) on the book. During a trip to visit John Campbell and his wife in 1940, the Heinleins (Robert and Leslyn) met L. Ron Hubbard, who was already established as a science fiction writer. Over time, the Heinleins and Hubbard became friends,5 and in 1945 Robert and L. Ron struck up a deal that Hubbard would rewrite For Us, the Living to make it marketable, with the two of them sharing any profits; however, that collaboration never came to fruition (Patterson 374).

Fast forward to 1987 when Robert and Virginia Heinlein moved out of their longtime home in Bonny Doon, California, so they could be closer to medical facilities for the ever-more-sickly Robert (who was 80). As they were packing up their house, Robert discovered his file with the manuscripts and correspondence of For Us, the Living.6 Worried about his legacy and reputation as a writer, together he and Virginia burned all of the materials they had. As far as they and everyone else believed, that was the end of the book.

However, in the early 2000s, a Heinlein scholar named Robert James was doing research for a biography on Leslyn when he stumbled across a reference to For Us, the Living. After much searching, he managed to track down a copy of a copy that had been given to Cal Laning—one of Heinlein’s Navy buddies and longtime friend—and in 2003 was able to give it to Arthur Dula, the representative of the Heinlein literary estate (Virginia having died in January that year). Thus, the book came to be published in December 2003 by Scribner’s, with an introduction by Spider Robinson (Rule). It was later published as Volume 4 of the Virginia Edition of Heinlein’s works, with some minor textual revisions by William H. Patterson, Jr. (VE Vol. 4, 181).

Indications of Later Work

Given that 65 years passed between the writing and publication of For Us, the Living,7 the book clearly could not have had a direct influence on stories by other writers, like Starship Troopers and many of Heinlein’s juveniles did. However, as Heinlein’s first novel, it did provide some hints as to what would come from later works by Heinlein himself.

Foremost, the very act of writing the book provided with Heinlein with a realistic expectation of what writing actually entailed. Far from the apocryphal story of “Life-Line” springing Athena-like from his typewriter, this first attempt at writing professional fiction grounded him in the realities of the work itself: The book “served its purposes for him—got his thinking straightened out and taught him how to solve writing problems ‘on the fly'” (VE 4, vii). It also afforded him an important lesson about the difficulties of publication, and through research he did on the business side of writing (such as reading Trial and Error by Jack Woodford around Christmas 1938 [Patterson 223]) he developed acumen that would set the standard for his future commercial success, despite not being able to sell this particular book.

Secondly, the book itself—along with the many notes and ideas Heinlein had gathered for it—provided a repository for later story ideas. In fact, the backstory of For Us, the Living served as something of a first draft of Heinlein’s “Future History” stories, akin perhaps to J. R. R. Tolkien’s earliest legendarium stories that eventually emerged as The Silmarillion (the early drafts of which were published posthumously in The Book of Lost Tales volumes). Patterson writes in the introduction to the Virginia Edition:

For story ideas, [Heinlein] took the history he had conceived for his utopia and reworked it slightly to generate independent stories. Eventually, he had to make a chart to keep them all straight… [F]or almost a year, only the stories he had mined from For Us, the Living sold at all… (VE Vol. 4, vii)

Not only did Heinlein reuse not only specific plot points, but also characters—such as the rabid reverend Nehemiah Scudder, who appears in several of Heinlein’s Future History works (although, Scudder never becomes dictator in For Us, the Living, as he does in Heinlein’s other stories).

In addition to specific plot points are the themes and techniques that Heinlein employs in For Us, the Living. Heinlein’s display of future-world culture (such as commonplace nudity), the explanation of the economic system, and incorporation of technological advancements are all the types of things that appear in his later works. Likewise, Heinlein’s use of Socratic conversation to expound on philosophical and social issues begins with this novel—though, as Joe Sanders notes, “As a beginning writer…he had not figured out how to balance action and ideas, how to keep readers’ attention when the dialogue becomes contrived and leaden and when meetings become mercilessly one-sided presentations” (Heritage 20). As long as he wrote short stories, Heinlein was able to keep from getting bogged down in such lengthy discussions; however, while working on Beyond This Horizon in 1941, he recognized his propensity for “endless talky-talk” and worked hard to inject “illustrative action” and craft a storyline that would avoid the problems that kept his first novel from getting published (Grumbles 23-24).

