CBC News
Heinlein novel imagines a future America patterned on Alberta
By Robin Rowland, CBC News Online | December 9, 2003

Long-lost first work surfaces

TORONTO - The American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein is known for such classic novels as Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

A new book reveals that Heinlein, at least early in his life, was a Socred, a believer in the Social Credit movement that came to power in Alberta in 1935.

Heinlein's long-lost first novel, For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs, is scheduled for publication in January. It imagines a future America patterned on 1930s Alberta.

Heinlein wrote the novel in the late 1930s. It tells the story of a U.S. Navy officer named Perry Nelson who is killed in a traffic accident and is somehow transported, alive, to the California of 2086.

The book was rejected by a number of publishers, probably because much of the story is actually a series of lectures on how Heinlein felt the future should look. In later works, Heinlein would use fictional characters for the same purpose.

In Heinlein's America of 2086, the country did not enter the Second World War, remaining isolated. (Hitler commits suicide after the collapse of the German economy, Mussolini just retires and the Duke of Windsor becomes king of a united Europe).

In the novel, in the 1950s, Fiorella LaGuardia (mayor of New York when Heinlein was writing) begins a series of economic reforms, starting with a banking system based on the Social Credit theories of Socred thinker Clifford Hugh Douglas. In the novel, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds these changes. In reality, in Canada, the Supreme Court rejected them.

In For Us, the Living, later presidents complete the reforms. These reforms then give people a basic income that bridges the gap between production and consumption, which then allows the Americans of 2086 to do what they really want, free of economic fear.

Robert James, who is writing a biography of Heinlein, says in the afterword that there was an active social-credit movement in Los Angeles at the time. According to James, Heinlein had to leave the U.S. Navy after he contracted tuberculosis. He then worked for Upton Sinclair's political campaign. The muck-raking author of The Jungle had long pushed for social reform in the United States.

In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor of California as a Democrat on an EPIC (End Poverty in California) ticket. Sinclair was crushed by the Republicans and the conservative California newspapers. Heinlein continued in the EPIC movement and was editor of the movement's newsletter. In 1938, he stood for the California state assembly in a district that included Beverly Hills and part of Hollywood, losing to a Republican.

After that, Heinlein turned to writing, and quickly became the star of the science-fiction pulp magazines, making enough money to pay off his mortgage. His first successful novel, Rocket Ship Galileo, about a trip to the moon, was published in 1947.

Heinlein then went on to write a series of juvenile novels, which drew many young people into the science-fiction world, followed by his adult fiction.

James quotes Heinlein as telling another science-fiction writer about the later changes in his political philosophy: "I've simply changed from a soft-headed radical to hard-headed radical, a pragmatic libertarian." James also says the events of the Second World War and the Cold War, including the threat from communism, influenced Heinlein's change of political philosophy. He supported Senator Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 (some political analysts consider Goldwater the first neo-conservative).

Heinlein, however, opposed what today is known as social conservativism. In the new novel, his first draft of future history includes a take-over of the United States by what he calls "Neo-Puritans" led by the televangelist Nehemiah Scudder, a character who is also prominent in his 1941 novella If This Goes On. The novella is the story of the second American revolution, when libertarians finally overthrow a dictatorship of the religious right.

For Us, the Living also includes one chilling incident, a surprise attack on the island of Manhattan by two giant helicopters that flood the island with poison gas, killing 80 per cent of the population. The helicopters are based on aircraft carriers and the attack comes when the United States is at war with Argentina, Brazil and Chile in December 2003.

Print this page

Send a comment

Indepth Index