The World As Myth
Parallel Novels About Parallel Universes
by Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 26, 2020
The Number of the Beast / The Pursuit of the Pankera
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Please note, the link I'm providing for The Number of the Beast is the new hardcover edition from CAEZIK SF & Fantasy, a new imprint from Arc Manor Books. Other editions should display, or are available through a general search. The image to the right is my trade paperback copy, which was published at the same time as the original hardcover in August, 1980. As far as I know the new edition does not include the illustrations by Richard M. Powers, which take up close to 75 pages in the original. Both Goodreads and FantasticFiction.com identify Number as the second title in the World as Myth series, whereas I would say it's the first. They have Time Enough for Love as first, but that did not include the multiple universe story elements introduced in Number. If I wanted to get pedantic, I'd nominate his 1941 short story "Elsewhen," collected in Assignment in Eternity, as the origin of the concept, in Heinlein's fiction at least. The main character of Time does reappear here, but…I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's concentrate on Number.
First off, I should say this is one of my least favorite Heinlein novels. There might be only two others I'd rate lower at this time. I only re-read it to prepare for the newly discovered lost novel (see below), to which this is a companion volume. There are parts I like, but it's much longer than it needed to be. Even subtracting all the illustrations it's about 425 pages, still too long and rambling. The main fault lies in the repetitive nature of the exposition from four different narrative voices. It is good that my paperback copy includes the narrator's name at the top of the page of each chapter, since it becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. Not only that, quite a few chapters have characters other than the stated narrator doing most of the talking, which adds to the confusion. A frequent criticism of later Heinlein was that the personas of lead characters were too similar; Jubal Harshaw was indistiguishable from Woodrow Wilson Smith, aka Lazarus Long, and those are but two examples. Many assume they are both alter-egos of the author, at least at that stage in his life. There was more variety in personalities in earlier books. Heinlein was never vague about believing intelligent people were free to make their own rules, live by their own code, whether the subject was politics or sex. I've read essays which suggest he was a proponent of Thelema, the "Do as thou wilt" philosophy. That would be a good way to describe all four main characters in Number, and definitely fits Jubal and Lazarus.
The four main characters are: Zebadiah Carter, ex-military, part-time academic, sometime teacher at a California college; Dr. Jacob Burroughs, mathematician and professor at a college in Utah; Jacob's daughter Dr. D.T. "Deety" Burroughs, expert computer logic programmer; Hilda Corners, socialite, a friend of Zeb and the Burroughs. The first third of the book is taken up with discussions and arguments between the four characters. Zeb is the only one of them with military experience, so when they are attacked by unknown foes, on three separate occasions, Zeb declares "lifeboat rules." He assumes the captain's position, since it is his flying car in which they make their escape, and he expects them all to fall in line and take orders. But the others are as obstinate as he is, and more intelligent to boot. Zeb gets his fill of command and insists someone else has to take over, so they go through more quarrels as the other three take turns. All of this is happening at the same time they are field testing Jacob's "continua" device, which enables them to access alternate universes. The title of the book comes not from the Bible's designation of the Number of the Beast as 666, but instead the number 6 raised to the 6th power, and then that sum raised again to the 6th power, Jacob's estimate of the number of universes available to them. On the first adjacent world they visit, which Jacob and Deety had previously experienced, their mountain retreat is still there, but they discover a significant change which tells them it is definitely not their world. They want to get away from the entities chasing them, aliens they've dubbed the Black Hats, so they utilize another aspect of Jacob's device, and instantaneously transverse the millions of miles from Earth to Mars, although in this case they travel from Earth-10 to Mars-10, Earth-0 being their origin point.
I don't want to go into too much detail, so I'll skim over the rest of the plot. Mars-10 has a breathable atmosphere and some vegetation. It has been settled by both Britain and Russia, and on Earth-10 the Americas were still part of the British Empire. They have conflicts with both groups, so they leave Mars-10 and start a more methodical search through the multiverse for a new home. They encounter empty spaces, either no matter, or else any planet or star is so far from their position as to not be visible. Luckily, the Burroughs device can switch from one universe to another very quickly, which saves them several times when they arrive in a space of brilliant white light (too close to a star?), or in the midst of red or green matter (the heart of a forming nebula?). Then things really get weird when they encounter worlds they recognize from fiction: Oz, Wonderland, Camelot, Lilliput. Jacob surmises that each were created at the same time the stories were written, and the empty universes were waiting for another creation to fill them. Preposterous on the surface, but if you consider this more of a fantasy it's acceptable. Except for the fact all the fantasy worlds are obviously from stories Heinlein held dear. Could the same be said for characters that lived several hundred years after his childhood? During most of the '70s Heinlein suffered through several health crises. It is possible he thought this was going to be his last book, so it was an homage to all the stories he loved from his youth, as well as an homage to some of his earlier work. I'll mention more about that in the section below.
