When I was a kid I loved some of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Juveniles” — science fiction stories for children and teens. Red Planet was one of my favorites and I must have read it at least five times. These novels are part of the reason I kept reading science fiction — they left such an impression on my young mind.
Despite this nostalgia, I haven’t read Heinlein in years. When Blackstone Audio recently started releasing some of his later novels on audio, I thought it was time to check out some I’d never read. The first one I tried was The Number of the Beast, written in 1980 after a seven-year hiatus brought on by ill health when Heinlein was in his seventies.
This story starts when professor Zebadiah John Carter meets Deety (short for Dejah Thoris) Burroughs and her father, mathematician Jacob Burroughs, at a party hosted by a socialite named Hilda Corners. Within minutes, Zebadiah and Deety are engaged and Jacob’s car is bombed by unknown attackers. Zebadiah, Deety, Jacob, and Hilda flee in Zeb’s flying car, Jacob and Hilda decide to get married, and they all hide out in a cabin where Jacob has been working on a device that can access parallel universes. Soon the couples are visiting places such as Oz, Lilliput, and Barsoom (fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs will already have noticed that Zeb and Deety’s names come from the BARSOOM novels). There are lots of SFF in-jokes and Heinlein self-referentially brings in some of his characters from his previous books (he’s assuming you’ve read them) and even he and his wife are mentioned.
The audio production of The Number of the Beast was excellent. It was read by a cast of top-tier narrators: Bernadette Dunne, Emily Durante, Malcom Hillgartner, Sean Runnette, Paul Michael Garcia, and Tom Weiner. They were exceptional. Unfortunately, the story was wretchedly awful and I was not able to finish it. It started off bad from the very first scene and persevered in its badness until I started skimming and finally gave up. (“Life’s too short.”)
Most of the problem was the characters and their non-stop obnoxious dialogue and interactions. We hear from all four points of view and every one of them is odious. The first one we hear from is Zebadiah as he’s dancing with Deety who he’s just met at Hilda’s party. He’s looking down her dress and wishing she’d shut up. Then he asks her about her cleavage: “Is that cantilevering natural, or is there an invisible bra, you being in fact the sole support of two dependents?” Fortunately for Zeb, Deety is just as infatuated with her “teats” as he is and is happy to discuss all of their perfections (often), and all of her other perfections (often), with us every time it’s her turn to talk. To be fair, I must admit that she’s quick to alert us of her imperfections in great detail, too, such as the body odor which requires her to soak in a hot soapy tub twice daily. (Thank you, Deety.)
Despite his annoyance with Deety’s chatter, once they are much better acquainted (i.e., three minutes later), the two are engaged and off they go to get married, with Jacob and Hilda in tow. When they arrive at the cabin, after Jacob’s car is bombed, things get even worse. Now Jacob and Hilda are hitched, too, and the four of them are running around scantily clad. Each in turn regales us with his or her sleazy interior monologues (Deety’s teats are frequently the subject) and the four of them together engage in constant banter that’s supposed to be clever, witty, and provocative but is usually just vulgar, sexist, and boring. When Deety takes off her bikini top in front of her father, and then says that she wouldn’t have refused him if he’d made advances toward her when she was younger, I knew I’d suffered long enough. I stuck it out a bit longer just because I was in the car and had nothing else to listen to and I hoped The Number of the Beast might redeem itself but, looking back, I would have profited more from listening to my squeaky fanbelt.
How sad it is to hate a novel written by an author you loved in your youth. I used to think of Robert A. Heinlein as one of my heroes, but now I find out he was a self-indulgent perverted narcissist with a breast fetish and an obsession with incest. To protect my memories, and to give Heinlein the benefit of the doubt, I’d like to assume that the dismal quality of Number of the Beast was caused by Heinlein’s poor health. I don’t know. I just feel really disappointed.