Temporal Discrimination – A Reflection of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast

I was not planning to review this book. I have read it countless times. Recently, when my grandson asked me to name my favorite book, I named two: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (to give him a more-accessible reference, as I suspected that my answer was going to make it back to a teacher who was not born when Robert Heinlein died) and The Number of the Beast.

“It is not Heinlein’s best work!” is the most generous thing most readers say about it. I don’t claim that it is. I can’t begin to develop the criteria by which I would rank the “best” book by an author who defined a genre and continues to entertain readers 35 years after his own death. I merely state that it is my favorite of his books, one which I, in the words of the book itself, “reread for pleasure when [I am] too tired to tackle a new book.” Reviewing such a book would be the equivalent of writing about eating a Zero Bar or drinking a bottle of cream soda.

Why, then, am I writing? I am writing because last night, amidst the sadness of closing the cover on page 511 of the beautiful trade paperback edition I’ve owned since Christmas, 1981[1], I went down the rabbit hole of reading the book’s reviews on Goodreads. The one-star reviews did not rattle me. They are, as always, largely reviews of the author, not the book, with all the expected buzzwords: Self-indulgent, narcissistic, homophobic, misogynist. They also include a handful of tasteless references to the fact that Heinlein wrote the book’s first draft[2] while suffering an oxygen-depriving brain disorder, with the suggestion that such explains the book’s poor quality. There are also wild speculations about how “Heinlein’s editor” “allowed” this book to be published. (In fact, he put it out for bid and there was competition. And the version that was published was heavily re-written following a successful surgery which restored his mental and physical health.)

I decided to offer my own review, however, after reading the four-and-five-star reviews. Why? Because I wanted there to be a five-star review that does not include an apology, be it an apology for the reader’s tastes, the book, or the author.

I do not apologize for my tastes. Ever.

The book requires no apology. It is a romp, an experiment, an adventure in reading and touring imaginary worlds. It is filled with Heinlein’s characteristic wit, wisdom and compassion for the animal that calls itself human. I should refine that last to “compassion for the individual members of the species that calls itself human.” Heinlein had great compassion and tolerance for people as persons, each individual. For the race as a mob he held less tolerance.

The book develops the voices of five first-person narrators, something few authors would even attempt. It tosses to the four-winds the authoritarian predictability of the three-act structure. It invites you to just spend time with characters, hanging out, as few works of fiction do.

It’s a book filled with playfulness and joy. Yes, the characters bicker and even threaten each other. Families do that. Robert Heinlein had no children, but he had many siblings. He knew how families squabble. He also knew how fiercely their members could love each other. In those fights, uncharacteristic for his works (how dare he break his own mold!), Heinlein was sketching an example of how families could resolve differences, air toxic emotions, forgive oversights and slights, and continue to work together in health and happiness. When I finished the book for the first time in the Summer of 1982 at age seventeen, I found myself healed of some very deep wounds from my past.

I will also add that Heinlein’s formula for family harmony in a working environment probably advised the partnership I have shared with my brilliant wife, Renee, in several professional endeavors over the years. Most notably, we have collaborated on Farpoint and other Baltimore conventions for 38 years and counting. We also worked together for 17 years at Howard County Fire & Rescue. Colleagues would say to me, “How can you work with your wife?” My answer was that I’m not worth nearly as much without her.  

As noted by reviewers positive and negative, The Number of the Beast is a love letter to a genre. I don’t speak of the genre of “hard” science fiction, that is stories which are dependent upon and limited by mathematics and scientific principles, but of the genre of the imagination. These are the stories that ask, “what if?” and may or may not be limited in any way: the tales of Oz, Doc Smith’s Lensman adventures, Alice’s Wonderland, the jungles and deserts of the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs. Heinlein, in this work, speculated that all these stories are reality in some alternate universe, as, indeed, are his own works of fiction. “The World is Myth. We create it ourselves-and we change it ourselves. A truly strong myth maker, such as Homer, such as Baum, such as the creator of Tarzan, creates substantial and lasting worlds …”[3]

The multiverse was an old idea—DC and Marvel comics, Star Trek, even Lost in Space had played with it; but here Heinlein put mathematics to it, and subtly proposed that God was… us. Well, some of us.

