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The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: The Number of the Beast

On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.

The Number of the Beast
Hell of a nebula

Here we are at last, at the final entry in my Summer of Robert A. Heinlein. Before I talk about the final novel on my list, The Number of the Beast, let me try to summarize what I've learned about Heinlein, as one of the "Big Three" golden age science-fiction masters. I don't claim to be an expert--in fact, before I started working on this summer's exercize, I'd only read Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land--but after having read a few of his highlights and lowlights and consulted with people who know far more about the man and his work than I ever will (special hat tip to the Heinlein Society, which served as a valuable resource), I think I have as good a grasp on the man as any newcomer can.

Heinlein is a complicated figure with a complicated reputation, but above all, there is no denying the man's sheer talent for the written word. Nobody--and I mean nobody--does dialogue quite like him, and few have such a unique and consistently entertaining narrative voice. His world-building is exceptional, and his male characters--though they tend to stick to a few well-worn archetypes unique to the writer--are memorable and multi-dimensional. He's not as dry as Clarke or as fanciful as Asimov, which makes his works feel the most human and relatable of the three. (No offense intended to either Clarke or Asimov, who deserve their equal standing with Heinlein.)

He's also the most provocative. Whereas Clarke can be considered the true hard sci-fi writer--he never penned a single word without a scientific paper behind it--and Asimov is the undisputed king of high-concept sci-fi--my plan is to cover his works next summer--Heinlein is the political thinker and near-future optimist. Generally speaking, the man would be considered a libertarian today (albeit with a love for military service), though separating his genuine political beliefs with those espoused through his fiction is a tricky business. His stories all tend to celebrate the individual, especially those working in science and engineering, while a lot of his time is spent trying to predict the progress of the social order.

The Number of the Beast
So bright and colorful

It is on this last front where he gets into the most trouble. While Stranger in a Strange Land anticipated the sexual revolution and while other works have celebrated the power of feminine influence in science and engineering, Heinlein often seems stubbornly stuck in a 1950's patriarchical way of thinking about a woman's place at her husband's side, subverting her own wants and desires to those of her man. This is especially notable in The Puppet Masters and today's novel.

Which brings me to The Number of the Beast, and for the first time ever in this blog, I have to confess I couldn't even finish it. I have powered through a lot of laborious novels, but this one just straight-up broke me. Sufficed to say, based on the two hundred pages I actually read (out of over five hundred), The Number of the Beast is the worst Heinlein novel I've come across. This book does have its fans, and I've read quite a few impassioned defenses of it. For the most part, though, even hardcore Heinlein lovers consider this one pretty weak.

The short version of the plot sounds great: our four heroes use a time machine to travel across six dimensions, jumping into several alternate realities as they try to elude a mysterious group of "black-hats" that are trying to stop them. After Heinlein handled time travel so well in The Door into Summer and after he seemed to mature out of his worst habits in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I was genuinely looking forward to reading it.

The Number of the Beast
This cover makes it look like one of his old juveniles

Alas, this one goes off the rails almost immediately. After half a decade of silence on the publishing front, due to serious medical issues, Heinlein's return to the written word is terribly self-indulgent and deliberately obtuse, with characters who babble incessantly about all sorts of nonsense and can barely be bothered to care about the plot of the very story they're in. Worse still, Heinlein insists on writing from each character's point of view, including two women. There's a stereotype out there of men who try to write from a female point of view, and Heinlein's dual attempt in this book to do that is even worse than the stereotype.

Not only are the women obsessed with discussing, thinking about, and even fondling their own breasts (which he constantly calls "teats") while spending the vast majority of their time nude, their every thought seems dedicated solely to the two male characters. When one of them casually says to her father that she would have happily had sex with him if he'd asked, any chance I had of defending Heinlein for this book goes right out the window. It all comes across as adolescent--even prurient--and seems to indicate that, at seventy-three, Heinlein was kind of a perv.

If you look at this book as a comedy, though, like Heinlein was simply having a good time, it can be entertaining in places. As per usual, Heinlein's dialogue is impossibly clever. However, a lot of his "jokes" depend on a pretty exhaustive knowledge of pulp sci-fi, and most of them are bound to go over the heads of all but the most well-read science-fiction enthusiasts. I wasn't able to get to what many consider to be the book's high point--the return of Heinlein's own Jubal Hershaw from Stranger in a Stange Land--but I don't need to in order to know this book is nothing but a self-fellating work of poor character choices and no editing. If you are one of the few who like this book, more power to you, but for me, The Number of the Beast is so bad, I don't even intend to keep my copy (which is a huge deal for me).

The Number of the Beast
Good dramatic lighting

This is not to say it diminished my newfound love and respect for Robert Heinlein. His works are typically grouped into three categories--his early work, his middle work, and his later work--and The Number of the Beast is the first of his later works, usually refered to as the worst of them. Until I've read other later works like Job: A Comedy of Justice and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, I don't think it would be fair of me to write them all off as lesser than his early or middle works. That said, when people discuss Heinlein, they tend to zero in on those instead.

I will continue to read Heinlein when I can. I'm already looking into getting copies of Glory Road and Have Spacesuit--Will Travel, based on recommendations from you guys, and if you have any other recommendations you'd like to share, please give them to me in the comments. I will, of course, write reviews of any Heinlein book I read in the future.

When I started this exercize, my intent was to answer a question I'd always had about Heinlein: is he a literary genius, a jingoistic misogynist, or a misunderstood provocateur? The answer, it seems, is "yes." If nothing else, the man makes you think and forces you to react, and he does it with style. He is a powerful writer and deserves his legacy, and there can be no doubt that people should continue to read his works well into the Twenty-First and even Twenty-Second Centuries.

-e. magill 8/15/2019

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  • Rocket Ship Galileo
  • Destination Moon
  • The Puppet Masters
  • The Puppet Masters (film)
  • Starman Jones
  • The Door into Summer
  • Starship Troopers
  • Starship Troopers (film)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • The Number of the Beast

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