enhanced] DD-B

Book Note: Robert A. Heinlein, The Pursuit of the Pankera

I read this book about 30-Mar-2020. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2020. This note was last modified Tuesday, 13-Dec-2022 21:49:36 PST.

This is book 1 of the "World as Myth" series.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


This is an old version of The Number of The Beast that got found in the archive and people eventually decided to publish (there was a kickstarter to fund it, even). Many people, me included, think of TNotB as a leading contender for Heinlein's worst book (and of course some disagree strongly). The descriptions from early readers of this version, however, say that it diverges strongly from that at around the 1/3 point—which is roughly where what looked like a promising book to begin with goes off the rails.

In any case, I was inevitably going to buy and read it; it might or might not be fiction I would enjoy, but it has to be a bit of glimpse into Heinlein's writing process that I would find fascinating.

The Number of the Beast

I see that it's been more than 20 years since I read The Number of the Beast. I first read it when it was new, of course. I quickly formed the opinion that it was a leading candidate for his worst book ever. I read his later books as they came out, and none of them clearly took over that title (for me). Eventually, I found I re-read the books of his I liked enough that they were starting to stale a bit, and I re-read the occasional book I liked less; this eventually included TNotB. I think I may even have read it a third time; but if so, not late enough that it got into this book log.

Since I can't link to my old opinions I'm going to give them briefly here. This section relates to The Number of the Beast, not to The Pursuite of the Pankera.

At that time I hadn't read the Oz books, and hadn't read any of Burrough's Mars books (much more recently, I read the first 3 Mars books and found them rather better than I expected, hence reading 3 instead of just one). So those big sections didn't function as a trip back to places I loved.

The visit to the Lensman universe was very very brief in the original. Hilda pointed out that they had stuff that the Lensmen would view as recreational drugs, and that that was basically a drug war universe and they should get out immediately if not sooner. That struck me as a good insight into the Lensman universe; but that is a set of stories that means something to me going back a long time. (She had cannabis extract as a therapeutic drug base, picked up at the English sector on Barsoom; not actually as recreational drugs. And Lensmen, who can read minds, probably ought to be expected to be reasonable about that.)

A lot of time is spent arguing about who is in charge, and they all take a turn at it. I found this easy to argue for as philosophically interesting—but not much fun to read. They didn't really seem to have insights into leadership styles.

The Pursuit of the Pankera

So, first the title. Sounds really bad to my ear, somehow childish and smutty or something. It may be echoing badly off "hanky-panky" down in the associational engine, I dunno.

It's a Martian word, I forget which language, that refers to the bad guys with the wrong-color blood and the extra joints; the black hats. So the title makes perfect sense given that. It just bugs me instantly, and it was quite a ways in before we were given any idea what "pankera" meant so it was just dangling and bothering me all that time.

This book diverges radically from NotB basically from when they ground on Mars.

The Mars section is interesting. They come close to having some confrontations with the Martian people they are running scams on, and manage to talk their way out. They find a mathematician who can learn the 6-dimensional geometry, already knows things in that area and is brilliant. There is amusing stuff with Thomas Cooke and American Express having Martian offices staffed by Martians (to handle the tourists). They actually do give the information needed to create a continuum craft like Gay Deceiver to their friends on Mars.

The Martian section feels a bit long to me, but not too bad.

Then they're off, the next place the really stop being Oz. That visit is short, Glynda tells them it's not a place they should really stay for a long time. They do get the additions to the craft, giving them useful bathrooms and food and water supplies. So that doesn't take long. (And the domineering cat is still in this version.)

They spend a lot of the book in the Lensman universe, which is pie for me. I think it's well handled; the apparent idiocy of Admiral Haynes turns out to be planned and tactical (if perhaps ill-judged). They also give the information on how to travel in the 6 dimensions to the Lensmen (they get Sir Austin Cardynge involved, and Worsel; heck, they get Mentor involved, though only Hilda actually goes to visit him).

The reason they don't stay in the Lensman universe is very Heinleinian. Zeb in particular is sure that, if they make it their home, he will get sucked into their war, and that's probably not best for his family. They know, from Doc Smith's work, that the war will last quite a while still (Kim and Mac aren't even married yet).

Okay, so then they go off and find a place for their new Safe Harbor, put down roots there for a while and have four children (two per couple). On the weekends they amuse themselves by going off and killing pankera on the 16 infected worlds, occasionally taking some damage themselves (Zeb needs to visit the Lensman universe to have Phillips regrow an arm he lost).

And they end up bothered by giving up (or putting off too long) their goal of actually exterminating the pankera. So they go back to work, collaborating with the Lensmen and Mentor (this is when he gets involved) on a plan to attack all 16 planets that are known to be infested and do enough public damage, and tell the regular people about the pankera, figuring the natives can finish the job at that point.

Nothing is done about finding the ultimate source of the pankera, though. And there's a mystery right near the end about lots of extra battle fleets turning up to help. That's never dealt with. Probably this would have been dealt with in later world-as-myth books, except this version didn't see print.

Characters forget things they know when revealing them to natives of universes they are visiting would mess things up. Sometimes temporarily, but I think sometimes permanently.

Lots of the things that annoy people about late Heinlein are on display, notably the over-use of nipples as a barometer. There isn't any suggestion of incest or focus on wide age ranges in couples, though. And everything is laid out as being monogamous (with hints it might have flexibility maybe); no complicated family structures.

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David Dyer-Bennet