Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


(This article originally appeared in Ed Meskys' fanzine, NIEKAS #33, 1985)


    Regarding your [Ed Meskys'] comments about myself and Robert Heinlein in your Bumbejimas column in NIEKAS 32:

    I had begun publishing in Leo Margulies' SATELLITE SCIENCE FICTION a series of critical/historical/biographical pieces centered around authors that would eventualy be collected in my book EXPLORERES OF THE INFINITE (World, 1963).  When SATELLITE SCIENCE FICTION discontinued publication, I had several articles already written and a number of others in the planning stage and was looking for another market that might be interested in publishing them.  Henry Morrison, then working for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency suggested I try AMAZING STORIES and FANTASTIC SCIENCE FICTION whose editors, Norman Lobsenz and Cele Goldsmith, had told him they were looking for material to give the magazines a more serious tone.  In 1960 they agreed to buy six articles from me on the following literary figures:  Hugo Gernsback, H.P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, M.P. Shiel, Karel Capek and Philip Wylie.  Beginning in 1960, the Gernsback article was published in AMAZING STORIES and the other five in FANTASTIC SCIENCE FICTION.  That was presumably to be the end of it.  However, in January, 1961, Lobsenz and Goldsmith asked me to drop by the office and talk to them.  They said the circulation on the issues of FANTASTIC with my five articles had increased roughly four thousand copies and held.  Apparently I had pulled that many former readers of SATELLITE SCIENCE FICTION who had read the earlier articles in that magazine.  They wanted me to do twenty-four a year, twelve for each magazine.

    I was working full time supervising a staff of five editors for E.W. Williams Publications and told them I simply couldn't do more than six a year, since each article involved reading every work the author covered had written and every known bit of information about them, in addition to personally contacting them if they were still alive.  We agreed on six a year to be run every other month in AMAZING STORIES and these were to be on contemporary leaders such as Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and so on.  I also agreed to select a reprint a month and supply an historical introduction for each magazine.

    The first author to be profiled was Robert A. Heinlein.  I owned and read everything by Heinlein published through to 1961 as well as everything written about him.  I had first personally met him at the June 2, 1940 meeting of The Queens Science Fiction League Chapter in Astoria, New York.  At that time he gave a talk outlining his career to that date and comparing the Queens Chapter to the one in Los Angeles.  I met him again in 1954 and had minor business dealings involving books which tied in with Vol Molsworth, an Australian fan.

    I wrote to Heinlein in Colorado Springs, Colorado on January 22, 1961, explaining what I was doing.  In the course of the letter I made statements very much like those which Ed Meskys remembers:  "It is a touchy thing to work on moderns (writers)" I said, "for two reasons.  First, many of them are still writing and there is no assurance that their most important contributions are behind them.  Secondly, most of them are still alive and I am personally acquainted with them.  While naturally, you don't select anyone to write about who isn't a top-grade performer to begin with, still, it seems to be human nature to resent any allusions to weaknesses even after you have spent thousands of words exalting their genius."

    I enclosed a list of fifteen questions with the following disclaimers:  "I have been reading on it (the Heinlein article) for the past five weeks, starting [with] all your stories in chronological order and at present am up around 1947 . . .  I am writing you, just in case there is some point you want to underscore in the event that you might fill in any gaps.  You don't have to reply if you are too busy.  You don't have to answer any questions you don't want to for personal or business reasons."

    The question might reasonably be asked, how can one cover a subject like Heinlein with only fifteen questions.  The answer is that I brought almost 30 years of background of science fiction to the subject, including everything by or about Heinlein known to exist.  The answers were hopefully to give me fresh material previously not published or provide missing elements of incomplete but possibly very important knowledge.  Furthermore, I was dealing with an important and busy writer.  If I wanted to get any cooperation I had to minimize the amount of work he had to do.  If he voluntarily wished to give me more, that was my good luck, but if he did not wish to, I would gracefully bow out and go ahead with what I had.

    The reply, only a few days later on January 25, 1961, was surprising.  The first line was:  "Biographies are for dead people."

    "I wish you would postpone this until I am dead; I don't like it, I don't want it, and I won't help.  Criticism of my published works I cannot object to . . . but I wish to Christ that you would not discuss me the person."

