Astounding Stories #2: For Us, the Living
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
In the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, the editor John W. Campbell put out a call for submissions from unpublished writers, framing the request with a surprising claim:
From our past experience, authors don’t, generally speaking, “work their way up.” Heinlein’s first story, “Life-Line,” was the first he submitted here. De Camp’s first published story was his first submission; it was also a good yarn. Van Vogt, similarly, sold the first story he submitted, as have many of the other authors. Apparently, if you can write good, strong fiction, you can, and will, write good, strong fiction the first time.
Obviously, this statement flies in the face of much of what we know—or think we know—about how writers grow and develop, and although Campbell was evidently hoping to encourage new authors here, his words probably had a disheartening effect on writers who didn’t manage to break through with their initial sales. (Reading the same editorial today also reminds us of how much has changed over the last seventy-five years: Campbell says that a writer could buy “a new car or so” with a novel-length story sold to a pulp magazine, which certainly isn’t the case now.) Later on, Campbell would admit of one exception to the general rule: Isaac Asimov, he liked to say, was the one instance of a writer who submitted unpublishable early stories and slowly worked his way to the top. And for any critic or historian of science fiction, it’s tempting to see Asimov and Heinlein as occupying opposite ends of the spectrum: the slow learner and the phenomenon who was a star right out of the gate.
Except that it’s a little more complicated. It’s true that it took repeated attempts for Asimov to break into the magazine: he submitted ten stories to Campbell before he sold one, and his second sale came after two years of trying. But when you take the overall shape of a writer’s life into account, two years doesn’t seem that long, particularly when you consider how young Asimov was at the time. When his first story, “Marooned Off Vesta,” was published in Amazing, he was just nineteen years old, and his apprenticeship took place in public. His first submission, “Cosmic Corkscrew,” was also his first serious attempt at writing any story with an eye to publication, and he rarely wrote anything ever again without submitting it somewhere. Given that all of these stories were relatively short, it’s clear that he acquired a tremendous amount of craft at a record pace, and the impression that he gives in his memoirs of a long struggle is really the chronicle of a prodigy. Heinlein, by contrast, seemed to come out of nowhere, but that isn’t exactly true, either. He was thirteen years older than Asimov, for one thing, and by the time he started writing, he had served in the Navy, worked hard as a political organizer, and turned his hand to a number of business ventures that paid off mostly in experience. (Asimov rarely left Brooklyn, and he spent most of his time at school or behind the counter of his father’s candy store.) And although “Life-Line”—which was followed by a string of rejections—was his first sale, it wasn’t his first story. He had, in fact, already written an entire novel, and it’s crucial to any understanding of his subsequent career, although not in the way that you might expect.
The novel is titled For Us, the Living, and it was discovered in a garage, almost by accident, after Heinlein’s death. It’s unclear if Heinlein himself would have ever published it, because I suspect that he’d be the first to admit that it isn’t very good. The hero, Perry Nelson, is a contemporary engineer who gets into a car crash and is somehow thrown into the year 2086. On his arrival, he encounters a series of talking heads who expound at great length on the social, political, and monetary situation in their utopian world, which is presented to the reader without a hint of irony. There are a few powerful scenes in which Perry, who has fallen in love with a woman of the future, has to deal with his twentieth-century jealousy over her society’s sexual freedom, but Heinlein seems much less interested in sex than in economics. In fact, that’s why he wrote the book: he had become interested in social credit while working for Upton Sinclair’s political campaign in California, and he decided to write a novel as a vehicle for interminable discussions of economic theory. And it works about as well as you might expect. Encountering For Us, The Living after E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol—which Heinlein would have read in Astounding just the year before—serves as a stark reminder of how the conventions of science fiction can be used to stifle narrative imagination as much as to enable it. Years later, Heinlein would become close friends with Smith, whom he once called the single greatest influence on his work, but you can’t see it here. It’s a novel by a man who didn’t yet completely understand the kind of writer he was destined to be.
And we should be grateful for this. Heinlein shopped around the manuscript without success, but his next attempt at fiction, “Life-Line,” sold to Astounding on the first try, and it has all the qualities that For Us, the Living lacks—it’s swift, fun, and memorable, without a trace of didacticism. On some level, he simply had to get all of it out of his system, and there’s no question that writing three hundred bad pages makes it easier to write thirty good ones. But the truth is a bit more subtle. If it weren’t for Heinlein’s didactic tendencies, it wouldn’t have occurred to him to write a book at all: at the time, there was no market for science fiction in novel form, and the fact that the magazines were the only game in town enabled writers like Asimov to submit their first, amateurish efforts. Heinlein, instead, wrote a novel, as no commercially savvy writer ever would, because it was the only way to express his ideas. And even if it failed in every other respect, it gave him the training he needed, in secret, to emerge fully formed in the pulps. The didactic streak would never entirely depart from his work, and his strongest early stories, like “If This Goes On—,” are the ones in which it fades into the background. (I like Heinlein best when he isn’t so sure of himself, as in the aptly named “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which hauntingly anticipates many of the dilemmas of the Cold War without proposing any answers.) But the experience of For Us, the Living, which he would use as a source of raw material for years, taught him that an audience would be more open to a message when it was delivered with plot, character, and action. And at his best, he never forgot that he was writing for us, the readers.