The Number Of The Boat

In 1889 Jerome K. Jerome wrote  “Three Men In A Boat - To say nothing of The Dog.” It received a rapturous welcome from the readers and hostile reviews from the critics. Proof of the relative importance of critics is shown by the fact that it has never been out of print and is widely regarded as a classic work of humorous fiction.

Ninety years later another man with a low opinion of critics wrote “Number Of The Beast.” Robert Heinlein had reached a stage in his career and his life where he could afford to write to please himself and in this book he did just that. The only problem was that people missed the joke and failed to crack the code.

On the surface Number is a fairly thin plot laced with clichés from the pulps and culminating in a gigantic family reunion of Heinlein characters and guests. Easy to dismiss, or tolerantly excuse as the self indulgence of an aging author.

But this is Heinlein. Let’s look again.

Number is a combination of cryptic crossword (those anagrammed names!) and a Who’s Who of Heinlein’s library shelves. He allows the crew of Gay Deceiver to meet up with characters from his favorite books; fantasy and science fiction works which shaped the genre. They are all unsurprising choices. We have seen references to Barsoom, Doc Smith and Oz throughout Heinlein’s work in the past.

One such literary reference seems to be missing from the book; “Three Men In A Boat." We know from  “Have Space Suit - Will Travel” that Heinlein liked it. It would be easy to assume that he did not include it because it is not fantasy - simply a fictionalised account of Jerome’s real life trips on the river with his two friends. In fact, Number is rife with hints and allusions to other books. One of them is “Three Men In A Boat.”

“Three Men” is the story of  four characters taking a  trip along one of the most famous rivers in the world, fed by many tributaries, rich in historical associations. Jerome tries to tell the story of  the journey but  continually  interrupts himself as he recounts funny tales or indulges in philosophical musings on life.

In the same fashion, “Number” is four people on a journey. The river they are drifting on is more metaphorical; the World As Myth. Their vessel is  the continua device housed in Gay. Washing into the central stream, feeding it continually are the flowing fictons, including “Number Of The Beast” itself. Their journey is interrupted by the continual change of narrator and the machinations of the Black Hats, present in one form or another throughout the story.

The journey of the three men (and dog) begins with a turmoil of hustle after they oversleep; the crew of Gay realise that they are in danger and leave Snug Harbor hastily, minutes before it is destroyed. Then the action slows down. One criticism made of “Number Of The Beast” is that the action often seems to stop as the four characters bathe, eat, search for a convenient bush or just argue. This is a fair description of Jerome’s book too, minus the bathroom breaks, unmentionable at the time of writing!  

Both books contain descriptions of  space or sea sickness, detailed lists of what is packed and long descriptions of meals consumed. Both books make much of the difficulty of keeping a small space organised and habitable. Hilda takes five hours and several pages to empty Gay and repack it so that there is space to move and sleep. Jerome merely remarks,

“Then we cleaned up and put everything straight (a continual labour, which was beginning to afford me a pretty clear insight into a question that had often posed me - namely, how a woman with the work of only one house on her hands, manages to pass away the time.)”

Heinlein, as I have said, does not take us to see Jerome’s boat slipping through the waters of the Thames but he does the next best thing; he made the British colony on Mars a mirror image of the world Jerome knew so well. He even sets Bertie’s ancestral home a mere twenty miles north of the Thames and names his town on Mars, Windsor City, a place Jerome and his friends sail past in the book.
The colony is eerily familiar to a student of the nineteenth century. We see the indentured servants, similar to those criminals shipped to Botany Bay. The hostility towards the Russians would have been present in 1889, only thirty years after the Crimean War ended.
Then we have a description of the women’s clothes, with Lady Herbert arriving,

"swathed in one of those dreadful garden-party-formal things; big hat, long skirt, gloves.”

In case we missed these details, Heinlein spells it out when he describes the technology level,

“No roadables, just horse - drawn vehicles. No air traffic other than a few ornithopters. Coal - fired steam powered trains of cars. traffic on the Thames, what little there was, reminded me of pictures of Victorian England.”

Perhaps the detail that Heinlein had most fun using was the one he first mentioned in “Have Space Suit -Will Travel”: the struggle with the pineapple tin because Jerome and friends had forgotten the can opener. They display great ingenuity in devising alternatives but in the end the can defeats them and they hurl it into the river.Heinlein is more merciful with his characters, they return to Termite Terrace for a rest stop and,

“Jacob found a can opener.The can opener. I put a stop to an attempt to fix the blame. Advice to all explorers; do not roam the universes without a spare can opener.”

I’m sure Jerome would have endorsed that sentiment.

So the journey ends for both sets of travellers, each back in his version of Snug Harbor and each glad that the journey has ended. Harris remarks,

“We have had a pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it all to old Father Thames - but I think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here’s to Three Men well out of a Boat!”

and Zeb echoes,

“I found that I was not troubled by ‘erasures’. We were home.”

Jerome defended his book in a preface to a later edition, saying that,

“Bad art may succeed for a time and with a limited public; it does not go on extending its circle throughout nearly half a century.”

He may have been surprised had he known that the ripples from his literary stone would still be spreading a century later.
Jerome not only provided a backbone for “Number Of The Beast”  but the background and title of the 1999 Hugo winner, “To Say Nothing Of The Dog” by Connie Willis. The Heinlein connection is of course explained in her dedication; she first heard of Jerome after reading "Have Space Suit - Will Travel.”

In my imagination I see a crowded hall in small town America. Jerome K. Jerome is on one of his three lecture tours of the States in the years before World War One. In his audience is a small boy with eyes that are fixed on the stars.....

Jane Davitt

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