Considered by some to be one of the more confusing of Heinlein’s works, the novel THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST was written late in his career. It begins with the fastest falling in love sequence since ROMEO AND JULIET and ends with a party at which many of RAH’s characters and many of his real life friends appear.
In January of 1999, David Potter – a man known throughout USENET as Gharlane of Eddore – responded to some USENET posters who were less than thrilled with what they perceived as the quality of writing in it by publishing this concise critical appreciation of THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST in alt.fan.Heinlein. If you read and liked it, this may help explain why. If you read it and didn’t like it, this may convince you to read it again. If you haven’t read it, we envy you the chance and offer Gharlane’s note as a guide.
On June 10th, David Potter passed away. This essay is published, with his permission to reproduce it long since granted to us. It is republished in his honor and memory.
[A tribute to David written by Debbie Levi also is appended below.]
“You folks are all WAAAAAY off-base; you’ve missed what’s really going on.
“THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST is the most massive and wonderful practical joke ever played on the Speculative Fiction genre-reading public.
“It’s nothing but a MANUAL on How To Write Good Fiction, written on several simultaneous levels — and people get out of it what they put INTO it.
“If you’re bemused by the mild porn and physical references being thrust in your face, you never notice what’s actually going on … all the way through the book, you see lecture after lecture about Who’s In Charge, Why Is This Happening, These Are Books We Really Liked, and This Is Why … and every single time there’s a boring lecture or tedious character interaction going on in the foreground, there’s an example of how to do it RIGHT in the background … and constant harping and lecturing on the shoddiness of writers who don’t generate stories that *flow*, but just jerk characters and events around with no rhyme or reason … AND EVERY TIME THAT HAPPENS, A ‘BLACK HAT’ POPS IN AND JERKS THINGS AROUND … and EVERY SINGLE ‘BLACK HAT’ HAS A NAME WHICH IS AN ANAGRAM OF HEINLEIN’S OWN. (Or of someone very close to him.)
“This is the author stepping in to jerk the story around to make something happen, and thereby demonstrating a kind of conscious ineptitude at his own craft, for a joke…. because only when you understand it, only when you are *aware* of it, can you purposely botch it up with such skill, and produce something that is *still* good enough to keep the people who DON’T realize what’s going on … reading. Heinlein may have been past his peak when he did the writing, but he took his time and did it right, and did PRECISELY what he intended to do … he left his legacy to any who cared for good writing, good fiction, and RAH’s work; he handed over a textbook and a toolbox, and said ‘Here’s everything I know about my craft. See if you can do better.’
“Spider Robinson once said, after having figured out only a part of what the book was, that this is a book that Heinlein wrote for his friends, for the people who *care* about the field. I add that he also wrote it for any nascent writers with enough wit to realize what it was … the supreme hacker’s easter-egg.
“Just exactly how blatant does the man have to be? He’s written one of the greatest textbooks on narrative fiction ever produced, with a truly magnificent set of examples of HOW NOT TO DO IT right there in the foreground, and constant explanations of how to do it right, with literary references to people and books that DID do it right, in the background…
“And at the end, when the Anagrammatized Heinlein Black Hat tries to get into Valhalla with the other heroes, he’s tossed out on his backside. (This is one with the earlier reference to leaving STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND off the Reading List, quotha: ‘Some people will write ANYTHING.’) The man is humorously modest, but also acknowledges the importance of all those predecessors from whom he learned so much.
“That ‘party scene’ was Heinlein’s text farewell to the characters, books, writers, fans, and friends he loved; it was his love-letter to the people he’d worked with, and for, for over half a century, and he did it on purpose while his skills and health still allowed him to do it as well as he wanted to.
“This is not the first time that I’ve lectured on this subject, but apparently the concepts didn’t migrate to this topic … or have been forgotten in subsequent years.
“If you happen to re-read NUMBER OF THE BEAST try to remember these few points; it’ll make the book far more rewarding when you realize what’s actually going on. *Evil grin*”
(This following was written by Ms Levi in response to one of the first USENET messages telling of David Potter’s death and is republished with her express permission.)
“I thought when I found out about this post that it must be some lousy prank that one of the obnoxious harassers thought of doing. But then I called and confirmed with his dad that Gharlane had, indeed, passed out of this plane of existence.
“And here I was hoping to go to LosCon this year when he hoped to take his dad for his dad’s eightieth birthday. But his dad lost his son instead. That isn’t supposed to happen: dads are supposed to die *before* sons. At least the death didn’t happen violently; Gharlane died in his sleep.
“The USENET will be so much less spicy and energetic without the Eddorian mien that Gharlane promised E.E. Smith he’d adopt whenever he wrote. His knowledge of sci-fi ‘was practically photographic,’ especially of the Campbell years. He taught himself to read using his dad’s Analogs, after all *grin* I could ‘continued next rock’ when he made a particularly low compliment, and he’d know exactly what I meant. That was a first in *any* of my friends. And we both absolutely doted on Heinlein’s writing (well, I didn’t like the ‘dirty old man’ years, as I termed them) and knew it practically by heart.
“Although I did catch him out in an area where I found him to be more ignorant than I, I found that his knowledge in many other areas was strong. How rewarding to find that he didn’t have to be babied in camping, because he was an Eagle Scout, of the order of the Iron Arrow, and had been a scout leader. What fun it was to sing together from ‘CAMELOT’ or ‘OKLAHOMA!’, because he knew the songs (although he couldn’t read music despite his high school years in a jazz band). His grandmother’s music was fun (and somewhat hard!) to play on her piano (even my mom found the arrangement of ‘STARDUST’ hard, after he mailed us a copy!). His Russian and Arabic were incomprehensible to my Norwegian and German, and neither of us could speak Spanish despite living in areas where it is spoken. While I learned some basics of linguistics for fun and to sing other languages, he could always do a uvular trill that I could not mimic.
“A man of many talents and widely ranging knowledge, his wisdom and experience make him truly a man such as Robert Heinlein said men should aspire to be. The world will be less for his loss.