Short Reviews – Gulf (Part 1 of 2), by Robert Heinlein

Friday , 20, July 2018 11 Comments

The first installment of Gulf, by Robert Heinlein, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding. It can be found here at

Gulf is a slow-burn sci-fi spy thriller. It’s very dark and atmospheric, and while the hook, some of the window dressing, and the MacGuffin are science-fiction, Gulf stands up as a fairly standard, if well-written, example of the spy-pulp genre. If the sci-fi elements weren’t there, it would still hold up as a spy story, as it doesn’t really rely on those tropes to make its narrative work.

An agent has three tubes of micro-film: two decoys, and one with top secret plans for something. He’s got to get them to the post office so they can be transferred with cold mechanical efficiency to the dead drop address. There’s a game of cat and mouse as those who want to get their hands on the film interfere with the agent as he tries to make the drop, and after he gets the tube off, he’s taken to a private jail on trumped up charges of passing a forged note to a waitress [his wallet had been stolen by a porter urchin and swapped with an almost identical fake].

His enemies try to no avail to discover the contents and destination of the tube, and the agent is “rescued” by an interested 3rd party [a fabulously wealthy helicopter salesman] who got himself captured to make contact and plan the break. The agent escapes only to find that he’s been burned by a double, the tube either went missing or never made it to the dead drop, and his agency thinks he’s the one who stole it.

The cliffhanger ends with the agent being forced to turn to the wealthy helicopter salesman as his only hope, and perhaps humanity’s best hope—the microfilm that was lost? Research for a super weapon that could potentially destroy the entire planet!

I may not sound as enthusiastic about this one as I ought to be and am. This isn’t usually my bag, but it’s a huge step above a lot of the stories that I’ve reviewed so far from the last couple issues of Astounding. I’m enjoying it and am looking forward to the conclusion in the next issue. One thing I’ll note, though: I can’t speak for the hardboiled spy-pulps, because I haven’t read any, but the sex worker being tortured to death in front of the agent to get him to crack isn’t the sort of thing you’d see in Planet, wasn’t what I expected to see in Campbell’s Astounding, but did foreshadow what I’m always told about Heinlein, “he got all weird, man!”

Speaking of weird, Cirsova’s  final issues are exploring more classic “weird” territory than before, with great new fantasy from B.Morris Allen, Misha Burnett, PC Bushi and more! Check it out!

  • Bruce says:

    Heinlein got less weird with as he slowed with age- he flew any number of freak flags proudly all his life, but many of them became accepted, and he got some caution beat into him, and he slowed some. Spy-fi has stressed torture since Ulysseses got medieval on his captured Trojan. As Saintsbury said about Richard Burton, this is certainly great literature but you feel the need to wash afterwards. By comparison Friday is mellow, as well as too diffuse to be really good- it was written twenty years after Heinlein’s wife told him he’d lost a step. I’m not in the mood to reread Gulf often, but it’s obviously the best spy-fi of the twentieth century.

    • Nicholas Archer says:

      “Spy-fi has stressed torture since Ulysseses got medieval on his captured Trojan.” Don’t you mean Ulysses got barbaric on his captured Trojan? The Greeks viewed the world as either Greek or Barbarian.

  • deuce says:

    Sounds like a prototype for a modern techno-thriller. I don’t think Heinlein is God, like some, but when he was on, he was pretty good.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    It becomes a lot more SF in part 2, if the book-published version is any clue.

    And the sex-worker scene isn’t as gratuitous as it seems. Hint: One of the kickers is the reason *why* it didn’t break him…

    • Alex says:

      No, it’s definitely not gratuitous, but it was still surprising and definitely not the sort of thing you’d see in certain SF mags.

      • Terry Sanders says:

        Point. It made perfect sense, and in the kind of proto-James-Bond story GULF appeared to be (part one, at least) it was perfectly in-genre (which may be why he got away with it); but in ASTOUNDING in 1949…

  • Nicholas Archer says:

    Alex saying Heinlein “got all weird” is kind of accurate in my opinion. Has anyone read “All You Zombies”? That is not only weird it is complicated, even if you look at the chart some fan drew up. I’m not one for Spy Fiction but I’m definitely adding this to my “To Read” List.

    • Alex says:

      The part that’s interesting to me is that I only know Heinlein by reputation–this is the firsts Heinlein story I’ve actually read. But everyone who wants to talk about Heinlein ALWAYS has to mention that about him I’ve noticed.

      • Nicholas Archer says:

        I’ve read a few of his works. All I’ve ever heard about him is he went from Liberal to Libertarian and was accused of being a Crypto-Fascist.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    RAH, circa GULF, appears at the 12-minute mark on the youtube video, “DESTINATION MOON 1950: ON THE SET WITH GEORGE PAL – 1949”

  • Overgrown Hobbit says:

    I read this while icing the bum gam, and was intrigued. So I went ahead and looked for No. 4 to finish it off.

    Lord love a duck these Brights are stuck on “intelligence”. Man’s distinctiveness is the moral oddity. Elephants and orca have both brains and altruism. But only man knows his sin.

    I’ll be interested in reading what you think of it – I lost interest.

    On the other hand that issue has The Witches of Karres which is unreservedly fun.

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