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For Us, The Living:  A Comedy of Customs

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For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs

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Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Scribner, 2004

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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From Grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein comes a long-lost first novel, written in 1939 and never before published, introducing ideas and themes that would shape his career and define the genre that is synonymous with his name.

July 12, 1939 Perry Nelson is driving along the palisades when suddenly another vehicle swerves into his lane, a tire blows out, and his car careens off the road and over a bluff. The last thing he sees before his head connects with the boulders below is a girl in a green bathing suit, prancing along the shore....

When he wakes, the girl in green is a woman dressed in furs and the sun-drenched shore has transformed into snowcapped mountains. The woman, Diana, rescues Perry from the bitter cold and takes him inside her home to rest and recuperate.

Later they debate the cause of the accident, for Diana is unfamiliar with the concept of a tire blowout and Perry cannot comprehend snowfall in mid-July. Then Diana shares with him a vital piece of information: The date is now January 7. The year...2086.

When his shock subsides, Perry begins an exhaustive study of global evolution over the past 150 years. He learns, among other things, that a United Europe was formed and led by Edward, Duke of Windsor; former New York City mayor LaGuardia served two terms as president of the United States; the military draft was completely reconceived; banks became publicly owned and operated; and in the year 2003, two helicopters destroyed the island of Manhattan in a galvanizing act of war. This education in the ways of the modern world emboldens Perry to assimilate to life in the twenty-first century.

But education brings with it inescapable truths -- the economic and legal systems, the government, and even the dynamic between men and women remain alien to Perry, the customs of the new day continually testing his mental and emotional resolve. Yet it is precisely his knowledge of a bygone era that will serve Perry best, as the man from 1939 seems destined to lead his newfound peers even further into the future than they could have imagined.

A classic example of the future history that Robert Heinlein popularized during his career, For Us, The Living marks both the beginning and the end of an extraordinary arc of political, social, and literary crusading that comprises his legacy. Heinlein could not have known in 1939 how the world would change over the course of one and a half centuries, but we have our own true world history to compare with his brilliant imaginings, rendering For Us, The Living not merely a novel, but a time capsule view into our past, our present, and perhaps our future.

The novel is presented here with an introduction by acclaimed science fiction writer Spider Robinson and an afterword by Professor Robert James of the Heinlein Society.


Chapter I

"Look out!" The cry broke involuntarily from Perry Nelson's lips as he twisted the steering wheel. But the driver of the green sedan either did not hear him or did not act. The next few seconds of action floated through his mind like slow motion. He saw the left front wheel of the green car float past his own, then the right wheel of his car crawled over the guard rail, his car slid after it and hung poised on the edge of the palisade. He stared over the hood and saw facing him the beach a hundred and thirty feet below. A blonde girl in a green bathing suit was catching a beach ball. She had jumped in the air to do it, both arms outstretched, one leg pointed. She was very graceful. Beyond her a wave broke on the sand. The crest hung and dripped whipped cream. He glanced back at the girl. She was still catching the beach ball. As she settled back on her feet, he drifted clear of the car and turned in the air away from her. Facing him were the rocks at the foot of the bluff. They approached as he watched them, separated and became individuals. One rock selected him and came straight toward him. It was a handsome rock, flat on one side and brilliant while in the sunshine. A sharp edge faced him and grew and grew and grew until it encompassed the whole world.

Perry got up, shook his head, and blinked his eyes. Then he recalled the last few seconds with startling clarity and threw up his hands in convulsive reflex. But the rock was not in front of his face. There was nothing in front of his face but whirling snow flakes. The beach was gone and the bluff and the rest of his world. Nothing but snow and wind surrounded him -- wind that cut through his light clothing. A gnawing pain in the midriff resolved into acute hunger. "Hell!" said Perry. Hell. Yes, hell it must be, cold instead of hot. He commenced to walk but his legs were weak under him and a giddiness assailed him. He staggered a few steps and fell on his face. He attempted to rise, but was too weak and decided to rest a moment. He lay still, trying not to think, but his confused brain still struggled with the problem. He was beginning to feel warmer when he found a solution. Of course! The girl in the green bathing suit caught him and threw him into the snow bank -- soft snow bank -- nice warm snow bank -- nice -- warm --

"Get up" the girl in the green bathing suit was shaking him. "Get up! Hear me?Get up!" What did she want -- to hell with games -- just because she wanted to play games was no reason to slap a fellow's face. He struggled to his knees, then fell heavily. The figure beside him slapped him again and nagged him until he rose to his knees, then steadied him and helped him to his feet. "Easy now. One arm over my shoulders. It's not far."

