A Heinlein Odyssey

This time it's The Number of the Beast-the innovator of science fiction is still going strong

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The Number of the Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein, New York: Fawcett Columbine Books, 1980, 511 pp., $6.95 paper.

The trouble with Bob Heinlein is that he doesn't need to write. When I want a story from him, the first thing I have to do is think up something he would like to have, like a swimming pool. The second thing is to sell him on the idea of having it. The third thing is to convince him he should write a story to get the money to pay for it, instead of building it himself.
—John W. Campbell, Jr.

It began in 1939. Robert Anson Heinlein was 32, a Naval Academy graduate who, because of tuberculosis, had been retired long before his time. He was looking for something to do. As a lark, and because he thought he might get a little money out of it (the Depression was still on), he wrote a short story called "Life-line" and sent it to a pulp magazine called Astounding Stories. John W. Campbell, Jr. had been in the editor's chair there for two years and was looking for writers capable of creating a new kind of science fiction. This unknown named Heinlein must have showed promise, because Campbell bought that first story and started a relationship that would change the face of science fiction.

With Campbell's prodding and encouragement, Robert A. Heinlein began producing stories about the future peopled with characters who lived in that future. Gone were the long, expository passages describing social and political orders of the day or explaining in detail the technological marvels on all sides. Instead, the reader was experiencing the future through the eyes of an inhabitant of that future, and that inhabitant took it all for granted—just as all readers take their own surroundings for granted. Nowadays, this approach to writing sf is de rigueur; in 1939 it was something new. But it caught on. Readers liked the challenge of piecing a future world via innuendo and insinuation from a character's casual observations. It heightened the feeling of being there and added to the sense of wonder so necessary to successful science fiction.

Over the next few years, many other stories in the same mold began to sprout up, most notably by Anson MacDonald, but also by Lyle Monroe, Caleb Saunders, and John Riverside. They weren't imitating Heinlein—they were Heinlein, who was cranking out stories, good stories, so fast that he had to use pseudonyms to keep his name from appearing two or three times on Astounding's contents page. What has come to be known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction had been launched.

After the war, Heinlein wrote Rocketship Galileo, which was eventually made into George Pal's Destination Moon, and which began a train of juvenile sf novels that has seldom been equalled in quality. Everything he wrote sold well. He became known as the Dean of Science Fiction and could have gone on doing endless variations on his favorite theme of the competent man, with predictable financial and critical success for the rest of his days.

Instead, he chose to experiment, much to the alternating delight, concern, and fury of his legion of fans. Starship Troopers won him a Hugo award in 1960 and a reputation as some sort of cryptofascist. Two years later, after Stranger in a Strange Land brought another Hugo, people were calling him a heretic and a sex nut. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress earned him still another Hugo and endeared him to libertarians for its rational anarchist philosophy and the famous acronym tanstaafl. After reading I Will Fear No Evil, some people thought he was a pervert, and with Time Enough for Love, a number of critics said it was all over for Robert A. Heinlein, despite his Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America.

But it's not all over. At age 73, 41 years and 41 books after "Life-line," he has given us The Number of the Beast, a long rambling book not at all like what he was writing in the '40s and '50s, but more in line with the style he has developed over the past decade.

For most of its length, The Number of the Beast dwells almost exclusively on its four protagonists: Jake Burroughs; his wife, Hilda; Jake's daughter, Dejah Thoris ("Deety"); and her husband, Zebadiah John Carter. All four are exceptionally bright people, ranging in age from 26 to 49. All have science-oriented backgrounds. The book concerns their flight from one alternate universe to another in search of a new home safe from the aliens pursuing them.

Why are aliens pursuing them? That is never really clear, but it is assumed that the aliens want to prevent dissemination of Dr. Jake Burroughs's latest discovery. Jake, a mathematical genius, has come to the conclusion that all existence is made up of not four but six dimensions—three spatial and three temporal. By his calculations, the number of possible universes along these axes, accessible either by translation or rotation, is 666 (that's six to the sixth power to the sixth power). And according to the Book of Revelations in the Bible, 666 is the Number of the Beast—hence the title of the book. But not only has Jake Burroughs discerned the existence of the two extra axes, he has devised a way to move along any and all of them, to any alternate universe he chooses. (Frankly, I find Jake's theory and his translation/rotation device easier to swallow than a man with a middle name of John and a last name of Carter meeting and marrying someone named Dejah Thoris Burroughs.)

