The Number of the Beast

I’ve finally managed to stomach completing The Number of the Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein. Number of the Beast tells the story of four characters, who have to flee after an attempt on their life, and end up in various parallel universes through the means of a device invented by one of the four. This knowledge of inter-dimensional travel is also the reason why an unknown enemy is trying to kill them. Towards the end, the book turns into a discourse of Heinlein’s favorite world-view (that universes are created by the belief in them; meaning that all fictional worlds actually exist somewhere).

Number of the Beast has been hotly disputed like few other Heinlein works. Fans of the work contend that it is a brilliant parody and a textbook on how not to write a story. Critics claim that Heinlein must have been senile to produce such drivel.

I’m almost inclined to follow the first line of logic. There are sections in the book which are intriguing and well-paced. Unfortunately, the book slows down and the four protagonists begin to squabble among one another almost constantly. At other times, Heinlein degrades into his often-used more or less graphical descriptions of of sex and various very liberal sexual practices. The same pattern holds true for “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls”, which is tied to this novel at the end. The well-crafted parts surely are not the work of a senile mind; *Cat* is probably written even better.

Unfortunately for the prospective reader of *Beast*, the critics are correct in that the book is simply too annoying, too tedious to bother with. What good is any book that is so annoying that it makes you want to drop it into the next recycling bin? If Heinlein’s purpose truly was to demonstrate how not to write a book, he failed in that few people will have to patience to complete it, and even less would be able to draw a lesson from it. A more traditional “how to write” textbook might have been a better idea.

As it stands, *Beast* is a horrible book, and you’ll have to be an absolutely die-hard Heinlein fan – or a masochist – to even make it through it, much less to enjoy it. Not recommended for any sane person.

4 thoughts on “The Number of the Beast


  1. Hmmm. Well All I can say is I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. The Number of the Beast is one of my all time favorites. The story itself, which is a very surreal thread that connects many different stories and places out of the imagination draw me in very concretely, but it’s the very thing you mention above, the characters falling to disagreement, most notably over the nature of following a leader to survive, that I enjoy. I always found this appraisal of the growing trend to individualism fairly enlightnig.

    Where we start to ask ourselves ‘Do I have a place in the greater good of my species, or my group’ and then of course analyszing our actions and motivations. If a species breaks down to individualism to much, it weakens it’s ability to strive to greater achievements as a group, but at the same time individuals are free to expand their own genius and possibly discover something remarkable.

    Becuase of Heinlein’s book, I have been idly toying with the concept of finding the balance of being an individual working with a group. I have an overdeveloped sense of my own self to start with so it is not always easy to sublimate my own ideas and needs to the group and following the group towards a goal.

    The individual in me is prone to get frustrated that my own ideas are not being heeded for the obvious gems of genius they are (grin), and I want to strike out on my own, thus robbing the group of my own strength and resources that I could have provided to realizing the goal. On my own I have a considerably less chance to realizing my own goal.

    Indiviual ego needs must be removed if the group is to flourish.

    That’s what I understood from reading the Number of the Beast. I thought it was a fairly self-critical analisys of RAH, as he was also a noted individualist. But one who served in the military and could very strongly understand the need for group effort.


  2. Matt, thanks for your feedback. I don’t mind the basic premises presented in the book. The “command structure lessons” wouldn’t be bad in themselves. Parallel worlds are always cool. However, I found the book to be unbearable to read. It’s drawn out, boring, tedious, and not at all innovative. Compare this to pretty much any of Heinlein’s other books and the other book will win out.

    Personally, I have the suspicion that Heinlein wanted Pantheistic solipsism to be true, or hoped it would be true, and thus used his popularity as a writer to “create” a world he’d enjoy. This is of course pure speculation on my part.


  3. I just finished ‘The Number Of The Beast’ and I was vastly confused by it. I jumped onto the web and I’ve read a number of things that have helped to clear things up.

    This is not a well-written book. The excuse that is given by defenders is that it is a textbook on writing where, IN THE FOREGROUND, it is deliberately ridiculous and dull. However, in the background, he is giving you his golden stuff. I’m not too sure…

    [Spoiler]
    But I do agree that the entire novel is a comedy of some sort. “Pantheistic Solipcism” is the brunt of the joke, I believe. The key to it all is explained toward the end, where Heinlein admits that Mars-10 and the Russian and English colonies were Potemkin villages created for them by the Martians, because they were uninvited. This is, in a sense, proven when after that explanation, any attempt to reference the planet Mars-10 or its colonies is met with “Null Program” by the ship’s computer.

    The Black Hat is some other form of joke (And there is only the one, not the many!). I still do not understand this joke. The anagrams I get. The idea that they are a signal of deliberately poor writing and plotting, I don’t. But then again, I don’t get the joke.

    But Heinlein’s intent is clear with the title of the final chapter: L’Envoi. I thought this meant “farewell!”, and that this was his homage to all he’d enjoyed. But I find the dictionary definition to be quite different:

    L’Envoi: One or more detached verses at the end of a literary composition, serving to convey the moral.

    So… I get some of the jokes Heinlein was up to. If you read “Us The Living”, which he wrote at the age of 30, you’ll know that his was a very precocious intellect, and he was brilliant (whether he was wise depends on whether you agree with him or not… I only partly agree with him.) But his intellect ensures that if he’s going to write a book that is almost entirely a practical joke, there’s going to be a lot more going on than meets the eye.

    Once I figure out exactly what ‘The Black Hat’ represented, in the context of this novel, I suspect nearly everything will be clear.


  4. I don’t know. All the extreme sex stuff (incest, orgies, whatever) isn’t just contained to Number; this novel is just the “end” of various other storylines. I remember reading The Cat who Walks Through Walls, and really liking it, and then out of the blue they end up in an interdimensional whore-house… And I was, like, “What the hell”?

    Now, granted, Stranger in a Strange Land had a lot of sexual themes too, but in that case it was part of the story, and it made sense.

    Number of the Beast is just… annoying. I mean, if you hide your skills this well, then people will be forgiven for thinking you’re senile. Maybe it was RAH’s way of making sure nobody misses him as an author, but besides that… it’s just not a good read.

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