While these indications are present in For Us, the Living, there is one—counterindication, for lack of a better term. Despite the declaration, “This isn’t Utopia, you know” by Cathcart, one of the characters Perry (the primary protagonist) meets in the course of his future-world exploration (VE Vol 4, 163), the story is very much a utopian story. Spider Robinson likens the book to Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes and The Shape of Things to Come, and Bellamy’s Looking Backward, calling it “essentially a series of Utopian lectures, whose fictional component is a lovely but thin and translucent negligee, only half-concealing an urgent desire to seduce” (xii) – a distinctly different assessment than Heinlein’s own description to Munson of the novel being “80% ‘story’ and 20% economics” (VE Vol. 40, 61).

In contrast, Heinlein’s later work is decidedly non-utopian. In fact, one of Heinlein’s defining characteristics as a writer is that his stories are processual: They do not provide descriptions of static worlds, fixed in their Utopian splendor, but rather descriptions of worlds that are changing, either getting worse or getting better (sometimes both in the same book), those changes being the things which prompt character action and reaction. Heinlein’s next novel, Beyond This Horizon, is purposefully post-utopian. In a letter to Doc Lowndes on October 10, 1941, while he was writing Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein abjured the idea of novel-length utopian stories, writing:

In this field you can do short stories about minor incidents in an otherwise-Utopian culture, but I defy you to do a story 50,000 words or longer about the future and have that future be a Utopia—and sell it!… Me, I like stories about pleasant futures, such as Bellamy’s yarns, and The First to Awaken, but they aint [sic] pulp. I know. I’ve tried it. (VE Vol. 40, 

That is, he tried it when he wrote For Us, the Living—and was unable to sell it. All of his stories after that were non-utopian, and he never gave utopian fiction another go.

Title and Subtitle

The full title of the story is For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs. Without having the background materials that were burned in two separate incidents (1947 and 1987), it is difficult to know whether this was his first title for the story or if the title went through many revisions, as occurred frequently with his later works.

For Us, the Living comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. (emphasis added)

It might be worth mentioning the similarity of the title to Ayn Rand’s first novel We the Living, published in 1936. There does not appear to be any link, considering the U.S. publication of Rand’s novel did poorly, selling only 3,000 copies initially. (It fared considerably better when a revised version was published more than 20 years later, after Atlas Shrugged met with popular success.) While Heinlein likely would have been receptive to the anti-communist sentiments in the book—as a liberal progressive socialist at the time, Heinlein was adamantly against what he saw as growing communist influences in the Democratic party—at that point in time, he and Rand had very different ideas about the efficacy of government intervention, especially economic intervention.

The subtitle, A Comedy of Customs, is a deliberate imitation of James Branch Cabell’s use of subtitles in works like Domnei: A Comedy of Woman-Worship and Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, the latter of which Heinlein read in 1929, his last year at the Naval Academy.8 Thematically, For Us, the Living also pushes boundaries of cultural decency in place at the time, much like Jurgen did when it was in published in 1919, instigating an unsuccessful lawsuit by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice against Cabell for violation of the Comstock laws that censored “obscenity.” Had it been published, For Us, the Living likely would have violated these same laws, resulting in the book being “banned in Boston”—an outcome Heinlein yearned for, as such bans often had the ironic effect of increasing sales (Patterson 221).

My Review

The overwhelming consensus on For Us, the Living is that it is poorly written.

