The Number of the Beast

The Number of the Beast

When two male and two female supremely sensual, unspeakably cerebral humans find themselves under attack from aliens who want their awesome quantum breakthrough, they take to the skies -- and zoom into the cosmos on a rocket roller coaster ride of adventure and danger, ecstasy and peril. From the Paperback edition.

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Heinleins earlier works, generally classified as his juveniles published from 1947 until the late 50s, may be confused and disappointed by his 1980 novel Number of the Beast. I cannot help but compare this work to Poul Andersons Harvest of Stars (which had some traces of homage to Heinlein), which was published in 1993 when Anderson (another SFWA Grandmaster) was 67. Dick, Heinleins The Number of the Beast may only be for true fans.

Heinlein (Original Review, 1980-08-31) Robert Heinlein's agent had hoped to get $1 million for his latest novel, "The Number of the Beast." What he had to settle for was half that, and not from his accustomed publisher nor from any of the houses with heavy SF publishing programs.

The first one I tried was The Number of the Beast, written in 1980 after a seven-year hiatus brought on by ill health when Heinlein was in his seventies. This story starts when professor Zebadiah John Carter meets Deety (short for Dejah Thoris) Burroughs and her father, mathematician Jacob Burroughs, at a party hosted by a socialite named Hilda Corners. Within minutes, Zebadiah and Deety are engaged and Jacobs car is bombed by unknown attackers. Zebadiah, Deety, Jacob, and Hilda flee in Zebs flying car, Jacob and Hilda decide to get married, and they all hide out in a cabin where Jacob has been working on a device that can access parallel universes. There are lots of SFF in-jokes and Heinlein self-referentially brings in some of his characters from his previous books (hes assuming youve read them) and even he and his wife are mentioned. The first one we hear from is Zebadiah as hes dancing with Deety who hes just met at Hildas party. (Thank you, Deety.) Despite his annoyance with Deetys chatter, once they are much better acquainted (i.e., three minutes later), the two are engaged and off they go to get married, with Jacob and Hilda in tow.

At this point, the book becomes just a masturbatory exercise and loses any pretense of moving the plot forward. Im sure that Heinlein thought he was being very feminist, portraying female characters with intelligence and sexual agency. They are Heinleins fantasy women, what he would have liked to be surrounded bywomen who want to do housework and cooking while plotting how to get their men into bed and get pregnant. I personally would choose sexual function with no chance of pregnancymuch sexier in my world!) I assume that Heinlein at this point had become so popular that publishers knew that they would make profit even from this dreck. He did his reputation no favours with this book or Time Enough for Love, another pointless, masturbatory and loooooong tome.

There's this terrible thing that happens to some science-fiction writers near the end of their careers: they want their oeuvre to make sense, with all the books related to each other in some complex structural way. If you were lucky, you were good SF hacks, and be proud of that.

This morning I was perusing book reviews at Goodreads that, for the most part, lambaste Robert A Heinlein's 1980 novel The Number of the Beast, which I haven't read in years and years. To enjoy such novels, a reader must exert a certain amount of personal energy, digging deep enough into his own dark and forbidding, monster-inhabited labyrinthine corporate-mangled mind to re-discover and then desperately grab onto and tenaciously against all odds and at all costs cling to the long-interred imaginative capacity of childhood; to discard all filters of expectation about what a novel should be and simply go with what this one is. The question in my mind is not whether Heinlein had simply gone insane when he wrote this (he had not), but whether readers are capable of grokking for a moment that the limits of what a novel can be are far, far broader than they've previously imagined.

This book was so dismal that it actually negatively affected my feelings about other Heinlein books (specifically Time Enough For Love). The "big" idea here that Heinlein is trying to put forward is that writing fiction creates a real universe, as real as our own. The main characters have a device that lets them travel to other universes, and they find themselves interacting with characters from Stranger In A Strange Land, Time Enough For Love, and several other Heinlein stories.

Before forming an opinion on this novel, one must first be familiar with 'golden age' scifi pulps; particularly Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom Mars stories, E.E. doc Smith's Lensmen stories, the fiction of Asimov, Clarke, Poul Anderson, and the likes of Larry Niven, Pournell and Bova as well. From the first line, "He's a mad scientist and I'm his beautiful daughter", I found this brilliantly thought out and surprisingly imaginative and intelligent novel exceptionally funny - a brilliant self parody packed with Heinlein's witty zingers.

This particular book was written, in fact, while Heinlein was suffering from a debilitating arterial condition that starved his brain of oxygen and caused him to sleep about 16 hours a day... I liked it at the time, and it turns out that I still like it a lot even today, though for reasons which are almost entirely unrelated to its inherent worth as fiction and more concerned with sentiment, and with Heinlein's neat central conceit. although I suppose it is also telling that the character I remembered most vividly from this book is the flying car, Gay Deceiver (about whom more anon). The Number of the Beast starts with Zeb Carter and Deety Burroughs meeting cute at one of Hilda "Sharpie" Corners' parties. Unless that means they've entirely cured cancer, in Zeb and Deety's time... The beginning precisely sets the tone for the rest of the bookif you are already put off by the arch nature and headlong pace of the conversation between Zeb and Deety, the way the events of the story seem relegated to a mere backdrop for the serve and volley of often outrageous opinions delivered in the tones of Revealed Truth, then you will find no relief in the chapters ahead. One valid criticism that has been leveled at TNotB (and at Heinlein's later work in general) is that all of the major characters, and for that matter many of the minor ones, sound alike. This is both a great strength of Heinlein's work and one of his great weaknesses: whatever balderdash he puts into his characters' mouths, it's always put forth with complete sincerity. The best thing to do is treat Heinlein's (characters') views as purely descriptive, not normative, however great the temptation to do otherwise. I often wonder what this book would look like in an alternate universe where Heinlein had not been attacked by the "Brain Eater" (the term coined by Usenet stalwart James Nicoll to describe a different author's less literal issuesbut TNotB is also a canonical example, in this universe anyway). (Male nudity figures into Heinlein's work as well, though to a lesser extent and in much less detail.) An alternity's edition which retained the images but featured text written by a fully-aware Heinlein might have turned out to be one of his best books, rather than one of his worst. The neatest thing about the book we have is that, if the Number of the Beast really meant what Heinlein contended at such great length that it might...

Robert Anson Heinlein was an American novelist and science fiction writer.