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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gulf, by Robert A. Heinlein, Reviewed.

Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac...
Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gulf, by Robert A. Heinlein, is a Sci-fi adventure story/thriller, set on a future Earth and Moon, full of fascinating contradictions. The anachronisms - for example, the plot depends on the physical transmission of microfilms - ought to render it unreadable for a modern reader, but the quality of the writing and the characterisation both take it into the realm of the 'classic'.

Written in 1949, long before the computer was commonplace, although Turing had by that time already shown such a machine was a real possibility, the exclusion of this major influence on the world is a serious omission. I suspect, had Heinlein been aware of the extraordinary changes to communication encouraged by computers and their peripherals, he would have found a way to modify his story to include this aspect of modern life.

There's a good deal of philosophising in the book; much of this could conceivably be considered an analogy for Hitler's attempts to breed a pure race of Tutons. Here, however, we have the idea of a race of 'supermen' based entirely on brainpower. That, perhaps, is the least attractive part of the book. There's a singular lack of emotional content in both the characters and the philosophy many of them espouse. I gained the impression, from the large portions of author intrusion, that Heinlein was definitely on the side of the 'supermen'.

Whilst many of the ideas expressed are attractive to anyone who has a rational element to their personality, the lack of emotional content is a serious worry. Imagining a world taken over by those with the ability to reason and rationalise their way out of our most pressing problems, but lacking any emotional connection either with each other or with their intended victims, makes for a barren world devoid of the most important single quality displayed by humans: their capacity to love.

The story itself is fast moving, full of event and crammed with ideas. The central character, Gilead, is an extraordinarily capable survivor in what is often an almost incomprehensible world. His connection with and partnership of Baldwin allows the story to take on a new dimension and it is following this association that the philosophising really begins.

The denouement was both surprising and, on reflection, inevitable. I find myself recalling certain passages and considering the various messages and theories postulated by the book. I suspect this is a story that will stay with me for quite a while and one which will inform my own writing in certain ways.

So, if you're susceptible, beware of reading this book. It might give you ideas! It's an old story but, in spite of its deficiencies, one worth reading.

It has been said that in Gulf, Heinlein tackles the question, 'What is a superman?' and in answering it, makes previous answers appear muddleheaded. I'd add to that observation that Heinlein's 'superman' is the product of equal muddleheadedness. The total lack of a moral framework or an emotional component, makes his superman more a totalitarian despot than a true superhero, I think.

Nevertheless, I'd happily recommend this as a read for sci-fi and general readers alike.

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