Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


      At the beginning of April 1962, I embarked on a troop ship for the United  States.  When the ship reached Oakland, California two weeks later, I was given my discharge from the Army.

      And there I stood, blinking in the bright lights and bustle of the so-called Real World, feeling just a tad sick at the extravagance and waste I saw around me.  For soldiers a few years later, fighting in Vietnam one day and being flown to America the next, the transition from one world to another must have been a real kick in the head.  In my case, the worst of the impact wore off after about three days, though I'd never forget the feeling I had of different realities colliding.

      Three weeks later, while on my way from the Philadelphia Main Line to forty miles east of Albany, I stopped in Milford, Pennsylvania and gave Damon Knight a call.  I was hoping that he might remember me from the 1959 World Science Fiction Convention in Detroit -- so small that a curious kid like me could hang all weekend at the elbow of a pro like Knight, soaking up SF lore -- and spare me a little time.

      Science fiction had been an area of fascination for me from the moment I first discovered it.  Like a kid in a strange country picking up a new language, I wanted to get the hang of SF.  I wanted to know what it was -- where it had come from, how it developed, how it was made, and what it meant.

      My first textbook was L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook, which I found in the State Library in Lansing.  This comprehensive personal overview of science fiction was immensely valuable in its time to youngsters like Roger Zelazny and me.  I read it over and over.

      If I elected to trail after Damon Knight at the Worldcon in Detroit, that was because he was the author of my second basic text, In Search of Wonder, a collection of book reviews published by Advent in 1956.  Not only did this book extend my factual knowledge of science fiction, it raised questions of structure, quality and meaning that de Camp hadn't touched upon.  When I began to try my hand at writing about science fiction in the summer of 1963, my initial model would be Knight's reviews.

      And not only did Knight remember who I was when I phoned, he invited me over to his house.  More than that, when I got to the great old Victorian pile where he lived, he made the suggestion that we drive over to New York City, camp out at the apartment of Avram Davidson, and take in a couple of movies.

      I wasn't going to say no to that.  This was a golden opportunity to ask questions and listen to someone who knew far more than I did about science fiction.

      As a youngster, Damon Knight had trekked from Oregon to New York City to join the Futurian Society, a group of young fans whose members had all grown up to be professional SF writers, editors and agents.  He was one of the most imaginative short story writers of the Fifties, and he would become the foremost science fiction anthologist of the Sixties.  Along with James Blish and Judith Merril, he was one of the founders of the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, which was conducted in the living room of his huge old house.  And he would be the organizer of the Science Fiction Writers of America and serve as its first president.

      I looked upon Knight as a deep repository of information, insight and taste, and thought of it as an education to be allowed to spend this time with him.

      The movies that he wanted to see were two artsy, black-and-white European films.  One of them was chilly, beautiful, airless and static, and the other was a dismayed and dismaying account of the attractiveness and superficiality of the glitzy life.  These movies were an education for me, too, since I'd have been unlikely to seek out either one to see on my own.

      I also found it educational to meet Avram Davidson and sleep on a couch in his apartment in a building on one of the streets just above Greenwich Village.  He was the author of learned, idiosyncratic short stories, and just recently had become the new editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

      Davidson was an Orthodox Jew who had fought in World War II and then in the initial Arab-Israeli War.  It was a Friday evening, so I was asked to put a kettle on and make instant coffee for him.

      Speaking as an editor, he told me and Knight the latest.  He said he was about to return a new novel by Heinlein called Podkayne of Mars.  I asked what it was about -- or maybe it was Knight who did.  And Davidson said it was a story told in the first person by a teenage girl.

      Oh, my.  You can guess how that news fell on my ears.

      And even though what Davidson had to say was enough for me to be certain that Heinlein's story and mine weren't going to be confused with each other, a certain degree of dismay lingered.  If F&SF was turning down Heinlein's story, then Fred Pohl would be the magazine editor who saw it next.  And Pohl, whose approach as an editor was more practical and less literary than Davidson's, would surely buy it.  And then run it ahead of my story.  And everybody would think I was copying Heinlein.

       In fact, part of what I was anticipating did happen.  Pohl did buy Podkayne and put it at the top of his schedule.  He ran it as a serial story in the November 1962 and January and March 1963 issues of If.  Then, after skipping the May issue, he published my story in the July 1963 issue of If.

