Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
by Earl Kemp
| I have always known that
I have a highly developed
ego. It contains elements of arrogance and righteousness that can be
whenever appropriate or beneficial. I have tried diligently for years
since the Spectator Amateur Press Society and the Los Angeles Science
Society labeled me “Killer Kemp” in the mid ‘50s and brought my unknown
bad habits forcefully to my attention) to suppress both of them. I have
always thought of this ego as being an essential part of personal
of pride in who I am and what I do, of dignity in the manner by which
of that had been accomplished in the first place.
I came by all this naturally. I inherited it from my mother. She was a textbook classic Type A egomaniac. Mother caused the sun to rise and set, the tides to flow, and directed every living entity, breath by breath, through its day. Living with her prepared me for any type egomaniac I might ever expect to encounter.
The word ego defines this memory, and it comes in the form of Robert A. Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke’s friends and British buds called him “Ego” in the early 1950s, but they did so out of affection, however appropriate. They were writing pseudo “scientific journal” humor articles for UK fanzines about capturing, containerizing, storing, and disposing of routine human wastes in a gravity-free environment. Those articles were complete with diagrams and advertising slogans. My favorite was “pin your piddle in a Shaw closet.” Heinlein’s acquaintances (it is difficult to use the word “friends” in this context) wouldn’t dare make the same mistake regarding him, and live…at least in Heinlein’s world, hence the “disremembered” category that seemed to be created only for his exclusive use.
Bill Hamling had been my friend for a decade, and he had an ego as well. Fortunately, I knew that all along and tried to allow for it. I had already been working for Hamling, editing his smut books and, moments away, I would move to California with him and continue a rather close association for an additional ten years during which both our egos would expand considerably.
As far as egos go, Heinlein was a piker, a pissant, a tsetse fly, when compared with some of the biggest. In reality, he was much more of a pain in the ass.
For many years Robert Heinlein ranked right up there at the top of my personal list of favorite science fiction writers, bouncing back and forth from the first to the second position depending on what day of the week it was. I adored his books. I worshipped them. I garnered much personal enjoyment from them. He was my on-again-off-again Number One Hero Science Fiction Writer. I wrote him embarrassingly flattering letters, bought all his books, and literally loved the man-as-writer (it is critical that he not be confused with man-as-man).
Somewhere about mid-way through my science fiction career, we finally met and became “friends.” I have struggled long and hard to come up with the exact memory of where, when, or how we first met, but I can’t drag the information up. All I know is that we did get to meet at long last….
…and I sat there looking at the out-of-shape, tending-to-fat, slicked-down greasy old bald man before me dressed like and affecting the mannerisms of Adolph Menjou in some old 1940’s black and white MGM flick wondering who was pulling my leg or what?
I knew Robert Heinlein very well, had known him for years, and had looked into his smiling face countless times over the decades. So, who was this old man and who was trying to fool me like this? Come on, now, you guys, bring out the real Heinlein.
Only it was him, he was real, and he was a big fraud, daring everyone to recognize him as he hid behind the 20-year-old publicity photograph he wanted to think was really him…not old…not fat… not embarrassingly ordinary…but someone significant. I should have known at that very moment in time that anyone so tenuously fragile in his or her own inner personal security as Heinlein was should be a person to avoid like the plague.
I was standing at the crossroads of time and the world, in Chicago, where everyone of any significance within the science fiction cosmos frequently passed through. In time I became known to them all, and they to me. I stood in those crossroads for fifteen years; you can make a lot of friends in that length of time, or enemies. For ten of those years I pretty much called all the shots. I was very lucky to have lots of help; I have never accomplished anything of any significance alone. There have always been numbers of loyal assistants backing me up and I have always tried to acknowledge them, their help, and to make sure that everyone shared in all rewards, real or intangible.
Somewhere around here, Heinlein entered the scene for me.
In 1953 I became
president of the University of Chicago
Science Fiction Club and was completely involved with science fiction
politics at the time. This made me ostensibly the leader of the Chicago
faction and, as such, always required to be on my best behavior
as far as any visiting firemen were concerned. Heinlein qualified as a
visiting fireman. I never felt free to deal with him in any manner I
would be the least bit appropriate. It was essential that Heinlein (and
all other significant science fiction people) appear to be a friend of
Chicago fandom at all costs, and his costs were exceedingly high.
