(I’ve very, very, very slowly been re-reading Heinlein. Previous posts are here.)
Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast might just be my all-time favorite of his adult novels. No, it’s not the writing, although it does clip along with that Heinleinian efficiency and knack for phrase. No, it’s not how seamlessly Heinlein creates new worlds and how smoothly he signifies their subtle difference from our own. No, it’s not the plot, which meanders. It’s none of the things that I would check off on a list of what makes a book good.
My reasons for loving Beast – and it is pure love rather than critical distance – is that it makes what I’ve longed for since the moment I learned how to read seem possible. That somehow I could crawl into the books I’ve loved and live there.
For those not familiar, Beast tells the tale of four competent men and women who are targeted by murderous aliens and forced to escape from their earth. Jake, the eldest competent man, has invented a “continua craft,” which is a gizmo that opens up a multiverse full of alternate earth as well as fictional creations*. His daughter, Deety**, her husband, Zeb, and Jake’s wife Hilda*** are swooped into the getaway.
Each is equally skilled but in different ways. Deety is a kick ass programmer, which makes dealing with Gay Deceiver, their magnificent vehicle (that I would give a major limb to own), a breeze. Zeb is the smart muscle and voice of pragmatism. And Hilda is Hilda, whose brain and heart are 40 times larger than those who are traveling with her.
This above isn’t a comprehensive summary, just a little refresher for those who’ve not read it for a bit. Those who’ve never read it, well, I’m not sure I’d advise you to do so because I honestly can’t get enough distance on this title to know how it would play to a 21st century newbie. Please advise.
Some of the issues I had from my first dozen reads – all of which happened in the mid-1980s – I still have, even after a number of years away. The sheer number of times Heinlein talks about women’s nipples makes me twitch.**** I get it, RAH. You like boobs. Can we move on? And I get the squicks with the casual acceptance of father-daughter or mother-son sexual relationships.
(The other bits that I find troubling have more to do with my lack of higher math, physics and logic skills. I have no idea what a “sorite” is nor if the continua craft as Jake describes it is even theoretically possible. These are my failings, however.)
Despite all of the moments where the author reduces women to their most protuberant parts, he’s also quick to point out that those make not one whit of difference when it comes to their abilities. Like this bit on page 233, authored by Zeb talking about Hilda to Jake, who has just questioned her command:
“But don’t ever hint that she is not as competent as any man. Sure, she’d be picked last for a tug-o’-war team, and she has to stand on a stool to reach a high shelf — does that affect her brain? Hell’s bells, if size mattered, I would be the supergenius around here — not you. Or perhaps you think being able to grow a beard confers wisdom? Jake, leave bad enough alone! Mess with it, you’ll make it worse.”
And yet, in many ways, the women here still have to pander to their poor, sensitive men. From Hilda, during a discussion about future exploration on page 385:
“I gave Deety our signal to drop it. It doesn’t do to push a man too hard; it makes him stubborn. One can’t expect logic from males; they think with their testicles and act from their emotions. And one must be careful not to overload them.”
When I first read Beast, I found it empowering. Now, I find it troubling, that women must tiptoe around their men because they are so fragile, as if women can only act by manipulating rather than through actual action. Who knows how I’ll feel in 30 more years?
Thanks to William H. Patterson’s biography, we know more about Heinlien, particularly about his relationship with his second wife, Leslyn, who was, by all accounts, an alcoholic. From Patterson’s descriptions, it seems like that relationship ended but never really had closure. Which makes sense, really, that being married to an addict brings up all kinds of conflicting feelings, both love and disgust, for example.
Leslyn-esque characters pop up in Heinlein’s later fiction like Farnham’s Freehold but there is also one in Beast. When the Gay Deceiver and crew make it to the British side of Mars, the base commander’s wife Betty seems to slur her words a lot. Hilda later tells Deety (263):
“Hilda said, “Deety, I tell you three times. Betty is suffering from an ailment made more endurable by Maritan conditions.”
“Meaning that at in point thirty-eight gee she doesn’t hit hard when she falls down. What was in that teapot no one else touched? Chanel Number Five?”
“Medicine. Prescribed for her nerves.””
There’s an almost-fondness in this. Not forgiveness, but a realization that some things can’t be changed, no matter how competent you are.
Still, no matter how many of its flaws are pointed out, however, Beast will always just make me light up with the same glow that Deety gets when she realizes that they’ve translated to Oz.
* This is where it gets tricky to talk about because, clearly, the Jake’s world is already fictional and Heinlein plays with this throughout the novel in delightful ways. Especially in the last section of the book, L’Envoi, where he envisions a con full of his characters as well as some other luminaries of the field, including the late Locus creator, Charles N. Brown. (Or that’s how I read it.)
** Who I really wanted to be when I grew up when I first read this as a teenager.
*** Who I hope to grow into someday but will always be too tall to really pull off.
**** Pages 14, 36, 53, 102, 276, 388, 395, and 461. I’m using the 1982 Ballantine paperback edition, 20th printing.