"I'm all right."

"Don't be a fool. Lean on me." He looked down at the face of his companion and tried to focus his eyes. Itwasthe girl in the green bathing suit, but what in hell was she doing dressed up like Admiral Byrd? Complete to the parka. But his tired brain refused to worry and he focused all of his attention on putting one icy leaden foot in front of another.

"Mind the steps. Easy. Now hold still." The girl sang one clear note and a door opened in front of them. He stumbled inside and the door closed. She guided him to a couch, made him lie down, and slipped away. Presently she returned with a cup of liquid. "Here. Drink this." He reached for it, but his numbed fingers refused to grasp, and he spilled a little. She took the cup, lifted his head with her free arm, and held it to his lips. He drank slowly. It was warm and spicy. He fell asleep watching her anxious face.

He awoke slowly, becoming aware of a deep sense of comfort and well-being almost before he was aware of his own ego. He lay on his back on a cushion as soft as a feather bed. A light cover was over him and as he stretched he became aware that he was 'sleeping raw'. He opened his eyes. He was alone in a room of ample proportions possibly thirty feet long and oval in shape. Opposite him was a fireplace of quaint but pleasing pattern. It consisted of a vertical hyperboloid, like half a sugar loaf some ten feet high, which sprang out from the wall. In the base a mighty yawning mouth had been carved out, the floor of which was level and perhaps ten inches above the floor of the room. The roof of the mouth was another hyperboloid, hollow and eccentric to the first. On the floor of this gargantuan gape a coal fire crackled cheerfully and threw its reflections around the room. The room appeared almost bare of furniture except for the couch which ran two thirds of the way around the wall.

He turned his head at a slight noise and saw her coming in the door. She smiled and hurried to him. "Oh, so you are awake. How do you feel?" One hand sought his pulse.

"I feel grand."


"I could eat a horse."

She giggled. "Sorry -- no horses. I'll soon have something better for you. But you mustn't eat too much at first." She straightened up. "Let me get out of these furs." She walked away while fumbling with a zipper at her throat. The furs were all one garment which slipped off her shoulders and fell to the floor. Perry felt a shock like an icy shower and then a warm tingle. The fur coverall was her only garment and she emerged as naked as a dryad. But she took no note of it, simply picked up the coverall and glided to a cupboard, which opened as she approached, and hung it up. Then she proceeded to a section of the wall covered with a mural of Demeter holding a horn of plenty. It slid up, exposing an incomprehensible aggregation of valves, doors, and shiny gadgets. She kept very busy for some ten minutes, humming as she worked. Perry watched her in fascination. His amazement gave way to hearty appreciation for she was young, nubile, and in every way desirable. Her quick movements were graceful and in some way very cheerful and reassuring. Her humming stopped. "There!" she exclaimed, "All ready, if the invalid is ready to eat." She picked up a laden tray and walked toward the far end of the room. The mural slid back into place and the shiny gadgets were gone. She set the tray on the couch, then pulled a countersunk handle. The handle came out in her hand, dragging with it a shelf perhaps two feet wide and four long. She turned back towards Perry and called, "Come, eat while it's hot."

Perry started to get up, then stopped. She noticed his hesitation and a troubled look clouded her face. "What is the matter? Are you still too weak?"


"Sprain anything?"


"Then come, please. Whatever is the matter?"

"Well, I -- uh -- you -- see I -- " How the hell do you tell a pretty girl who is naked as a jaybird that you can't eat with her because you are naked too? Especially when she doesn't seem to know what modesty is?

