Home / The Voice of RAH: Heinlein’s First Novel

The Voice of RAH: Heinlein’s First Novel

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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…
&#8212Lincoln 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 Amazon.com), 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&#8212and 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&#8212even 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.

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  • Thanks for such an intelligent and well researched post on RAH. I learned a lot as a casual fan and never would have realized the RAH-Rand connection. Heinlein has been on my “I really need to read more stuff by…” for a few years now. I’ve read several of his short stories, but have been told that “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a great, perhaps quintessential, place to start.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • SFC Ski

    Thanks for the tip.

  • Eric, the connection is likely no closer than the similarity of titles. Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living, was published in 1936 and certainly might have been on a politically-inclined ex-naval engineer’s reading list. My copy is the first mass-market paperback from 1956, but there is nothing to say RAH might not have purchased the (relatively-obscure) hard-cover novel.

    I really meant to point out the similarity of style, as these two writers first began to find their authorial voices. Certainly, their subsequent novels diverged widely in style, if not so widely in philosophy.

  • I believe you do point out several connections between the two writers: their preachy styles, the political content, the penchant of characters to speechify.

    In any case, there is about a 15 year gap in my brief Rand fixation (Atlas Shrugged works as a Great American Novel for its first 500 or so pages, at least for a 15-year-old reader, before it breaks down into wonky talk) and my discovery of Heinlein as a guy you better get-off-your-ass and read if you ever want to write fiction that even breathes near the term Sci Fi (read that in a book on writing by the great Orson Scott Card, actually).

    Again, I thought this was an outstanding post: I learned a lot from it.

  • Yep, similarity of style. These are common stylistic failings for first-time novelists – especially those who have a message to push.

    Some writers publish their (heavily-edited) first novels after they have reached that stage where the publisher will take anything under the “great name”. Others publish under a pseudonym. Some, like Heinlein and H.G. Wells, go their grave with these first-born manuscripts buried in their files.

    And some, like Ayn Rand, publish ASAP. (I’ll have to do a post or two on the greatness and great flaws of Rand’s work.)

  • I find it fascinating to learn of the origins and influences of popular or historic writers.

    For example, Stephen King wrote five novels and easily 100 short stories before Carrie was published in the 70s.

    As a writer, I find that tidbit both encouraging and horrifying. Think what you want about Mr. King (and I love his work) but bro was and is prolific.

  • Stephen King is one of those who has withheld from publication his flawed early work. In On Writing (an excellent resource for the would-be writer, IMHO), he discussed at some length the responsibility of the writer not to burden his editors, publishers or readers with his “first drafts”.

  • On Writing is a great story in of iteself, a great read, and a great toolchest for writers to dig through.

    King actually pushed stories out to publishers and editors at an early age. But you’re right in that he made damned sure that they looked good.

    I absolutely love his theory on the phases of writing: the closed-door phase and the open-door phase. As soon as I adopted this strategy, my first novel began to (finally) take shape.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash