Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



4. 1962-1964

    In 1962, the Hoffman Electronics Corporation ran a series of six science fiction stories as advertisements in Scientific American and other magazines:  two by Isaac Asimov and one each by A.E. van Vogt, Fritz Leiber, Frank Riley, and Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein's story, "Searchlight" (August, 1962), is about a blind girl lost on the Moon.  The story is very brief.  The idea is interesting, but the story is overly condensed for the emotional impact it is meant to carry.
    Heinlein's next three novels, Podkayne of Mars, Glory Road, and Farnham's Freehold, are not at all successful and, unlike Stranger in a Strange Land, command very little in the way of respect.  It almost seems that Heinlein, in the attempt to plead special cases, has forgotten most of the things he once knew of story construction and has come full circle to the point he once started from.

    Podkayne of Mars is, with Rocket Ship Galileo, the least of Heinlein's juveniles.  In some ways, it is a return to Heinlein's first novels for Scribner's.  Like them, and unlike his more recent books, his lead is only fifteen years old, a dependent child.  This immediately limits the scope of the book.
    The main character of the story is a young girl.  Anthony Boucher in his round-up review of 1963 science fiction books in The 9th Annual of the Year's Best SF hailed the story in these terms:

    The first 1963 Heinlein, and one of his best in many years, was Podkayne of Mars, a shrewd and successful effort to widen the s-f audience by a teen-age heroine.  Poddy's first-person narrative reveals her as a genuinely charming girl (perhaps the most delightful young female in s-f since Isaac Asimov's Arkady Darell), and her creator as the master absolute of detailed indirect exposition of a future civilization.
    I couldn't agree less.
    I do agree that there is a place for young girls in science fiction (as well as old men, middle-aged women and any other advance over young men aged 20-30), but I don't think Heinlein has filled it.  I find Poddy no more charming than I found Arkady Darell, the central character in Second Foundation, Asimov's novel.  In fact I can think of only two truly delightful young female characters in modern science fiction and those are Pauline Ashwell's Lizzy Lee from a very good story, "Unwillingly to School,"* and Heinlein's own Peewee Reisfeld from Have Space Suit--Will Travel.
    Moreover, Podkayne is not really a first-person narrative.  It is a journal kept by Poddy with occasional marginal notes by her younger brother Clark.  I can think of two faults in this.  One is that journals kept by fifteen-year-old girls are likely to be filled with gush and irrelevance.  This means that any resulting book is likely to be a poor story, or an unconvincing journal.  Heinlein has chosen to write a convincing journal.  The other fault is that the journal is kept while the action is going on, not written afterward in one piece, and the result is that we are jerked from one actionless moment that provides the peace needed for writing to another, fed corrections of things we have been told before, and in general exposed to a helter-skelter narrative.  Fine again as a journal.
    Poddy's lack of charm for me is the product of a kind of handling that no previous Heinlein juvenile protagonist has ever had.  I suspect simply that Heinlein does not feel comfortable writing in the person of a female character. Poddy is given to setting down sentences like:
    At first I thought that my brother Clark had managed one of his more charlatanous machinations of malevolent legerdemain.
    I got kissed by boys who had never even tried to, in the past -- and I assure you that it is not utterly impossible to kiss me, if the project is approached with confidence and finesse, as I believe that one's instincts should be allowed to develop as well as one's overt cortical behavior.
    Her expressions of vituperation are "dandruff," "dirty ears," "spit," and "snel-frockey."  Above all, she is incredibly coy.  She refers to one character throughout as "Miss Girdle FitzSnugglie," generally shortened to "Girdie."
    Even less appealing, and less likely, is Poddy's eleven-year-old brother, Clark, who, like an earlier Heinlein-described child -- little Ricky in The Door Into Summer who at six could not bear to be touched -- is thoroughly sick.  Clark is totally asocial and has an insatiable desire for masses of money, an obvious love substitute.  In the earlier case, Heinlein apparently didn't realize the sickness of his character, but here he makes mention of it at the end of the story.  It is, in fact, the only claim to a point that the story has.
    The unlikelihood of Clark, who is the novel's true central character, is not in his sickness but in his catalog of abilities.  His IQ is given by Heinlein as 160, which is fairly high, but not all that rare.  However, at the age of eleven he can: (1) tumble, (2) operate a slide rule, (3) read lips expertly, (4) win piles of cash from "unbeatable" gambling houses any time he cares to, (5) do expert photography, (6) unhoax a time bomb, (7) be a successful smuggler, (8) read English (a foreign language) that is written in Martian Oldscript (a script known only to experts), (9) break into secret diaries and leave messages written first in ink visible only under ultraviolet light, and then in ink that becomes visible only after two days, (10) break into a sealed delivery robot, rewire it to do what he wants it to, leave no traces, and completely baffle the manufacturer of the robot in the bargain, (11) separate dyes from film, given as a thing ordinarily possible only to a master chemist working in a special laboratory, and (12) kill a large adult woman with his bare hands.
    There is no real story for two-thirds of the book.  Poddy and Clark set out from Mars to Earth, stopping on Venus on the way, in company with their Uncle Tom, who is to represent Mars at an important triplanetary conference.  Shortly after they all arrive on Venus, Poddy and Clark are kidnapped by some people who wish Uncle Tom to follow their particular line at the conference.  Knowing their Uncle Tom will not change his vote under pressure and that they will be killed by their captors, the kids escape.  Period.