Three publishing houses rejected the book with little comment. George Munson of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Social Credit Movement, who was predisposed to like the socialist propagandistic aspects of the novel, implied heavily that it lacked story, and urged Heinlein to rewrite it as a mystery novel because “most crimes are financial in their motivation, [and therefore] monetary discussion enters quite naturally” into the storyline. Heinlein presumably sent copies to at least a few other individuals, such as Cal Laning,9 but either they never provided feedback or the feedback they offered went up in smoke.

Heinlein himself thought For Us, the Living was bad in 1941, less than two years after writing it (and a year after he stopped trying to sell it); he thought it wasn’t worth his own time to revise it, although he figured L. Ron Hubbard might be able to do something with it in 1945; by 1987, both Bob and Ginny thought it was bad enough to burn all the existing copies and notes they found stuffed in the bottom of a drawer. Virginia never saw fit to mention it in Grumbles from the Grave or any other material she helped publish after her husband’s death.

Many of those who have read the book after its publication agree that the story is awful. Frederick Pohl, who edited and published several of Heinlein’s early stories in Astounding, wrote “the manuscript…display[ed] none of the storytelling craft that Heinlein taught himself a couple of years later, [and] would have been a prime candidate for rejection by any publishing company that stays in business longer than a week” (Heritage 3). Publisher’s Weekly says “this book can’t stand alone on its own merits as a novel,” although “it’s a harbinger of later themes, best read critically and in conjunction with Heinlein’s more mature fiction.” 

A litany of online reviews also point to the poor quality of the book:

  • Gary McGath: “It’s not Robert Heinlein’s fault this book was published.”
  • William H. Stoddard: “Heinlein clearly was not yet ready to be a storyteller.”
  • Chris Winter: “It is far from Heinlein’s best work, in part because it lays the lecturing on so thick, in part because the technology is not as plausible as it is in later works.” (Though, Winter enjoyed it despite these flaws.)

That’s not to say everyone thinks it’s a bad book. Spider Robinson praises it in his introduction, calling it “something more interesting” than “a novel in the classic sense”:

It’s a career in a box … a freeze-dried feast… a lifetime, latent in a raindrop … a lifework seed, waiting to be watered by our tears and laughter—RAH’s literary DNA… (xvii-xviii)

Who am I to disagree with For Us, the Living as a career-box-freeze-dried-feast-lifetime-raindrop-lifework-seed of literary DNA? Well, just another reader, I suppose.

Minding the Details

For Us, the Living is an exploration of a future world of 2086 by a man, Lieutenant Perry V. Nelson, from 1939. In typical utopia fashion, this allows the characters to expound on their world as they describe it to this visitor from another place, who has a completely different set of assumptions, cultural biases, and familiarity with technology. The formula is easy, you just need a mechanism to get someone from one time to another.

The mechanism that sends Perry 147 years into the future is a car crash—sort of. In the opening sentences of the book, he swerves to miss a green sedan and goes over an ocean-view cliff. There’s a vivid description of a girl in a bathing suit (also green) playing with a ball on the beach below, as well as the rocks that come up to meet Perry (1). You know what’s not in that extremely elaborate description of the last few seconds of Perry’s time in 1939? A tire blowout, or the presumed curb that causes it (the opening passage mentions a guardrail, but no curb), as Perry describes to Diana a few pages later (5). 

Thus, within a span of a few pages, Heinlein describes the same incident from the same character’s point of view with different sets of details. That’s bad enough, but part of the entire emphasis of the opening paragraph is that it’s an “exploding moment,” i.e., one of those scenes where it takes dramatically longer to describe the details of what’s happening than the actual experience would take. I suppose you could say that Perry simply fills in the details (blowout, curb) later when talking with Diana, but the whole point of an exploding moment is that there shouldn’t be any such details left out. The exploding moment is described from the character’s point of view, meaning that if Perry recalled it later, it should’ve been part of that initial description as well.

Similarly, throughout the book, little details like this seem to be not quite in sync. Perhaps this is a minor point—lots of stories have such mistakes, even from established writers—but it this sort of description is something that Heinlein does much better in later works.