I became aware then of the League of the Disremembered, the large, continuously growing number of people Heinlein had simply stopped remembering for causes more often than not totally unknown. Many of them told me privately and secretly to “be on my guard.” Forrie Ackerman was one of them, one of the disremembered and one of the people who tried to warn me about Heinlein’s habits.
Forrie was also a long-time friend who proved his mettle to me on more than one occasion when Forrie stood alone at my side against unreasonable adversity. He tried to tell me in a nice way that Heinlein was a snake in the grass just waiting to strike. I told him that Heinlein had always been gracious and friendly with me (I wasn’t able to face the truth myself at that time), and Forrie told me to take special note of when and why it would happen to me, and he said that it would happen to me, and he was right. Forrie had been disremembered for some obscure “moral” reason many years earlier, but numerous decades had already passed without Heinlein once remembering him.
I did not want to acknowledge any of these Heinlein quirks, even to myself. He was my writer god; he could do no wrong. It must be some misunderstanding on my part. If I just waited long enough…. I was heavy into self-denial and apologizing for Heinlein to myself. I was ashamed of myself and the way I catered to him, and embarrassed for fear that I wouldn’t be able to hide the truth from the Chicago faction for much longer.
I had to remind myself that I knew Heinlein well, not casually. After a certain point in time, we moved in the same circles both professionally and socially, knew all the same people for all the same reasons. We attended the same meetings, conferences, seminars, parties, and testimonials. In many cities, many states, many buildings, many offices, many corridors I was able to observe Heinlein at close range, for years, and to note how he reacts with and toward people. I did everything I could within myself to contain all of these things, to deny them, and to try to wish them away, only that didn’t work at all; it never does.
Heinlein had to be praised at all times. He would arrive in Chicago without prior notice, phone me with an order loosely translated as, “I have arrived; bring acolytes and worship me in my ordained manner.”
He had this really peculiar tangentialness about himself as if he deliberately tried to set himself apart from all others. This was evident in his unusual choice of clothing (sitting around in silk pajamas and dressing robes), and in his imperial manner (never allowing anyone to sit higher than himself). He also paid fawning attention to females (with a sneer and a wink; they terrified him), and absolutely never ever permitted himself to hear a negative word associated with himself.
I knew everyone in science fiction, or flattered myself that I did, and went way out of my way trying to make sure that they knew me. Especially, I felt, I knew Robert Heinlein, because I was becoming obsessive about his less attractive facets.
I routinely socialized with science fiction movers and shakers and many of them became close, personal friends, not science fiction gods. People like Doc and Jeannie Smith (Edward Elmer Smith “piled higher and deeper”—as he was fond of introducing himself—was the closest thing I ever knew to having a science fiction godfather; he treated me like a treasured and valuable son; Jeannie was warm, reassuring, and the ultimate earthmother…), Phil and Betty Farmer, Ed Hamilton and Leigh Brackett, Catherine Moore (Henry Kuttner was dead by that time), and others. It was commonplace and routine for us to just sit around and be family; to talk about kids and trips and food and fun and, rarely, publishers, editors, agents, or science fiction writers.
I feel sure Heinlein would deny that anyone at all resided in the same lofty category as himself, but these people were surely brilliant stars in the science fiction cosmos, and every one of them was first a person, and second a writer.
Heinlein never climbed
high enough to reach the “person”
| When I was trying to
bring about The Science
Fiction Novel for Advent, I had to deal with Heinlein and his
demands that almost scuttled the project completely. Fortunately,
Blassingame, Heinlein’s agent at the time, came through and lessened
of the obligatory demands. There were several other prominent writers
with that book; not one of them made a single demand regarding their
but entered into it willingly and productively.
In 1960, 71 rather
prominent science fiction people
contributed work for the first SaFari annual, Who
Fiction? Of that number only one made any unusual demands or
upon their participation; that one was Robert A. Heinlein. The least
offensive of his requirements was the one forbidding me to use his name
or infer that he had written the piece for me. Consequently, Heinlein’s
article appeared under the byline of Anonymous No. 1. I suspect it
have been a piece that Alexei Panshin did not identify, evaluate, or
in his Heinlein chronology.