The four protagonists hop from universe to universe looking for a safe and suitable place to settle, arguing all the way and alternating command of their vocalizing, computerized craft, Gay Deceiver. At first the alternate universes appear to be simply that—variations on the world we live in. For instance, they hop to a world almost identical to ours except for the fact that there is no letter J in the alphabet there. They visit a Mars (remember, they can travel along spatial as well as temporal axes) that has a breathable atmosphere and has become a penal colony for the Russian and British Empires. (The United States is still a British colony.) And then there's a strange, inverted universe, almost like a Klein bottle. No real surprises yet.

Then they arrive in the Land of Oz. No, not someplace like Oz, but L. Frank Baum's Oz, complete with Glinda, Scarecrow, Pumpkinhead, and the rest. This was my favorite sequence in the book, and all too brief. I was as moved as Deety when she learned that all the Oz characters knew her because of all the time she had spent reading the books. And an especially nice touch was the instant friendship that developed between the computerized Gay Deceiver and—who else?—Tik-Tok.

From there they hop to Lilliput, then to an English-style countryside where they watch a white rabbit in coat and tails rush by, followed by a little blonde girl in a pinafore. Then they jump to interstellar space and run into one of E.E. Smith's Lensmen, and so on.

Eventually they come to the realization that many of the more than 1.03 x 1028 universes of Jake's theory are inhabited by fictional characters to whom their own world is the real world. Which leads to the unsettling question: Are our travelers fictional characters in a book in one of the universes they've yet to visit? (Heinlein slips you the answer, but you've got to be alert to catch it.) Eventually they arrive in Heinlein's own future history and meet up with the infamous Lazarus Long.

WHO WILL LIKE IT?

Heinlein is obviously having a ball with The Number of the Beast, and if you're in no great hurry you can catch a scenic ride with him. On a deeper level, he is exploring the qualities of leadership—the duties, drawbacks, and responsibilities of taking command of a group of people. But I have a caveat, and it's a major one: you're going to have trouble with this book if you're not a science fiction fan. And by "fan" I don't mean someone who has read some Bradbury, seen Star Wars twice, and catches all the reruns of Star Trek; I mean someone who has a solid grounding in science fiction, who reads lots of it. Otherwise you're going to miss innumerable puns and in-jokes, and the epilogue will leave you completely baffled.

I also have a gripe: the dialogue. One of the author's own characters sums it up best. Near the middle of the book, Zeb Carter says, "Yack, yack, yack, argue, fuss and jabber—a cross between a Hyde Park open forum and a high school debating society." At the slightest provocation, anyone—or all four—of the characters will run off at the mouth. I tend to like books with lots of dialogue, especially the terse, bare-bones style Gregory McDonald uses in his Fletch books; but this…this is too much to take at times.

The narrative style may give a few readers pause. Heinlein tells everything in the first person but shifts from character to character; so you have to reorient yourself to the narrative I as you move from section to section. Fortunately, the publisher has headed each page with the name of the current point-of-view character, and this helps a lot.

A word about the artwork. When I heard that Richard Powers was going to be illustrating the book, I thought it was a terrible choice—too surreal; okay for a cover, but not for a bunch of black and whites. I was wrong. Powers has done over 50 illustrations for The Number of the Beast, and they are perfect! The human figures are lush and full of character, and the background surrealism is just right for the text it reflects.

All in all, an excellent value for $6.95. A classy package. If you're one of those who say that Robert A. Heinlein hasn't written anything decent since The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (and there are a fair number of those), you'll think any price too high. But if you liked Time Enough for Love, you'll love The Number of the Beast.

F. Paul Wilson has appeared in Analog, Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, Fiction, Startling Mystery Stories, and other magazines. His science fiction novels include Healer, Wheels within Wheels, An Enemy of the State, and The Keep (forthcoming).

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