Some reviewers, again both positive and negative, issue dictates that one must not read this book until one has read all the source material. I say, “hogwash.” As a kid who grew up reading comics, especially the intertwined, tinker-toy universe that is described by the line of Marvel Comics, I was accustomed at a young age to jumping into the middle of a story and catching myself up. I learned to be a quick study and to fake understanding until it arrived in reality. The skill has served me well in boring classes (read: most of them) and boring meetings (read: all of them.)

I have no issue with referential fiction. I love going back and reading all the referenced works. The Number of the Beast is a wonderful starting point for a journeyman reader of imaginative fiction. Because of it, I read Tarzan, John Carter, the Oz books, and one volume of Lensman (which was enough for me). References are a gift to the reader. I wept the day the comic books stopped adding notes to their panels which told me that I could find the origin of Blue Wingnut’s pet cockroach Agnes in issue #457 of More Less-Tedious Boastful Tales.[4]

There, without apology or spoilers, are my thoughts on the book.

I will not apologize for the author, because the author is a genius, and it’s not my place to do so. But I will attack the idea that he requires an apology, and it is in that attack that I justify my title above. Attacks on Robert Anson Heinlein are largely acts of temporal discrimination. I might even say temporal bigotry—hate and distrust for, or a sense of superiority over, someone specifically because that person is not a member of one’s own generational cohort. It’s a fashionable prejudice in 21st Century America. We have arrived at the pinnacle of morality, and my God, are we proud of ourselves. But we haven’t and we shouldn’t be. How can we believe that cultures on the other side of the planet which enslave men, women and children, kill gays, and oppress women, are moral because of cultural relativism, but that our own ancestors are evil because they did not attend last month’s DEI training session? (See my essay “Beyond Arrogance” for more thoughts.)

Heinlein was born in Middle America in 1908. He was raised to believe, among other things, that sex was shameful, that the human body should always be covered (lest the sight of flesh tempt us to evil), that marriage equals one-man-one-woman, that only the man worked outside the home, that boys did not do with boys.

He rejected most of these beliefs. His works, especially his later ones, show a profound interest in recreational sex. He became a nudist at the age of about eight, cavorting naked in secluded sections of Kansas City’s Swope Park, imitating his hero, Tarzan. It became a lifelong habit. He believed in—and practiced—open marriage, learning by experience many of the reasons why it has not caught on as a mass practice. His third wife, Ginny, (with whom I infer that he had a closed marriage) was an officer when he met her during World War II and embodied the spirit of a new attitude towards American women. It was the age of Rosie the Riveter, after all. Ginny was his partner in the writing business throughout his career as a novelist. He respected women in general and women who worked in particular. As to gay relations, The Number of the Beast is his third novel to discuss the matter openly (Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil do as well. Stranger in a Strange Land flirts with it.), after Stonewall’s influence loosened the bonds of what was “proper” to discuss in fiction.

And it is The Number of the Beast which has, not a side-character, but a protagonist discuss his desire (not merely tolerance) as a teen to have sex with his male best friend. Yes, he also relates how he discovered by field practice that he felt no physical desire for his friend; but reading that as a 17-year-old in Ronald Reagan’s America made me realize that someone I looked up to found nothing morally objectionable about same sex relations. It was a big deal to me, and I’ve no doubt to a lot of other people.

Was his support for women and queer people “not enough?” I dunno. Who decides what’s “enough,” when someone takes a step in the right direction? I’m reminded of the time that a guy stopped me Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to ask for a cash donation to a reputable charity. I opened my wallet and handed him a five. I was a college student at the time, mind you. Five dollars was a lot of money. I had just handed him more than an hour’s worth of my ten-hour a week income. The guy looked in my wallet and said, “I see a twenty in there.”

I took back the five. I told the guy he might be working for a good cause, but he was behaving without grace, and I did not want to encourage him. I feel the same way about people who demand that other people “give more” to their pet cause. There are many causes. I can’t possibly support all of them with 100% of my resources. If I give your cause 5%, smile and say thank you. Don’t brand me as your enemy. I feel that’s what critics are doing when they call Heinlein, who believed in sexual equality, sexual freedom and racial equality, a misogynist, a homophobe or a racist. He didn’t give enough, by your 21st-Century standards? Dude, he died twelve years before your century began. Smile and say thank you. You are not superior to him, morally, because you’ve been taught from a young age concepts that he helped pioneer, and which were expanded and enhanced by other, later social critics.

