Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



(This article originally appeared in Ed Meskys' fanzine, NIEKAS #35, 1987)


    In NIEKAS 33, Sam Moskowitz takes Ed Meskys to task for mis-remembering some fact (or non-fact) about Robert Heinlein and says that Heinlein would have reason to be irritated about this error.  I'm not sure why, since the error casts no discredit on Heinlein.

    Funny thing, though, in his very next paragraph Sam goes on to say some discreditable things about me that don't happen to be true.  I can't help but wonder if he thinks that's as serious a matter, and whether he would grant me the same right he grants Heinlein to be irked?

    One thing that Sam says that isn't so is that twenty years ago I wrote him a letter asking him for everything he had on Heinlein; and when he didn't answer me, I wrote a vicious attack on him in the fanzine YANDRO.

    The fact is that when I first set out to research Heinlein in Dimension, I wrote to a lot of people, not just Sam.  I asked nobody to turn over private researches in their entirety.  I did describe the book I'd been commissioned to write and I did ask for information, comment and criticism.  Some people answered me, and some didn't.  But I certainly didn't go out and launch vicious personal attacks on the ones like Sam who didn't reply.  If I went in for that sort of thing, I'd be kicking Sam around today because all these years later, he still answers no request I make for information -- not even the page number of the editorial in the first issue of AIR WONDER STORIES, and other secrets like that.

    What Sam is taking for a personal attack on him was not that at all.  About a year after my letters asking for help in dealing with Heinlein and his fiction, I wrote a review in YANDRO of Sam's book, Seekers of Tomorrow -- just as I would review every work of SF bibliography and criticism that came into my hands for a period of fifteen years or so.  At the outset of the review, I said that Sam had an abiding love for science fiction and no talent for communicating it effectively.  And I spent the body of the review pointing out examples of carelessness and clumsiness.  I would not do this today, not because I no longer find Sam's lumpish prose and petty errors grating, but because I've come to believe that Sam's carelessness and clumsiness are less important than the value of his pioneering researches.  And I've said as much in print in the last year or so when I saw Sam attacked.

    But Sam says something else that isn't true that bothers me.  He says, "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 from Heinlein from them.  Heinlein was horrified.  After all he was scarcely dead and fair game for researchers."

    (I can't help but wonder, by the way . . . how do you GET a bull into a china closet?  And once you've got him there, how do you induce him to stay?  Never mind -- but do understand that it was phrases like that which were one of the things that got to me in reading Sam's book twenty years ago.)

    Sam says one thing that IS true here.  I was young.  Naive, too.  But I simply wasn't overzealous in pursuing information about Heinlein's personal life. (Even if, as Sam's china closet image seems to imply, there is something delicate and breakable in Heinlein's life that needs special care and protection.)

    When I set out to do my research twenty years ago, the very first person to whom I wrote was Robert Heinlein.  In a page and a half letter, the only thing I asked of a personal nature was this: "I intend to include a short biographical chapter in the book, and I'm interested in your family background -- for instance, what your brothers and sisters do -- and anything else that isn't too personal to talk about and that doesn't appear in the four or five biographies of you that I have seen, which all seem substantially to duplicate each other."

    I learned of no Heinlein relatives, wrote to no Heinlein relatives, and sought to borrow no intimate family correspondence.  Readers of Heinlein In Dimension will attest that this book of 200 pages has just three pages on Heinlein the person.  That's how overzealous about poking into Heinlein's personal life I was.

    The fact is that the only correspondence from Heinlein that I've ever seen -- aside from letters to me or meant for my eyes -- were letters to a friend of Heinlein's named Arthur George Smith, the "Sarge Smith" to whom Starship Troopers is dedicated.  Avram Davidson, who was one of the people to whom I wrote twenty years ago, recommended that I contact Smith and gave me his address.  I sent him my standard letter asking for information, comment and criticism.  I got a letter back from Mrs. Smith saying that her husband had died about six months earlier, and offering me Heinlein's letters to her husband.  In accepting her offer, I said, "I can see that you have a great deal of respect for Mr. Heinlein and if there is any possibility in your mind that letting me see his correspondence might be in any way a disservice to him, I would prefer that you did not send me the letters."  She sent them.  They proved to have no relevance to a book on Heinlein's writing, and I said, "Thank you very much" and sent them back to Mrs. Smith.

