PDA

View Full Version : Thoughts On The Number of the Beast



Stuart
2003-May-19, 05:12 PM
In one of the strings below, this RAH novel is pretty thoroughly lambasted. I always had a liking for the novel (while recognizing its shortcomings) so I thought I'd re-read it in view of some of the comments made. The first thing I have to say is that the novel doesn't "work" (except in the most profound sense of all - Heinlein got the largest advance payment in literary history for it)

The novel starts with what is recognizably a re-creation of 1930s pulp fiction. That's made explicit right from the beginning. This section has all the attributes, a mad scientist with a beautiful daughter, a flying car, alien monsters and explosions. One oddity of this section is what must be the worst piece of writing in modern history "our teeth grated " etc. Odd, because Heinlein is an accomplished wordsmith and something that bad just doesn't sound RAH-like. However, while its not typical of Heinlein, it is sadly typical of much of the pulp fiction of that era - I think Heinlein wrote it deliberately that way to recapture the echo of the 1930s pulps. This section also introduces a recurrent theme - Heinlein himself appearing via characters that have nagrams of his name (Bennie Hibol = Bob Heinlein, Neil O'Heret Brain = Robert A Heinlein)

The novel then moves to Mars-10 and the second section. Dismissed by one person as "arguing over who drives the car", this is actually an interesting study of how to make a mess of command that could have come straight out of a staff college textbook. Each of the four main characters fails as a commander in different ways. Zebbie is too tolerant, Hilda too much of a martinet, Jacob too inconsistent and Deety too lazy. Learning by eachother's mistakes they finally get it right. (Another anagram - Iver Hird Jones = John Riverside, a Heinlein pseudonym)

The next phase of the novel (and in some ways the most controversial) is where Heinlein moves the characters to Wonderland and Oz. This has caused derision and a certain level of disgust with this novel. At first I thought this section was just a way of emphasizing the novel was a fantasy - I only grasped the real significance later).

After a brief interlude on a safe but boring planet, the action shifts to the "Lazarus Long" universe where the four primary characters merge with the Lazarus Long storyline. The novel ends with a glorious party full of in-jokes, allusions and more anagrams (Mellrooney = Lyle Monroe, L Ron O'Leemy = Lyle Monroe (Heinlein Pseudonym), The Villains Nine Rig Ruin = Virginia Heinlein, Torne Hernia Lien and Snob = Robert Anson Heinlein, Sir Tenderloinn the Brutal = Trust Robert Heinlein Land).

Reading the notes I'd made an epiphany struck me. The Number of the Beast isn't simply a fantasy; its a fantasy-autobiography of Heinlein's life. The timing is important here; Number of the Beast was written after Heinlein had spent a number of years desperately ill and in need of critical surgery. Its very much a summary of his life and an envoi to his friends if he didn't make it back from his illness. Heinlein started his career (and made his name in) the pulp science sector, during WW2 he was a naval officer commanding a classified research program. Post WW2 he kept his career going by writing what were essentially children's books (hence the trip to Oz and Wonderland). In the late 1950s he spend a few years writing non-fictional material before he started the series of "modern adult" novels with Stranger in a Strange Land. In other words, each major section of The Number of the Beast corresponds to and is a fantasy-allegory of a major section of Heinlein's life.

I started off by saying the novel doesn't work. Sadly, it still doesn't. Heinlein tried to be too clever I think. He'd wanted to do a novel where the viewpoint shifted rapidly between the major characters for many years and he must have believed this may have been his last chance. If Number of the Beast had been his last novel, it would have rounded off the series much as the last line in To Sail Beyond The Sunset does. However, a few things still rouse my curiosity.

1) Is the idea of a six-axis universe (three physical axes, three time axes) actually plausible or is it a Heinlein invention?

2) Several "universes" appear to be completely empty - is that also plausible or is an empty universe a contradiction in terms?

3) I remember reading somewhere that the idea of "parallel universes" was debunked - is this so.

As a final note - reading the description of Gay Deceiver, she sounds very much like an F-111 to me. :)

kilopi
2003-May-19, 05:54 PM
1) Is the idea of a six-axis universe (three physical axes, three time axes) actually plausible or is it a Heinlein invention?
Heinlein invention, although a lot of people have invented it. Me, for instance, and C.S. Lewis.


