Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


      However, the man with whom I exchanged letters in 1957, 1958 and 1959 wouldn't exactly be the same person as the teacher I'd been paying heed to and learning from for almost half my life.

      From the outset, I had been picking up Heinlein's stories as I managed to find them, or as they were rewritten by Heinlein to appear as books, or as they were gathered and republished in collections.  And it didn't matter that this was completely out of the order in which they'd originally been written and published.  All of it was Heinlein to me.

      I hadn't sorted out the fact that the Heinlein who spoke most strongly to me wasn't the Heinlein of the present moment, but Heinlein as he'd been in 1941 and 1942.  This was the man who'd set himself apart from other SF writers and blown the minds of SF readers with the breadth and depth of the Future History, and with his stories suggesting that there was a higher frame of reference than our ordinary daily preoccupations; that what we took for "reality" was actually a construct of our own making for which we bore responsibility; and that there was adult human work waiting to be done by us.

      The novels addressed to the young that Heinlein had written after the war hadn't been as probing.  Yet even though they hadn't shaken the foundations of my being in the same way, these stories had deliberately worked on expanding my ideas of the potential field of human activity -- not least with the concept of the Long Range Foundation in Time for the Stars.

      However, while there was in Heinlein a metaphysician who was concerned with our relation to the nature of being, and also a teacher, an instructor of Wellsian Samurai setting forth long term goals and indicating deep responsibilities, there were other people in him, as well.  For three: a sentimental patriot who liked wearing the uniform, doing his duty, and earning dinner with the Captain; a libertarian revolutionary brandishing a banner declaring "Don't Tread on Me"; and a solipsist who doubted the reality of anything but himself.

      A large part of what has made Heinlein perennially fascinating is that all of  these different, sometimes conflicting, tendencies were present in his fiction from the time he began writing.  However, in his prewar fiction, it was the Quest -- as Heinlein privately called the search for personal and human  meaning -- which was predominant, with the other elements of his nature subordinated to that.

      Because Heinlein's complete personal range from noble and far-seeing idealist to self-favoring bully had been there all along, sometimes in the very same story, and because I had caught up with Heinlein's backlist all higgledy-piggledy, the changes that his work had gone through over the years hadn't been apparent to me.  It was only at the point that I'd read all his old stuff and started getting everything he wrote new as it was first published that Heinlein as he now was in the late Fifties began to take on visibility for me.

      By the time that I came knocking on his door to express my gratitude to him and to recognize him as my teacher, the Quest was no longer a priority for Heinlein.  And he felt no obligation to receive youngsters simply because they considered themselves his students, although he would hold still for praise.

      In 1958, there was Have Spacesuit--Will Travel.  I thought it was delightful, the jewel of the Heinlein juveniles.  I loved its changes in scale, going from a small town backyard to the moon, then to Pluto, then to a planet of the star Vega and then to another galaxy before returning home again.

      However, at a crucial moment late in the story, when humanity is on trial and we are given to understand that if our species is found wanting, our planet will be removed from normal space and time, Heinlein's protagonist, Kip Russell, cries out: " 'All right, take away our star--  You will if you can and I guess you can.  Go ahead.  We'll make a star!  Then, someday, we'll come back and hunt you down -- all of you!' "

      That didn't strike me as bold and ballsy, but rather as vindictive and vengeful.  I wasn't sure I wouldn't rather have somebody a little wiser speaking on our behalf just then.

      At the end of the novel, Kip is back home in the drugstore where he works and is goaded by the town jerk.  He responds by pouring a chocolate malt over him.  And I couldn't help but wonder whether that was an appropriate reaction for someone who has just traveled to another galaxy and represented the human race, let alone a genuinely triumphant note on which to conclude the story.

      Also in 1958, Heinlein published "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?"  If I didn't respond as intended to it when I finally saw it, it was because the Heinlein who'd influenced me had done so by telling me of a broader and more meaningful frame of reference than the world I saw around me at the present moment, whereas the Heinlein who'd written this ad was trying to hustle me into taking sides in the Communist/anti-Communist game by sounding bugle calls, waving the flag and quoting the Founding Fathers.

      I didn't like being psychically manhandled like that.  As Heinlein had put it in rewriting his first serial story, " 'If This Goes On--' ":

      " 'Free men aren't "conditioned!"  Free men are free because they are ornery and cussed and prefer to arrive at their own prejudices in their own way -- not have them spoonfed by a self-appointed mind-tinkerer!' "

      But then, in 1959, Heinlein had gone further in discounting the relative significance of other people.  In his short story, " 'All You Zombies--' ", the narrator, who is both mother and father to himself, doubts the existence of everybody and everything else except other avatars of her/himself:

      "I know where I came from -- but where did all you zombies come from?  ...You aren't really there at all.  There isn't anybody but me -- Jane -- here alone in the dark.  I miss you dreadfully!"

