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Literature / The Number of the Beast

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"He's a mad scientist and I'm his beautiful daughter."
Deety Burroughs

The Number of the Beast is a 1980 Science Fiction novel written by Robert A. Heinlein. It is best known for being a Massively Multiplayer Crossover that unites every single fictional timeline he had ever written and those of multiple other authors, introducing the concept of The World as Myth that would be featured in all his subsequent works until his death. When plotted against his "Future History" series, this book is a sequel to Time Enough for Love, and is followed by The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

The plot centers around four geniuses, Zebediah ("Zeb") John Carter, Dejah Thoris ("Deety") Burroughs, her father Jacob, and their friend Hilda Mae, who find themselves embarking on a zany romp through The Multiverse thanks to Jacob's newly invented time machine. Along the way, they discover that every single fictional universe ever invented by anyone is real and can be accessed by shifting one's dimensional coordinates appropriately, which ends up taking them into the worlds of Lensman, John Carter of Mars, the Land of Oz, and many others before they end up in the world of Heinlein's own archprotagonist Lazarus Long. Throughout this process, they are pursued by marauding interdimensional adversaries with the power to rewrite history, who end up possibly being controlled by a rival Author. The book ends with the Burroughs and Carters (as Zeb and Hilda have married Deety and Jacob, respectively) joining Lazarus Long's extended family and staging a convention for all the fictional heroes of the multiverse.

Not to be confused with Number of the Beast, the fictional use of the dread "666", although it is referenced by the characters.

An original draft of the book has been released called The Pursuit Of The Pankera. There are some major changes to the plot, The biggest one being that the meeting with Lazarus was originally forging an alliance between The Lensman and the inhabitants of Barsoom with Heinlein's other work never showing up. As far as the story goes it still follows a lot of the same beats and you can see what in the original transformed into the final product.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Jacob can do multidimensional calculus in his head but requires a calculator to get 2+2=4 and often needs Deety or Hilda to remind him to eat or sleep.
  • The Ace: Deconstructed with Lazarus, who has grown accustomed to having his every whim obeyed (and usually always being right to boot), and is rather flustered when his patronizing behaviour causes the Burroughs to leave in a snit. Hilda then proceeds to read him the riot act, at which she is applauded by Lazarus' own family, who've apparently been waiting for someone to finally put him in his place. Lazarus then tries to brush it off by claiming he doesn't respect anyone who won't stand up for themselves (true) and it was a Secret Test of Character (false).
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Discussed after Lazarus gets into hot water because Dora refuses to obey his command to lie; he observes that it's for the best, as trusting your life to a computer capable of lying would be really foolish.
  • All Myths Are True: An obvious corollary to the "World as Myth" is that, if someone ever wrote it, it exists in The Multiverse. However, any given person's ability to travel there is based on their own subjective experience; in other words, you can only get to "fictional" worlds you're personally familiar with unless someone else has gone there first and recorded the coordinates. Zeb remarks that this can be a very good thing indeed when he finds out that he's the only one of the four who's ever read The Necronomicon.
  • Alternate History: Each universe is delineated by when it got space travel, and is usually named for the first person to walk on Earth's moon in that universe. Some universes diverged at earlier dates (such as 1500), but space travel seems to be the main point of delineation. Some Hilarity Ensues when the particulars of these histories get compared.
  • Author Appeal: As with many of Heinlein's later novels, features heavy helpings of nudism, polyamory, incest, and sentient female computers. As just one example, the Burroughs don't wear clothes except when they are meeting with other people, and Lazarus' family only wears them for formal occasions. Not to mention the entire "World as Myth" concept which lets Heinlein get all his characters together into one massive continuity crossover.
  • Bigger on the Inside: Glinda's magic renders Gay Deceiver into this by adding a few extradimensional rooms to her rear compartment.