2) Several "universes" appear to be completely empty - is that also plausible or is an empty universe a contradiction in terms?

I think JS has been saying that it is plausible.


3) I remember reading somewhere that the idea of "parallel universes" was debunked - is this so.
I don't think so. I did read a comment on this board to the effect, if they are really parallel, how would you get from one to the other to find out? :)

Grand Vizier
2003-May-19, 06:07 PM
3) I remember reading somewhere that the idea of "parallel universes" was debunked - is this so.


Not exactly: we had a recent thread on the General Astronomy board about this:

http://www.badastronomy.com/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=4980

...based on an intriguing Scientific American piece. It seems a lot of people are unconvinced. I find the arguments convincing, though I concede they are mostly philosophical arguments, not scientific ones. I cannot see how parallel worlds do not exist in an infinite 'multiverse'. On a scientific note, though, parallel quantum worlds may be provable some time in the future, if quantum computing takes off.

PS: I won't comment on the book, because irrespective of its insights into Heinlein's life (and you do make some good points), I simply can't cope with either the style or characterisation. I finished it, but only under protest :)

Defender
2003-May-19, 07:32 PM
David Langford put it better than I ever could when he wrote this review of "The Number of the Beast-".

http://www.ansible.demon.co.uk/writing/numbeast.html

I agree with every word.

informant
2003-May-19, 07:52 PM
The novel then moves to Mars-10 and the second section. Dismissed by one person as "arguing over who drives the car", this is actually an interesting study of how to make a mess of command that could have come straight out of a staff college textbook. Each of the four main characters fails as a commander in different ways. Zebbie is too tolerant, Hilda too much of a martinet, Jacob too inconsistent and Deety too lazy. Learning by eachother's mistakes they finally get it right.

I remember this part differently. To me, it seemed like Jake was always the one who made the mistakes. The other "leaders" were accepted fairly well by the others, but Jake couldn't move a finger without everyone jumping on him - for no apparent reason, as far as I could tell! I finally came to the conclusion that he had been elected scapegoat of the month by Heinlein.
If Heinlein was trying to teach us that Leadership Is Difficult, he should have come up with better and clearer examples of Bad Leadership.

This is also the part where Hilda Burroughs - who had been a fairly likeable character up until then - turns into a ****. Supposedly, this is meant to convince us that she's the Best Leader (a leader must be tough, from whence follows, obviously, that you can tell how good someone is as a leader by their degree of obnoxiousness :roll:). Under Hilda's command, they bully, threaten and snob everyone they meet (except for some fictional characters), for next to no reason. Supposedly, this was meant to show us how alert and cautious they were; in reality, they just come off as paranoid.

I'll just stop ranting now.

Stuart
2003-May-20, 01:03 PM
I remember this part differently. To me, it seemed like Jake was always the one who made the mistakes. The other "leaders" were accepted fairly well by the others, but Jake couldn't move a finger without everyone jumping on him - for no apparent reason, as far as I could tell! I finally came to the conclusion that he had been elected scapegoat of the month by Heinlein. If Heinlein was trying to teach us that Leadership Is Difficult, he should have come up with better and clearer examples of Bad Leadership.

I did say the novel doesn't work - its far from being Heinlein's best (or even coming up to his average). On the first reading, the comnmand lesson didn't occur to me - it was pointed out by a friend of mine I've mentioned before (Colonel Supatra) who was staying with us while attending a course in the UK. Suphi is also a Heinlein fan and picked up the book to read, then made the connection with the course material. Basically the problems each of the four had was that Zebbie allowed continuous questioning and dispute of his orders to the point where the safety of the entire party was endangered. Hilda's first command session went to the other extreme; she was jumping over minor matters that would have been better left un-notices (Colonel S frequently makes a point that being an officer demands the ability to know what to see and what not to see - there are times when inspecting the Guardhouse is a very good idea). Jake isn't elected as scapegoat - his behavior is truly appalling (I think Heinlein overdoes it). As a subordinate, he is condescending, patronizing, and insubordinate boarding on mutinous. The sections where the story is told through his eyes shows him to be insufferably self-satisfied into the bargain. As a commander he is totally inconsistent - probably the worst flaw a commander can have since nothing destroys unit cohesion faster. Deety is just plain lazy; her command input is nil and she dumps the job as fast as possible.