In Seattle in 1961, after I had been awarded the Hugo for Who Killed Science Fiction?, Robert Heinlein approached me. He had this deliberately calculated way of insulting through faint praise; his words would flow out of him effortlessly as if he had spent some time rehearsing them, perhaps saying the words aloud to himself.
“If I had of known what a good job you would do with Who Killed Science Fiction?" he said, “I’d have allowed you to use my name in it.”
Gee, thanks, Bob? I believe that was the closest I ever came to receiving an apology from Robert Heinlein.
I was holding my personal copy of the book at the time; it had been considerably annotated and autographed by the many contributors who were as proud of the volume as I was. Without me asking, Heinlein took my copy of Who Killed Science Fiction? from me, opened it to page 13, and wrote a big “Robert A. Heinlein” over the Anonymous No. 1 byline. Tardy largess for the peons….
By 1962, I had reached the absolute limit of my personal capabilities as far as producing anything within the field of science fiction was concerned. I was stretched so far in so many different directions it was touch and go, from day to day, how much of it, if any at all, I might be able to bring to fruition. Heinlein figured rather prominently in all of this, and became increasingly more and more a painful thorn in my side.
Everyone and their brother remotely connected to science fiction was hitting on me for something…some very extra special little private service that would improve their condition immeasurably and only take up just so much more of my time. I was secretly and not so secretly producing books for a couple of anthologists under their names, and writing all their blurb copy as well.
Playboy was one of the biggies making demands on my time, and Spec (A.C. Spectorsky) was my connection at the magazine. The first time he ever phoned me was a real stunner; it was all I could do to try to act normal and not scream in delight. Spec was clearly phoning for Hugh Hefner, which worked well enough for me. Whenever he wanted anything, Spec phoned me, and whenever I wanted anything, I phoned him. (This all worked out rather well. Because of Spec, and Hefner, I met such hero types as Shel Silverstein, who played his guitar and sang the damnedest songs by the hour, Jules Feiffer--always a delight--my real, real hero, LeRoy Neiman, and many others.)
Secretly it was quite a thrill for me, thinking I had a friend right at the top of Playboy. Actually, and I certainly didn’t share it with Spec, I knew grunt-level employees throughout the Playboy operation. The grapevine was fantastic; I felt like I knew everything going on around there for a while.
I had already been working as an editor for sexless pornography with A.J. Budrys, the boss at Regency Books, and the front for Bill Hamling’s smut book operation for some time. Hamling was Hefner’s arch-wannabe-rival and former friend (they had worked together at Today’s Man), therefore it was politically expedient for Hefner and myself to remain separated as much as possible. Spec and I actually discussed this separateness and we both agreed it would be much better for me to maintain it.
Spec wanted a lot and it took up a lot of time satisfying him, or Hefner, for whom he spoke. Murray Fisher was Spec’s gopher and, coincidentally, one hell of a walking pharmacy. “The Fish” could pull the most incredible drugs out of the pockets of his nicely tailored three-piece suit: “How do you feel? Wanna upper? A downer? How about a line? Oh, I know, do a Dexie.” Only in those days, even though I was an apprentice Prince of Pornography at least, I was strictly Johnny Straight Arrow, Mr. Moral the Wussy Man in every direction. No drugs for me at all, thank you! Wussy!
Spec wanted an interview set up with Heinlein and suggested questions and topics to query him on. Spec wanted a symposium on science fiction to be staffed, including Heinlein, and topics to be considered. Spec wanted a special party staffed at Hef’s mansion that included Heinlein….
And every time I would contact Heinlein for anything, his price to me would go up higher and higher as if he was gaining physical pleasure from deliberately taunting me. It got to the point where he seemed to be eagerly awaiting my next pass-on message as if there were something personal in it for me.
It was incredible the extent he would go to be adored, in his opinion. It was very easy for the adorer to goof up and not please him at all, and be “disremembered” in the blink of God Heinlein’s eye.
All these special requests from special people really got in the way of putting on a good science fiction convention.