    Glory Road is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, a second cousin of Jack Vance's excellent The Dying Earth, of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and of Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories of Mars.  In fact, it is dedicated to the readers of Amra, an amateur magazine that is devoted to a celebration of sword-and-sorcery fantasy.  Glory Road, unfortunately, doesn't share the color, atmosphere, action and good fun of its models.  Instead it spends the bulk of its energy on conversation about the relativity of customs, the second-rate nature of sex as practiced on this planet (Earthmen are Lousy Lovers), Earth as the only place in Twenty Universes where prostitution is practiced, the primitive nature of democracy and its ineffectiveness as a system of government, and similar topics.  The sword-and-sorcery fantasy merely comes as an interlude in the conversation, as though clowns were to pummel each other with bladders as an entr'acte on Meet the Press.
    The narrator of the story is Evelyn Cyril "Oscar" Gordon, ex-college football star, newly-discharged veteran of the fighting in Southeast Asia, hero in the making.  He is recruited by an ad in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune for a job as hero -- not realizing that Professional Heroes are silly asses at best and at worst causes of more destruction than they ever know.  But Gordon shows himself throughout to be an unbright malcontent and the point escapes him.  The job he takes promises high pay, glorious adventure and great danger.  His recruiters are a handsome young woman (whom Oscar soon marries) and a runty old geezer (who turns out to be the young woman's grandson).
    The three of them pop through to an alternate universe where Gordon is handed, in between conversations, a number of cardboard monsters to dispose of.  This is his training for a final swordfight that wins "the Egg of the Phoenix," the lost property of the girl.  It is then revealed that the girl is top dog of the aforementioned Twenty Universes.  Oscar mopes around with nothing to do for sixty pages and then goes back home.  At the end, he is prepared to go out looking for more adventure.
    A minimum of one-third of this 288-page book, exclusive of conversations, has no reason for existence, since it does not affect the main goal of the story, the winning of the Egg.  It establishes merely that Oscar doesn't like our present world, that sitting around after he has won the Egg doesn't suit him, either, and that after coming home again, he is still unhappy.
    Beyond that, of course, the interminable conversations do nothing but demonstrate Heinlein's pet notions, again given protection from attack by being called "facts."  They have nothing to do with the adventure, and hence don't belong in the book.
    Finally, the procession of adventures does not build to a climax.  Monsters simply appear every so often to be disposed of by Oscar.  Even the fight for the Egg of the Phoenix lacks the bounding appeal it ought to have, because we only learn afterward what it is and why it is worth fighting for.  At the time it is won, it is simply a name, a meaningless bibble-bibble.
    Enough doubt eventually penetrates Oscar's mind after the adventures are over that he goes to visit the old grandson who was his companion in adversity to ask him if what he went through was really necessary.  The old fellow assures him that it was, and this is enough for Oscar.  It seems to me that more compelling evidence is demanded, however, and it isn't in the story.

