Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Number of the Beast / Robert A. Heinlein

1 out of 5 stars
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. 

Recommended for Heinlein completists and/or insomniacs.

A complete stinker of a novel. It meanders, it wanders, it stutters, it changes direction, it digresses. Heinlein rides all of his hobby horses. The original premise is okay, though not up to Heinlein at his best: a machine which can translate our explorers into other times and alternate universes. They discover that all the fictional worlds that they have explored in literature can be accessed through this device (and have a visit in Oz with Glinda as a result). Time traveling aliens seem to feel threatened by their ability to travel in this way and seek to eliminate them (the reasons that the aliens feel this way is never explored or explained).

Unfortunately, although the book starts out strong with bombs and the protagonists being chased by murderous aliens, it wanders off track early and never gets back on point. Heinlein waves a tatter of this plot every now and then during the ensuing 511 pages which kept me plodding on in hopes of some kind of resolution. I wonder if he was trying to pad the manuscript to 666 pages, in keeping with the title? There is so much pointless conversation: Blah, blah, blah, look how smart I am, blah, blah, blah, look how sexually sophisticated I am, blah, blah, blah.

In the end, one learns more about Heinlein’s quirks and prejudices that about the aliens. We can surmise several things: he deeply resented any kind of authority and the paying of taxes; he felt that society’s rules were arbitrary (they are) and should be optional (some of them, sure); and he seems to have been a boob man, preferring the T in T&A. I assume that he was a naturist in his private life and I would guess that he and his wife had an “open relationship,” which likely meant that he got to do what he wanted sexually and she didn’t get to complain about it.

In the end, the book becomes very meta before meta was a thing. Heinlein takes the opportunity to feature characters from other writers’ work (e.g. the Gray Lensman of E.E. Smith, Glinda & Oz) and to weave in characters from his other works (Lazarus Long, Jubal Harshaw, et al.), even inserting himself and other writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke. At this point, the book becomes just a masturbatory exercise and loses any pretense of moving the plot forward.

Heinlein seems to have been in love with his character Lazarus Long—I think he poured an awful lot of himself (and I mean awful as in icky) into that particular character, who of course appears again in Number. What can you say about a character who creates female clones of himself so he can basically fuck himself?

I’m sure that Heinlein thought he was being very feminist, portraying female characters with intelligence and sexual agency. Sure they are smart and horny, but they are still very much appendages to the men in the story. They are Heinlein’s fantasy women, what he would have liked to be surrounded by—women who want to do housework and cooking while plotting how to get their men into bed and get pregnant. (He certainly has a fixation on fertility—all these very fictional women ardently desire fertility when they get rejuvenated. I personally would choose sexual function with no chance of pregnancy—much 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 must also have reached the stage where he could resist necessary editing. He did his reputation no favours with this book or Time Enough for Love, another pointless, masturbatory and loooooong tome. Read his earlier work—skip these two pieces of merde. 

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