Monday, October 01, 2007

The Number of the Beast

Hilariously, this is my 667th spacebeer post. Which means that if I had posted just one less post back in the past, my review of Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast (1980) could have been my 666th post!

I had really been wanting to delve back into Heinlein (after reading a bunch in high school and college and ignoring him since then), and since the lovely chew had just finished this one, I took advantage and borrowed it. And although there were some very entertaining bits and pieces in this book (Oz!), for the most part I found it to be very self-indulgent and a nice demonstration of all the weaknesses of Heinlein's books.

In The Number of the Beast a brilliant mathematician and scientist, widower Dr. Jacob Burroughs, has invented a machine that plays with the dimensions of time and space and can send you into an thrilling number of other universes -- actually the number is 6 to the 6th to the 6th, or the number of the beast. He and his daughter, D. T. Burroughs (who everyone calls Deety) go to a faculty party thrown by family friend Hilda Corners to seduce Zeb Carter to consult on the machine (under the impression that he wrote some mathematical papers that his cousin actually wrote). After about five minutes of dancing, Zeb proposes to Deety, all four go out to their cars, and Dr. Burroughs car explodes. They hop into Zeb's Kit-like super-computer car, Gay Deceiver, and buzz away to get married. While on the way to the preacher, Hilda and Jacob decide to get married too.

It turns out that some kind of freaky alien from another dimension is trying to kill them all to stop the science behind the time machine from leaking out (although this danger pretty much drops out after they get into space). After an interminable "honeymoon" period at the family bunker (punctuated with long discussions of the pluses of nudity in the family circle, what Hilda and Deety's boobs look like, how their nipples react in social situations, and lots of rather creepy inter-familial sexual innuendo) the family group installs the time machine into Gay Deceiver and starts exploring the multi-universe.

Once they are in space, things get a little better. Everyone takes a turn as captain. We visit some alternate universes, spend a long time on a alternate Mars that serves as a penal colony for Britian and Russia, and eventually swoop into a string of fictional universes made real (Oz, Lilliput, Wonderland, the world of the Lensmen, etc.). Although this section kind of reads as fan-fiction, it was intriguing to watch these new characters interact with these other fictional universes. Plus it kept their clothes on. This brings in Heinlein's theory of pantheistic solipsism, or World-as-Myth where all fictional universes actually exist, and everything is sort of real and imaginary at the same time. Not a bad theory, although it seems to give Heinlein carte blanche to indulge in fan-boy overload.

So, back to the story: the two ladies both happened to get pregnant on the first night of their marriages, so the group comes up with a mission of finding a safe planet to homestead and have their babies on. They program the computer, survey the universes, and settle on a not-quite-Earth that fits the bill. This seems like a good place to end the book, but instead Heinlein has them get restless and go off on another adventure:

This time they very quickly hook up with Lazarus Long and a host of Heinlein's characters from other books. I read Time Enough for Love long long ago (I think), but I did not remember enough about it to be dumped into this universe with no lifejacket. I could sort of keep up, but found it to be rather tough going. This section perfectly demonstrates Heinlein's ideal family structure: Everyone is naked all the time, men and women all greet each other with passionate mouth kisses regardless of their relationship, and free love and procreation is the norm. You can even have sex (or genetic babies) with your father! Or your brother! Great! And you can live forever and there never really seem to be consequences for anything.

The epilogue where the characters throw a big convention bringing together people from all parts of space, time and fiction turns into nothing but a giant referral fest so filled with inside-jokes, winks and nods that I almost gave up (but not quite, I really will read anything). Somehow the evil alien sneaks back in at the very end and is destroyed (or is he? Do we care?)

To be fair, Heinlein was an old, beloved, established science fiction writer when he came out with The Number of the Beast and he certainly wouldn't be the first artist who succumbed to his own myth in his old age and indulged himself in self-referential works that pale in comparison with his earlier pieces. This book has some fun stuff in it, and possibly if I had read some Lazarus Long stuff a little more recently, I would have found the last 100 pages to be rather fun as well. This book would entertain a die-hard Heinlein or science-fiction fan who wants a fun little parody, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it for a reader new to Heinlein.

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