Well, what a shocker it was to find this on my local bookseller’s shelves. I hadn’t even heard about it. This is an alternative (parallel!) story to the well-decried “The Number of the Beast”. I have to admit that Number has a place on my shelf. I loved the beginning and was, like many others, completely flummoxed by the last third. I guess I kept it because I kept thinking there was a better ending out there; and lo-and-behold, my hopes were answered.
Number and Pankera both begin in the same place and continue to the point where our characters make their first transition to a parallel world. Our protagonists are two couples who met up at a party; there is a mathematician who has discovered a way to access parallel worlds and his beautiful, genius daughter, the tall, brawny, handsome warrior-type, and the canny, sophisticate party hostess. Within minutes of meeting, all were running for their lives from murderous aliens, and then getting married. And, yes, that’s the first problem. You have to buy into their reasoning for doing so and then just go along for the ride if you want to get anything out of the story. If you can get past that and I did because I found the characters lovable then the story gets pretty fun.
In Number, they transitioned to Mars and ran into competing colonies; one British and one Russian. In Pankera, they actually find ERB’s Barsoom complete with green warriors, red men and our favorite characters from the books: Dejah Thoris, Carthoris and Thuvia. Heinlein had a great deal of fun with our characters names. The handsome warrior-type is named Zebediah John Carter and his new wife is named Deety which is short for Dejah Thoris Burroughs. As Burrough’s Mars series is near and dear to my heart, this was ever so much more fun that the dry Brits vs Russians in Number. On Barsoom, they discover that the nasty aliens who are hunting them actually have a name: Pankera; and they had been hunted to extinction on Mars many generations earlier. This turns out to be a much-needed back story and much-needed grounding for our story. It was always a failure of Number that the aliens weren’t named or characterized.
Both books transition to the Land of Oz and Wonderland but I think there were some slight differences; in Number they use Oz to actually have a conversation with their flying time machine and I don’t think they did that in Pankera.
In Number, Heinlein spent a great number of pages on the shifting relationships within our two couples with the role of Captain being shared as each one learned what that responsibility meant. It wasn’t really bad but it went on too long and didn’t really contribute to the story. I’m happy to say that Zeb retains the captaincy throughout Pankera and because of his decisions, rather than Hilda’s, there was a delightful interlude in the Lensmen world which became a lynch-pin to the conclusion.
More of the story was devoted to trying to understand the nature of the beast(s) hunting them for their knowledge of parallel worlds the Pankera. This included learning how to identify the critters and devising ways of killing them. Our intrepid crew also figured out exactly which parallel worlds were infested and ultimately devised a complete plan to exterminate them - a plan that involved more than one fictional universe with no guarantee of success. This was ever so much more interesting to read and actually contributed to the plot.
A huge failing of Number was Heinlein’s retreading his own stories which is what he was known for in all of his 1980s books (with the notable exception of Friday). Despite my love for Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, I despised his dragging the same characters in the same stories into Number so it was with some relief that his mention of those characters was only in passing. And I’m also happy to reassure potential readers that that horrible and confusing convention/party scene is totally gone. The ending is actually interesting and satisfying.
I can’t say it’s a great book; I think we all recognize that Heinlein’s last books just weren’t the same quality as his earlier works. And this one suffers from some of the same failings; but in substantially smaller doses making this a palatable story, at least. And it satisfied that itch I’ve had for so long wishing the crew of Gay Deceiver had a better story. ~~ Catherine Book
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