Time Travel Mechanism

The first few pages of the story is also where Perry gets jettisoned, quite literally, into the future. “Lieut. Nelson jumped or was thrown clear of the car but landed head first in a pile of loose rock at the foot of the cliff, splitting his skull,” the newspaper account of his 1939 death reads (11-12). This, of course, presents a problem, given that according to physics as we know them, he cannot have both died in 1939 and woken up without injury in 2086.

The problem is partially solved when we learn that Perry is inhabiting the body of someone named Gordon 755-82. The details are vague, but apparently Gordon “simply was not interested in living here and chose to live elsewhere” (17). Perry’s consciousness somehow found its way into Gordon’s body, which was “lying quietly in a state of arrested animation,” apparently for just such an occasion. Beyond the supposition that Perry’s consciousness somehow jumped from 1939 to 2086, and from his own body to that of Gordon’s, no other explanation for the time travel is offered.

Needless to say, this lack of an adequate time travel mechanism is disappointing in its own right. However, it’s even more disappointing given the great time travel stories he creates in later works like “—All You Zombie—,” “By His Bootstraps,” Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast, or even suspended animation stories like The Door Into Summer. Understanding that the time travel in For Us, the Living is merely a gimmick to get Perry from one time to another, it nonetheless would have been nice if a bit more explanation had been offered to support it.

Structure

For the most part, the prose of For Us, the Living is serviceable; nonetheless, there are a few structural issues.

The first comes somewhat jarringly at the end of Chapter 3, when the point of view shifts. Generally, the book is written in a fairly standard third-person literary past tense with a limited omniscient point of view from Perry’s perspective. However, after Perry falls asleep, the point of view suddenly shifts for the first time to Diana, who kisses her sleeping guest and then goes on to muse about why she did that and a host of other things (28-29). It’s not a huge deal, but the shift is noticeable and somewhat disconcerting.

More bizarre, however, is the two-page footnote at the end of Chapter 3 giving a lengthy synopsis of Diana’s parentage and a relationship with a psychotic poet who commits suicide (29-31). The details themselves are fine, but that they are delivered as a footnote signed by “The Author” is puzzling. Given all of the conversation that Perry has with Diana and others throughout the book, these details would have been much better handled in a series of discussions, or some other revelatory means, than a footnote. Heinlein makes several other shorter, but less story-oriented, footnotes elsewhere in the book (60, 128, 138) to explain various economic ideas and illustrate the card game that Heinlein came up to demonstrate his economic ideas. Unlike the footnotes in, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, these footnotes are didactic, primary-world intrusions on the story, rather than complementary annotations.

As if these footnotes are not enough, Heinlein ends the book with an appendix—not to the book as a whole, but to Chapter 9 specifically. (There are 15 chapters in total, so the appendix comes six chapters after it is relevant.) The appendix explains economic fallacies from the viewpoint of social credit theory, and is about as tedious as one would expect given the description in the first half of this sentence.

Alternate History

The novel is made up mostly of long conversations between Perry and various individuals he meets throughout the story. Diana is a dancer, and while she knows some history, most of the conversations she and Perry have are about the future world’s cultural and moral aspects, including everything from food to clothing (or lack thereof), relationships, marriage, and so forth. I don’t have much to say about those, other than that from the beginning Heinlein has a strong sense of what’s done in private should stay in private. For the history lessons, Diana calls in a pinch-hitter, a history professor from UC Berkeley named Cathcart. Most of the conversation between Perry and Cathcart occurs Chapter 4, which is about 40 pages long—more than 20% of the book—and consists of lengthy paragraphs of historical exposition from Cathcart, with brief questions and interruptions from Perry.

