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July 2004
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by James Sallis

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Manners, by Robert A. Heinlein, Scribner, 2004, $25.

PRONOUNCED trippingly on the tongue or not, the words slip away from us, not the sound of them, never the sound of them, for nowadays they resound all about, an incurable tinnitus, it's the hard-won meanings of the words that slip and slide and get lost, even as we say them. Freedom, liberty, democracy. Liberal, conservative. Stephen Dedalus was quite right to fear those big words that make us so unhappy.

From time to time I tear myself away from writing, conceal myself in what a friend deems "grown-up clothes," and go off to teach. Recently I guest-lectured a course in science fiction. Why do we read this? I asked of a dozen students whose ages ranged across four decades. One wore a short-sleeved white dress shirt, polyester gray slacks. Another sported a spiked collar, studded bracelet and belt, black-painted nails.

That was my first question. Follow-up question, to myself, had to be: What do these people have in common? One, close to my own age, grew up hearing stories of the Depression and World War II, code-talkers, packets of yellow dye squeezed into pale margarine to make it more palatable. Another is innocent of the Rosenbergs, Korea and Vietnam, the CIA's toppling of the Chilean government.

My wife falls somewhere between. An inveterate reader of science fiction and fantasy, Karyn credits Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land as a major influence in her life, asserts that she would not be who she is now—the most tolerant, most loving person I know—were it not for this book, and for science fiction in general.

We're looking for something here, right? I ask the students. Something we can't find anywhere else.

And continue: Does our reading of science fiction change us in some elemental way? Is there something intrinsically liberating about science fiction, embracing as it does other lives, even other life forms, other ways of thinking?

Personally, I feel that science fiction both politicized and humanized me. I came to late adolescence listing heavily to the left. Books like The Stars My Destination, More Than Human, and A Mirror for Observers are much to blame. Yet looking back decades later, I'm forced to remember as well all those tales of interplanetary colonialism, paeans to militarism and capitalism, of a status quo wrung from the very jaws of otherness. We saw the future—and it looked like the U.S. in 1950.

What exactly is going on here?

Few realize that Robert A. Heinlein in 1934, taken with the candidate's utopian vision, campaigned for Upton Sinclair, who had recently left the Socialist Party for the Democrats, or that Heinlein continued in politics for many years, at one point going so far as to run for the California State Assembly. He had graduated Annapolis in 1929; by 1934, tuberculosis forced his retirement from the military. He sold his first story, "Life-Line," to John Campbell in 1939. Beginning in December the year before, in four months he wrote his first full-length work, For Us, The Living, now at long last published.

It's 1939, and Perry Nelson, engineer, has a traffic accident in which he dies only to awaken in 2086, not inconsequentially in the apartment of an attractive, accomplished, artistic woman. He learns to drive an aircar, watches endless hours of video history, talks to various experts, is remanded to psychiatric treatment following an act of violence triggered by recidivist jealousy, talks to another expert or two, and becomes a pioneer rocket pilot.

Th-Th-Th-That's all, folks.

Did Heinlein believe he was writing a publishable novel? Apparently so, since he submitted it for publication at least twice. But what he wrote, what we now have in our hands, is a series of lectures—it would be kind but gravely in error to call them Socratic dialogues—on society and the individual's place in society, on government, on personal ethics, on economics: oversize beads threaded on the thinnest string of narrative. Heinlein was working, of course, in the Utopian tradition of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and H. G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes. He was far from the consummate storyteller he would soon become. He was an engineer, with an engineer's mind. Every problem had a logical, practical solution. (International economics? Give me a moment, I'll work it out for you on my slide rule!) He was also a young man, with a young man's smug belief that he alone knows how the world should be, and can fix it, if you'll just give him half a chance.

In many ways Heinlein never lost that smug certainty. Though he learned to cloak his sermons in compelling stories, the lectures always peeked out, beggars beneath the rich man's table.

In Heinlein's world, the exceptional individual—and all Heinlein's protagonists are exceptional individuals—has license to do as he wishes, extracting the best of what society has to offer, bending it to his needs, living at the same time within and beyond it. History in fact is, for Heinlein, little more than the story of these exceptional individuals. True, the individual still has obligations, as in Heinlein's famous assertion that only those with military service should be full citizens, allowed to vote. But beyond that, pretty much anything goes.

The exceptional individual, at least in later life, will also quite naturally be surrounded by adoring, half-clad females, themselves exceptional; but that's another story.

Little wonder that at least three generations of readers have found themselves confused by Heinlein. On the one hand absolute sexual freedom, on the other the rampant xenophobia and jingoism of Starship Troopers. Over it all, an unremitting championship of the individual and individual rights, your basic American frontier mentality, actually—assuming always, of course, that the individual is exceptional.

A doctrine of absolute individuality based on elitism?

What exactly is going on here?