I read the review referenced above, however I have a principle that I don't criticize work put on the net (or elsewhere) in places where the original author doesn't have the ability to defend their work or counter the criticism. Being rude about somebody's efforts where they have no ability to defend themselves has always seemed a bit dishonorable and cowardly to me.

I don't want to be put into the position of defending "The Number of the Beast" since, I don't think it works as a story and its certainly far from Heinlein's best (and could be a good candidate for his worst). My point is twofold; one being to suggest that there is a viable interpretation of the story that's overlooked and throws a different light on what Heinlein was trying (and failing) to achieve. I'm also interested to find out just how much of the space and astronomical theory behind the novel is actually supportable and how much is not.

XweAponX
2008-Apr-08, 11:13 PM
...The Number of the Beast has always been my favourite Heinlein novel, and not because of any of the reasons given in this thread as to why it is not one of Heinlein's best works. Basically, my reason for liking it was Jacob Burroughs Continua Craft's ability to visit Pellicudar, Lilliput, Wonderland, OZ, the universe of EE Smith's Lens series, and finally, the universe of Lazarus Long. I had not read any of the LL books before I read this one, after I read TNOTB I bought all Heinlein's Lazarus Long related books, at that time, Methuselah's Children, Time Enough for Love, the juvenile books having to do with Andrew Jackson "Libby" and I even spent a lot of money tracking down The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (Which are in time enough for love).

This was the first book by any of the authors I liked at the time that suggested that somewhere on another plane of existence, these four characters from the book actually might exist- The World as Myth and "Pantheistic Multiple Ego Solipsism" (Which Lazarus Long admits does not really mean anything. I agree with a lot of the insights about this book that have been discussed here, because when I first read it in 1981, I did not know that much about RAH and the way he wrote. I know considerably more now: To the point where I see patterns in his Future History and other lines of works: Like "Cordwainer Smith" (Dr Paul Linebarger) - Heinlein was in the process of integrating all of his novels under World as Myth- As is evident starting with The Cat who Walks Through Walls, incorporating not only The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but also The Rolling Stones and The Number of The Beast and Time Enough for Love.

I think, Robert simply ran out of time.

But, for the reasons given WHY this book is "Bad" in this thread are the reasons I love it. At the time I read the book I was involved in personal relationships similar to the Burroughs-Carter group-marriage (Consider the names of the Male protagonists in the novel... Burroughs representing the writer, flaky, and Carter representing the writer's creation, an idealised version of himself, probably). I must have read TNOTB at least 15 times since 1981 and I just put it down and I still loved it as much as the first time. In my opinion the novel is too short and excludes The Ringworld, Tarzan, Dorsai, etc all the writers mentioned, but perhaps it was not necessary.

as far as the arguing in the novel about who is going to drive the car, I found some of the situation exactly like my personal life back then. as a matter of fact my girlfriend had stolen the book from me and moved to San Francisco and I moved up there just to get it back- And when I found her again, she had read it and felt about it the same way I did, and it overshadowed our relationship. We would play games that we were Zeb and Deety and my car was Gay Deceiver (The name "Gay Deceiver" reflecting Heinlein's love of old movies... and when you consider it... http://imdb.com/title/tt0026400 "TNOTB" could be a science fiction retelling of "The Gay Deception").

There was just something about the story of The Number of The Beast that busted me out of my shell and is had a positive effect on me for a long time.

Now, not that the tings said here in this thread, as I stated before, I had not considered that this book was also a parody of Heinlein's own life... And I did not know until recently that ALL of the villains and questionable people encountered by the Burroughs-Carters were anagrams of pseudonyms for RAH. I never knew what "Mellrooney" meant- And I see a forked meaning here... If Mellrooney, the name of the main "Black hat" in this book, is L Ron O'leemy/Lyle Monroe... Then the Black Hat is Heinlein Himself and the end of the black hat while trying to escape to Asgard represents possibly some spiritual aspect of Heinlein I am not keen to, being "Shot Down" - It could also refer to L Ron Hubbard who was NOT too popular a guy after killing off Harold Shea in Slaves of Sleep (And for creating the scourge of the medical profession, Scientology)

However... The previous threads in this topic, and my thread, up until this point that is, do not consider one thing: And that is RAH's writing style of using Reverse-Maguffins.