For me, the detailed backstory that Heinlein gives for the future world of For Us, the Living—which provides much of the basis for Heinlein’s later Future History stories—is the most fascinating aspect of the book. He fills in all of the intervening years from 1939 through 2086 with what amounts to a rather sophisticated alternate history. A year before World War II even started, Heinlein preempts stories like The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick or Harry Turtledove’s books. All in all, it is rather complex, and it’s clear that he spent a lot of time working out not only the historical details of what would need to happen to bring about the economic system under which his utopia could exist, but also the demeanors and drives of the individuals who could bring those events to bear. A much truncated overview of that alternate history is provided below.

In For Us, the Living, Franklin Roosevelt loses a bid for a third term in office to a “Senator Vandenburgh”—who was not a real person but appears to be a thinly veiled reference to Arthur H. Vandenberg, a Republican senator from Michigan and vociferous opponent of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. As Cathcart tells it, “It was during President Vandenburgh’s administration [1941-1945] that the second European war ran its course.” The war ended when Hitler committed suicide and Germany fell into economic collapse. After the war, “United Europe” was created with Edward, Duke of Windsor being offered the throne, effectively forming something akin to today’s European Union (“free trade among sister states, a common currency, a joint army and navy [a la SAFE]… All international disputes to be settled by the Imperial Tribune [a la the CJEU].” However, upon Edward’s death, United Europe fell apart and started a 40-year war from 1970 to 2010 (41-44).

In Heinlein’s alternate history, the U.S. managed to stay out of both “the second European war” and the Forty Years War due to a policy of isolationism established by Roosevelt and maintained by (fictitious) presidents Vandenburgh, La Guardia (real-life mayor of New York City when Heinlein was writing the story) and Winthrop. La Guardia is the hero of this backstory, in a way, because he’s the one who establishes a new public Bank of the United States—“a real bank to be owned by and used by the people”—to both replace the Federal Reserve and help him implement New Deal-esque policies. The new banking system allowed La Guardia to take the U.S. off the gold standard (which was still in place when Heinlein was writing the story) and required banks to keep 100% reserves, effectively eliminating the fractional reserve system established with the creation of the Fed in 1913 (46-47).

Meanwhile, as Europe was decimating itself during the Forty Years War, the U.S. engaged in a war with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, dubbed the A-B-C War. During that war, in 2003 the A-B-C alliance conducted a massive attack on Manhattan (51-52), which a number of reviewers have compared to the real-life 2001 terrorist attacks; however, the details and situation are dramatically different, and with some distance from the real-life event, it is difficult to see many similarities (though, one can understand why reviewers of the book in 2003/2004 would be much more likely to see resemblances). As a result of the A-B-C War and destruction of Manhattan, the (fictitious) 27th Amendment was passed requiring declarations of war to pass a popular vote. (The actual 27th Amendment is much more mundane, stating that salary increases for members of Congress will not take effect until after the start of the next term.) There’s also an interesting twist on an idea that Heinlein later expands on in Starship Troopers: “only those persons vote who are eligible for military duty”—including women, depending on the status of current combat laws (53-58).

After the A-B-C War, the U.S. saw “steady development with no spectacular changes” in which they managed to achieve “a period of dynamic equilibrium”—i.e., utopia (58-59). During this period is when the fictitious President Holmes implemented the final stages of economic reforms that brought about the system that Heinlein wanted to highlight in his book. That brings me to a few comments on the economic ideas.

Social Credit and Socialism

As noted above, the book was written as a vehicle specifically to deliver Heinlein’s ideas on social credit. There are, of course, still some proponents of social credit, but by and large that proposed system has fallen by the wayside of history at this point. Nonetheless, given that Heinlein spends so much time in this book discussing economics, it would be irresponsible not to at least say something about the ideas.

When Perry asks Diana whether the United States of 2086 is “a socialism,” she responds, “Why no, not if by socialism you mean government ownership of the factories and stores and farms and such” (26). Later, Perry asks Cathcart a similar question, to which the professor responds, “I suggest that you think of it as privately owned industrialism for the time being. La Guardia destroyed capitalism as you knew it” (47). Cathcart goes on to explain that through the public Bank of the United States, La Guardia required 100% reserves and then started issuing pure fiat currency “based not on gold, nor on his own credit, but on the credit of his customers” (48). On the surface, it is correct to not call this socialism insofar as it does not control the method of production.