  • Bothering by the Book: When Jacob takes his turn as commanding officer, the others (instigated by Hilda) subject him to a "white mutiny" as payback for his antics during Zeb's and Hilda's turns.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: The obvious consequence of a device that allows one to travel anywhere, anywhen, in any universe, in zero time, with zero power consumption. The corollary, of course, is that it makes interstellar/interuniversal war practical for the first time in human history, which segues directly into the sequel.
  • College Widow: Hilda "Sharpie" Corners is explicitly described as a college widow (although she protests that all of her paramours were age-appropriate). Given Heinlein's history of creating retro-flavored futures, this may be an instance of a deliberate use of an outdated trope to indicate that the book does not, as it initially seems, start 20 Minutes into the Future of our universe.
  • Communications Officer: When Hilda is captain of the Gay Deceiver, Zeb acts as her comm officer, especially when talking with the British colonists on Mars.
  • Cosmic Horror: One of the first things Zeb asks the others, once they realize they're voyaging among their own favorite fictional realities, is whether anyone but him likes H. P. Lovecraft ... because he'd rather they turn around and go home than risk ending up in a Verse where this trope prevails!
  • Cosmic Retcon: Explicitly enabled by the Burroughs device; a variant of this helps the team rescue Lazarus' mother, Maureen, from 20th century Earth. Several minor story elements from Methuselah's Children and Time Enough for Love get worked over in this manner in this and subsequent novels.
  • Crapsack Only by Comparison: Our protagonists run into several such worlds. One of these, merely described, indicates abrupt Earth Drift.
  • Diamonds in the Buff: Deety does this in direct Homage to John Carter of Mars.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Zeb not-entirely-seriously "proposes" to Deety after they share a really good dance together. Although he's somewhat taken aback when she promptly accepts his "proposal", very shortly thereafter the two characters in fact get married.
  • Forgets to Eat: Jacob, frequently.
  • Free-Love Future: The Burroughs start out fairly conventional, but end up being decidedly casual about who sleeps with whom, and Lazarus takes this up to eleven in his extended family, with just about everyone sleeping with everyone else by the end.
  • Gainax Ending: Does the subplot with the Black Hats ever get resolved? Not really, the protagonists just shrug off their Ret-Gone status back home and hold a big party. However, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls does take this up and deal with it.
  • Gender Bender: Among Lazarus Long's family, the Burroughs are surprised to meet a female, resurrected Libby Andrew Long, formerly Andy Libby and a major figure in Methuselah's Children. It turns out that Lazarus used Time Travel to find Andy's corpse (which was buried in space) in order to rejuvenate/resurrect him with modern technology. In the process of doing so, it was discovered that Andy had unexpressed female genetics (with XXY sex chromosomes), and so they worked some genetic magic to make "him" into Libby Andy.
  • Genius Breeding Act: It's briefly suggested that the four members of the Gay Deceiver crew ought to have babies together, as they're all extremely intelligent and would presumably pass that on to their offspring. In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, they and the Longs have had several communal children, all of whom are hypergeniuses.
  • Good with Numbers: Deety can do extremely complicated math in her head. Libby has the same talent, and when they meet they each (modestly) say that the other is a hair faster. Of course, they're so much faster than any normal person that only they could tell. Jake, by contrast, can only handle figures when expressed geometrically; Deety says he's no good at "kitchen math".
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Gay Deceiver is a car-turned-spaceship, that Zeb named. There are many reasons why she can't be homosexual.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: This is how Zeb and Deety clue to the fact that the "park ranger" accosting them is an alien; Deety's abrupt strip tease does not distract him or even engage his interest.note 
  • Infinite Supplies: Averted initially, as the travelers worry a great deal about "juice" (fuel) for Gay Deceiver and how much they've managed to pack in terms of food and clothing. Hilda in particular has barely anything when they first set off. After they visit Oz, however, Glinda uses her magic to bestow Gay with an infinite supply of fuel (in addition to several extra compartments she didn't have before) and the Burroughs with a picnic basket containing infinite food.
