Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



    My first copy of the Proceedings came recently, and it took me only a couple of days to read through the whole batch.  Which, considering my schedule, is a compliment to your wonderful enterprise.  I think I'm going to get my dollar's worth.  When you need more loot, holler.  This is more fun, and more worthwhile, than a subscription to any of the magazines now extant.  I am on the periphery of professional science fiction now, a stranger looking through a window at a banquet scene.  My output was quite small, and now the flow has ceased entirely.  But I do feel a strong identification with the field and still read extensively.  I must admit that I no longer care too much for most of what I read, and that is what the rest of the letter will be about.  Forgive me, but this is going to be quite a blast.

    I begin in anger, and I will end this epistle in anger.  It is partially the anger of an idealist who looks at the world (in this case the circumscribed world of professional s-f) and knows that it no longer measures up to his youthful ideals, and hates the world for not being what he thinks it ought to be. It is partially the anger of a scientist, too, who hates to see what's now being published called science fiction.  More than anything, though, it's the righteous wrath that any intelligent person would direct against pretentiousness and self-delusion.

    Let's take Heinlein as a point of departure, with "Starship Soldier" being the case in point.  Heinlein is, for my money, a superb craftsman.  Even in its unmercifully abridged version in F&SF, it made for tremendously exciting reading.  To me.  One of the few stories I have bothered to recommend to "outsiders," who don't usually read s-f.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was a most "controversial" novel, because, some people say, it glorifies war, and this is bad.  Good lord!  (I would say something stronger, but this must pass through the mails.)  When the living hell did the field of s-f get so goodie-goodie that values couldn't be suspended for the period of the reading of a novel?  Oh, I know, the argument supposedly revolves around the reading of SS by kids. Might pervert them, or something.  I suspect the truth is that Heinlein in SS, if nothing else, trounces merrily upon a few sacred cows about war and peace, and the cow-like present audience of s-f reacted in frightened fashion.  Moooo!  The chanting in the recent issue of Proceedings reminded me more of Orwell's Animal Farm than anything else.  "All that goes on two legs is bad; all that goes on four legs, or has wings, is good."  Would that truth were so much a matter of black-and-white definition.  There is much in war, and much that comes from war, that is good by almost anybody's definition, and all the anguished animal squeals to the contrary can't change that.  There is also, of course, much that is horrible and revolting, inhumane and terrible.  But what kind of intellectuals are we if we don't realize that war has both sides to it, and that one must judge accordingly?

    Aside from the goodness or badness of war, the comments so many people have made about SS indicate, to me at least, that s-f is becoming the haven for old, trite, worn-out ideas instead of the testing-ground for new thoughts most s-f devotees so loudly pretend.  How many people have told me, these past few years, that Sturgeon is great, but when will he quit writing those peculiar stories and get down to reality? If Ted were not the great writer that he is, probably he would be mobbed, ostracized, or what have you.  Like Heinlein apparently is to be.  New gadgets we can stand apparently, but not new ideas, nor new ways of looking at old ideas nor even a close examination of the emotional responses most of us have to the safe, secure, comfortable values which society today applauds and inculcates in us.  In my opinion, s-f readers (and writers, too) have become a bunch of old Aunt Nellies hell-bent on preserving the status-quo, glorifying the present norm, and ready to crucify anybody who dares rock the boat by thinking.  Astounding science fiction?  It's astounding that anybody would think that s-f could astound anybody but an idiot.  Galactic s-f?  I haven't read anything much recently that looked beyond the rut that s-f writers have blundered into and refuse to leave.  I don't know what happened to us when s-f "came of age," but the sense of wonder got left behind, and maybe so did I.  I want s-f to be a "marketplace of ideas," but who's thinking these days?  Heinlein, yes, and Sturgeon, and a few others, but let's exterminate these vermin before they infect us with some awesome disease that might shake us out of our lethargy!

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Originally published in The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies #134, March 1960.

Graphics by Kelly