Vulgarity and Nullity

Robert A. Heinlein
"The Number of the Beast"

To review "The Number of the Beast" after so long is to creep belatedly on to a battlefield. Here the earth is churned up where Algis Budrys diffidently charged Heinlein with writing for no-one but Heinlein. Here are the marks where Alexei and Cory Panshin advanced in remorseless circles, delicately testing the metastrength of Heinlein's metaphysics while shying off from any blunt conclusion. Here and there a few fannish snipers have fired such pointed enquiries as "it is well written?", "is it well plotted?", "are its characters well drawn?" and "is it any good?" (the answer in each case generally being "no", but what are the opinions of mere fans? Their only effect has been to send Spider Robinson flocking to Heinlein's cause, brandishing cruel weapons of unsupported assertion and bad grammar). It's strange that the big critical guns have fired so often into the air. Even Peter Pinto, whose much-reprinted review has left an impressive crater, was sporting enough to aim well clear of the field hospital; only a few of the vilest fans have gone so far as to suggest that, you know, Heinlein's getting on a bit, and after having his brain reamed out with his famous operation, well....

Bad taste notwithstanding, this is the kind of excuse to which many long-term Heinlein fans would like to cling. To accept "The Number of the Beast" as the logical endpoint of a writer's evolution is simply nightmarish. The book is an embarrassment; it is unremittingly awful; it is the first Heinlein novel I've found it a genuine effort to finish, very nearly the first since Rocketship Galileo (1947) that I've put down with a strong resolve not to reread, the first I've wanted to shut in a lead-lined cupboard and forget lest it contaminate my liking of (say) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. My (fairly) humble view is that the book says nothing and says it very badly. "In literature," Auden observed, "vulgarity is preferable to nullity, just as grocer's port is preferable to distilled water." "The Number of the Beast" manages to combine vulgarity with nullity, giving us a species of denatured grocer's port which makes you thirst for some good honest gruel (E.C. Tubb) or even meths (Harlan Ellison).

The book's vulgarity has many ramifications. An obvious starting point is the treatment of sex, eg. in this subtle description of a kiss from the lady's viewpoint: "Our teeth grated and my nipples went spung!" The usual, and not indefensible, coyness below the waist is balanced by every character's gross and grotesque obsession with breasts. Of the four lead players, one woman has vast breasts to which constant allusions are made and which she insists on calling teats (the OED is invoked to support this archaism: Heinlein insists that "teat" is pronounced "tit", possibly to avoid writing the latter word). The other woman has small breasts to which constant allusions are made (she's the one who goes spung). One man spends most of his waking hours watching or thinking about the large breasts mentioned above, while the other consoles himself with the reflection that even small-breasted women can be ever so good in bed. Sometimes the men switch roles by way of variety, and the women meditate on the same pervading subject too: "They do stick out, don't they?" "I'd be an idiot to risk competing with Deety's teats," etc. Finally, every character but our lady of the 95cm bust becomes accustomed to keep a weather eye on the nipples associated with said bust, since these "pretty pink spigots" go "up" and "down" with her emotions like – this simile is used – a barometer. Gorblimey.

Another aspect of vulgarity is an overt contempt for the reader. Interuniversal travel is achieved by nudging a gyroscope from three directions at once, whereupon it vanishes: oh yeah? The number 6 to the power 6 to the power 6 emerges from a hat as the number of possible universes, and at once everyone is finding correspondences in the Book of Revelation like a gibbering horde of von Dänikens. Blithely Heinlein shows future computer experts being delighted by the wholly novel idea of putting smartarse comments in programs; introduces Glinda the Good Witch of Oz (with that many universes, you see, some of them just have to correspond to really famous fictional constructs like Oz, Barsoom and Heinlein's own future history) and inserts into her mouth such words as Lebensraum; mentions random numbers as something you slip into a computer like God breathing life into Adam's nostrils (the memories of Heinlein computers are apparently filled with long lists of random numbers) so that a relatively stupid autopilot computer becomes a person indistinguishable from the other characters.... In short, Heinlein doesn't give a damn about plausibility any more. (A massive cop-out which may account for some glitches is the buried revelation that the main characters' home universe is not quite the same as ours.) If even for a moment you can force yourself to accept the narrative, the author's voice soon snaps you out of it. This is just a story, he says. I am Heinlein; I need cast no fictional spell; unaided I am lovable; listen to me and enjoy!