      But the rest of what I'd feared when I first heard the word from Davidson didn't take place.  After the radical surgery I'd done on my story, it didn't occur to anyone that it might originally have been intended as a dissenting comment upon Robert Heinlein's present attitudes on behalf of do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies everywhere.

      In fact, insofar as I could tell, the story went generally unnoticed -- except for a nod from Judith Merril, who gave it an Honorable Mention in her next annual collection of the year's best short science fiction.

      And the only trace that remained of the imbalance-of-power story that I'd initially set out to write was the note of condescension implicit in the title that Fred Pohl attached to the story -- "Down to the Worlds of Men."

      So back I went to the beginning and started the whole story over again several years earlier than before with the intention of showing both my character's education and the self-satisfaction of her society.

      That summer, I worked on the novel in longhand while camping by a lake in Sweden, waiting for a motor scooter part to arrive from Italy and get me back on the road again.  I worked on it some more that fall, sitting at my old built-in desk made out of a door in the House of Tomorrow.  And after I returned to college in January 1963, I continued to work on it.

      Rite of Passage was by no means my only writing project while I was in college.  I wrote a number of short stories, and even sold half-a-dozen, two of them in collaboration with Indiana lawyer Joe L. Hensley, whom I'd met at that same party in Chicago in the fall of 1959.

      I began to write about science fiction for fanzines -- first book reviews, and then, very shortly, essays.  I even wrote a whole other book entirely -- Heinlein in Dimension....  But that's a story for another day.

      All along, however, I kept inching away at the front end of my novel, working to close the gap in time between the new portion and the story of planetary Trial and overreaction that I'd written in Korea.  (As a general rule, this isn't a method of constructing a novel that I would recommend.)

      One more resonance with a notion of Heinlein's entered Rite of Passage while I was writing.  In his Guest of Honor speech at the 1941 World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, Heinlein had introduced the concept of the synthesist -- people like H.G. Wells who knew and understood more than others and were able to present a picture of the overall whole to everyone else.

      It occurred to me that as useful and admirable as this sort of comprehensive understanding might be, ability to synthesize couldn't stand by itself as the crucial distinguishing mark of those special and superior people who really matter.  Instead, being a synthesist depended completely on the prior labor of other people, not merely for factual detail, but for the organization of information.

       It's only been recently that I discovered it was a distant relative of mine who invented the Dewey Decimal System which made it possible for me to identify and then track down books like Groff Conklin's The Best of Science Fiction and L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook among the many volumes held in the State Library in Lansing.  And no one reading this essay here would be able to find their way around the Net now without people of this bent working overtime creating new search engines.

      Indexers and librarians, encyclopedists and taxonomists....  In my story, I called people who do this sort of work "ordinologists."

      Introducing this occupation was my way of saying that a synthesist wasn't someone uniquely privileged and special, but instead was only as good as the quality and completeness of the information that went into his grand overviews.  And if something vital was distorted or omitted altogether from the Big Picture, then you might have a society that thought it had a right to scatter fallout over other countries, or even to blow up a planet if it decided to do it.

      Finally, then, Rite of Passage was done.  The gap in time was bridged, my original story was rewritten as Part III of the novel, and the overwhelming conclusion was restored to its rightful place.

      Altogether, it took me four and a half years to write the book, beginning in August 1961 in Uijongbu, Korea and reaching completion at last in February 1966 at International House in Chicago.  With my old teacher at my elbow lending me the strength to speak truth to power, I had found my way to say explicitly in story form what I'd been implicitly saying in my two letters to Heinlein in the fall of 1959, which he had terminated our correspondence rather than hear.

      In so many words, Rite of Passage said that having the power to do something didn't necessarily give you the right to do it.  And the final note of the novel would be the resolve of my central characters to grow up and not act that way.

      Rite of Passage wasn't published immediately.  First, it was rejected thirteen times.  I found that frustrating, particularly when the given reasons were the sex of my character or my Russian name.  But then, when editors decide not to take a book, they are capable of saying anything.

      However, once again, timing and opportunity were not in my hands.  And when at last Rite of Passage did appear as a book in 1968, it was as an early entry in Terry Carr's prestigious Ace Science Fiction Specials line, where it took on strength and stature from the quality of the company it kept.  And, in the context of that volatile year, with its Tet Offensive, its assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and its police riots in Chicago, Rite of Passage appeared to be addressed to the moment.

      The following spring, it won the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America.


Part 6Contents

Continue on to Sex in the Stories of Robert Heinlein

Take a Leap into the Unknown

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