Be proud of who you are. Be proud of the fact that you are part of your race evolving to the good. But do not presume to call those who came before you ignorant because they did not know what you know, did not think as you think. We all learn from some source. Humanity began as a group of tribes of primates who beat each other into submission, raped and murdered family members and neighbors, and slaughtered members of other tribes with impunity. Those early humans did not know about the zero aggression protocol, natural rights, equality, or “no means no.” They didn’t even know the Golden Rule. To pretend that your morality is self-evident is philosophically to adopt the argument of the fundamentalist preacher who told me, when I was 15, that a baby should be able to become a Christian by looking at the heavens and sensing that Jesus is his savior. If that baby does not sense this, and dies before going to Sunday School, that baby belongs in hell.

Morality is learned, not intuited from the scenery. (And, by the way, this non-violent primate would like to see that preacher again. My niece died as a baby seven years later, and I owe that bastard some broken teeth.)

It’s possible that I am swimming against a now-very-old tide in science fiction fandom. And it may have begun rolling long before I became aware of it. Indeed, it may have swelled with the publication of The Number of the Beast in 1980, just as I was just joining fandom. It may have even predated my own birth.

In their introduction to the Virginia Edition[5] of The Number of the Beast, Heinlein historian and biographer Robert James, PhD. and William H Patterson, Jr., say this:

“…genre readers were uncomfortable with this new direction. With very limited exceptions, the last books, starting with The Number of the Beast, were rejected by the science fiction community, even as mainstream critics recognized them as the work of a master storyteller.”


“Heinlein had been complaining about the narrowing of what could be written and accepted in science fiction since 1959 and had come to see genre readers’ opinions as just another set of taboos.”

Heinlein’s breaking of the taboos of fandom happened as I was discovering his work. I had read The Star Beast, one of his juveniles, and may have made my first (abortive) attempt at Podkayne of Mars before I read The Number of the Beast. The Star Beast struck me as entertaining, but pretty typical fare, albeit with more interesting, relaxed characters than most SF novels featured. “Podkayne’s” tone turned me off on first reading, but I dismiss that as the callowness of a 16-year-old boy, not a problem with the book. Perhaps the heroine reminded me too much of the girl who loaned me the book, and of how much said girl tended to fluster me.

But The Number of the Beast made me cry, “Whoa! This is something different! This breaks rules! This is not just a book written to mirror the structure of a movie.” I subsequently went out and bought his only two other novels of the decade, I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough for Love. I devoured them, along with Friday, and later Job, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. I did not share “the community’s” discomfort. These were books by a man who had played a huge part in defining what science fiction was. If they did not match the patterns of works by later authors who built on his foundations, maybe it was because he was redefining the genre, and later authors (and fans) had missed the memo.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if science fiction fans, who would be expected to thrive on game-changing ideas and Dangerous Visions (to borrow Harlan Ellison’s term), ultimately became a parochial community of PTA parents who just wanted to dwell in an echo chamber of comforting sameness, where everyone closely followed the rules? Where the only radical thoughts were those on the approved list of Radical Thoughts? As early as 1959, Robert Heinlein seems to have thought we were becoming just that. In these days when science has become a scourge to support orthodoxy, instead of a fountainhead of revolutionary ideas, It’s not surprising.

It’s just one more thing that the first of the Grandmasters got right.

[1] This copy was a gift from 14-year-old Beatrice Kondo, whose father, Yoji, was a longtime friend of Heinlein and ultimately edited his memorial volume, Requiem. My 14-year-old schoolmate is now Doctor Kondo, and my beautiful trade paperback has a broken spine, clumsily repaired by me over the years. But its wraparound cover by Richard Powers is intact, and his beautiful interior illustrations still fill me with wonder.

[2] Heinlein said he had destroyed the first draft, and probably intended to; but it landed in his archives at USC. It was published decades later as The Pursuit of the Pankera.

[3] From Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, as voiced by Dr. Jubal Harshaw.

[4] There is no character named The Blue Wingnut, his pet cockroach likewise is not named “Agnes,” because she does not exist, not even in the pages of More Less-Tedious Boastful Tales, a journal not to be found in the ESBCO database… in this universe. When Zeb, Deety, Hilda and Jake rescue me from my fated death, I shall ask Deety to program Gay Deceiver to search the universes to the Number of the Beast for references to any of the above. On that day, I shall learn the power of my myth-making ability.

[5] The Virginia Edition is a 46-volume, leather-bound collection of Heinlein’s works, published by the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust. It includes all his previously published works and selections of letters and unused screenplays and other material. Each volume includes a scholarly introduction. Visit https://www.heinleinbooks.com/ for more information.

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