Each major character, seemingly a projection of the author himself, is near-as-dammit perfect with nothing to learn. Each shares the essential cultural heritage which Heinlein has found within himself: all are fans of pulp SF, in particular Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Smith and Weird Tales in toto; all love the Oz books, The Mote in God's Eye and, above all, the complete works of Robert A. Heinlein. All despise critics, incidentally, and some space is devoted to the construction of a special hell for such loathsome creatures. What is a critic but an articulate reader? What is negative criticism but the plaint of a disappointed reader? Our author refuses to countenance such a wishy-washy motto as "The customer is occasionally right": instead it's "America: Love It Or Leave It!" with Robert A. Heinlein in the role of America, yay yay.

By the end of Beast the uninitiated reader will be floundering in a sea of in-jokes as the narrative devolves into walk-on appearances by characters from just about every other book Heinlein has written. Again, the deeply arrogant assumption is that the complete works of Heinlein are central to human culture and myth: everyone goes ooh and aah as (e.g.) whatsisname from Glory Road drops in like visiting royalty. The characters are mightily impressed but the reader, alas, is not. This final section of the book resembles nothing so much as the worst fan-fiction, the variety whose daring use of characters from Dr Who or Star Trek so overwhelms the writer that he or she finds plot and action superfluous.

The plot of The Number of the Beast merits the word "nullity". A moderately implausible threat kicks our four breast fetishists into motion right at the beginning, causing them to take dynamic action by getting the two women pregnant (at the first try, as has become customary in Heinleinland). Subsequently they flee Earth via their interuniversal gimmick, having utterly failed to give warning to the world owing to difficulties in placing a phone call. They visit more universes, lots of them, and very soon it's apparent that their magic travel gadget (plus all the characters' supreme competence, plus the fact that one of them can sense danger in advance, plus the fact that the author clearly likes them all too much to let them in for anything worse than momentary inconvenience) makes them immune to any peril. Possibly bored by this sheltered existence, they spend their time arguing interchangeably and witlessly about authority, responsibility, the chain of command and protocol hierarchies in general... something not altogether unreasonable in the military context of Starship Troopers, but pretty damned silly with just four civilians arguing about who should be THE BOSS.

The travelogue aspect fails, I think, because (a) when you can go anywhere, then nowhere in particular is compellingly interesting; (b) apart from one rather dull Martian colony, none of the places visited is an original creation: you get Lilliput and Oz on one hand (and with respect, I feel these lands were adequately covered by Swift and Baum), or, on the other, worlds unexcitingly like our own; (c) Heinlein finds his four cloned Heinleins infinitely more interesting than mere places, and ignores the scenery to concentrate on their bickering. Finally they team up with (gosh! wow!) Lazarus Long and a lot more people and/or computers last seen in Time Enough For Love, and decide to hold a convention. End of plot; in-jokes and narcissism move to centre stage. Something which may or may not be the original implausible threat puts in an appearance, but nothing is resolved or explained. The aimless party is a microcosm of the aimless book; anyone unprepared to love the author purely for his innate wonderfulness is very definitely persona non grata.

The style generally continues the hectoring, lecturing note first heard from Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. At best it's snappy and studded with pseudo-epigrams, even if these sometimes have a second-hand feel: "This Universe never did make sense; I suspect it was built on Government contract." The parts written from female viewpoints are the ones which fail most embarrassingly (spung! – like that), although the SF jokes get pretty bad: "Tomorrow is soon enough. Or The Day After Tomorrow. Better yet, Not This October. After The End of Eternity might be best." (All capitals in original text.) The tone of voice remains distinctive; you can tell it's Heinlein talking all right, no matter who's supposed to be speaking. His personality is all; his insistence on taking criticism as ad hominem attack has become prophecy, because to review the book is to review Heinlein; and he has fewer and fewer interesting things to say. Inasmuch as Beast is readable at all, it's thanks to traces of his old briskness and irreverence. The erstwhile touches of mysticism have given way to great sickly wodges of the solipsist/pantheist philosophy which Harshaw in Stranger correctly identified as being about as sustaining and subtly flavoured as candyfloss. It cloys, rapidly.

Why review "The Number of the Beast"? A critic should aid the reader and also the writer. To the reader I can only say "Don't bother," though the devil of it is that the poor bestseller-buyer in the street, who will feel most ripped-off by this mishmash and (by extension) SF in general, is not a fanzine reader – nor, probably, a habitual reader of SF. My own likely audience at least has the advantage of being able to follow most of Heinlein's in-jokes. To the writer ... there's no point in addressing anything to a writer who consigns all critics to an inescapable hell. Heinlein appears to have severed his links with the world of reality, locking himself in a mirror-maze where all his reflections understand and agree with him perfectly. Our only way of registering protest is not to buy this terrible, terrible book.