  • Interdimensional Travel Device: Professor Burroughs' invention of one (by blatantly ignoring the rules of vector arithmetic) is what drives the plot.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): During one universe change, Hilda suspects the planet they have arrived on in this universe is the one named Barsoom, rather than the name from their own universe. Mars.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: In Pursuit when somebody is in a "fictional" story they're familar with they conveniently forget all major spoilers to that story until they're no longer in a place to do anything about them, Hilda mentioning she forgot all major events after where the Lensmen series was in time. Number handles it by implaying a variation on Never the Selves Shall Meet and that a person and their fictional account simply won't coexist in the same area.
  • Literal Genie: Being just a computer before becoming a fully-fledged Spaceship Girl, Gay causes a few issues by being this. In particular, an incautiously-worded sentence can activate her command codes unintentionally.
  • Mad Scientist: Jacob identifies as this, in a self-deprecating way. He turns out to be anything but mad.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Invoked word-for-word by Deety, in the first line of the novel quoted above. It's a pick up line to Zeb.
  • Massively Multiplayer Crossover: The Convention for Pantheistic Multiperson Solipsism.
  • Mating Dance: An example of this (a Tango, naturally enough) leads to Zeb's not-entirely-serious "marriage proposal" to Deety, her immediate acceptance, and the two characters' Fourth-Date Marriage.
  • Meaningful Name: Zebediah John Carter and Dejah Thoris Burroughs were both intentionally named (by their parents) for characters in the John Carter of Mars series. This is Lampshaded by the characters themselves, who are naturally both fans of it. Every villain's name is an anagram of either Heinlein's name, or of his wife Virginia's.
  • More than Three Dimensions: Six-dimensional travel is enabled by pushing on a gyroscope in just the right way.
  • The Multiverse: The basic premise of the book.
  • The Napoleon: Hilda Mae Burroughs - small, check. Bullheaded, check. Gets all Mama Bear when you mess with her family. Very check. Do not patronize or fuck with her.
  • Nudity Equals Honesty: One of the alternate dimensions the protagonists spend a lot of time in is home to a variant of Christianity that equates nudity (as in the Garden of Eden) to innocence. So every Sunday you'll see families heading to church in their best clothes, only to strip before entering the sanctuary.
  • Nuke 'em: Employed by the Black Hats as a desperation measure to kill the protagonists before they can make an escape with the Burroughs Device. Zeb's precognition barely saves them.
  • Number of the Beast: Discussed by the protagonists for in-universe Paranoia Fuel, as the total number of accessible universes in the six-axis dimensional system employed by the Burroughs device is postulated to be 6^6^6 note . This of course inspires the title of the book.
  • Organ Theft: While if they need a body to substitute for someone who is rescued through time travel before they are killed and they must be replaced by a corpse so as not to create a time paradox, they can use a clone, Lazarus mentions how on some planets, you could order any organs you wanted from a specific person - or even their dead body if you wanted it - from your local organ/body snatcher, as casually as ordering from an office supply store.
  • Parental Incest:
    • It is implied that Deety and Jacob might do this. She says early on that she would never refuse her father if he approached her, and when the Longs suggest she and Jake should mate to create a super-smart baby, she says that the matter will have to be resolved between Jake and Zeb.
    • Lazarus and his mother resume the relationship they started in Time Enough for Love, after the group rescues Maureen from 20th century Earth and she is rejuvenated. The difference is that this time, she knows he's her son.
  • Phallic Weapon: Hilariously lampshaded by Zeb, who freely admits that his Hand Cannon is indeed a penis substitute; he carries it specifically to compensate for the fact that he can't kill someone from thirty meters away with his dick.
  • Phony Degree: Zeb twists this trope into a pretzel. His doctorate in education came from a legitimate university, and he met all academic requirements. He freely admits to deliberately gaming the system to get that degree, to show that degrees per se are meaningless. Apparently, Lazarus owns a diploma mill in his home timeline/universe.
  • Polyamory: Lazarus Long's extended family is poly. The Burroughs join them.