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It's been a few years since someone found a previously unheard of manuscript in the Heinlein archives. According to the publisher's note there was only minimal editing, with no extra text from any other author. The Pursuit of the Pankera may have been written first, possibly as early as 1977, but was set aside and forgotten. The intro says there are several theories as to why but doesn't elaborate. I haven't searched for that information, but I'll venture a few guesses. Approximately the first third of both books, up to Chapter 19, are essentially the same, although in skimming the Kindle file of Pankera and comparing it to the paperback of Number, I did spot a few places with an additional sentence or two. The first significant change is when they reach Mars-10. In Number, Hilda calls it Barsoom because the landscape reminds her of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. In Pankera it is Barsoom, or at least as close to those books as all of their memories recall. This includes encountering Dejah Thoris (Deety's real name), Princess Thuvia, and Cathoris, son of John (Zebadiah's middle name) Carter, but not the warlord from Earth himself, he seems to be off on other adventures, perhaps back on Earth (but which one?). I preferred the British/Russian Mars settlements from Number, mainly because it was more original, and I've never been able to get into the Barsoom stories, it's just a style that never clicked for me. My first guess about the change is they couldn't get permission from ERB's estate to use his creations, or else Heinlein decided to go another route.
The percentage of the time they spend on Mars-10 is almost the same in both books, off by just a few pages and one chapter. The similarities continue during their search through the multiverse, including their excursions in Oz, Wonderland, Camelot, and Lilliput. Those sections might not be verbatim, but close enough. The stories diverge again after they encounter Lensman Ted Smith of Galactic Patrol, from the fiction of E.E. "Doc" Smith, another group of books that never appealed to me. In Number they transition away from that encounter quickly, but in Pankera they are taken aboard Smith's space ship and are brought to Prime Base. Their experiences there take up about the same amount of time as their encounter with Lazarus Long in Number. This is what I meant above about a possible homage to Heinlein's earlier work. Another guess is that towards the end of the '70s Heinlein's health improved, perhaps he knew he had a few more books in him, including expanding on Lazarus' story, so the World as Myth concept expanded. The first time I read Number I welcomed the return of Lazarus, since I liked him as a character even though he, and Heinlein, would not have a positive opinion of me. Also, I had been troubled about the vague ending of Time Enough for Love. The weird thing about Pankera is that Lazarus gets a reference during the Lensman scenario, although in his alternate persona of Lafe Hubert, but the scenario where Zeb and the others first encountered him and met the rest of his family is skipped over. This new/old book gets its name from the aliens who tried to kill Dr. Burroughs, the theory being they wanted to eliminate his ability to move through the multiverse, to eliminate even the knowledge of alternate universes. They were never called Pankera in Number, just Black Hats. This one ends on a cliffhanger, as Zeb and party are working with the Lensmen and others to attack the Pankera on the nineteen worlds on which they are most numerous.
I prefer that ending to the one in Number, which relegated the Black Hats to an ineffectual, almost forgotten threat. Instead, the coda of Number was farcical, devolving into unadulterated solipsism, with multiple other Heinlein characters, and many more from other creators, gathering together for a convention of sorts. That may have been a more fitting end if it was the last one Heinlein published. But since it wasn't, Pankera would have been a better setup for the later books, with the Pankera still a threat, since it had been stated they knew they would not be able to eliminate them completely. If I had been his editor I would have kept the British/Russian scenario on Mars-10, and combined the Lensman/Lazarus sections, but only the parts about the assault against the Pankera. Their rescue of Lazarus' mother Maureen, depicted in Number, should have been held for a later book. Another thing that would have made both of these books better is either third-person narrative, or just one narrator, Zebadiah. He's the closest to several other Heinlein heroes, such as E.C. Gordon and Johnnie Rico. At least he remained the captain of the group in Pankera, which makes the most tactical sense, and it eliminated a lot of the quarrels during the Mars-10 scenes. Hilda ended up captain in Number. Even though I don't count any of the World As Myth books among my favorites, not even in a top 20 of Heinlein titles, I will eventually re-read the later two. If and when I do, I may add them to this page, if I'm still doing this that far down the road. Heinlein is still a favorite, in spite of my misgivings about these two books and a few others, I am grateful his health improved and he continued writing. He was as prolific in the '80s as he had been the previous two decades combined, and three of the five books that followed Number are among my favorites, with the two novels among my Top 10.
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