For Us, the Lusting

From time to time one comes across a work of fiction meriting almost perfect scorn, indignation, and hate. Heinlein’s FOR US, THE LIVING is such a book. This is a review of the first hundred pages or so, since I lack the fortitude to continue past that point.

Published posthumously, this was Heinlein’s first attempt at a manuscript, and one which he wisely never a second time attempted to sell, breaking one of his own rules about selling everything he wrote. It is not a novel properly so called, and not meant to be read as one: it is a series of lectures or ideas about a libertarian utopia, written in the same style as the utopian speculations of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and HG Wells’ A Modern Utopia and Aldous Huxley’s Island. Like his later books Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, the plot is basically an excuse for the lectures.

The plot, such as it is, provokes no complaint from me. A man not named Robert Heinlein is thrown into the future, rescued by a Houri or Nymph of surpassing beauty and intelligence, who also happens to be a nudist, unattached, willing to bed him, and eager to feed, nurture, and act as a tourguidess for future America.

The characters are unexceptional, and draw with Heinlein’s practiced economy of style: which apparently he had mastered even at his first attempt at story telling. The reader will quickly be charmed by the characters, including the cat.

The man is something like a Jules Verne character, basically someone meant to gawp at the scientific wonders before his eyes and ours, but if the Nautilus, the Albatross, or the Terror were crewed by delectably naked sex-bunnies rather than by Nemo or Robur the Conqueror.

For a Heinlein fan, there is some delight to be had seeing elements from his later books in their earliest incarnations, including the rolling roads from his future history short stories, the “social credit” economic theories of C.H. Douglas which appear in Beyond This Horizon, the nudism and social relativism predominant in Glory Road or in Time Enough For Love. The “covenant” from Coventry makes an appearance, as well as one of the main-character cats Heinlein depicts so lovingly in several books. There is a variation on the idea in Starship Troopers, where suffrage was limited to veterans. In the utopia of US, only soldiers can vote on whether to go to war, except in cases of invasion. Nehemiah Scudder from If This Goes On makes an appearance in much the same role, as the leader of a Ku-Klux-Klan type terror movement by Christian Jihadists attempting to impose Sharia law, and outlaw card playing, nightclubs, and dance halls. Nehemiah was defeated, and was probably sexually impotent.

The retroactively alternate future history from 1939 is actually eye-opening. We tend to forget what the future looked like from before World War Two. Heinlein very reasonably (but, as it turned out, inaccurately) predicted we would never enter that war. Europe would defeat the Axis powers, and erect a stronger version of the League of Nations, this time with a Monarch: Edward VIII (who had abdicated only three years previously to marry a Wallis Simpson—a touch of toughminded individualism Heinlein surely admired) would be crowned as King of the United Europe. America would later enact an embargo on Europe, which would descend rapidly into barbarism. Roosevelt would die in a plane crash, and President La Guardia would lead the nation into an early of peace and prosperity based on libertarian individualism, Keynesian economic currency inflation, and the de facto abolition of the nuclear family. The reader is treated to a number of lectures meant to make this snake oil sound like it is good for what ails the body politic.

The lectures as such are perfectly entertaining pieces of rhetoric. The Meno-type character (the man not named Robert) asks all the right and stupid questions, and the various Socrates-like or Virgil-in-Inferno-like characters give the set answers in tones of warm condescension mingled with surprise, just to let the reader know that any disagreement with the ideas buttered up and slid into the reader’s gawping mouth is not merely ignorant and bigoted, but, worse, it is uncool.

I suppose someone blissfully ignorant of the science of economics or the study of Constitutional law, would not be offended by the idea that the United States government in the future will free us from the sinister threat of fractional reserve banking—which (the author dismissively informs us) is merely an anarchy run for the sake of bankers, and unconstitutional! Yes, you heard it here first, folks, the evil Jewish conspiracy of Banking Trusts are violating the US Constitution whenever they loan money at usury, as this required them not to keep one hundred percent of their assets in reserve, and ergo allows them to “create new money out of an inkwell.” Hoo-haw! Someone get on the phone to William and Mary Law School. I think I missed that point when it was covered in Con Law class.

However, the Federal Reserve Board is abolished in the future (which I would not mind) and the National Bank is erected in its place (no doubt atop the unquiet grave of President Jackson) which prevents Depressions and Recessions by the dumber-than-Keynesian expedient of inflating the currency. (Yes, the same act of “creating new money out of an inkwell” that was so reprehensible when private banks did it.) Here in la-la-land, when the strawman character asks why inflation does not, you know, devalue the currency, he is brushed off by a jovial but condescending remark: “Why, you don’t think you can run the country with the same amount of money in circulation that it had in George Washington’s day!” The confusion between money as a store of value and currency as a type of legal note indicating a debt is beyond the power of this book report to explain. I will merely sneer that a first year Econ 101 student who made the mistake Heinlein made would not pass his class.

