Monday, April 21, 2014

Oh, Bob Heinlein, no! The many problems of The Number Of The Beast pt 1

It takes a real artist to make truly terrible work. 

Their mistakes are likely to be original ones, radical sins of commission where the spark that brought them success then points them into the abyss. 

Robert Heinlein's The Number of The Beast is a terrible novel in exactly this vein. 

Heinlein's return to writing in 1980, after taking most of the 1970's off due to ill health, is nothing if not ambitious. On the face of things, a multi-dimensional romp through time and space, it also aims to be:

  • An homage to the pulp novels of Heinlein's youth in subject matter and tone.
  • A post-modern riff on interconnected fictional universes, both his own and those of forerunners like Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  • An authorial pulpit for his favourite hobby horses - libertarianism, free love and the nudity taboo.
  • If you believe the hardcore Heinlein fans, also an intentionally badly written parody, a love-letter to science fiction and a quasi-autobiography

All of this written from the first-person perspective of five different characters. Yeesh.

It would take an writer of no mean skill to pull these threads together and produce a great book and, for all that his position in the SF canon is unquestionable, Heinlein's no Salman Rushdie or John Barth. 

But Beast is not the interesting but flawed lesser piece of work you might expect from the writer of Stranger In A Strange Land or The Moon Is A Harsh MistressIt's an indulgent, incoherent, intemperate and interminable mess.

And it's the sexual mores which threaten to sink it before it even opens.

"Sexist, not sexy"

By his own lights, Heinlein would describe himself as a progressive on gender issues, and the book is full with assertive, intelligent, women. Yet Beast kicks off with the lead male protagonist alternately drooling over and bantering hi-lar-iously about the heroine's anatomy with the heroine herself. It then continues intermittently in that vein for the next 500 pages.


Others like Dave Langford have written before me how, aesthetically speaking, Heinlein has an (unintentionally comedic) tin ear for sensual language. And, although the narrative includes chapters from the perspective of two female characters, it feels deeply, uncomfortably male-gazy all the way through. Especially with all that nudity he keeps having his characters practice. 


In Heinlein-world you can only be an assertive, intelligent woman if you're devastatingly attractive, beholden to a man yet sexually available. This was old hat in 1980, and feels positively antediluvian 30 years later.

I'd reflect that it's a classic old school male liberal response to the 1960's in many respects - gets sexual liberation, actually likes women; struggles massively with the feminist challenge to traditional gender roles and phallocentricity.

Oh, Bob Heinlein, no!

But Beast's problems with sex and gender go way beyond the usual Spinal Tap confusion of sexy and sexist. There's not just a couple of deeply unpleasant marital rape jokes, but also a theoretical exploration of father-daughter incest which is hugely Freudian in its undertones and does nothing for the book. 

Except to bring the reader to a juddering halt, asking in quavering tones, 'Bob, WTF?'

And then later on, as the book becomes increasingly meta, we meet the far-future Long family from some of Heinlein's other books, who all seem to be married to and/or hopping into bed with each other. When they're not creating opposite-sex clones of each other to marry and hop into bed with, that is.

Photo by Alex E. Proimos under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Did I mention that the Long family also resolve the incest question by conveniently including an identical twin of the daughter, who the father then sleeps with?

These issues had been bubbling away in his work as undercurrents for a long time, but it seems like Beast was the moment he turned all the problematic elements in his work up to 11. It's a colossal, radical balls-up for an author to make on a par with Stephen Donaldson's Wagnerian folly, the Gap series. Or Bob Dylan's Christian album's from the late 70's

This isn't a blog post about incest. It's a book review. So, let's just say that:

  • It's is a massively sensitive issue, which Beast deals with in a deeply insensitive manner.
  • The Long family are creepy, and the fact they are presented as utopian is creepier still.
  • That all relationships in the family centre around a single Heinlein-analogue is pretty patriarchal, not to mention narcissistic.
  • Taken together with the rampant sexism, it tends to devalue anything he has to say on sex and gender in earlier, saner works. It's hard to dispel the sad impression of Heinlein rubbing his thighs, Vic Reeves style, while he was writing Beast.
  • These intrusions totally derail the novel, although not content with this Heinlein was already taking it way off the tracks in other ways (see part 2 on Beast's junk postmodernism).

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