Is Robert Heinlein Our Best Pulp Novelist?

Is there any better pulp novelist than Robert Heinlein? Oh sure, I read a handful of his books and stories as a kid, but I was an Asimov devotee from age eight, when I received my first copy of The Caves of Steel, and my loyalties could hardly be divided. Asimov wrote mysteries, which appealed to my adolescent bookish sense. As Asimov himself noted from time to time, there wasn’t much in the way of chase scenes in his writing; the characters tended to sit around and think their way out of trouble. He wrote Agatha Christie novels, but with robots and interstellar travel.

The egghead outlook befit a man of the academy who didn’t much like to travel. Heinlein, on the other hand, was a military man, a brash, spirited doer, and his books are positively packed with everything Asimov’s lacked: running and jumping and ducking and diving and shooting and slaying. His characters survive on their wits, yes, but also on their brawn. He wrote, in other words, about adventure. His work is smart, of course, but even more than that, it’s fun!

I just read Starship Troopers for the first time in forever. Part of what struck me was how badly the movie (much as I love its brand of meathead camp) employed its source material: Not only did Verhoeven dumb it down, he cut out a fair bit of the most exciting action! I can understand (if not agree with) wanting to make it a little more accessible. But why cut out the most gripping and, frankly, cinematic action scenes?

I’m working my way through the delightfully brisk Glory Road right now, and it’s the most delightful sort of raucous, energetic romp — never brooding or grim, just game and fun. I’ve got a stack of lesser Heinlein titles lined up for next: Sixth Column, The Star Beast, Tunnel in the Sky. Far more than a writer like Michael Crichton, I think it’s Heinlein who’s the true master of what Ross Douthat called the “marriage of sci-fi and page-turning potboiler.” Heinlein’s novels don’t qualify as great fiction by any means, and every time I pick one up, I’ll admit to feeling a tinge of guilt at ignoring the better, arguably more important novels on my shelf. But not for long: Heinlein’s books are so thoroughly engaging, how could I? They read fast, the writing is just clever enough not to be embarrassing, and they’re never less than damn entertaining — which it to say with Heinlein, it’s always a pleasure, but never a guilty one.