Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    ON RECENT HEINLEIN: I had an argument on this subject at the Detention with James Gunn.  I  claimed Heinlein, as a novelist, had deteriorated sadly in recent years.  Gunn said, "No such thing.  Heinlein is better than he ever was, and will be better still in the future."  He cited chapter and verse.  When I returned home, I looked up the chapters and the verses and found I had to agree; things that were awkward and clumsy in early Heinlein were handled with grace, ingenuity, and skill in the recent product.

    For a month and a half this worried me.  Did I have Moskowitz's Syndrome?  Did yellowed pulp paper emit, for me, a golden haze viewed through which all stories become classics?  I sounded just like a man who had lost his sense of wonder -- "Somehow, I can't quite pin it down . . . there was something about those early stories . . ."

    Then I realized Gunn and I had been talking about two different things.  He had been discussing Heinlein's technique; I had been discussing Heinlein's novels.  Heinlein has, by dint of hard labor, native talent, and careful thought, built for himself the finest set of science-fiction carving tools in the business.  But he is using these tools to craft equestrian statues and little figurines of the gay philosopher.

    Damn it, listen to yourselves praise the man!  You don't praise him for his novels; you praise him for his paragraphs.  And you praise rightfully: they are the best paragraphs in modern science fiction.  Damon was right in his Detention speech; every sf writer should look long and hard at the beginning of "Starship Soldier."  It is a model.  But the totality of "Starship Soldier" is not a model; it is an unpleasant fiasco.  (I speak of the F&SF version -- I haven't read the book.)

    Take any dozen paragraphs from the early Heinlein canon, from "Universe," "Waldo," "Solution Unsatisfactory," "Blowups Happen," and compare it with any dozen from the recent Heinlein output, and the superiority of the current product is obvious.  But what is the current product from which these masterful sections were extracted?  It is (and this is an unbiased list, in reverse chronological order, of adult Heinlein, as well as memory will serve) "Starship Soldier," Citizen of the Galaxy, The Menace from Earth, The Door Into Summer, Double Star.

    Has the point been made?

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

Graphics by Kelly