There is other Keynesian rubbish about how Depressions are caused by under-consumption.

Someone utterly and completely unaware of any fact of the human condition, including the basics of human psychology, biology, anthropology, economics, ethics, politics and history—let us say a Man from Mars, or, better yet, your average High School intellectual who fancies himself worldlywise— would find these lectures amusing and unexceptional, and be convinced of their solid wisdom without ever once reflecting on them. So, from that point of view, the craftsmanship is flawless.

Here, indeed, is the core and wellspring of my loathing for this book, and it is a loathing I share (albeit felt less deeply) with all utopian literature: all that is required for utopia is that human nature be different than it is, and that we dwell in a world with no scarcity of resources, no law of cause and effect, and so on.

The croquemitaine of Nehemiah Scudder is offensive in this book. The book was written in 1939, the same year Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz came out as colored motion pictures, which will give you an idea of for how long pseudo-intellectuals have been, or have pretended to be, afraid of the looming threat of the coming Christian Theocracy.

I say again, that this was written in 1939, the same year Jorge Luis Borges wrote his short story Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, which contains a subtle but biting condemnation of the fascism oversweeping the world at that time. Heinlein chose not to waste many words on the threat of fascism, because the threat of looming Christian Theocracy by obviously sexual impotent dictators occupied a greater segment of his auctorial imagination.

The other ghastly absurdity in the book is the perfect sexual libertarianism practiced, because the nymphs and satyrs of the future have no need of any marriage custom. The state will raise any children the parents are not interested in raising, or the child can stay with one parent or both or neither or all of them, depending on how many parents are in the group marriage. All sexual liaisons are matter of temporary convenience, as one’s libido directs.

When the main character and the nymph fall in love in chapter three, they are “married” merely by the nonbinding exchange of a mutual decision to do so, and this decision contains no consequences whatsoever. Mention is made of several half-siblings of the nymph (her father has at least three paramours), none of which were raised in a home, and one of which was explicitly fathered on a woman merely as in exercise in eugenic breeding.

When the nymph wants to invite one of her old lovers or ex-husbands (there is no distinction) up for a weekend, she tells the main character that it is simply none of his business. The writer expects us to be on the side of the nymph, and to dismiss the man’s desire for non-casual sex, love, romance, and family life as something between an offense against good taste and a psychotic aberration. When he later repels the advances of a rival for her sexual favors, the man is sent to a re-education session, because in the future sane thinking about love is insanity.

It was at that point that my patience was exhausted with this dreary nonsense. I suppose a young boy, or a sexually depraved man raised with modern notions of right and wrong, sees nothing wrong with being so intimately in love with a woman that one is willing to worship her with your body and endow her with all your worldly goods, and yet at the same time to be so respectful of her privacy that she cannot share with you the list of those other people or creatures with whom she is likewise sharing herself.

It was embarrassing. It was like reading the earnest sexual fantasy of a teenaged boy, where he tries to come up with some half-backed excuse to justify his sexual perversion. You can read similar lectures in the pages of John Norman’s Gor books, except in that case the perversion is sadomasochism rather than mere satyriasis.

The nymph girl, whom I am sure Heinlein meant to be a member of the human race, says she is willing to wed the man not named Robert in a church ceremony, but asks him not to, on the ground that a church wedding would make her feel greasy and unclean.

The book is actually not bad, provided you do not share my particular hatred of the enemies of life, romance, civilization and sanity, you might find it perfectly enjoyable. The overall tone of the book is set by Spider Robinson, who pens the introduction, and like the book itself it is well written and witty, and then has a spasm of Bush Derangement Syndrome or Christian-Bashing, and then returns to sounding normal and witty again. Likewise, in the middle of an otherwise witty and entertaining conversation about something else, Heinlein circa 1939 will suddenly curse women who don’t cozy up to whores and madames, on the grounds that it is hypocrisy for decent non-whore women to disapprove of “sisters who got a better deal for their wares than they did.” The clinging misogyny of that comment is only outpaced by its naive misanthropy.

Whenever Heinlein runs across anything normal, proportional, wise, or decent in the relation between the sexes, he flinches back and sneers at it. I am reminded of Gollum flinching back at elfin food. “Dust and ashes, preciousss! We cants eat that!”

If you think having a conversation interrupted by occasional eruptions of ranting evil does not mar your enjoyment of a work, then by all means, you might like this book. Or, at least, the first hundred pages or so. I make no comment and have no opinion about the balance of the work: life is too fleeting.