"How could a man who supported the Socialist Upton Sinclair and the Democrat FDR become a supporter of arch-conservative Republicans Barry Goldwater and Jeanne Kirkpatrick?" editor Robert James asks in the Afterword to For Us, The Living, answering his question with Heinlein's quip to Alfred Bester circa 1959: "I've simply changed from a soft-headed radical to a hard-headed radical, a pragmatic libertarian." The old John Dos Passos fade.

Words that slip away from us, words that duck and shimmer.

Few more slippery than libertarian.

Its impress scores science fiction's DNA, in stories by Cyril Kornbluth (The Syndic), Eric Frank Russell ("And Then There Were None"), A. E. van Vogt ("The Weapon Shops of Isher"). Ayn Rand's Objectivism from her novels Anthem and The Fountainhead soon got grafted on. Heinlein's 1966 The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress became the rallying point and, certainly within sf, the movement's Bible.

Reviewing Give Me Liberty, an anthology of sf with the common theme of challenging government, Robert Killheffer in these pages remarked libertarianism's penchant for minimal government and a society based on unrestrained competition, comparing recent libertarian-influenced work (L. Neil Smith, Vernor Vinge, John Varley) to the social idealism of older writers such as Lloyd Biggle, Christopher Anvil, and Frank Herbert. The stories of Give Me Liberty, Killheffer observed, propose a radical equalization in society, their hat set toward dignity for all—a culture of cooperation, not competition. "It is an anti-government vision insofar as the authors reject government as the means of achieving their reformed societies, but the foundation of them all—equalization of power—has far more in common with New Deal progressivism than with Rand's Objectivism."

Similarly, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer in their introduction to The Hard SF Renaissance (2002) hold that the resurgence of "the new hard sf" ("baroque hard sf" or "baroque space opera") in the Nineties, spearheaded by writers like Paul McAuley, Iain M. Banks, Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Ian McDonald, and Kim Stanley Robinson, was in direct opposition to "a perceived trend in American sf in the 1980s toward militarist, right-wing, or libertarian space war fiction marketed as synonymous with hard sf."

Back to Heinlein.

What should come as no surprise, all this having been said, is how much of what was to come shines through in this first novel. "[I]t is so immensely much more than just a first novel," Spider Robinson writes in the Introduction. "It is all of them, dormant." Here are the seeds of "If This Goes On—," "The Roads Must Roll," "Coventry," and Beyond This Horizon. Heinlein's advocacy of Social Credit, worked out in some detail here, becomes seminal to Beyond This Horizon (1942) and continues to surface in later works as far forward as Time Enough for Love (1973). Robinson goes on to list a half-page or so of other constant concerns and themes: multiple identity, advances in technology leading to hedonistic comfort, the balance of privilege and responsibility, alternate histories, alternatives to monogamy and conventional marriage, the metric system, general semantics.

Some passages are chilling, as in this stark portrait of U.S. isolationism following a brief history of the war that devastated and depopulated Europe. The situation now?

"We don't know, Perry. Not in any great detail. The Non-Intercourse rule has never been fully lifted and we have never resumed commercial or diplomatic relations. The population is increasing slowly. It is largely agrarian and the economy is mostly of the village and countryside character. Most of the population is illiterate and technical skill is almost lost."
—While in the U.S. all live in comfort, work only when they wish to do so, fly aircars, eat marvelously, lack for nothing.

Or this sketch of a past U.S. president's policies:

Once in office Malone ran things with a high hand. Congress was willing in the first session to pass almost any law he desired. One of the most important was the Public Safety bill which was in effect a gag for the press and other means of public information. Inasmuch as it was first used to suppress news of labor troubles which resulted from the discontinuance of the dole, the capital controlled press submitted to it without really knowing what they were in for. Then a law was passed which greatly increased the scope of the G-men or Federal enforcement agents and making them directly responsible to the chief executive.

If that doesn't chill your blood in these days of PATRIOT Acts, steady erosion of civil rights, and anomie on the part of our representatives, seek medical attention immediately.

Like many my age, I grew up on Robert Heinlein. The first book I can recall reading, in my brother's Science Fiction Book Club edition around age eight, is The Puppet Masters. I worked my way through all the Scribner juveniles, many of them over and again, read later novels as they were serialized in magazines (Have Spacesuit, Will Travel in these pages, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in IF), sat over coffee in the student union at Tulane with a mass-market Stranger in a Strange Land propped up on copies of Hawthorne, Melville and Twain as I read. Later, along about Friday, I lost him, or we lost one another. I kept stumbling over roots, shaking my head at an old man's fantasies. What I never lost was the sense of how important this man, this writer, was to me.

It was from Heinlein initially, later his peers, that I learned tolerance, learned to question authority, came to think deeply about the individual's place in society, about man's place in the universe.

Science fiction, it seemed to me then, was forever on the barricades, taking nothing for granted, plowing up everyday life for richer soils beneath, challenging all our assumptions and exploring radical ideas, causing us to think in different categories. And while I couldn't be sure about man's place in the universe, I knew that my place had to be on those same barricades.

I'm still there.

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