Just when I thought every possible scrap of unseen material by one of my favorite writers had been published, this one turned up. It’s not a completely new book, but about two-thirds of one. Heinlein’s novel The Number of the Beast came out in 1980, and of course I bought it. Great illustrations by Richard Powers, but the book itself is probably my least favorite by the author. The new release is an earlier version, and is substantially different. It’s also better. NOTE: at the end of this post I will be comparing Pankera to Beast, so some spoilers will be unavoidable. Be warned.
The story opens at a posh party at the home of Hilda “Sharpy” Corners on the campus of a California university, a meet and greet for the four main characters, of which she is one. The book alternates narration by the four of them. First up is Zebediah Carter, her nephew, ex-military, who is dancing with beautiful D.T. Burroughs, and she’s trying to get Zeb to meet her father, scientist Jacob Burroughs. Deety thinks Zeb is the author of a scientific article her father is interested in, though Zeb explains it was written by another relative. Even so, Zeb and Deety are having a great time and he jokingly suggests they should get married. Deety quickly accepts, to Zeb’s surprise. Meanwhile, her father Jake is about to get into a fight with a rival professor, and Zeb, Deety and Hilda take him outside to cool off. As they’re about to leave, the Burroughs’ car is destroyed by a car bomb. Zeb, who has an intuition about danger, believes it’s no accident, and takes the four of them on the lam to the Burroughs’ hideway in Arizona, with a stop in Nevada for a double wedding. It seems that Jake is equally smitten with Hilda.
As the four get to know each other, a law officer arrives acting suspicious, and is killed by Zeb and Deety. It turns out to be an alien passing as human, and the four realize they are in great danger from these unknown assailants they call Black Hats. Jacob Burroughs has invented a machine that can travel in time and dimensions previously unknown, numbering six to the sixth to the sixth power (666, the Number of the Beast). Zeb and Jake fit this device to Zeb’s computer-driven car, Gay Deceiver, and the four of them embark on a series of adventures across time and space to first escape from, then turn the tables on their enemy, who come to be known as The Pankera.
Now as to the 1980 version versus the 2020 one. The four first go to Mars, where, in Beast there are rival military colonies from Russia and Britain. I hardly remember this long part of the original book, but glancing through it, it seems uninteresting now. In Pankera, the Mars they land on is Barsoom from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It seems that some of the alternate realities include fictional worlds. About a third of the book takes place on Barsoom, and it’s pretty entertaining. Heinlein was obviously having fun revisiting old favorite stories. Another section, almost as long, takes place in the universe of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, another Heinlein favorite, and again fun to read. Between, there are brief visits to other fictional worlds, including Oz, the one section of the new book that’s almost the same as the old one.
Heinlein’s later works, like this one, have a number of problems for me and many readers. It’s too talky, and much of the talk is between the four main characters as they each display their competence and knowledge, vying for dominance in the group. It gets tiresome. There’s also plenty of sexual innuendo and naked people on Barsoom and beforehand that’s uncomfortable to read about today. Further, Heinlein used to be great at giving each character in a story a distinctive voice, making group discussions fun, see The Rolling Stones, for example. Here, even though all four narrate, the voice is almost the same in each case, and without checking, it’s hard to remember who is supposed to be narrating. Heinlein’s ideas about science are always interesting, but his group dynamics are more annoying than anything in this book. The action scenes, when they happen, are good, but there aren’t enough of them. One way this version is much better is the way the main plot about the Pankera is followed through to a satisfying conclusion, while in the original version it got sidetracked and lost.
Despite my reservations, this is a good read. I wouldn’t place it above anything he wrote before and including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966, but for his later work it’s not bad, and I did enjoy reading it.