by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, November & December 1949

collected in —
Assignment in Eternity

Off the Main Sequence

January 2006

Secret agents & cardsharps

"Gulf" by Robert A. Heinlein is a novella that feels structurally cramped: either it is a couple of partial efforts imperfectly welded, each of which might have done better as separate stories; or it should have been extended to novel length.

Its inception was unusual: "Gulf" was written on commission and in haste for John W. Campbell's "predicted" issue of Astounding Science Fiction. (Out of Heinlein's same brainstorming sessions at this time came the kernel for Stranger in a Strange Land.) James Gifford gives details of that special issue in Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, as does Alva Rogers in A Requiem for Astounding.

Nevertheless, each section of "Gulf" is interesting. The story opens with Joseph Gilead, a mysterious kind of secret agent on unknown business: switching identities professionally, mailing packages clandestinely, foiling counter-agents and police — up to a point. This is good agent-procedural action, but since we are given no clue whatsoever as to what Gilead is up to, it's hard for the reader to get involved.

Once in jail, he's thrown in with another major character, Hartley "Kettle Belly" Baldwin. This other prisoner teaches Gilead a prisoners' communication game with playing cards, a way to trade information even when monitored via sight and sound — as long as Gilead catches on, and jailers do not. It's also important that both be cardsharps of the supernal quality of John Scarne, so the cards-up layouts appear as natural deals. This is asking a lot, even for a prisoner who hasn't been beat up or drugged, but by this time we may assume that Gilead as well as Baldwin knows more than a few tricks. This and more provide good prisoner-procedural action, but the reader has scarcely any more idea why any of this is happening.

Education for supermen

Okay, now to the second half of "Gulf": a lot of education, a dash of romance, and finally a wallop of action at the very end. This half is almost all lecture, a la Heinlein's long-lost first novel, For Us, the Living (written 1938), with a similar result of roping the plot and throwing it to the ground, immobilized. Revolutionary-procedural stuff without the proceedings.

The general theme is building a race of supermen, or rather selecting them out of the current population and training them to maximum potential. The cataclysmically urgent need is for people who can manage the Atomic Age (here we have a plot tie-in). But in the longer term, such progress for humanity is both necessary and inevitable. Heinlein raises a number of points, but in the space available they are stated rather than developed — let alone shown.

Most of the schooling wordage is devoted to one specific skill handy to supermen, Speedtalk: a highly compressed, logically structured language. Heinlein is thoughtful here about language, coherent thinking, and the best use of our time.

However, I would be unwilling to philosophically commit our flexible and evolving understanding of both past and future to any predefined language, no matter how clever. I also do not believe it is mere coincidence that world-historical documents, America's Declaration of Independence and Constitution, were written in English: the human language with the largest vocabulary and a historical sensitivity to issues of freedom.

Heinlein's worries about humanity's competence to handle the dawning Atomic Age are well founded, and of course he tackled other solutions elsewhere. We do not need to believe or approve of Heinlein's suggestions here to have "Gulf" make us stop and think.

The dead hand of Communism

On the risks of constitutional conventions (as published in Astounding, December 1949), and incidentally foreseeing the end of organized Communism forty years ahead of the Soviet collapse:

We helped to see to it that the new constitution was liberal and — we thought — workable. But the new Republic turned out to be an even poorer thing than the old. The evil ethic of communism had corrupted, even after the form was gone.

The last sentence above strikes me as amazingly prescient. The dead hand of Communisn still confuses ideals, corrupts institutions, and lies heavily upon people who would be free.

Cramped but worthwhile

"Gulf" doesn't work well as a story, but maybe it could have. In these years right after World War II, Heinlein broke new ground for science fiction with stories in the slick magazines ("The Green Hills of Earth") and a range from "Our Fair City" to "The Long Watch" (see Future History series); and novels from the wonderful "juveniles" (Rocket Ship Galileo and Red Planet) to the powerful The Puppet Masters (see Heinlein's Missed Bestsellers).

So I presume that pressures of time and length cramped "Gulf" into the story as written. Definitely worth reading, but I suggest placing it rather low on your list, when you are casting about for Heinlein material as yet unread, including unsettling lectures and essays.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

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