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The Number of the Beast

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue.

The Number of the Beast. Robert A. Heinlein.
Edition reviewed: 1981 (New English Library)
Current Availability: Hardbound, Mass-market paperback, ebook (all Amazon), second-hand market.

I’m almost afraid to suggest this book, or even to admit reading it, as it seems to be the most universally reviled of Heinlein’s novels. And I’m not here to defend it. I recall struggling with it the first time I read it. I didn’t like the sudden switch from interesting SF to quirky fantasy, I wasn’t familiar enough with the Lazarus Long novels by Heinlein to make much sense of that section of the book, and I was utterly bewildered by the last section. And let’s be fair: some of the writing and a fair bit of attitudes (or proselytization if you like) are execrable. It could also have used a good editing, which I think I’ve read that Heinlein refused to allow, and it would benefit from perhaps being a hundred pages shorter.

But for some reason I keep being drawn back to it as an old favourite, a comfy but worn slipper to put on when I just want some escapism, and perhaps a guilty secret delight that I might not admit to in public. Perhaps it’s because I first encountered it as a teenager full of wide-eyed awe of the author but little critical acumen. Or perhaps it’s just my contrarian nature; if everyone else hates it, I’m determined to love it.

A quick recap for those who don’t know it or haven’t read it in a while: a mathematician discovers six-dimensional geometry – not only does space have three dimensions but time does as well – and he invents a ‘continua device’ that allows moving between multiple universes with ease. Not just a handful but the titular ‘number of the beast’, from the book of Revelation, not read as 666 but as six to the power six to the power six universes, and in fact, as they discover, ones in between so it’s effectively infinite. With his wife and daughter and her husband, the four set out to explore these universes driven by ‘Black Hat’ alien nasties determined to kill them and suppress knowledge of the maths and science. The first half of the book, or more, settles us into this and we get as far as alternate earths (one without the letter ‘J’ and an alternate Mars) as the continua device, mounted in son-in-law’s ‘roadable’ (car-cum-aeroplane) can move in space as well as between universes. The next 75 pages or so then see the reader discovering that they’re not from ‘our’ universe after all, the travellers discovering fictional universes are just as real as anything else (and that, indeed, the characters themselves are fictional to other universes – e.g. ours!) and they end up in Oz amongst other places as well as meeting the Grey Lensman and Charles Dodgson. Another 100 pages sees them meet Heinlein’s own fictional creations from other novels and the book does get a bit lost its own cleverness as time travel and almost the only plot gets introduced). There’s a final section set at a science fiction convention where the self-referential recursion of the book’s parody of SF, alternate universes and SF authors reaches peak weirdness, or incestuousness, or for some just plain incomprehensibility.

I can identify a few things I know I like:

Since my childhood sojourn in the USA (Grades 3-5, aged 5-7) when my parents would take myself and three siblings on road trips for weeks at a time round all but 14 of the States in an old Ford estate pulling a trailer tent, I’ve hankered after a camper van or RV. At the end of a day of travel when we were still wrestling with tent poles and fetching water, Winnebagoes would roll up beside us with the coffee already on. NotB has the ultimate RV and it gets improved as the book goes on.

Then there’s the fairly lengthy and sometimes irritating debate and discussion about who’s going to captain the continua craft. However, from this I’ve probably learned all I know about leadership. Which perhaps only tells you why I should never be left in charge of anyone. But I quite like the struggles the four of them have, in turn, to take command in their own style and realize their own limitations.

I’m quite fond of the central conceit of the book – that of the multiverse which when I first read it four decades ago – it can’t be that long?! – was quite new. And I’ve come to like the secondary conceit of all fictional universes being a part of that multiverse and as real as each other.

And although it’s taken multiple rereadings, I’ve come to appreciate the references to a lot of other literature and a good chunk of Heinlein’s own work. Some obvious; some very subtle. Yes, it gets too clever for its own good at times but as I get older and more widely read it’s more fun to find these hidden gems.

The snag with the latter point is that for first, or even second, time readers without that background the book can read like a clique of friends chatting about things you’re not quite privy to. I’ve often thought that one day I should attempt an ‘annotated NotB’ – in the vein of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (but I’m not doing all of Heinlein!). It would take some time but might be helpful to others – not that I would claim to get all or even most of the references. I keep wondering if there is already something like this, but if there is I’ve not tracked down it down. However, the last segment of the novel should not be read without reference to the compilation of references at http://www.robertheinlein.it/lenvoi.html which, if it doesn’t do quite what I want, does at least explain the names used in the most impenetrable final few pages of the novel.

So, what is its relevance to Traveller? Please don’t let the above suggest that you should read NotB, just that if you do, there are some merits in amongst the appalling lines about Deety’s nipples going ‘spung’, Heinlein’s rather casual manifesto on free love (amongst other things), and a fair bit of rather limited characterization. If nothing else, there’s quite a nifty illustration on the cover of my paperback of the main vehicle in the novel (although the interior of the cockpit is shown as too spacious or just out of scale in my opinion).

Firstly for referees who’d like a much wider palette of settings and adventures to explore with players, the multiverse idea could be fun to play with. It would open up the entire range of all Traveller eras and adventures to be usable. But of course, even more, it would allow the introduction of any gaming material to hand and indeed any novels at all to be usable for adventuring in. The continua device and the six-dimensional maths gives a veneer of science to it, as does the too briefly mentioned idea of ‘fictons’ being a unit of imagination (chapter XXXIII for anyone who wants to explore that further).