However, Cathcart goes on to explain that the new economic system set up by La Guardia was meant to control production. Even after the new public bank was in place: 

There still remained, however, considerable spread between production and consumption…. The economic life was organized in such a comical fashion that each year the country produced goods of greater value than the people of the country were able to buy back and use up. This was known as overproduction, and many were the esoteric nonsensical things said about it. But the situation was that simple. The system of necessity produced more than it consumed. (49)

Later, Cathcart reiterates the problem: “I asked you to take on faith the idea that the only thing that caused depressions was a financial system that automatically caused a spread between goods to be bought and money to buy them, or ‘overproduction’ as it was euphemistically called” (59). Sometime after the A-B-C War, President Holmes—who was in office from 2011 to 2015—set out to fix this problem of “overproduction” by controlling prices and giving away money (58-59). In order to accomplish this:

All of the retailers of consumption goods in the country were invited to join in the New Economic Cycle. If a dealer joined, he agreed not to raise his prices over what they were when the new regime started. On the contrary he was to sell all his goods at a ten percent discount, and the Bank of the United States would hand him the difference…

The utopian effect of this was that, of course, all the retailers joined in the scheme, prices remained low, and production and consumption became perfectly matched…magically somehow.

But the point here is that based on this description, Cathcart and Diana are both wrong to describe the system as something other than socialism. It might be true, as Diana says, that the government does not own the “factories and stores and farms and such.” Nonetheless, the reshaping of the economic system to control production to the point where production and consumption are evenly matched is control over the means of production, insofar money and credit are the means by which production is possible—which is precisely what Cathcart explains is the case. That very much fits the definition of socialism.

I will not go into an analysis of socialism itself; for that, I point the interested reader to Ludwig von Mises and Benjamin De Casseres.

Footnotes

1. In 1934, EPIC had successfully nominated Upton Sinclair as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for California. Heinlein and his second wife Leslyn were actively engaged in Sinclair’s campaign, with Robert overseeing seven precincts that included Hollywood and other areas near Los Angeles. Heinlein’s experience organizing EPIC News put him in direct contact with Sinclair, who eventually moved on to other things, leaving Heinlein as the managing editor of the publication (see Patterson Ch. 14 and 15).

2. “I didn’t really want to teach high school physics and regarded the ‘education’ courses required for a permanent certificate as a fate-worse-than-death, etc., ad nauseam with respect to several other possibilities, such as excessively difficult commuting if I took a job at Douglas Aircraft.” Letter to Poul Anderson, October 30, 1959 (quoted in Patterson 215).

3. This was a response to a letter from Campbell dated July 25, 1940, in which the editor commented on both the nudity/sexuality and the economic setup of For Us, the Living: “Allowing a relationship between [economic systems and social customs related to dress]—perhaps that of a back wall to a front wall—I’d suggest storming the back (economic) wall before the front wall. Besides the greater ease of explanation of mathematico-economic set-relationships, nearly everyone is willing to agree that the present economic set-up leaves room for some improvement. And darned few people will agree that present dress customs are fundamentally wrong.”

4. This reaction is possibly apocryphal. Patterson notes that the first version of it did not appear until 2000 in James Gifford’s Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion, suggesting that it may have been taken from a 1985 interview published in Xignals. In that interview, Heinlein says:

I sat down and wrote a short story, and took a look at the thing and said, “This is pretty good!”…I then sent it to Astounding…. Instead of sending me $50 for a prize, they sent me $70 for one cent a word! It had taken me four days to write that story. Well, you can apply a factor just about equivalent to the increase in the price of gold; $70 then would be about $1,400 now! I took a look at that check and said to myself, “How long has this racket been going on?” (VE Vol. 38, 449)

There is no contemporary evidence that Heinlein made this statement in 1939; nonetheless, as Patterson describes, from that point forward, Heinlein vigorously pursued the business of writing, largely due to his reading of the recently revised Trial and Error by Jack Woodford shortly after Christmas 1938.