As a final symbol of my
true devotion to him, Heinlein
required me, as a condition for his appearance at ChiCon III, to
guarantee him, ahead of time, the Hugo award for Stranger in
Land. (Doing so was easy, only very unethical; the book won
I didn’t have to hassle with myself to see if I would interfere.) There
were some footnotes as well to his demands, like he had to be singled
and spotlighted while walking around the convention floor. That certain
alleged celebrities would be directed to and through his hotel suite
he dispensed largess and blessings to his supplicants wearing his
I believe it was Howard DeVore who adequately described Heinlein on
occasion, “Up there (meaning in Heinlein’s hotel suite), God in a dirty
Another undeniable person making demands on my time was the Food King. H.L. Hunt (billionaire, Hunt Foods, Wesson Oils, etc.) was attending ChiCon III from Texas. [Cory Panshin pointed out that I had completely misidentified Hunt. The H.L. Hunt I met was the Dallas, Texas oil billionaire, the Grease King, not the Food King.] He kept sending me messages requesting private meetings and I kept sending him back messages that I was too busy. Jim O’Meara, my right hand and convention vice-chair, clued me in on who Hunt was and advised me to make room for him right away. I accepted Hunt’s next invitation; I would have breakfast with him the following morning.
The elevator while in route to Hunt’s floor stopped first almost exactly opposite Heinlein’s door. The door was wide open as a room service waiter was rolling a breakfast table into his suite. Heinlein’s back was to me; he was wearing yet a different dressing robe this morning. Facing him, looking out through the door and into the elevator were Fred and Carol Pohl, Heinlein’s breakfast guests. Carol spotted me, smiled and, just as the elevator door closed, winked conspiratorially.
I stepped out of that elevator into another world light years away from Heinlein. Here the truly significant hotel guests found privacy and seclusion; the carpet, even the light fixtures smelled like money. Hunt’s suite, of course, was near Heinlein’s, only there the similarity ended. It was huge and opulent and interior designed to the extreme. The suite alone would have made Heinlein turn an unattractive shade of pea-soup-green in envy, to say nothing of Hunt’s personal staff, all decked out in tailored finery.
Hunt’s own butler ushered me into the incredible suite, one I imagined similar to what Las Vegas casinos might comp to potentates, sheiks, high rollers like King of Pornography Larry Flint, or rock stars.
He told me that I was on time. I sure hoped so, I had never had breakfast with a billionaire before, and I didn’t want to miss a single morsel of it.
H.L. Hunt walked up to me and introduced himself, offering me his hand for a weak, feeble shake. He was in his mid-80s at the time, unsteady on his feet and in his thoughts. He was confused, noticeably senile, and very, very out of his element at a science fiction convention. He made me think of him as having outlived everyone he ever knew or loved, and alone and adrift on a becalmed, shoreless sea at nightfall. The last broad sweeps of brilliant reds were still barely visible and, for Hunt, unaccountably, the stars were slowly, one by one, blinking out, instead of blinking on. He died a few short months after our meeting.
“Are you ready for breakfast?” he asked me.
“I sure am,” I said.
“Well,” H.L. Hunt said, “walk this way….”
We left the suite and took an elevator to the first floor. I actually had to help him walk at times, and negotiate corners. He led me into the hotel coffee shop and to the quick service counter. We sat there side by side on two stools while he ordered our breakfast: “Two coffees, black….” Yeah?
As we slowly sipped away at breakfast, I did my best to pull out of him whatever it was he was trying to get out of himself. My efforts were hopeless. It seemed he didn’t even know what the questions were, much less how to formulate them.
I did discover that he had just written a “science fiction novel” named Alpaca, and paid to have it printed himself. He was somehow seeking help in exploiting his book. He gave me a copy of it and, later, I looked inside. I could hardly force myself to read any of it, and the printing production job was the worst I had ever seen; Hunt had been well taken by someone. I told him I would try to help him, but I knew I wouldn’t. I did want to be nice to him though.
He also had one other favor, he said, as he slipped me a copy of his personal A List, the people he wanted me to round up and direct to his suite. Just like Heinlein…almost word for word in his request, only there was one huge difference. Heinlein didn’t head off Hunt’s list; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. claimed first position. In fact, Heinlein wasn’t on Hunt’s list at all.
Our coffee had been consumed and our confusing business dispatched; it was over, whatever it was.