  • Recursive Canon: A necessary part of the "World as Myth"; it is all but directly stated that the Burroughs' world is also the creation of an Author (and, of course, Lazarus Long's stories exist in the Burroughs' universe), but there is apparently some unwritten rule that you can't read your own story in someone else's universe, lest a paradox be created. To make things even more entertaining, Lazarus apparently knows where/when to meet the Burroughs by reading this book, at least up to the point where he gets involved. Also, the notion of a malevolent Author messing with the Burroughs takes on multiple levels of recursive Mind Screw when one realizes that the author in question is Heinlein himself.
  • Redhead In Green: With the Long extended family having multiple redheads, a nontrivial proportion of their starship's cargo capacity is dedicated to storing their wardrobe of "endless formals in green". Even though they mostly go nude.
  • Ret-Gone: When the Burroughs try to return to their own universe after meeting with Lazarus Long, they find out that this has happened to them there, possibly at the hands of the Author who was pursuing them in the first place.
  • Retroactive Precognition: Used all over the place, particularly when the protagonists use their knowledge of the past to stage the rescue of Lazarus' mother, Maureen, from the late 20th century.
  • Self-Deprecation: When the main characters realize that they're traveling to worlds from their favorite works of fiction, Hilda asks that they all write lists of their favorite works. After the tally is completed, Zeb asks if Robert A. Heinlein got any votes. Hilda says that he got two votes for his Future History stories, and two for Stranger in a Strange Land. Zeb says that he has no intention of asking who voted for Stranger in a Strange Land, disparaging the book by saying "The things some people will do for money."
  • Spaceship Girl: Zeb's car, Gay Deceiver, who starts out nonsentient but, thanks to upgrades from the team (and later Glinda), takes on a full-fledged personality later in the story. Then they meet up with Lazarus Long and his spaceship Dora, who is fully intelligent as well.
  • Spider-Sense: Zeb's Psychic Power, allowing him to react instinctively in the split second before danger strikes. It saves the team's lives on multiple occasions, including from the nuclear blast that destroys their home.
  • Steampunk: The original Mars-Ten, which they spend a large portion of time in, is a steampunk world.
  • Suicide by Cop: Zeb says the most popular way to kill yourself in the future is to go up a tower with a sniper rifle and start shooting until the Riot Squad show up.
  • Switching P.O.V.: We get chapters narrated in first person by each of the four, and Lazarus Long gets a chapter too.
  • Tele-Frag: After a moment of in-universe Fridge Horror, Gay gets programmed with steps to avoid this. Not that it keeps them from almost crashing into things at their destination by normal means.
  • Teleportation Tropes: The method of time/dimensional travel used lends itself to a lot of these.
  • Teleporters and Transporters: The Borroughs device. Also Gay Deceiver after the device is mounted in her.
  • This Page Will Self-Destruct: Deety (a computer scientist) mentions that their family's account records are rigged such that if anyone unauthorized tries to access them, they'll get a cooked "clean" copy while the real records quietly erase themselves.
  • Time Travel: Thanks to the Burroughs device. It turns out that time is only one of the major dimensional axes that one can travel on; there are two others in addition to the traditional four, and any of them can be accessed by rotation or translation, providing a number of possible universes approaching infinity. Lazarus' universe already featured Time Travel prior to the Burroughs' arrival; it was merely inconvenient and difficult to calculate properly, and only worked within the one universe.
  • Title Drop: The "Number of the Beast" is mentioned several times. Also, at one point near the end, Jubal Harshaw is discussing culture shock and calls himself a "Stranger in a Strange Land," which is the title of the book that he's from. Deety also claims not to be a "stranger in a strange land" in Oz, as she is so familiar with the stories.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: More like "infinite time inside, zero time outside" since the Burroughs device allows you to shift your time axes as well as your space axes. The protagonists speculate that it would make a great enterprise to sell students extra time to study for their exams, or vacations that take zero time away from work. The sequels find the technology being put to a very similar use.