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The Number of the Beast (novel)

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The Number of the Beast
First edition (UK)
AuthorRobert A. Heinlein
Cover artistTim White
GenreScience fiction
PublisherNew English Library (UK)
Fawcett (US)
Publication date
July 12, 1980
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint
Followed byThe Cat Who Walks Through Walls 

The Number of the Beast is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1980. Excerpts from the novel were serialized in the magazine Omni (October–November 1979).


The book is a series of diary entries primarily by each of the four main characters: Zebadiah "Zeb" John Carter, programmer Dejah Thoris "Deety" Burroughs Carter, her mathematics professor father Jacob Burroughs, and off-campus socialite Hilda Corners. The names "Dejah Thoris", "Burroughs", and "Carter" are overt references to John Carter and Dejah Thoris, the protagonists of the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the opening, Deety is dancing with Zeb at a party at Hilda's mansion. Deety is trying to get Zeb to meet her father to discuss what she thinks is an article Zeb wrote about n-dimensional space, even going so far as to offer herself. Zeb figures out and explains to Deety that he is not the one who wrote the article but a relative with a similar name.

After dancing a very intimate tango, Zeb jokingly suggests the dance was so strong they should get married, and Deety agrees. Zeb is taken aback but then accepts. As they are leaving, Deety and Zeb rescue Jacob from a heated argument he is having with another faculty member before a fight breaks out. As they are approaching their vehicles, Hilda comes out, deciding to tag along. Zeb, having a premonition, grabs the three of them and ducks behind another vehicle before Jacob and Deety's vehicle explodes. Zeb gets everyone into his modified air car Gay Deceiver and by activating the Deceiver's flying capability, escapes undetected by the authorities or the criminals who put a bomb in the other vehicle.

Zeb flies to Elko, Nevada, the state being the only one to allow people to get married 24 hours a day with no waiting period or blood test. The incidents have so traumatized Jacob that he has agreed to marry Hilda and so they have a double ceremony. The couples then go to Jacob's hidden cabin in the woods, where they have their honeymoons.

Thus begins the series of adventures that the four embark upon as they travel in the Gay Deceiver, which is equipped with the professor's "continua" device and armed by the Australian Defence Force. The continua device was built by Professor Burroughs while he was formulating his theories on n-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry. The geometry of the novel's universe contains six dimensions – the three spatial dimensions, known to the real world, and three time dimensions: t, the real world's temporal dimension, τ (Greek tau), and т (Cyrillic te). The continua device can travel on all six axes. The continua device allows travel into various fictional universes, such as the Land of Oz, as well as through time. An attempt to visit Barsoom takes them to an apparently different version of Mars, seemingly under the colonial rule of the British and Russian Empires, but near the end of the novel, Heinlein's recurring character Lazarus Long hints that they had traveled to Barsoom and that its "colonial" status was an illusion imposed on them by the telepathically adept Barsoomians:

... E.R.B.'s universe is no harder to reach than any other and Mars is in its usual orbit. But that does not mean that you will find Jolly Green Giants and gorgeous red princesses dressed only in jewels. Unless invited, you are likely to find a Potemkin Village illusion tailored to your subconscious...


In the novel, the biblical number of the beast turns out to be not 666 but = 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056,[1] the initial number of parallel universes accessible through the continua device. It is later theorized by the character Jacob that the number may be merely the instantly accessible universes from a given location and that there is a larger structure that implies an infinite number of universes.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Jack Kirwan wrote in National Review that the novel is "about two men and two women in a time machine safari through this and other universes. But describing The Number of the Beast thus is like saying Moby Dick is about a one-legged guy trying to catch a fish." He went on to state that Heinlein celebrates the "competent person".[2]

Sue K. Hurwitz wrote in her review for the School Library Journal that it is "a catalog of Heinlein's sins as an author; it is sophomoric, sexist, militantly right wing, and excessively verbose" and commentary that the book's ending was "a devastating parody of SF conventions—will have genre addicts rolling on the floor. It's garbage, but right from the top of the heap."[3]

Heinlein buff David Potter explained on alt.fan.heinlein, in a posting reprinted on the Heinlein Society, that the entire book is actually "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." He noted that "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."[4]

Greg Costikyan reviewed The Number of the Beast in Ares Magazine #5 and commented: "No one writes like Heinlein, and what is a disappointment from him would be a smashing success from anyone else."[5]

James Nicoll has credited it as having taught him that he does not have to finish reading every book he begins.[6]

The Pursuit of the Pankera[edit]

In 2020, a previously unpublished manuscript by Heinlein was released as The Pursuit of the Pankera. Using the same premise and characters as The Number of the Beast, the first third of the two novels are the same.[7] In the remainder of The Pursuit of the Pankera, the characters visit fictional universes, primarily Barsoom, Oz, and the world of E. E. Doc Smith's Lensman series.[8]


  1. ^ Note: not , which is a far bigger number, roughly 2.66 × 10^36305.
  2. ^ Kirwan, Jack (1980-12-12). "Books In Brief". National Review. 32 (25): 1522–1523. ISSN 0028-0038.
  3. ^ Hurwitz, Sue K. (November 1980). "The Number of the Beast (Book Review)". School Library Journal. 27 (3): 93. ISSN 0362-8930.
  4. ^ "Heinlein Society". heinleinsociety.org. Archived from the original on 2011-06-05. Retrieved 2022-06-01.
  5. ^ Costikyan, Greg (November 1980). "Books". Ares Magazine (5). Simulations Publications, Inc.: 10.
  6. ^ Nicoll, James (May 1, 2015). "The Man Who Didn't Learn Better". James Nicoll Reviews. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
  7. ^ Keogh, John (March 1, 2020). "The Pursuit of the Pankera". The Booklist. 116 (13): 34. ProQuest 2369759093.
  8. ^ Davidson, Dan (July 17, 2020). "An alternate take on an alternative realities book". Whitehorse Star. p. A.28. ProQuest 2424714878.

External links[edit]