H.L. Hunt reached into his inside suit-coat pocket and pulled out a very old, much scuffed and used, snap-top change purse. He opened the purse, reached into it, and pulled out some coins. Slowly…patiently…one by one…he counted out pennies and nickels, stacking them up in neat piles of a dime each. He counted out the exact number of coins needed to pay the check and, to the penny, a ten-percent tip. Billionaire accounting sure is tedious….
I thanked him for breakfast and for the copy of his book. Then I helped him to the elevator and went back to the convention floor, feeling oddly empty, as if breakfast with a billionaire wasn’t much to brag about after all.
My ego and arrogance was
coming to the fore frequently
in those short-tempered, time-pressed days and, as usual, I let some of
it get out of hand. Spec had me compiling a Class A guest list for
to invite over to his bunny hutch for a party during ChiCon III. I told
Spec that considering how much I had already done for Hefner and Playboy,
felt it was time he included an invitation for me as well. I also told
Spec it would be necessary for Hefner to put in a walk-through
at ChiCon III.
Eventually I received an engraved invitation to Hefner’s 4-a.m. science fiction breakfast party. It came with the counter move that yes, Hefner will appear at the convention on one condition alone… that I guarantee the minute he walks into the door (I would be alerted ahead of time, of course) the spotlight would hit him and that he would get introduced right away. The exact same demand Heinlein had made for his appearance in a white Palm Beach dinner jacket and black silk tie. Boy, was I ever burning out on primadonnas.
As it turned out, when Hugh Hefner arrived at the Chicago convention, Ted Sturgeon, the guest of honor, was nearing the end of his speech, perhaps the single most significant event of the entire convention. Ted had been clued in ahead of time so, as Hefner entered, he turned to me and gave me the prearranged “what now” signal. Instantly I felt it was disrespectful to Ted Sturgeon, the convention guest of honor, to interrupt his solemn moment. I gave Ted the signal that said; “finish as you go, then introduce Hefner.”
And Sturgeon did, and Hefner never forgave me for having defaulted on my part of our bargain.
Somehow, I survived presiding over that convention, though there were moments when I doubted if that could ever be possible. And things and life continued apace. I was now thoroughly involved in the editing of alleged pornography for Bill Hamling, but that was partially a known secret, certainly within the world of science fiction that also somehow furnished most of the agents, editors, and writers who produced that alleged pornography.
Somewhere along the line I asked Alexei Panshin to write a critical book about Heinlein’s fiction for Advent. This was a very viable, very needed book, and one that properly belonged within the genre, and Alex was exactly the right person to do it from more than one direction of approach. I had, of course, already been overwhelmed by Heinlein the insufferable man for years, yet I still wanted to honor Heinlein the excellent writer for his accomplishments, despite his personal actions.
And I still do, today, as I write these very words. Occasionally I find myself rereading one of his books for my personal enjoyment. I have to fight with myself to ignore the writer, but doing so is often worth the battle. I can not say often enough or well enough just how very superior most of his fiction was…the highest possible quality level of genre writing.
When it became apparent to Heinlein that I had instigated such a move and that it was indeed ongoing, he called me immediately. Heinlein “my friend” tried his best to sweet-talk me into quashing the deal with Panshin. He wheedled and cajoled all to no avail. I kept insisting that the time was right for a definitive book about a science fiction writer and that, being the best, that writer was Heinlein, and that the book would be a great boost to his career.
Heinlein was adamant that no criticism could be made about his writing, that only praise need apply. He even went so far as to say that a book about his writings should never appear in his lifetime, but only long after his death. I told him that was a preposterous position because he had already achieved the No. 1 spot; he could only go downhill from there.
We were both quite clear in our positions: I was talking only about a book evaluating the public record of Heinlein’s creative output. He insisted only in talking about a book being written detailing dreaded secrets of Heinlein the man. Apples. Oranges. He knew exactly what it was he wanted to hear and could allow his ears, his mind, access to nothing else, and certainly no relevant data.
Time passed and there were more phone calls from Heinlein, each new one apparently being encouraged by some new misconception on Heinlein’s part that denigrated his supreme position in some fashion. In each phone call he would up the ante considerably with his demands, and I would decline them as gently as possible.
Needless to say, I was
full of Heinlein and needed
a quick enema. I was rapidly getting to the point where I wanted to
my hands up into the air and scream for “Sanctuary…!”