    I've never made any secret of the fact that I saw these letters.  And when Heinlein first made his anger about it known, in a letter to my publishers accusing me of conning his best friend's widow out of a file of letters and threatening to sue Advent if they should publish my book, I wrote to Heinlein, who had not answered my first letter.  I offered him a look at what I had written, and also a look at my complete correspondence with Mrs. Smith, so that he could see that I hadn't conned her in any way.  He didn't answer that, either.

    At the time, Heinlein's threat to sue did temporarily kill the publication of my book.  And I laid out the (to me) bewildering facts in a fanzine article in YANDRO 147.  Since Sam was apparently getting YANDRO then, he ought to know the facts that he is misrepresenting now.  What's more, I said it all a second time in Richard Geiss' THE ALIEN CRITIC in 1975 when another garbled version surfaced. I'm sure that Sam has that one, too.

    Even today, Heinlein doesn't communicate directly with me, though I have sent him a book review, three essays and one story I've written concerning his work as a matter of courtesy.  Recently, in fact, I wrote him a letter of inquiry asking if it was possible that his story "Universe" was inspired by the same Emerson quote as Asimov's "Nightfall."  A minor point in a large book Cory and I are writing on the conceptual development of SF.  Heinlein didn't answer that, either.  I never really thought that he was likely to, but I did feel obligated to give him the chance to correct me.

    I have heard from Heinlein once indirectly.  Back in 1973, I wrote to a university librarian named Rita Bottoms, keeper of the Robert Heinlein Special Collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  I asked for access to the collection, and she wrote back that permission was denied.  I wrote again to ask why, in view of the fact that the collection was open to the public and that I was a legitimate Heinlein scholar.  The answer that I got back was a long letter from Heinlein to Rita telling her to ignore his personal animus towards me, and to do what was professionally correct, and asking her to send me a Xerox of his letter.

    In the course of that letter, Heinlein informs Mrs. Bottoms that he is going to establish a file on me in his collection.  Heinlein says, "My prime reason for disliking Mr. Panshin is that he obtained and read without my knowledge or permission a file of very personal letters from me to my dearest friend -- all this after my friend's death.  Details, with proof, will be exhibit A."  It's strange, too, because this letter itself was FAR more personally revealing than anything in the Smith correspondence.  There was to be more in the file, by the way.  Exhibit B was to be a review of Heinlein in Dimension documenting my errors.  Heinlein says, "I shall avoid the sort of wild conjecture that he makes in his book.  But I will not be gentle; the facts are rough."  Exhibit C was to be a similar pull-no-punches review of Rite of Passage, which Mrs. Heinlein and others had told him was a pastiche of his work.

    I sent a copy of the YANDRO article off to Heinlein, along with my correspondence with Mrs. Smith, and asked that for completeness they be included, too.

    But why establish a file like this at all?  My opinion today is that Heinlein was raising a warning signal for other critics and researchers, letting them know where the lines are drawn.

    I've never been in the collection myself to this day, though I did send a researcher in my name to check out some things for me.  Truth to tell, I don't know whether the exhibits Heinlein claimed to be setting up actually exist, or what is said in them.  What did Heinlein have to say about Rite of Passage when he finally got around to reading it?  And, having given Heinlein more than one opportunity to correct the errors in Heinlein in Dimension to which Spider Robinson objects, I'd like to know what errors Heinlein actually found.  As I told Heinlein at the outset, I desired to be accurate, and even after 20 years, I'm willing to make my corrections.  Most of all, though, I'm curious to know how Heinlein disposed of the relevant correspondence I sent him for inclusion in my file.  For me, that's the real test of his honesty and his sincerity.

