The First Novel is a Harsh Mistress

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Robert A. Heinlein's first novel, written in 1939 and shelved after being rejected by two publishers, is finally in print. The New York Times describes how the utopian For Us, the Living finally made its way from oblivion to print via a Seattle garage, and why Heinlein refused to publish the book in his lifetime.

"It's completely rewritten my view of his career," Heinlein scholar Robert James told the Times. "The impression was that he was writing commercial fiction from Day 1. Like a juggernaut he dominated science fiction. Actually from Day 1 he was writing what society should be about."

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  1. I wonder if the later Heinlein would have wanted the novel published. The fact that he did not at a time when he could have had his shopping list published may tell us something.

  2. Great post, damstrait. Just got back from ordering the book on Amazon. I’m very much looking forward to it, even if it’s not great. I yearn for old-school progressive SF, like the stuff Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon used to write. Even lesser Herbert.

    It would be interesting to compare For Us, The Living with, say, Sturgeon’s final work (posthumous, was it?), Godbody, which I recall evoked two responses: the spiralling spiritual pap of an old man and the most touching thing he’d ever written.

  3. Hmmm, Rand wrote “We The Living” in 1933 (or finished it then at least).

  4. I wrote a wee little article about this in the December issue; I more heartily recommend this worthwhile review by Colby Cosh.

  5. Hell, I think I’ll honor the Old Man’s wishes and not read it.

  6. The sad thing is is that I come to H&R looking for up to date info, but I swear this book has been in print for at least a month. I thought that reason’s folks were bigger Heinlein fans than that.

  7. Madog has it right: It’s worth reading, but as a study of how Heinlein’s ideas developed, not as a particularly good novel. It’s not just that the ideas are collectivist, but that the whole book is a one-sided dialogue dedicated to proving the author’s points, without any plot and with characters who exist primarily to deliver the message.

    What I find disturbing is not only the bad economics, but the subtle brainwashing, which Heinlein seemed to view as something desirable. I’ve read that in the first version of “If This Goes On…” he ended with the revolutionaries coming up with a scheme to re-educate the masses through similar psychological manipulation, but fortunately he changed the ending before publication.

  8. Here’s a link to my own review: http://www.mcgath.com/forus.html

    It’s amazing that Heinlein once thought the government could fix all kinds of problems just by printing money. I don’t blame him for trying to destroy all remaining copies.

  9. “It would be interesting to compare For Us, The Living with, say, Sturgeon’s final work (posthumous, was it?), Godbody, which I recall evoked two responses: the spiralling spiritual pap of an old man and the most touching thing he’d ever written.”

    Well, it’s not like the two reactions are necessarily mutually exclusive…

  10. “It would be interesting to compare For Us, The Living with, say, Sturgeon’s final work (posthumous, was it?), Godbody, which I recall evoked two responses: the spiralling spiritual pap of an old man and the most touching thing he’d ever written.”

    Well, it’s not like the two reactions are necessarily mutually exclusive…

  11. I am a daily ready of SF author Jerry Pournelle’s website jerrypournelle.com and there has been some discussion about Heinlein’s first work. Pournelle and Heinlein were friends and when Pournelle was starting to write fiction, Heinlein’s advice to him was: “Once you sell your first story, burn all of your previous work.” I wonder if Heinlein was thinking of “For Us, the Living”

  12. Regardless of whether or not it’s a good book and Heinlien would have wanted it published, it’s important from a scholarly aspect because it gives insight into one of the great authors of the 20th century.

  13. JB

    …Which was preceded by Eugene Zamaitin’s “We”, published in Soviet Russia in the 20s. A blueprint for many of the “utopian” novels to follow.

  14. The young Heinlein has a lot of nutty ideas. Just look at “The Roads Must Roll” for some of the screwiest economics you’ll ever read.

  15. Not to be contrary, but…what ‘characterization’ are you guys talking about? The two dimentional kind? I suppose for SF it’s not so bad, but still…

  16. Haldeman’s novel was great. Unfortunately he is correct: man will no longer be man when he gives up war. Haldeman’s view (if I remember correctly) is that it will require genetic alteration.

    Krishna had it right. For man it is not possible or right to choose not to fight. The only real choice we have is the cause.

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