She bent over him with obvious concern. Oh, the hell with it, said Perry to himself, and climbed out of bed. He swayed a little.

"Shall I help you?"

"No, thanks. I'm OK."

They sat down on opposite sides of the shelf table. She touched a button and a large section of the wall beside them slid up, exposing through glass a magnificent view. Across a canyon tall pines marched up a rugged mountainside. Up the canyon to the right some seven or eight hundred yards a waterfall hung a curtain of gauze in the breeze. Then Perry looked down -- down a direct drop from the window. Vertigo shook him and again he hung poised on the palisade and stared over the hood of his car at the beach. He heard himself cry out. In an instant her arms were about him, consoling him. He steadied himself. "I'm all right," he muttered, "But please close the shutters."

She neither argued nor answered, but closed them at once. "Now can you eat?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Then do so and we will talk later."

They ate in silence. He examined his food with interest. A clear soup; some jelly with a meaty flavor; a glass of milk; light rolls spread with sweet butter; and several kinds of fruit, oranges, sugar-sweet and large as grapefruit, with a skin that peeled easily like a tangerine, some yellow fruit that he did not recognize, and black-flecked bananas. The dishes were light as paper but covered with a hard shiny lacquer. The fork and spoon were of the same material. Finally he dropped the last piece of rind and ate the last crumb of roll. She had finished first and had been leaning on her elbows, watching him.

"Feel better?"


She transferred the dishes to the tray, walked over to the fireplace, dumped the load on the fire, and returned the tray to its rack among the shiny gadgets. (Demeter swung obligingly out of the way.)

When she returned, she shoved the shelf-table back in its slot and extended a slender white tube.


"Thanks." It was about four inches long and looked like some Russian atrocity. Probably scented, he thought. He inhaled gingerly, then drew one to the bottom of his lungs. Honest Virginia tobacco. The only thing in the house that seemed absolutely homey and normal. She inhaled deeply and then spoke.

"Now then, who are you and how did you get onto this mountainside? And first, your name?"

"Perry. What's yours?"

"Perry? A nice name. Mine's Diana."

"Diana? I should think so. Perfect."

"I'm a little too cursive for Diana," -- she patted her thigh -- "but I'm glad you like it. Now how did you get lost out in that storm yesterday without proper clothes and no food?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"No. You see, it was this way. I was driving down the palisade when a car tried to pass a truck on a hill coming towards me. I swung out to miss it and my right front wheel jumped the curb and over I went, car and all -- the last I remember was staring down at the beach as I fell -- until I woke up in the snow storm."

"That's all you remember?"

"Yes, and then you helping me, of course. Only I thought it was a girl in a green bathing suit."

"In a what?"

"In a green bathing suit."

"Oh." She thought for a moment. "What did you say made you go over the palisade?"

"I had a blowout, I guess, when my wheel hit the curb."

"What's a blowout?"

He stared at her. "I mean that my tire blew out -- when it struck the curb."

"But why would it blow out?"

"Listen -- do you drive a car?"

"Well -- no."

"Well, if a pneumatic rubber tire strikes a sharp edge when you are going pretty fast, it's likely to explode -- blowout. In that case anything can happen. In my case I went over the edge."

She looked frightened, and her eyes grew wide. Perry added, "Don't take it so hard. I'm not hurt."

"Perry, when did this happen?"

"Happen? Why, yester -- No, maybe -- "

"No, Perry, the date, the date!"

"July twelfth. That reminds me, does it often snow here -- "

"Whatyear, Perry?"

"What year? Why, this year!"

"Whatyear, Perry -- tell me the number."

"Don't you know? -- Nineteen-thirty-nine."

"Nineteen-thirty-nine -- " She repeated the words slowly.

"Nineteen-thirty-nine. But what the devil is wrong?"

She stood up and paced nervously back and forth, then stopped and faced him. "Perry, prepare yourself for a shock."

"OK, shoot."

"Perry, you told me that yesterday was July twelfth, nineteen-thirty-nine."


"Well, today is January seventh, twenty-eighty-six."

Copyright © 2004 by Robert A. Heinlein


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