      " 'All You Zombies--' " was a clever, even brilliant story.  But what state of mind could Heinlein have been in to conceive it and write it?  And who could he have thought he meant by "all you zombies"?

      In 1959, Heinlein also published Starship Troopers.  And this novel nominally for young adults raised many questions for me.

      The story presents a future society in which public service is a prerequisite of citizenship.  And it specifically glorifies service in the military, fighting an alien enemy who cannot be communicated with but only opposed.

      But six months later I would be in the U.S. Army and in a position to observe the military for myself.  And far from being admirable, the service as I experienced it put on a show of doin' things the way they should be done and lookin' good, but in actuality was hollow, casually corrupt, and just going through the motions.  I'd be speaking from experience when I wrote in Heinlein in Dimension: "Starship troopers are not half so glorious sitting on their butts polishing their weapons for the tenth time for lack of anything better to do."

      What is more, the story would suggest to me that what's fueling the conflict between man and alien isn't just the implacable hostility of the Bugs, but also human beliefs and behavior.  Rico, Heinlein's narrator, tells us:

      "Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competitors.  Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics -- you name it -- is nonsense.  Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is -- not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be. 

    "The universe will let us know -- later -- whether or not Man has any 'right' to expand through it."

      I ask you, if you were to step on the toes of someone who thought of himself  as a wild animal with the will to survive, what would your chances be of avoiding a fight?

      By contrast, the Heinlein who'd been my instructor hadn't presented a universe that was this hostile, competitive or arbitrary.  Instead, he'd written of a plastic reality which was a reflection of our own state of mind, and about a stellar universe that might be too fast a track for us just now, but with which we could grow able to cope in time.

      So which was it?  Were hostile Bugs really lurking Out There in the dark, just awaiting the opportunity to zap Buenos Aires?  Or did belligerent attitudes conjure up and invite belligerence, like a dog yapping at its own reflection, so that the real problem wasn't actually the Bugs, but ourselves and our own state of perception?

      The Heinlein who wrote Starship Troopers wanted me to view Man as a wild creature with a nature that was what it was, and which couldn't be otherwise.  But my teacher Heinlein had said that men were still in an immature state, both as individuals and collectively, and needed to do some growing up.

      Which of them had it right?

      I didn't want to be anything as silly, out of touch, or even immoral and other-than-truly-human as a do-gooder or a well-meaning old Aunt Nellie, but the human future that the Heinlein whom I had been heeding had prepared me to work for wasn't Man expanding through the universe led by starship troopers in suits of power blowing away anyone that looks at us cross-eyed -- until the universe has finally had enough of the show and pulls the plug on us.

      That wasn't even hamburger science fiction.  That was science fiction meatloaf.

      What could be going on with Heinlein?  I didn't know, but I did wonder.

      When I wrote to Heinlein again in the fall of 1959, I was asking for some explanation.  I phrased my question in terms of what Heinlein had previously written about atomic danger.  In effect, I said, "You've told me in the past that radiation is harmful.  In view of that, how can more nuclear tests be justified?"

      The books that Heinlein told me to read were his answer.  They said, "The Communists are coming."

      As the Sufis say: "A question about the sky.  The answer about a rope."

      So, just in case Heinlein had misunderstood what I was asking the first time, I wrote him again to renew my question.  And to inquire as well about the troubling passage on the benefits of radiation that I'd just read in Starship Troopers.

      At that point, Heinlein, speaking through Mrs. Heinlein, politely declined to discuss matters with me further.

      In 1973, in a letter that wasn't addressed to me, but was intended for my eyes ("I do not think Mr. Panshin will like some of the things in this letter"), Heinlein described our interchange.  He said that I had been "a bumptious and argumentative teenager," who'd written him many long and tiresome letters, several of which he had answered, several of which Mrs. Heinlein had answered, until they "got fed up with his manners and his illogic, and stopped answering ... and after a while he quit writing, to our great relief."

      I think that by questioning him as I had, I'd stepped on Heinlein's toes.

      But a teacher who won't tolerate questions isn't a teacher.  And the Heinlein presently resident in Colorado Springs had closed the door on me.  If previously I had been his pupil, I was that no longer.

      In order to hold onto any of the things that I had received from him, I had to work out for myself which part of Heinlein I could continue to regard as valid.  Rather than studying under Heinlein, as before, I had to begin to study Heinlein.


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Graphics courtesy of Jelane