Myself, and you people, have incorrectly considered that the whole point of this book is the Joyride of the Burroughs-Carters and the 4 to 5 chapter argument as to who drives the car: The whole story of the Burroughs-Carters is a Maguffin- but used to bring a device to the Lazarus Long universe: The Burroughs-Carter Continua Craft. I don't know if you agree with me here: and I am going to make a blanket statement of fact:

"the MAIN story of this book, is the rescue of Maureen Smith and her re-uniting with her son/lover Corporal Theodore Bronson."

Just like the MAIN story of "The Cat who Walks Through walls" is the rescue of Mike the Computer from "The Moon is a harsh Mistress" - Because the Long family has a goal and they need Mike to do it:

Just like the MAIN story of "To sail Beyond the Sunset" is to RESCUE and Reunite Maureen with her father... And in that story, the long family uses all of the things brought to the table starting from Time Enough for Love: Dora, Gay, The Burroughs-Carters, Hazel Stone and the male protagonist from The Cat who Walks Through Walls, PIXEL who was introduced in TCWWTW (Plays a MAIN part in rescuing Maureen).. Mike the computer, and it all comes to bear in the final part of To sail Beyond The Sunset... And it is simple enough as Maureen walking up to her father in the Bomb Shelter where he was allegedly killed, and saying, "Come on, let's go"

I think these last three books, although Friday and Job were written in between, were Robert wrapping up the stories he wanted to tell, and I have to respect his style, he steps an ALL literary toes and traditions, starting from The Number of The Beast. But the reason why The Number of The Beast is the best of the lot... Is because of RAH's total disregard for literary conventions INCLUDING his own.

I'll say one thing, A "Pantheistic Multiple Ego Solipsism Convention" as a TRAP for Mellrooney/Heinlein is with Jousting hosted by the SCA and Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven where the losers die and go to Asgard is a party I would love to see in this or any universe. Amen.

mike alexander
2008-Apr-09, 05:15 PM
Like other late Heinlein novels, this one I only read once, when it first came out. I missed the name-play completely. I recall thinking it felt very padded and self-indulgent, if not downright silly.

Thinking back, though, some of the ideas expressed above by Stuart make sense. I do remember when I read it that the displacement device sounded just like the interdimensional device Dick Seaton whipped up in Skylark of Valeron. Hmm.

There were also some hints that the original setting at the beginning of the novel couldn't be taken as 'here/now'. While I can't remember the exact characters at this late date, there was a discussion among the women about the timing of their menstrual periods, and one mentioned hers were clockwork-regular. But, she was (again, trying to remember) 52 years old, which would be really pushing it in our world.

In his later work (starting with Stranger), Heinlein was, in my opinion, having fun with satire, especially satirical commentary on religion. We know how he felt about certain aspects of blind fundamentalism (Heck, one of his earliest stories was "If This Goes On..."). He seemed to be trying to show the difference between open belief and blind obedience.

I saw the same thing in Job. After reading it I decided it was sort of an updated and expanded retelling of Mark Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven.

Daffy
2008-Apr-09, 05:59 PM
To me it is one of Heinlein's best and most original...definitely a departure (at the time) from his usual writing, which is what I think threw most people (myself included) at first. When I picked it up again many years later I was absolutely enthralled with it.

Daffy
2008-Apr-09, 06:05 PM
Thinking back, though, some of the ideas expressed above by Stuart make sense. I do remember when I read it that the displacement device sounded just like the interdimensional device Dick Seaton whipped up in Skylark of Valeron. Hmm.

Given that The Number of the Beast contains many homages to Heinlein's favorite authors, and given that Heinlein and Doc Smith were very good friends, I can only assume that was entirely intentional on Heinlein's part.

