Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



    Jim Blish has expressed something I've felt for a long time: "most of the s-f, good or bad, that I have ever read has been weak on intellection."  To be sure, my personal prejudices lead me to hold scientific speculation to be as valid and meaningful a form of intellection as "tackl(ing) a large philosophical question."  But even the former has become vanishingly rare in science fiction, and the latter hardly ever was to be found.  Certainly, if any of us feel like invading green pastures, almost a virgin field (I leave it to you to imagine the details of how one goes about being almost a virgin), philosophical fiction is waiting to be written.

    Oddly, in all the discussion which has gone on for so many years about Heinlein, I don't recall ever seeing it mentioned how much of his work is this very sort of thing.  Infinitely more so than, say, Bradbury, who's a nice guy and a talented writer but whose philosophy is epitomized in his belief that the highest foreseeable use for technology is the construction of electric grandmothers.  You might or might not agree with Heinlein's particular views on a given subject, but dammit, Heinlein too "can plainly be seen to be thinking about something," and not just the engineering details of spacesuits either.

    As a matter of fact, I myself take fairly violent exception to a lot of his philosophy.  Also, though not for the customary reasons, views implicit in his recent "Starship Soldier."

    I noted your quote of the Wilfred Owen poem in response to his dictum, "the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation."  I don't think it's relevant, though.  War is dull and exhausting -- death in a gas attack is messy and undignified -- but the same could be said of a sojourn in a hospital, where they'll also strip you of all your money.  These physical details don't affect the main issue.  In Heinlein's view, as I understand it from quotes as below: 

    "Man is . . . a wild animal with the will to survive and (so far) the ability against all competition."

    "All wars rise from population pressure . . . . It can be observed that any breed which stops growing commits slow suicide and other breeds move in.  . . . Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out -- because both races are tough and smart and want the same real estate."

    If you believe this, then it follows that war is a permanent phenomenon and the soldier is the highest form of life.  Now it so happens that I suspect:

    Man doesn't exist.  Only men and, to some vague extent, organizations of men, each with their own characteristics.  "Man" is merely a statistical concept.

    Conceivably savages, i.e. people living in a hunting gathering economy, are "wild" animals; but men have been domesticated since the invention of agriculture, and the latest dating on that is about 7000 B.C.

    All wars do not arise from population pressure.  In fact, none of importance do.

    Ecological balance, which implies quasi-static populations, is the norm of nature.  I doubt if the population of clams or sharks has changed much in the past hundred million years, and they're still going strong.

    Tough and smart races which want the same real estate don't necessarily fight to the death over it.  The more customary procedure is to parcel it out, e.g. the way the European nations in the 19th century blandly settled who owned what sections of Asia and the Pacific islands.

    So, having denied the postulates, I needn't accept the conclusions.  But at the same time, those postulates are not irrelevant to reality.  They do reflect a certain tendency.  People do fight, and it's often necessary to fight back.  Indeed, I failed utterly to be shocked at Heinlein's Patrick Henry League manifesto; on the whole, it seemed like a rather good idea, and I wish him luck.  The concept of social responsibility, which this latest novel wrestled with, certainly is long overdue for re-examination.  Not that I think restricting the franchise to veterans would help.  So far, veterans have never shown one bit more responsibility, as a class, than civilians; their organizations tend to be either of the virulent Stahlhelm sort or the gimmie-gimmie American Legion type.  But Heinlein has recognized the problem of selective versus nonselective franchise, and his proposed solution does merit discussion.

    His "hardheadedness," with its mystique of eternal struggle and the Dedicated and Disciplined Band of Brothers, is romantic, yes; but that romance is a little closer to truth, I think, than all the homogenized loving-kindness and poor-fellow-he's-not-really-bad-he's-only-sick-sick-sick mawkishness of the soi-disant liberals.  Even his outright mysticism adds a depth which is otherwise hardly ever discernible in science fiction.

    My purpose in the foregoing dissection was not the dissection itself, nor to attack a man whom I like and respect, but merely to demonstrate with a few examples that he offers the reader one hell of a lot to think about.  In short, Heinlein has been writing philosophy for Lo, these many years.  Go thou and do likewise.

    [Poul misunderstood the point of my quoting Wilfred Owen.  His poem was not a petulant lament at finding that war was "dull and exhausting" but rather a bitter blast at those who sent him and those like him off to France believing they were embarking on a glittering crusade with God on their side.  Anderson says, ". . . death in a gas attack is messy and undignified -- but the same can be said of a sojourn in a hospital."  Admitted, but in terms of Owen's thesis, the analogy is a false one.  One is not subjected from birth to a barrage of propaganda to the point that the finest thing a young man can do is to go to a hospital, that having one's appendix out is a glorious exciting adventure from which one is sure to recover, that girls will automatically pant and spread their legs at the sight of you in hospital garb.  This, however, does not mean that Mills should not have published "Starship Soldier" in F&SF.  On the contrary, if I had heard that the story had been turned down because of its ideological content, I would have raised my voice in piping protest.  The appearance of the story as a juvenile novel raises quite another question, however.  I think that if I were sixteen, the book, in spite of its detailed description of blood, guts, and hardship, would have left me with the impression that warfare is the only real occupation for a real man.  I question whether this is a principle we should be inculcating.  Because of Heinlein's well-deserved reputation as an excellent juvenile writer, the hard-cover edition of "Starship Soldier" is going to be automatically ordered by most of the junior high and high school libraries in the country.  This is why I raised the question.  T.R.C.]


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Originally published in The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies #133, February 1960.

Graphics by Kelly