Short Reviews – The Pursuit of the Pankera, by R.A. Heinlein [Guest Post from J. Comer]

We’re really busy this week with the day job and with plugging the Mongoose & Meerkat crowdfund and weren’t able to get the next Amazing Story review in the queue. Also, trying to wrangle advertisements for the Summer Special, which are due today! Fortunately, friend of the magazine and sometimes contributor J. Comer is filling in this week with a short review of Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera.

Love him? Hate him? What’s impossible is to ignore Robert Heinlein(1907-1988).  Not only did Heinlein pioneer publication of SF/F stories in “the slicks”, such as The Saturday Evening Post, he originated multiple ideas now standard, such as the ‘generation ship lost in space’ (Universe  and Common Sense, collected as Orphans of the Sky). While his work varied from excellent (Citizen of the Galaxy, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) through badly dated or mediocre (“Gulf”, Podkayne of Mars) to disgusting(To Sail Beyond The Sunset[1]), his narrative authority never waned.

Heinlein’s work is grouped into four or five periods, the last of which began with his illnesses in 1970- peritonitis and a blocked carotid artery, among others.  During this difficult period he wrote two novels: I Will Fear No Evil, a plotless sexual novel[2], and an unpublished work which his wife Virginia dismissed as “yard goods”.  This second work has had more than one name[3] and after Heinlein’s death remained among his papers, archived at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  The present reviewer looked at the fragments of the novel in the 2000s.  They were reminiscent of the later The Number of the Beast, which came out in 1980.[4]  There the matter rested for some time.

In 2019, Phoenix Pick announced that they would publish a ‘new’ Heinlein novel consisting of these fragments. This novel, titled The Pursuit Of The Pankera, as well as a new edition of The Number Of The Beast, came out in March 2020.

The plot of Pankera is that of the published Number of the Beast through about p. 185. Two couples, Zeb and Deety and Hilda and Jake(Deety’s father), meet at a party at Hilda’s home. The two couples marry that night as an unknown foe attacks.  While in hiding, Jake installs his ‘time machine’ (which jumps between alternate universes) in Zeb’s flying car.  The four then flee Earth and visit many universes, some based on famous novels. (At this point the two novels’ plots diverge).  The two longest such visits are to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom and to E.E. Smith’s Lensman series.  In Number of the Beast there is endless bickering among the four crew as to who will lead, and with a visit to a steam-era (“Space: 1889”) British colony on Mars; the plot of Number of the Beast then goes on to include Lazarus Long and his polyamorous family of immortals amidst many allusions to classic SF.

The plot of Pankera is more coherent. The four main characters leave Barsoom, as the two women are pregnant and need an obstetrician, and they visit the Land of Oz, where Glinda installs two bathrooms in the back of their car by magic.  The future space-opera world of the Lensman books has doctors, of course, but is at war with Boskone.  So the characters befriend the Lensman of Prime Base, and make plans to fight the Panki, the Barsoomian name for the dimension-hopping enemies who forced them off Earth.  Then they find a world (“Beulahland”) where there are doctors and there is enough nudism that the unhuman Panki cannot wear human disguises (as they do once on Barsoom and once on Earth). The end of the novel has the four main characters, the Lensmen, and others unite to wipe out the Panki with an ending reminiscent of The Puppet Masters, published in 1951.

So what can we make of these two novels, which ultimately are one novel?  First of all, the publisher’s claim that they’re an experiment by Heinlein has little foundation.  Heinlein would never have been able to publish two novels which were identical for more than two hundred pages[5]; as it stood, he did not get the advance he wanted for Number of the Beast, possibly because of its quality.  So what are these books, one of which has a coherent plot and appealing action, and one of which is rambling and full of sexual references?[6]

Larry Niven, friend and colleague of Robert Heinlein, offers an answer in his Scatterbrain (2003).  Niven remarks:

A writer’s best friend is his editor…many good writers don’t understand [this], and those included Robert Heinlein…the generation of writers ahead of mine came out of an era of censorship…Robert Heinlein was the first science fiction writer to become too powerful to be censored…Heinlein should not have used that power…his earlier novels were lean and dense with ideas… But his later novels sprawl all over the place. They needed an editor!

The fact of the matter is that Number of the Beast fell victim to the no-edit clause, and that I Will Fear No Evil is the same.  Niven’s critique here was written before Pankera was published, but still stands.  Pankera is simply the best fragments of Number of the Beast, worked over by a competent editor.  The fact that the Burroughs and Smith estates acquiesced to their characters appearing also helped Pankera to work as an homage to classic SF.

Is this worth reading? For Heinlein completists, it’s a don’t-miss.  For those who’ve read some of his work, these two books are optional.  If you’ve read no Heinlein, these are not the place to start.  Of the two, Pankera is the more coherent novel by far, thanks to Heinlein’s posthumous “best friend”. For aspiring writers these two works could serve as a sort of example of how much difference a competent editor can make.  All in all, we’re better for the experience.


[1] Reviewed here by Jo Walton.

[2] A review is here:

[3] Names recorded for this manuscript include Six-Six-Six and The Panki-Barsoom Number Of The Beast.

[4] A negative review is here:

[5] The Dictionary of the Khazars is a counterexample but is one book whose two texts differ by one word.

[6] David Potter’s interpretation of Number of the Beast is inconsistent with reading either the Heinlein papers or Pankera but is presented here for completeness.