Sunday, April 27, 2014

Like really bad Heinlein fanfic: The many problems of The Number Of The Beast, part 2

Quite apart from its excruciating thigh-rubbing moments (see part one of this review), Robert Heinlein's The Number Of The Beast is the literary equivalent a bloated concept album.

As its champions - and they are out there - have pointed out, it only makes any kind of sense if you regard it as an experimental novel from a mature artist who longer needed to pander to mass appeal.

So we get multiples by multiples - many narrators, many universes, stories within stories, many nods and references to stories by Heinlein and others. An ending in which all fictional universes collide with reality in some fannish utopia. Action - the pragmatic engine of most SF - is subordinated to dialogue, digression and a hazy, events-dear-boy, logic. 

If you give Heinlein's advocates full credit, Beast boasts multiple levels of story - an intentionally hammy and old-fashioned space opera hiding a meta-narrative on what good science-fiction really is.

While I'm not sure Beast consistently bears this interpretation out - if it's consistent in anything it's in its inconsistency - I acknowledge its ambition. 

The problem is that it's a terrible, by turns dull and irritating, experimental, ambitious novel.  In its self-indulgence and junk postmodernism Beast resembles nothing so closely as bad fanfic. 

Really bad Heinlein fanfic.

All the narrators veer between annoying self-righteous and plain annoying. They spend much more time in the middle section of the book (a nadir) engaged in petty disputes about the captaincy of the dimensional craft than actually doing or saying anything of interest. 

And whether intentional or not, the pulp pastiche is certainly painful, spending as it does page after page on mathematical digressions and programming their ship . And the fixation on wearing seat-belts - what's that about Bob? Surely the way to parody pulp effectively is to amplify its weirdness, not replicate its foreground fascination with minutiae.

Meanwhile, the digressions are an opportunity for Heinlein to make a point about Government (bad), personal authority (good), clothes (bad), or gender essentialism (good), demonstrating how confident he is in the rightness of his ideas. No-one speaks against his ideas in Beast, not even in a straw man capacity. It's a book tremendously pleased with itself.

And that's before we encounter the Long family, where if even if the writing improves slightly Heinlein swiftly disappears up his own authorial tract. In short, none of the component parts work and the reader is ready to call if quits well before the end. 

I don't care how meta Beast is trying to be, if it's by turns toe-curlingly embarassing, shudderingly creepy and narcoleptically tedious, then it has not only failed, it's failed on a scale undreamed of by legions of hack writers. 

This is failure such as only misguided talent can achieve.

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