Disinfo Agent
2008-Apr-09, 08:08 PM
Thank you for the interesting post, XweAponX. Welcome to the forum. :)


There were also some hints that the original setting at the beginning of the novel couldn't be taken as 'here/now'. In their universe, the telephone had been invented by a different person than in ours, IIRC.

Certassar
2008-Apr-09, 10:08 PM
There were also some hints that the original setting at the beginning of the novel couldn't be taken as 'here/now'.

IIRC, at one time they were amuzed by the fact, that in one of the universes they travelled through quickly, there had been a US president with the last name Carter.

HenrikOlsen
2008-Apr-09, 10:10 PM
"Well... I found a public phone - didn't try to use it; Edison would never have recognized it.
Looks like it was Edison in their world.

Can't remember the actual hint, and searching the text for whatever I could think of didn't give an clue.

Alasdhair
2008-Apr-09, 10:11 PM
There was also Deety's rant about Einstein selling out his pacifist principles...

Daffy
2008-Apr-09, 10:49 PM
IIRC, at one time they were amuzed by the fact, that in one of the universes they travelled through quickly, there had been a US president with the last name Carter.

There was a very funny book written in 1970 by William F. Nolan (Logan's Run) called "Space for Hire." In it he mentions spaceships called The President Wallace, the President Agnew and...wait for it...the President Reagan.

It's a funny world.

HenrikOlsen
2008-Apr-09, 11:08 PM
Found it:

That's how I bought this," my beloved said proudly, pulling out of Deety's biggest purse a World Almanac.
I was not impressed. If she was going to buy a book, why not a technical manual that might contain new art, data Zeb and I could use?
My darling was saying, "We must buy one in each analog we ground in. It's the nearest thing to an encyclopedia less than a kilo mass you'll find. History, law, vital statistics, maps, new inventions, new medicine - I could have skipped the library and learned all I needed from this book. Zebbie! Turn to the list of U.S. Presidents."
"Who cares?" Zeb answered, but did so. Shortly he said, "Who is Eisenhower? This shows him serving one of Harriman's terms and one of Patton's."
"Keep going, Zebbie."
"Okay - No! I refuse to believe it. Us Carters are taught to shoot straight, bathe every month even in the winter, and never run for office."

Ilya
2008-Apr-10, 12:59 PM
I tried reading "The Number of the Beast" twice, and both times could not finish it. In part it was because almost every story the protagonists ended up in I either never read, or read and did not care for.

Noclevername
2008-Apr-11, 06:26 AM
TNOTB was one of the first "adult" SF novels I read as a kid, and for that reason it'll always have a place somewhere. It inspired my imagination, and influenced how I saw science fiction from then on.

But I wouldn't read it again today.

Fadingstar
2008-Apr-11, 01:35 PM
Must agree that TNOTB was not one I hugely enjoyed by Heinlein and struggled to finish it. I like most of his other work though with Friday being at the top.
In parody to EE Doc' Smith's work, I've always felt that Smith's characters tended to have a very thick line distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, and yet the real depths of badness were not envoked within the novels.
I think Duquesne was a good example of this with his ruthless atitude towards Seaton, and yet you never felt he plumbed the depths of such thoughts.
But considering the era that the books were written in may be the reason for this.
ie... what shocked them then would be considered timid by our standards now.

Daffy
2008-Apr-11, 02:54 PM
Must agree that TNOTB was not one I hugely enjoyed by Heinlein and struggled to finish it. I like most of his other work though with Friday being at the top.
In parody to EE Doc' Smith's work, I've always felt that Smith's characters tended to have a very thick line distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, and yet the real depths of badness were not envoked within the novels.
I think Duquesne was a good example of this with his ruthless atitude towards Seaton, and yet you never felt he plumbed the depths of such thoughts.
But considering the era that the books were written in may be the reason for this.
ie... what shocked them then would be considered timid by our standards now.

Interestingly, Heinlein once wrote a very good defense of Soc Smith's literary qualities; later, Spider Robinson did the same thing for Heinlein. Both well worth reading. In fact, now that I think about it, Spider's article was the reason I went and re-read "The Number of the Beast."

Drewster58
2010-Jun-19, 06:22 PM
"Reading the notes I'd made an epiphany struck me. The Number of the Beast isn't simply a fantasy; its a fantasy-autobiography of Heinlein's life."

