Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



    I'll try to be brief, for once.

    I'm glad Poul Anderson and Tony Boucher both brought up the subject of Heinlein's Starship Troopers -- I'm not much for starting discussions, as you may have noticed, but somehow once there's one under way, there is me with both big feet in the middle of it.

    As anyone who wandered into the bheer party at Detention will testify, I'm not very much in favor of Starship Troopers.  I was up in arms then, and I am now -- particularly for the reason you yourself mention, that its publication as a juvenile constitutes a breach of faith by a supposedly responsible publisher even more reprehensible than the distribution of pornography and heroin to twelve-year-olds.  In my opinion, that book is -- to the adolescent mind -- a piece of pure perniciousness.  All the more so because it almost (but doesn't quite) makes sense.

    I am, however, willing to forgive Heinlein for his argument that fallout is good for you; it isn't his own.  (I'd like to track down who did originate it -- I saw the source named somewhere but can't remember.  All I do know is that whoever first suggested that an increase in background radiation -- and by the by that doesn't seem to be the main objection to fallout; did you have a hot lunch today? -- To begin again, whoever first argued that increased background radiation, far from being harmful, would speed up Man's future evolution -- this gentleman knew just about enough about evolution to stuff up his rectum without interfering with his bowel movements.)

    I also recognize Heinlein's right to express his opinions.  (And I hereby invoke my right to express a few of my own, which I have done.)

    But let's ask ourselves a few questions.  Anderson quotes -- and I agree that this is the crux of Troopers' message -- "the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation."  By itself, this is a fine and noble -- if slightly gooey -- sentiment.  Yet I, and apparently a host of others, are just short of organizing a lynch mob to march on Colorado Springs.  Why?

    Now let's quote from another Heinlein book, Citizen of the Galaxy.  Again, an almost didactic statement of theme:  "I mean being so devoted to freedom that you are willing to give up your own . . . or die -- that freedom may live."

    Why wasn't the Colorado Springs post office stacked to the ceiling with ticking parcels after that was published?

    I think it's this:  Citizen is, for all its structural ricketiness, a balanced, sane book.  Troopers, on the other hand, is a long, strident harangue.  (I have, in fact, described it as a book-length recruiting poster.)  I can only believe that it was written in the same mental state as the Patrick Henry League was created.  (And the League, too, was a thing which almost but didn't quite make sense.  It reminded me of the fine old naval tradition for the captain to go down with his ship -- another fine and noble sentiment, provided that the whole damn human race isn't aboard that ship!)  It is my opinion that Troopers was written in the heat of firm and angry belief, and without sober and self-critical judgment.

    (I have also seen a couple of letters from Heinlein to a friend of mind, which reveal a sort of thinking which rather frightens me.  At several points, he seemed more interested in winning arguments than in examining the truth -- and incapable of realizing that scientific fact does not play politics.  I was very sorry to see those letters.)

    There's another reason why we accepted the attitude in Citizen but rejected it in Troopers.  In Citizen the emphasis was entirely on the personal and voluntary acceptance of duty. Troopers, on the other hand, contains sanctions which persuade the individual to accept those duties for reasons other than nobility (albeit nobody is actually forcing them to sign up.  There is, in fact, at least a token attempt to discourage enlistment).  It pictures a well designed process of training camp brainwashing, and postulates a system instituted at a time when there was no need to have such a system.  By this, I mean that by what evidence is discernible, the system of franchise in return for service to the state -- service involving hardship, be it noted -- was instituted at a time when the world was politically unified and there was no contact with or knowledge of extraterrestrial bug-eyed monsters who-eat-women-and-children-for-breakfast.  This, to my way of thinking, is backasswards.  What reason is there to be ready for a kill-or-be-killed brawl when there's nobody available to brawl with?

    I agree with Tony that Heinlein's technological material is as good as ever, and it's a rousing first chapter -- although I do sort of hike my eyebrows at the argument, a Lensman always goes in, never you mind where.  But polish on the surface doesn't conceal the shoddy stuff inside.

    Nevertheless, I continue to reopen The Master and sincerely hope that he can and has regained his intellectual balance.  It is only his attitudes, as expressed in Starship Troopers, which I detest.

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

Graphics by Kelly