December 31, 2004

The Best Book of 2004 is from 1938

by PAT CUMMINGS American Digest Book Editor

Choosing a best book from 2004 is especially difficult for me. First, I rarely read books in the year they are released, because my budget tells me 10 paperbacks are a better deal for a voracious reader than two or three first-release hardbacks. Second, I read so many books, by the time December rolls around, I may not have the same emotional tie to the very good book I read in June that I have to the mediocre novel I'm reading right now.

But looking back through my journal and blog, there is one book that screams, in the voice of Robert A. Heinlein, pick me!—because in reading this book and writing the review, I was prompted to reread three other excellent (though older) books.

For Us, the Living, Robert Heinlein's first novel, has its own review. To review it properly, I reread Stranger In a Strange Land and Farnham's Freehold by Heinlein. And due to the similarity of title and venue, I was led to reread Ayn Rand's first novel, We the Living.

For these reasons, Heinlein's For Us, the Living is my choice for my best read of 2004.

The Voice of RAH: Robert A. Heinlein's First Novel

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...
—Lincoln 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, 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—and 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—even 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.

Pat Cummings, constant reader, also reviews books at his site Paper Frigate, and at Blogcritics as well. He can be emailed here.]

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Posted by Vanderleun at December 31, 2004 8:52 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

While For Us, the Living was written in 1938, it was first published in January of this year. Like Grumbles from the Grave, Heinlein's first novel was edited and published posthumously.

Posted by: DrPat at December 31, 2004 11:15 PM

I find Heinlein hit or miss. His best stuff is profound (Starship Troopers, Glory Road, Time Enough for Love, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land (although the last is not one of my favorites)), but he can be pretty bad when he is at his worst. He is, like Ayn Rand, far better at politics than sex.

Posted by: The Colossus at January 1, 2005 5:47 AM

You read We the Living again?


Posted by: Brian J. at January 1, 2005 10:23 AM
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