    He then proceeded to answer all my questions at a length of 5,000 words, with the proviso that none of it be printed.  His purpose was to make certain that my facts were accurate for material I obtained elsewhere that might be wrong.

    He also asked that I not refer to his first wife for very strong personal reasons.

    I replied to him in a letter started February 5, 1961 and concluded March 30, 1961, by which time the article had been completed and sent to the printer.  I let him know that I was well aware of the clever trick he had played by answering all my questions with the proviso that the information not be used.  "In one respect your letter is very unfair to me," I said, "inasmuch as it presents a certain amount of material, not of a personal nature, concerning the background of your stories which I not only know but in greater detail, but which, if I now use, I will appear to be breaking a confidence.  You rope off areas of material, none of which I can print, request special treatment, and give me nothing in return."

    The truth was that his cleverness had elicited admiration, and that I understood his particular problem.  As an outfront leader and a controversial one in science fiction, the amount of incredible error, stupidity, envy, outright viciousness, outrageous assumptions, invasion of privacy he had been subjected to through the years -- and I had read a very large percentage of it -- turned sour even the generous praise and appreciation that he also received.  It reaches a point where one is forced to say, don't praise me, don't damn me, and whatever you do stay out of my personal life and read my stories if you like them, and don't read them if you don't.

    The original magazine version of my article was roughly 5,000 words in length, the book inclusion was expanded to about 8,000 words.  I could never have done an exhaustive biography and criticism in that space of an author who had written so much and made so important a contribution and influence on the field.  I had more than I needed without the material in his letter.  Yet, for the record, my piece was the longest and most comprehensive done on Heinlein up to the date of its publication.  This is not so much a boast but a criticism of the field.

    On July 22, 1961, Heinlein, having read the article wrote:  "I thought that your article about me and my writings was a swell job."  He also enjoyed the expanded version which appeared in 1966.  More important, we became good friends.  He has, on a number of occasions, invited me and my wife to select little gatherings when he was in New York, which were memorable not just for him and his wife Ginny, but for some of the unusual people he knew.  As a host he is difficult to top.  One time, when my wife was taken ill during a vacation in Colorado Springs, he took her to the house until she felt better without any prior notice of our arrival.

    Heinlein's sensitivity is all the more understandable when one faces the fact, that even in your commentary, Ed Meskys, you make an error which would certainly irritate him.  You said his first wife died in childbirth.  Now I don't know whether his first wife is alive or dead, but I do know that it is impossible that she died in childbirth, if only for her age, but you go right ahead and relate an absolute incorrect assumption that you picked up somewhere and show that it influenced his stories.

    In the case of Alexei Panshin, he was young and overzealous and pursued information about Heinlein's personal life like a bull in a china closet.  He learned about relatives, either borrowed or tried to borrow their personal correspondence of Heinlein's from them.  Heinlein was horrified, after all he was scarcely dead and fair game for researchers.  Personal information obviously can sometimes be the source of legal, social or economic trouble to one or more of the persons involved.  My personal first contact with Panshin was when he wrote me a letter asking me for everything I had about Heinlein for a book he planned to write.  When he did not receive a reply he attacked me viciously in YANDRO.  Yet, in his letter, he not only did not bother to sign his name, but did not include a return address and I had never heard of him previously.  I still have the letter.  He is older and more considerate now, but this explains his earlier problem with Heinlein.

    In recent years, Heinlein has granted very important interviews to Neil Schumann, Bruce Franklin, Frank M. Robinson and several others, but with the understandable attitude that he only wants to give information to responsible individuals under civilized conditions.

    If I were to position the SF reader politically, I would say that they tend to be a little left of center, though not in the sense that the Futurians were back in the late thirties and early forties.  More accurately, they tend to be humanists, learning more toward human needs than toward religion and politics.  Therefore they tend to frequently resent some of Heinlein's viewpoints, which tend to strike them as provocative.  Those, like myself, who have some association with Heinlein, discover a considerate, generous, thoughtful human being.  I have known other writers and critics whose works are the soul of humanity, but who act like bastards.  It is not difficult for me to make a personal preference.

(Alexei Panshin responded to this article in "Heinlein, Moskowitz and Me," in NIEKAS #35, 1987)

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