A Heinlein Review

Featured Reviews

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs
Published in Hardback by Scribner (January 6, 2004)
by Robert A. Heinlein (Author), Robert James (Afterword), Spider Robinson (Introduction)
Average review score:
A Young Heinlein tries for Utopia, but fails

It's a novel he wrote early in his writing career. It was "poorly" written enough that it was never published prior to his death, although you can tell that he recycled many of the ideas from it into his later works. It was "lost" in the sense that most of the manuscripts were destroyed over time until eventually they found only one copy that had been given to a graduate student for biographical research decades ago.

It has a very light plot revolving around a "modern" (what we would call a "golden oldy" nowadays) man being transported at his accidental death into someone else's body in the distant future and then spending the rest of his time getting an explanation of how the future works and learning to deal with his outmoded jealousies in regards to sharing a female's romantic love.

It has some interesting technical enhancements that mostly seem silly nowadays, primarily because it was written before the computer chip and Internet revolutions. It has a few others (like moving walkways and personal VTOL helicoptor/plane combos) that may still be in the future.

Of course, the parts most interesting to the political/social commentary minded are the economic and legal systems, combined with the projected culture.

On the surface, the book appeals to those who look towards a Libertarian society with a Constitutional summary that reads "Every citizen is free to perform any act which does not hamper the equal freedom of another. No law shall forbid the performance of any act, which does not damage the physical or economic welfare of any other person. No act shall constitute a violation of a law valid under this provision unless there is such damage, or immediate present danger of such damage resulting from that act."

Sadly, the actual implementation details fall woefully short. While not afraid to criticize the time period Heinlein was writing in, he also proposed solutions that exhibit how much maturation was still ahead of him. Remember, this was a draft of a first novel, not the more polished works most expect from Heinlein.

The economic system is based on a popular-in-one-part-of-canada-at-the-time system where the government calculates how much excess production there is in the economy and prints money to distribute their percentage of that amount to all the citizens and so that they can balance production with demand. Part of the amount is also used to subsidize merchants to try and convince them not to raise their prices to avoid inflationary effects. The government also took over the role of banks in society. The basis was that the current system at the time, primarily because of bank lending, led to a cycle of inevitable business failures because there wasn't enough money circulating to pay for all the goods produced.

It's a crazy idea that was briefly popular in the CA political campaign Heinlein worked on and in one Canadian province. It failed in the Canadian province after the inventor of the idea was put in charge of their treasury. The basic flaw in the idea relates to price fluctuations because of the currency infusion (some merchants will opt out of the program, more importantly, things seldom sold or sold in "non-standard" ways like land will get all screwed up), the eternal corrections by the government in an economy that the government planners don't know as much about as they think they do, plus the inefficiencies inherent in skewing prices out of whack, leading to resource misuse and misprioritization by individuals.

The legal system in the book was based around essentially forced mental correction of everybody who didn't fit the normal range of society in their value system. Any deviation from normal behavior was considered a mental disease and treated as such. If someone refused correction, they were banished from society. I guess that's an improvement on jail, slavery or murder.

The big "social" culture enhancement was private and public "spheres" of information, with private free-marriage contracts between any combination of consenting adults. To a certain extent it was a "Hey, let's all have free love and sex with no jealousy or guilt" statement in the pre-hippie mode. Children are convienently left to be raised in creche-like government-run facilities ala Socialism/Communism if the parents don't stick together or don't feel like raising them. It's propounded that most of the children end up in total government care for at least part of their childhood. Typical "We must all get socialized by the government" arguments are made for why this is a good thing. Using private marriage contracts is about the only redeeming idea in the lot.

In summary, it's typical well-meaning utopian drivel that if actually followed would quickly lead to a totalitarian state due to the propensity of human nature. I refer you to Ludwig Von Mises and F. A. Hayek for the extended evidence and proofs.

I actually like Heinlein quite a bit as a writer, especially later ideas along the lines of "An armed society is a polite society", but this book, while interesting, wasn't very good. - Thomas Sewell