And while all this was ongoing, I was being seduced and lulled into a new lifetime and a new location. I was going on week’s-long junkets to southern California, to Palm Springs and San Diego, to contiguous Baja California in Mexico. I was being persuaded to give up everything I had accomplished in Chicago where I was Little Mister Science Fiction to my heart’s content, and move on upward into time and reality. I was being stretched in so many directions at the same time I could hardly think straight, much less make the right decisions about something as remote as egomania.
I knew in late 1964 that I would ultimately grab at that prize ring on the merry-go-round and ride that painted pony like a true King of Pornography. It was only a matter of time.
Heinlein phoned me again, perhaps making his final good-faith effort to make things right…the way he alone saw them. He literally ordered me to not publish Panshin’s book about his writings, and I literally told him that whatever we published was none of his business and that he was in no way involved. He hung up on me in a huff.
In fact, he went as far as immediately having his phone number changed just in case I wanted to phone him for some reason. That Heinlein had been making the phone calls to me, for years, and not the other way around, seemed to escape him completely. There was no need to change his number; whatever it was I had no intention of ever calling it.
On February 17, 1965 Robert Heinlein wrote me a long letter condemning me, every thought I ever had, and the horse I rode in on as well. It was an incredible letter of inconsistencies and false assumptions deemed by Robert Heinlein himself to be the absolute truth. It was terminally embarrassing to Heinlein in its tone and content. In retrospect that letter reads exactly like a screaming bitch-fight being prolonged by a woman at peak PMS, and has about as much relevance to reality. Heinlein rants and raves about all the incredibly horrible legal things he is going to personally do to me and mine if I don’t give in to his every wish, expressed or otherwise. His letter winds up with the thoughtful, adult comment: “Kemp…it was a sorry day for me when I met you. Robert A. Heinlein.”
Sometimes it is incredible how very little it takes to make my day.
These are not the things that adult, allegedly rational men who claim to have been friends for nearly a decade do or say to each other. In fact, men rarely get nearly so enraged as to be irrational over such a minor thing as abject praise being forced upon an unwilling recipient.
I did something I’ve always regretted then; I backed off. I gave in. I canceled the project out completely, even though doing so was a direct insult to Alexei Panshin, whom I had already adopted and claimed as one of my own. That made it doubly difficult to do. What I should have done was take Heinlein on; told him to get fucked, and brought on the lawyers. (Down the timeline just a bit…the group of attorneys we had in California would have sliced Heinlein up six ways from Sunday in a heartbeat just for having written such a letter in the first place, then scattered the leavings out around the court house for the benefit of the legal buzzards….)
Then, in March, I resigned from all science fiction related obligations and started packing. I moved to El Cajon, California, a suburb of San Diego, in April, 1965. My attention and my new obligations had no focus on science fiction at all and, slowly, except for personal enjoyment, began slipping further and further away. I did not know how ugly Heinlein had become, after I left, especially toward George Price who was in charge of Advent, and Alexei, or how long that situation persisted.
What I did know, or thought I knew, was that Heinlein and I had somehow come to a complete resolution of our unresolvable misunderstandings when he told me I couldn’t do a book about his writings and I told him to get stuffed. I actually thought I had somehow bested the ego beast because, down the line just a bit, Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension did indeed appear from Advent. I felt awfully good about it, about beating Heinlein at his game, about doing right by Alexei, and I really liked the book. It was just a matter of compressing time and letting it flow backward over itself a bit until it all came out right in the end; a bit like recreating your own autobiography to suit yourself.
All that is except Heinlein; nothing could have made him come out right in the end, or anywhere else for that matter.
I never saw Heinlein
again after that. I never heard
from him either, and he definitely never heard from me. The really odd
part about it all is that, until this very moment, during all those
hard years of separation, I never realized I never missed Heinlein at
*For my dear friend Alexei Panshin, with tardy apologies
[Note: Earl was inspired to write this piece
by my essay, "The
Story of Heinlein in Dimension." My own
take on this essay
of Earl's can be found in "Oh,
Monkeys!" And Earl's current
electronic fan publications
(along with much else of fannish interest) can be found at eFanzines.
-- Alexei Panshin]
2001. Copyright © 2001 by Earl
Kemp. All rights reserved.
Background by Eos Development