Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    Criticising Robert A. Heinlein, as I know from experience, can be a tricky business.  On the one hand, he is so plainly the best all-around science-fiction writer of the modern (post-1926) era that taking anything but an adulatory view of his work seems to some people, not excluding a few in California, to be perilously close to lèse majesté -- or if the critic is a fellow practitioner, as Mr. Panshin is, to envy.  On the other, much of his major work gives the impression of being a vehicle for highly personal political and economic opinions, so that a critic who disagrees with these views may find himself reacting to the lectures rather than the fiction.  A related danger is taking a firm stand on what Heinlein actually believes, for many of the apparent propaganda threads turn out to be in contradiction with one another.  Under those circumstances, trying to ascribe a viewpoint to this author becomes largely a statistical exercise, and like most such, not a very rewarding one.
    Given these dangers -- and I have not listed all of them -- the would-be critic may be tempted to take refuge in nothing but plot summaries, or in that commonest of all critical parlor games, influence-detecting.  Almost all of what passes for criticism in science fiction falls under one of these two heads.  By one current count, at least, there have been up to now no more than six books which do not.
    Mr. Panshin, steering with great success among all these Wandering Rocks, has now added a seventh.  As Damon Knight once said of one of the other six, it is a job I doubted was possible of accomplishment at all, let alone as successfully as it is done in the pages which follow.  Mr. Panshin knows the mechanics of story construction; he has an ear for the language; he knows the difference between a colorful character and a funny hat, and between an influence and a common coin; he has read widely outside the science-fiction field; he has considerable sympathy for what he takes to be the aims of his author, and knows how to weigh them against his accomplishments; he writes well himself, and he has had the patience to run down and read virtually every word his subject has ever written.  Every one of these attributes is a prerequisite of successful criticism, but in science fiction only the last has usually been much respected.
    This is not to say that I agree with every judgment he has made -- that would be expecting a miracle.  But I am not going to cite any of my disagreements here.  This is Mr. Panshin's book and my opinions have no place in it.  What counts is that the combination of labor, knowledge and insight he displays forces one to listen to him with respect.  This would be an impressive achievement by itself; it is doubly impressive if one knows the extraneous difficulties under which he had to work.
    Mr. Panshin labored under the additional difficulty that his author, Deo gratia, is not yet dead.  This would not have counted for much had his subject been a writer who spent most of the latter half of his career helplessly repeating himself, as did, for example, the late Ray Cummings.  Heinlein is not that kind of hairpin.  He is, instead, constantly trying something new; just as one begins to suspect that his needle has finally gotten stuck, he produces something like Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and then the critic is forced to take another look -- not only at the then-current production, but the whole body of his work in the light of this fresh revelation.  This is the mark of a writer who keeps both his curiosity and his opinions alive and flexible, and it is likely to keep a critic less intrepid than Mr. Panshin in a constant state of nerves, as though he suspected that he was being followed at no very respectful distance by a chimera -- or worse, that his author is laughing at him.  (Mr. Heinlein's colleagues have felt like this for years.)
    Nevertheless, an author of this stature deserves to be assessed during his lifetime, if only in courtesy, and on the grounds that we owe him anything we can do to recognize his accomplishment and, if possible, increase his readers' understanding of it.  All one can properly require of the critic is that his study be worthy of the subject as of the time of writing, and this requirement, I think, Mr. Panshin has admirably satisfied.
    Publishers are the natural enemies of writers, but in this instance I think we also owe Advent considerable thanks for issuing this work in book form, also under difficulties which must go unsung, at least by me.  Following the pieces of Mr. Panshin's tightly organized argument from one obscure periodical to another, and even from one country to another, was at best annoying -- and what is more important, made it more difficult than it should have been to see that the argument was well organized and was going someplace.  This may account for some early suspicions that the work as a whole was running away with the critic (I exclude one dog-in-the-manger response to which the only proper reaction must be contempt).  In book form, one can see that Mr. Panshin had it under control from the beginning.
    In short, the job was well worth doing and he has done it well; and it is doubly welcome in a field where good criticism is in such perilously short supply.

James Blish

Alexandria, Va.

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