    The protagonist of Farnham's Freehold is Hugh Farnham, a well-to-do, self-educated contractor and all-around-competent-man.  The other central characters are his wife Grace, their son Duke and daughter Karen, Karen's sorority sister Barbara (a divorcee), and their houseboy Joe, a Negro accounting student.
    The time of the story is the near future.  We are at the height of an international crisis that turns into a nuclear war while the family is sitting around after dinner playing bridge.  Mountain Springs, the scene of the story and clear analogue of Colorado Springs, Heinlein's home town at the time of writing, is a prime military target.  Consequently the bridge game is adjourned to Famham's well-equipped sub-basement bomb shelter where Barbara plays out and wins the most incredible fictional bridge hand of all time:  seven no-trump, doubled, redoubled and vulnerable, a side bet riding.
    Three bombs are dropped on them, the third while Farnham and Barbara, who have just met, are making love in the back room.  The third bomb kicks them into what they believe is an alternate universe (it turns out to be the far future).  The location of the house is exactly what it always was, but the climate is now subtropical and the country wild.  They make a life for themselves, though Karen dies in childbirth, something Grace, who is an alcoholic, blames her husband for, although it can hardly be called his fault.
    At this point, they are discovered by the local rulers, who are Negroes.  Whites are slaves and table-meat, and so they are made slaves.  Farnham makes a nice place for himself by translating books and turning present-day games into marketable items for his new master.  Barbara bears Farnham twins as a result of that one night in the back room, and does what Farnham tells her to do.  The rest of the original group have each gone to hell in their own particular way:  Joe, the Negro accounting student, has become a part of the local power structure and is perfectly content; Grace is the master's fat little pussycat; and Duke has been castrated and turned into a household pet.
    Farnham eventually decides to run for the hills with Barbara and the twins, but they are caught before they get out of the palace.  Their master decides to be generous with them and send them back where they came from in a genuine time machine that his scientists have whipped up.
    They land back in Mountain Springs the night that the bombs fell and scoot out of town, headed for an abandoned mine that Farnham owns.  When the bombs stop falling, they set up a store in a little enclave bounded from the world by mine fields and protected by rifles.  And since this world varies slightly from their original world, they have the hope that the future need not be finally determined to be the one they have just come from.
    The minor characters -- everybody but Farnham -- are just defined enough to seem odd.  Karen cheers when her father and her friend come out of the back room, and then dies in childbirth.  Barbara mindlessly does what Farnham tells her to do.  Grace is a fat, fatuous, useless lush.  Duke is tied to his mother by a silver umbilical cord, takes up a narcotic drink at first opportunity, and doesn't mind being castrated because it puts him in a more secure position.
    Farnham himself is one great big inconsistency.  He is a libertarian who orders people around at gunpoint.  He threatens quite seriously to kill his son when Duke won't obey him, and then becomes hysterical when Duke willingly lets himself be castrated.  Most important, for all that he is the archetype of the competent man, he has done not one thing to avert the global war he has seen coming.  In fact, he is a very odd candidate for the title of competent man:  he botches everything from his familial relations to the escape attempt.
    These familial relations are very odd, too.  Barbara first becomes attracted to him for the way he handles his family, but look at the family:  a lush, a momma's boy and a daughter home pregnant from college.  (Barbara later assures him that the family is not his fault.)  If Heinlein is aware of any inconsistency, he doesn't show it.
    It is interesting that for all the concern with liberty and competence that Heinlein demonstrates in this story, his characters do not actually determine anything that happens.  They  suffer attack, are blown into the future, are found, are sent home again. They remain passive, suffering and impotent throughout.  The story is almost a study in the varieties of impotence.  The nasty future regime is not caused by the characters, affected by the characters, or disturbed by their leaving.  The final situation, in fact, seems like nothing so much as an attempt to keep from being the subject of further manipulation by an implacable universe, an attempt on Farnham's part to be for once the cause of events:  "World stay out or be blasted in two! In Farnham's Freehold, Farnham rules."
    Only one story purpose emerges in the end that makes any sense:  Heinlein's characters survive.  Survival at all costs is a theme that is very important to Heinlein, but it fails to carry this book because the survival they achieve is not the triumph Heinlein thinks it is.  Heinlein thinks he is talking of liberty when he is really talking only of life; liberty becomes redefined as "living to suit myself"; that is all that Farnham achieves, but it is enough to content him.

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*Astounding Science Fiction, Jan. 1958.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee