Robert A. Heinlein’s The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein and The Number of The Beast

Heinlein-NumberOur kind but ever so iron-fisted Editor-in-Chief decreed some time ago that Green Man wouldn’t do science fiction, so we don’t. (And the last person to disobey this edict is still down in the rat-infested cellars below the GMR corporate offices …) So why am I reviewing for GMR a collection by Robert A. Heinlein, one of the foremost hard science fiction writers that ever graced our reality? Am I feeling bleedin’ masochistic? No, it’s because Tor has done a very nice job of repackaging some of his odder, not-so-short fiction as fantasies. Now my guess is that someone at Tor is stretching things more than a wee bit to classify much of this as fantasy, but we’ll discuss that as we examine the contents of this collection and the somewhat related The Number of the Beast novel. (Editor’s note: Regular readers of GMR will note that dictum has fallen by the wayside some while back, with the advent of slipstream, interfictions, and other unclassifiable genres in speculative fiction.)

Heinlein was a science-fiction writer, not a fantasy writer, even when he melded the two motifs, as he did in The Number of The Beast, where John Carter of Mars meets the inhabitants of the Emerald City of Oz. (Bear with me, this gets complicated!) The basic plot of this novel is that four terribly sex-crazed, smart-arsed and extremely smart people, all of them with more Ph.Ds than are good for them, travel off in a very talkative spacecraft complete with a bathroom installed in Oz (!) for a series of adventures that Heinlein ‘steals’ from the favourite tales of his childhood. Heinlein, to my thinking, isn’t interested in fantasy at all in The Number of The Beast — he’ s interested in putting his characters in very odd situations. Heinlein clearly believed in a multiverse where everything was possible.

The novel itself is, according to most hard-core fans of Heinlein, just plain awful, as these comments indicate: ‘… A brilliant professor, his beautiful daughter, his girlfriend, a cleft-jawed soldier and their intelligent car go on a jaunt through parallel universes and eventually end up staring at the author’s navel’ … and another reviewer said ‘[I] had the misfortune to read Robert Heinlein’s Number of the Beast.’

‘Jubal, you are a bad influence.’ ‘From you, Lafe, that is a compliment.’ — Jubal Harshaw to Lazarus Long, quoted in The Number Of The Beast

Now my understanding is that every character in the novel is supposed to be a representation of — surprise! — Heinlein. After a terribly entertaining and perhaps not very coherent romp across the multiverse, he ends the book with a chapter called ‘L’Envoi’ which is set at a science-fiction convention and has bloody damn near every character, influence, and friend in Heinlein’s life. It’s an entertaining romp which apparently royally pisses off hard-core Heinlein fans for the simple reason that he didn’t take himself seriously when he wrote this novel. I find it rather charming — I should read it again soon!

Let me tell you, you non-existent reader sitting there with a tolerant sneer: don’t be smug. Jane is more real than you are. — Jacob Burroughs, quoted in The Number Of The Beast

Heinlein-FantasiesWhile The Number of The Beast forms the coda to Heinlein’s career as a writer because it connects so many threads of his earlier works, The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein gives us a look at some of his more interesting ‘short’ fiction. (Each piece is more properly a novella in terms of length.) This book consists of a mere eight stories; the first six are from the forties, the last two from the fifties. The dust jacket contains some interesting commentary: ‘The Golden Age of SF was also a time of revolution in fantasy fiction, and Heinlein was at the forefront. His fantasies were convincingly set in the real world, particularly those published in the famous magazine Unknown Worlds.’ It doesn’t mention that Unknown Worlds was edited by John Campbell, a father of the hard science fiction movement. It also rather oddly doesn’t note that some of these stories were published under a pseudonym that Heinlein often used, Anson MacDonald. (Many of the well-known authors used multiple pseudonyms because editors were reluctant to publish too many pieces under the same name. This practice of pseudonyms has continued to the present day, e.g., Bellamy Bach, who is credited as an author for some of the tales in Windling’s Bordertown series is very much a fiction.)

Are these fantasies? Yes, no, and perhaps. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy says that ‘Robert A. Heinlein’s methodical approach to scientific extrapolation was equally effective when he bent to fantasy and supernatural fiction . . . . Heinlein was one of the first writers to successfully meld the substance of SF and fantasy into an integral whole without compromising either genre.’

I do not doubt that these are very fine pieces here — all are spot on. But take the matter of ‘All You Zombies,’ which is a fiendishly complex time travel tale with no fantasy elements at all. It’s the ultimate time travel short story in which, with the not terribly judicious use of time travel, a man becomes his own father, his own mother and his own child. However, it’s clearly a science-fiction story, as technology is used to accomplish time travel. And ‘…And He Built A Crooked House’ appears to be no more than what happens when an architect defies the laws of physics — a truly bad idea!

My guess is that someone at Tor wanted desperately to flesh out a trio of fantasies by Heinlein (‘Magic, Inc.’, ‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,’ and ‘The Man Who Traveled with Elephants’) into a fuller collection. Indeed, the dust jacket copy suggests as much by saying, ‘Now all of Heinlein’s best fantasy short stories, most of them long novellas, have been collected in one big volume for the first time.’

‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag’ (1942), ‘The Man who Traveled in Elephants’ (1957), ‘All You Zombies’ (1959), ‘They’ (1941) ‘Our Fair City’ (1941), and ‘And He Built a Crooked House’ were published together in a collection titled The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, which was first published in 1959. And ‘Waldo’ and ‘Magic, Inc.’ were first published as a double in 1950. So what we have, my dear readers, is Tor combining two books into one. Just don’t bloody call it The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein — it’s clearly not!

What it is is a very fine collection of some Heinlein works that are hard to find in hardcover. (Not as hard to find as Time Enough for Love, but damn close.) ‘All You Zombies’ is itself worth the cost of the book, and so is ‘And He Built a Crooked House’ and ‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.’ It’s nice to have these tales in an attractive hardcover edition, so my recommendation is you get it soon before it goes out of print! I finish this review with an excerpt from the latter, which captures Heinlein at his very best. It’s my way of saying that he was every bit as good at writing dark fantasy as was Fritz Leiber or Ray Bradbury.

‘It is blood, doctor?’ Jonathan Hoag moistened his lips with his tongue and leaned forward in the chair, trying to see what was written on the slip of paper the medico held. Dr. Potbury brought the slip of paper closer to his vest and looked at Hoag over his spectacles. ‘Any particular reason,’ he asked, ‘why you should find blood under your fingernails?’ ‘No. That is to say–Well, no–there isn’t. But it is blood–isn’t it?’ ‘No,’ Potbury said heavily. ‘No, it isn’t blood.’ Hoag knew that he should have felt relieved. But he was not. He knew in that moment that he had clung to the notion that the brown grime under his fingernails was dry blood rather than let himself dwell on other, less tolerable, ideas. He felt sick at his stomach. But he had to know– ‘What is it, doctor? Tell me.’ Potbury looked him up and down. ‘You asked me a specific question. I’ve answered it. You did not ask me what the substance was; you asked me to find out whether or not it was blood. It is not.’
‘But–You are playing with me. Show me the analysis.’ Hoag half rose from his chair and reached for the slip of paper. The doctor held it away from him, then tore it carefully in two. Placing the two pieces together he tore them again, and again. ‘Why, you!’ ‘Take your practice elsewhere,’ Potbury answered. ‘Never mind the fee. Get out. And don’t come back.’

(Tor, 1999)
(Tor, 1980)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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