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Terrible. Simply terrible. Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast — eagerly anticipated as his big comeback after he'd sat out the whole of the 1970's following I Will Fear No Evil — isn't just bad. It's stupefyingly, dizzyingly bad. Reading it, you'd think you were struggling through an unsolicited slush pile manuscript by one of those hopeless noobs who thinks they're too good for writer's workshops, rather than the work of one of the genre's grand masters. Had anyone's byline but Heinlein's been on it, it would have been rejected outright by any respectable publisher. The title is apropos. This is practically an anti-novel.

How to explain such a plotless, utterly incoherent mishmash of scenes that are not even scenes? How to explain character development that reads like the product of someone who's never actually interacted with another human being in his life, but has read plenty of pulp magazines and thinks he knows what they sound like? How to explain a novel that only resembles a novel in the sense that flinging a pile of manuscript pages into the air and then gathering them up randomly might result in something called a novel, on some planet? How to explain this magnificent catastrophe, other than to wonder if Robert Heinlein was simply taking leave of his senses? Reading this book is like listening to the frenetic chattering of a madman, who makes perfect sense to himself.

Though I bought but did not read the book upon its initial release (I did that kind of thing a lot when I was 14), I remember the waves of bewilderment and dismay that greeted it all the same. I was at the age when I was just getting started in fandom and going to what few conventions Houston had to offer. The question on everyone's lips in 1980 seemed to be "So have you read Number of the Beast yet?", asked in a tone similar to "Did you hear, so-and-so has stage four cancer?" If Facebook had existed then, I can imagine news feeds and walls lighting up with variants of "ZOMG reading the new Heinlein and WTF is this crap!?!?!" Just about the only person whom I recall praising the book without reservation was Spider Robinson, a really good reviewer when he wasn't blinded by hero worship, as he was/is in Heinlein's case. Heinlein could produce a novel consisting of 500 pages of the word "teats," and Robinson would hail it as an avant-garde masterwork. Though I'd read all Heinlein's juvies and Starship Troopers by 14, and had even challenged myself with Time Enough for Love, I decided to leave this one be, though the first printing did have swell Richard Powers illustrations.

So what is it all about, and how is it such a staggering fail? The premise is that brilliant Mad Scientist Jacob Burroughs has discovered that multiple universes exist along a "six-dimensional non-Newtonian continuum," the total number of which he calculates as six to the sixth power, to the sixth power. Hence the title. Jacob, who has invented a device capable of exploring these universes, wants to hire Dr. Zebediah John Carter to help him field test it. Zeb is wooed by Jacob's Beautiful Daughter, Deety, a nickname based on her initials, her full name being Dejah Thoris. Zeb and Deety decide to get married immediately after sharing one dance at a party, because that's how Heinlein thinks relationships work. So Dejah Thoris, whose maiden name is Burroughs, marries John Carter. Ah ha, I see what you did there!

On-the-nose fannish references aside, Zeb, Deety, Jake, and Deety's aunt Hilda are forced to flee the party after narrowly escaping a car bomb. Taking off in Gay Deceiver, Zeb's AI-driven car-that-is-almost-a-spacecraft, the four of them quickly determine they are being hunted by mysterious alien villains, the "black hats," possibly from one of these alternate universes, who don't approve of Jake's invention and aren't exactly subtle about expressing said disapproval. Why they should feel like this isn't really explored. But our heroes quickly repair to Jake's ranch, installing the universe-hopping dealie-bob into Gay Deceiver. Jake and Hilda take a moment to marry each other, everyone has sex because, you know, it's a Heinlein novel, and then they're off exploring just in time to avoid the ranch getting nuked by the "black hats."

First off — sweet mother of Ghod, these characters! From what spectacularly bizarre series of lifetime observations did Heinlein get the idea that people, actual homo sapiens, talk and act this way? Yes, I understand, in fiction, particularly imaginative fiction, one must allow for creative license, particularly from an author who's known for letting his sense of whimsy run riot in his work. But what it ultimately boils down to is whether or not, even given the context of the story at hand, readers can suspend their disbelief for your characters, and find them relatable and sympathetic, let alone fundamentally realistic in the first place. And not only could I find no reason whatsoever to like our quartet of flamboyant, eccentric, time/space-hopping horndogs all that much, I didn't believe them either. For one picosecond. And that's worse.

Heinlein's attitudes toward sex in his novels have been greeted with everything from head-scratching bewilderment to outright horror by readers ever since Stranger in a Strange Land. Often Heinlein treats the subject like an adolescent who's just discovered his first porn magazine, and is indulging a taste for shocking taboos because, well, why not. Sure, I enjoy a bit of the old in-out, said Alex. But there's a mature approach to the material, and then there's whatever the hell Heinlein is selling, which seems to be a not-altogether sane fixation on hippie-ish "free love" and nudism. Again, live and let live, but why parade it throughout the book like it's such a big deal when it is in fact irrelevant to your story? It's not just that's it's gratuitous, but goofily so, and occasionally more than a little squick-inducing. When Deety, early in the book, states with pure girlish cheer that she'd wouldn't turn down a sexual advance from her own father (thankfully never followed up on), I'm pretty sure most of you will decide this family of wackjobs ain't nobody you want to be exploring alternate universes with for 500 pages.

Ah... those 500 pages. What to say other than that they are filled with nothing resembling a coherent plot. The "black hats" are very quickly forgotten. What little story conflict exists is centered on which of the four gets to be captain of their little crew, followed up by endless bickering that authority isn't properly being respected. Heinlein goes out of his way to refute charges he's a sexist Neanderthal here, and if the book has anything that can be called good scenes, they involve Jake being shamed for clinging to outmoded patriarchal ideas and disrespecting Hilda's command, a role for which she's the group's most capable. However, these scenes are all there is in terms of dramatic conflict, and it gets old quickly.

The adventure itself first takes us to alternate universes. An alternate Mars (of course they go there, because the John Carter clan has to see Barsoom!) is home to both Russian and British penal colonies, with the British still entrenched in Victorian/Empire culture. A whole, exciting adventure story could have come from this, but Heinlein cuts it off at the knees in order to get our heroes exploring further. Eventually, they discover "fictons," universes that have been created by works of popular literature and culture. There's even a loud hint that our heroes' origin universe is not ours. This sets up a potentially intriguing notion that could be taken as an early exploration of the Many Worlds Hypothesis, but Heinlein employs it as not much more than an excuse to go hogwild with endless fan-pandering references to popular fantasy and SF by his colleagues and pals. (How honored they were by the attention I will not venture to speculate.) So the Gay Deceiver and crew go to Oz, fly over Lilliput, that kind of thing, and there is simply not a whiff of storytelling magic or joy to any of it. Heinlein works in a snarky reference to his own Stranger, which comes off less self-deprecating than self-indulgent.

By the final hundred pages or so — assuming anyone but masochistic critics or Spider Robinson have gotten that far — everyone's hanging out naked with Lazarus Long and Jubal Harshaw again, swapping partners and boinking like bunnies. The effect is so ridiculously masturbatory, The Number of the Beast may be the first SF novel you should only read while wearing latex gloves and a condom.