5. Quite possibly, more than friends. Robert and Leslyn had an open marriage, and later in life Robert acknowledged to Virginia that Leslyn had had an affair with L. Ron Hubbard. When their marriage began to fall apart, Leslyn frequently wrote “poison pen” letters to many of her and Robert’s mutual friends. In one of those letters, she indicated that Robert had also slept with Hubbard (Patterson 528 note 8).

6. In addition, many of Heinlein’s correspondence and papers from the 1930s and 1940s were burned in 1947, casualties of the tumultuous end of his marriage with Leslyn (Patterson 421, 541 note 18).

7. Almost exactly: Patterson estimates that Heinlein typed up the final clean copy just after Christmas 1938, while according to Amazon the hardcover publication date was December 9, 2003.

8. Much later, Heinlein again used a Cabellian subtitle for Job: A Comedy of Justice. Other Cabellian influences are found throughout Heinlein’s works, such as the prose poem at the beginning of “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter” section of Time Enough for Love.

9. As Robert James describes in the afterword to the 2004 edition of For Us, the Living, the copy given to Cal Laning was later acquired by Dr. Leon Stover, having been selected by Heinlein himself to be his official biographer. Stover in turn gave a copy of the manuscript to a student of his, Michael Hunter, to read and provide a synopsis for the biography, but after Heinlein’s death, Stover and Virginia Heinlein had a falling out, and the biography was never published. Years later, James obtained the unfinished biography manuscript and found a reference to For Us, the Living within its pages. After failing to restore contact with Stover, James managed to track down Hunter—who had put the manuscript in a box in his garage and forgotten about it—and received a copy from him. That copy is the basis of the published text.

Works Cited

Note: Where possible, excluding volumes of the Virginia Edition, links are added to where the work is available online or to where it can be purchased. For materials cited from The Heinlein Archives, I’ve included the file number where the referenced document may be found.

Clareson, Thomas D., and Joe Sanders. The Heritage of Heinlein: A Critical Reading of the Fiction. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy, 42. Mcfarland & Company, 2014.

Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living. Virginia Edition, Vol. 4. Virginia Edition Publishing Company, 2008.

——. Grumbles from the Grave. Ed. Virginia Heinlein. Del Ray Books, 1989.

——. The Heinlein Letters: Volume 1. Virginia Edition, Vol. 39. Virginia Edition Publishing Company, 2011.

——. The Heinlein Letters: Volume 2. Virginia Edition, Vol. 40. Virginia Edition Publishing Company, 2011.

——. The Nonfiction of Robert Heinlein: Volume II. Virginia Edition, Vol. 38. Virginia Edition Publishing Company, 2011.

James, Robert. “A Clean Sweep.” Afterword. For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs, by Robert A. Heinlein. Pocket Books, 2004, pp. 305-326.

McGath, Gary. Review of For Us, the Living. Gary McGath, 2003.

Munson, George. Letter to Robert Heinlein. January 7, 1940. TS. American Social Credit Movement, New York, New York. [CORR305PREWAR]

Patterson, William H., Jr. Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 1: 1907 – 1948, Learning Curve. Tor, 2010.

Review of For Us, the Living: A Comedy of CustomsPublisher’s Weekly, December 1, 2003.

Robinson, Spider. Introduction. For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs, by Robert A. Heinlein. Pocket Books, 2004, pp. xi-xviii.

Rule, Deb Houdek. “The finding and publishing of ‘For Us, the Living.’” The Heinlein Society, 2003.

Stoddard, William H. Review of For Us, the LivingTroynovant, June 2004.

Winter, Chris. Review of For Us, the Living. chris-winter.com, February 6, 2004.