    From time to time, I wonder about this whole strange flap, especially when some garbled version like Sam's gets back to me.  One of the things I wonder about is the apparent disparity between Heinlein's reactions and my "offense."  I ask myself, did I actually overstep the bounds of civilized behavior 20 years ago?  Trying to look at the situation as objectively as I can, I don't think I did.  I was certainly attempting not to.  But I honestly don't know.  I've only written the one book on the work of another living writer -- and I was young and naive then, and improvising like crazy.  Maybe someone in the biography-and-criticism business can tell me.  Is it considered a breach of etiquette or professionally dubious to read letters from an author to a friend without the author's prior knowledge and permission?  Did I do something I shouldn't have in agreeing to look at these letters when Mrs. Smith informed me of their existence and shoved them in my direction?

    Here's a thought experiment . . .  I picture myself sitting down right now to write a book about a SF writer, say A.E. van Vogt.  Along the way, someone named Mrs. Jones offers me a look at the correspondence between van Vogt and her late husband.  Is it OK for me to look?  Is it necessary for me to ask van Vogt before I look?  And if I do look, would van Vogt have a reason to start a special file on me in the university collection of his papers?  And I laugh, because once you fill in the blank with any other name but Heinlein, the situation looks ludicrous and paranoid.

    It appears to me that Heinlein presents himself as a special case, deserving of special treatment.  And that he has sufficient leverage -- the desire of people like Sam and Spider to be his good buddies -- that people play along with him.  He sure snookered Sam with a letter telling him much, but then denying the right to use what was told.  And look at the lengths that Sam is willing to go right now in order to avoid arousing Heinlein's possible displeasure.  Even I, who no longer aspire to be Heinlein's good buddy, and stand near the top of Heinlein's official shit list, have done my best to respect Heinlein's demands for privacy.

    But how very odd it seems to me that Heinlein will use so many kinds of manipulation to control what is said about him or known about him.  Just off the top of my head - silence, threats to sue, rage for effect, tricky letters, special files, fences, smoke and intimidation.  And not just with me and Sam, but with a lot of different people over a period of many, many years.

    What's it all about?  What's it all for?  It really beats me.  But I can see that there is this consistent, continuing pattern of pre-emptive growls and flutters.

    And whatever the answer is, it is not what Sam suggests, that Heinlein "only wants to give information to responsible individuals under civilized conditions." That's only one more game, the pretense by Heinlein that he knows a Code that others have forgotten, and that anyone who crosses him in any way is Out of Line.

    Heinlein was playing games like that 40 and more years ago.  I'm reminded of a story that Isaac Asimov told me when I was researching Heinlein In Dimension.  I didn't use it, of course, but Asimov himself has since put it in print a couple of times.  When they worked together in the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, Asimov preferred to carry a brown bag, and eat and read during lunch hour at his desk.  But Heinlein wouldn't let him do it.  He insisted that it was Asimov's patriotic duty to eat at the cafeteria, even though Asimov found the food revolting.  What is more, he would not let Asimov complain about the food, and would fine him a nickel even for remarks like, "Is there such a thing as tough fish?"  Heinlein's answer to that was "That will be five cents, Isaac.  The implication is clear."  And Asimov says that since Heinlein was judge, jury end executioner, that was that.  Well, that is still the way Heinlein will play things today when he can.

    But here's the weirdest part -- for me, at least.  A couple of years ago, I was selling books at a Philcon.  A teenager wearing a badge with the name Steven Diamond approached me and told me that Heinlein was his uncle (or maybe it was his great uncle).  And that Heinlein had sent a copy of Heinlein in Dimension for him to read, and copies to his other nephews, too.  According to him, Heinlein said that the book made some errors, but that it was basically sound.  The kid stayed and stayed and talked and talked.  I was restive, because he was killing business.  And I was never sure whether he was lying with an effortless facility marvelous in one so young or whether he was indeed what he claimed to be.  Eventually, he said that he personally preferred Asimov's science fiction to Heinlein's.  Seeing my opportunity, I pointed out Asimov across the room and suggested that he go tell Asimov that.  And he moved on, leaving me wondering, was it a message to me of some kind or just more of the bizarreness Heinlein's style seems to bring out in people?  I still don't know.

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