That is a great insight. I'm currently reading "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls," and understand it better in light of what you said about it's 'sequel' (in RAH's multiverse timeline anyway), "Number."

swampyankee
2010-Jun-19, 07:25 PM
I will say I pretty much gave up on Heinlein after The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress Although I found Friday to be moderately interesting, I found the remainder of his post-TMIHM oeuvre to be quite unsatisfying. Heinlein wasn't the only writer whose work I found disappointing at roughly the same time; I found Pohl's Coming of the Quantum Cats to be nearly unreadable.

Back to The Number of the Beast, I've got to say I pretty much agree with Hurwitz's comments in this article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Number_of_the_Beast_%28novel%29#Writing_style) . Well, with that it's time to find my nomex suit.

Noclevername
2010-Jun-24, 01:08 AM
Heinlein pretty much jumped the shark with the abominable Farnham's Freehold, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was his last attempt to avoid the water-- after that everything gets all fishy. The political preachyness and sophmore philososphy overwhelmed what had once been solid, practical science fiction. The remainder of his work becomes increasingly self-indulgent fantasy-- not that there's anything wrong with fantasy, he just wasn't particularly good at doing fantasy. His juveniles and Tom Corbett were his best work by far. After that he was a Fifties writer stuck in a Sixties world.

grant hutchison
2010-Jun-24, 11:27 AM
Back to The Number of the Beast, I've got to say I pretty much agree with Hurwitz's comments in this article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Number_of_the_Beast_%28novel%29#Writing_style) . Well, with that it's time to find my nomex suit.I think Heinlein got to a point at which most editors were frightened of him, both because of his reputation and because of his personality. Without an editor who was willing to chop hundreds of pages out of his novels, Heinlein's self-indulgence then had free rein. So his later novels are only interesting if you find self-indulgent Heinlein interesting. Heinlein is very high on my list of people I would least like to have dinner with (I'd rather not eat, to be honest); but if you like his world-view, share his affection for cats, and enjoy ferreting out stylistic tricks, I can see how the later works might appeal.

Grant Hutchison

HenrikOlsen
2010-Jun-24, 06:11 PM
On the other hand, his wife would be very high on the list of people to have dinner with.:)

Daffy
2010-Jun-25, 01:05 PM
Heinlein pretty much jumped the shark with the abominable Farnham's Freehold, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was his last attempt to avoid the water-- after that everything gets all fishy. The political preachyness and sophmore philososphy overwhelmed what had once been solid, practical science fiction. The remainder of his work becomes increasingly self-indulgent fantasy-- not that there's anything wrong with fantasy, he just wasn't particularly good at doing fantasy. His juveniles and Tom Corbett were his best work by far. After that he was a Fifties writer stuck in a Sixties world.

Given that Stranger helped create the 60s culture, I have to disagree with this one. And Time Enough for Love was too far out for most 60s types. I think he was ahead of most of us.

Grant, I always disagreed with much of Heinlein's viewpoints...but found his novels, especially the later ones, endlessly entertaining. Still do.

grant hutchison
2010-Jun-25, 02:56 PM
Grant, I always disagreed with much of Heinlein's viewpoints...but found his novels, especially the later ones, endlessly entertaining. Still do.Yes, I'm certainly capable of being entertained by authors with whom I disagree (the early L Neil Smith springs to mind, unbidden). And I think a good editor could have made the later Heinlein into just such an author. But in the absence of that editor, his endless pages of preachy, look-at-me sophistry just wear me down, I'm afraid.

Grant Hutchison

Daffy
2010-Jun-25, 07:48 PM
Yes, I'm certainly capable of being entertained by authors with whom I disagree (the early L Neil Smith springs to mind, unbidden). And I think a good editor could have made the later Heinlein into just such an author. But in the absence of that editor, his endless pages of preachy, look-at-me sophistry just wear me down, I'm afraid.

Grant Hutchison

Different strokes and all that, I suppose. The only one I find preachy is "Starship Troopers," and even that one is not what I would call dull. His later novels do tend to meander more than the early ones...but I like that. It's the journey, not the destination...

But, yeah, different strokes.