I know some feel this isn’t ‘Traveller’, whatever that is, but don’t forget the precedent or even the support you can find in Book 4: Psion [Mongoose, 2009] for a Temporal Agency career and Inter-Dimensional Agency career as well as the new skills therein of Science (temporal), Science (dimensional) and Temporal Paradox. Powers/Talents such as Temporal Manipulation and Dimensional Manipulation and the latter’s concept of Barriers with strength, ironically enough, up to 6. There are even rules for Dimensional Vessels or Time Ships if required although they wouldn’t create what is seen in NotB. (Some of this was repeated in Judge Dredd [Mongoose, 2009]1 1— Lawrence Whitaker, the author of Book 4: Psion and Judge Dredd (as well as Strontium Dog) all published in 2009 was certainly getting good value for money that year, even if fans weren’t necessarily, with much of the material on this subject common between books. which also includes a specialist (Psi) unit of the Justice Department: the ‘Trans-D’ which specialises in studying and monitoring the known parallel dimensions mirroring Mega-City One. Strontium Dog [Mongoose, 2009] also has similar rules and time/dimension weapons).

Of course, Traveller itself has large numbers of alternative settings which could be used as alternative universes from the TNE/GURPS Traveller split of Strephon’s assassination, or not, through to milieux from ‘near’ Charted Space (Reign of Discordia [Mongoose, 2010], Clement Sector [Gypsy Knights Games, 2013 (now Independence Games—ed.)] or Twilight Sector [Terra/Sol, 2009]) through post-apocalypse (Afterday [Michael Brown, 2018]) to outright fantasy (Netherell [Terra/Sol, 2011] or Worlds Apart [Expeditious Retreat Press, 2013]). Not forgetting time travel possibilities from dinosaurs (Camp Cretaceous [Zozer, 2016]) through the 1950s in Attack Squadron: Roswell [Zozer, 2013] or 2300AD [Mongoose, 2012] to future weirdness such as Strontium Dog [Mongoose, 2009] or Cthonian Stars [Wildfire, 2011]. When you factor in all the other gaming material that may be on a Referee’s shelves or the fiction that’s been read across a lifetime or available in attics or libraries, the worlds really are your bivalve molluscs.

Secondly, for use as Traveller, there’s a ‘big bad’ that might be a useful antagonist for players. They are definitely used here as a ‘push’ in Marc Miller’s terms and a part of the novel that sadly fizzles out, but enterprising referees could make much of the Black Hat aliens.

Next there are four interesting enough characters which could easily be a set of PCs. They’re rather fantasy wish fulfilment in their abilities, brilliance and attractiveness but then isn’t that the point of many of our PCs?! Traveller does tend towards more ordinary citizens in extraordinary situations but there’s a time and a place for heroic larger than life characters out to save the universe as well. What’s interesting to me is that for all they’re this kind of hero, only one of them is military and although combat does occur in the novel, it’s not central. As ever with Heinlein, talk is preferred.

The fifth ‘main character’ in the book is the time and space machine, called Gay Deceiver. She starts off as a cool enough flying car and then has the continua device added to enable her to move between universes and around in space and time without fuel. She then has features added in Oz which are complete fantasy and might well be avoided by referees and by the end of the book is pretty much an AI. It would certainly be an interesting craft to offer the right kind of players or even just for them to encounter in their travels, suggesting that the PCs are just figments of another author’s imagination.

There is some pretty good world building of an alternative Mars which could easily be mined for ideas – particularly if you were looking for a lower tech (5 or 6?) penal colony type situation. This is one segment of the book that could have been trimmed for length in my opinion but it does mean that there’s a fair bit of detail that could be used.

Finally, for referees looking for something of a change of pace from their regular Traveller games, there’s the inspiration that this provides to get cleverly self-referential about their other work (or others’ work). Of course, it would be easy to get this wrong and be too clever – debatably Heinlein does just this – but for referees writing their own material and with players familiar with that material, it could be an interesting way of making the most of games past and playing off a shared universe of memories and adventures that could be a lot of fun. I suspect such opportunities would be vanishingly rare but there may be long-lived gaming groups, or even tight knit conventions where this could make for a very memorable experience.

I can’t finish this without mentioning some novelty. Just to confuse the issue of the likeability (or not) of NotB, The Pursuit of the Pankera has just been published this year. It’s a previously unpublished version of the novel cobbled together from Heinlein’s drafts rather than added to by another author. The first third of PotP is identical to NotB but after that they diverge – at the point on Mars when they don’t (or do) go on a hike – and they tell different stories. Whether the different story is better or not, I’ll leave to others but it perhaps feels more like what I was expecting as a teenager. In the new version Barsoom is properly realized, fictons become fictions, and Zeb stays captain rather than the rotation and the debate but there is a lot of overlap as well so while it can read ‘new’ it also feels familiar. It’s an open question whether publishing this, in a perhaps not dissimilar way to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was a wise idea or not.

I cannot whole-heartedly recommend NotB as a novel and you may feel there’s little enough to extract for Traveller, but for reasons good or bad I return to it occasionally for a sense of comfort and wonder – and perhaps a little warning in things to avoid as well. YMMV.

Further Reading

As well as Book 4: Psion and Judge Dredd mentioned above, GURPS 3rd edition includes Alternate Earths [SJG, 1996] and Alternate Earths 2 [SJG, 1999] which give rules for ‘crossworld campaigning’ and provide examples of similar but not identical versions of Earth which could offer models as to how to adjust Charted Space (or just be used directly as alternate worlds). The 4th edition Infinite Worlds [SJG, 2004] covers similar ground with more examples in less detail along with rules for time travel. All three have bibliographies for more on this kind of subject. The Star Trek Adventures volume The Sciences Division [Modiphius, 2018] has several pages of text on time travel and a short section on parallel universes which may be informative for adventures or campaigns involving this kind of thing. S.E.V.E.N. [Michael Brown, 2019] may also be worth a quick look for ideas. It’s only four pages but then it only costs pennies.