Heinlein’s World as Myth (and how to read it)

The Number of the Beast is a novel with a reputation for being brilliant, impossible to read, and even a work of supreme authorial conceit. I concede that the latter is possible, and the book has problems, surely; but it’s a fun and easy-to-read (if long) book that I reread often.

There’s a theory that the book is a manual on how to write good fiction. I think theories like this come about because the book doesn’t fit into any familiar categories: there’s no easily defined structure, it’s long, complicated, filled with in-jokes, puzzles, and changing first-person narrators that tell the story. It’s somehow enjoyable despite all that.

I read The Number of the Beast when I was a teenager and had read almost none of Robert A. Heinlein’s other work. Despite knowing I was missing something, I still loved reading about the characters’ escape from their home, their exploring of parallel worlds, and their discovery that the universe is created by blissfully unknowing writers. It’s a commonly stated “fact” that a writer has to explain the action clearly to the reader. As en editor, I’d agree with that, but over-explaining can make a book too pat and predictable. Heinlein has managed to leave much up to the reader and still produce a great story.

I believe he did this by layering the novel so thoroughly and deeply that the reader is aware there’s much on the page that’s just beyond their comprehension just now. One might think, “perhaps this will be clearer on a future reading?” and then move on to the next sentence. The ability to do this while still assuming the reader’s competence is an impressive achievement. The books that followed in the series were far more linear.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is more of a sequel to the Heinlein classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress than anything else, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset is a biography of the character Maureen Johnson from his “Future History” series. Both are good books, but nothing like the carnival of glorious excess that is The Number of the Beast.

So, in what order should you read them? Do you need to read the corpus of Heinlein’s work before tacking them? In response to that question, I’ve put together a suggested reading order.

The chart below puts the books in an order (the numbers next to each title) that presents the reader with the books most closely related to the world-as-myth volumes. Heinlein’s “Future History” and standalone books (the green and gray rectangles) should be tackled before reading the world-as-myth books into which they lead (the red rectangles). It also alternates easier books with more challenging ones.

You can alter this order based on availability of the books, but the arrows in the chart are a guide to what books lead into others. (The core world-as-myth books should be read last where possible.)

Time Enough for Love is an odd case. While it’s part of the “Future History” books, characters in the book are an important part of the story in The Number of the Beast. Indeed, Number is, in some ways, a conclusion to the story of Lazarus Long. Whether or not Time Enough for Love is a core world-as-myth book is unclear, but but it’s definitely a prelude to the world-as-myth story. As fragmented and uneven as it is, it’s also one of my favorite Heinlein novels.

This article takes some text from my answer to this question on the Stack Exchange network.


12 thoughts on “Heinlein’s World as Myth (and how to read it)

  1. Like you, my first encounter with RAH, back in my impressionable youth, was “Number of the Beast.” A factoid I uncovered recently: The names of all the bad guys in that novel are anagrams of his or his wife’s name. I have yet to confirm this, but off the top of my mind “Neil O’Heret Brain” fits the pattern.

    I can’t decide whether “Time Enough for Love” or TSBTS is my favorite Heinlein novel. I read TEFL when I was younger, and it made such an impression on me that I, to this day, practice many of Lazarus Long’s tenets.
    What impressed me about TSBTS was the exhibition of sheer skill and talent of Heinlein as a writer. Think about it: it’s a story of a young turn-of-the-century wife living a thoroughly domestic life. Having babies, cooking meals, joining sewing circles, going to church. How paralyzingly boring, on the surface. But the Grand Master makes it come alive, makes fascinating the otherwise banal.
    Of course, the rampant incest later in the novel makes it difficult to recommend to others unfamiliar with Heinlein – imagine the whispers!

    But I would like to take exception with your well-presented chart. A minor detail, really. I agree with you that (even though I didn’t!) one should meet Lazarus Long before reading “Number of the Beast,” but I believe that “The Rolling Stones” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” belong firmly in the Future History cycle, Stones concerning the early exploration of the Moon and Mistress concerning the early to middle era of the colonization of Luna. It fits neatly into Heinlein’s chart, seen in “Expanded Universe,” another of my favorites.

    1. Jeff, I finally decided to include The Rolling Stones when I realized it’s such an easy read and a great introduction to Heinlein in general. If it had been a longer or more involved book, I would likely have left it out. (Not reading it won’t harm reading the other books, and any of them can in fact be read in isolation, although to greatly reduced effect.) I’d be interested if anyone has read Sunset and Cat without having read any of the other books, and if so what they thought.

      1. My order of Heinlein reading:
        Stranger in a Strange Land
        Have Spacesuit Will Travel
        The Cat Who Walked Thru walls.

        Reading Cat w/o reading any of the other related books made it interesting but not impossible to follow along. Now that I’ve read Moon is a harsh mistress the world makes much more sense.

  2. I too started reading RAH as a youngster (but for me, it was before I even hit the double digits…). I think the first couple I read were some of the easier ones like Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, and The Star Beast, but the first of his more complicated works that I jumped into was To Sail Beyond the Sunset. It was actually several many years before I got a hold of any of his other future history/world as myth books because my dad (whose library I’d been raiding for these) didn’t happen to like any of those (I think because of all the incest) and so didn’t own any. It still made great sense to me, but definitely skewed my POV for all the other books because by the time I’d been exposed to them I’d read and re-read TSBTS so many times that I could practically recite Maureen’s history by heart.

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