Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


  by Alexei Panshin

   Early in January 1996, I went online on Cory's work computer for the first time as a way of taking a break from digging out from under a snowstorm of more than thirty inches that had landed on us, only to find myself in the midst of a storm of another kind in this new world.

  On Christmas Eve, Gary Farber -- the same Gary Farber twenty-one and a half years older -- had posted a new account of the Poetry Center incident in under the title "A Heinlein Anecdote."

  Gary wrote in regard to why Heinlein hadn't welcomed Heinlein in Dimension:

  "There's a lot one could say about this controversy, but much of it is more appropriate to a book on Heinlein.  But among other issues, Heinlein was enraged over an issue having to do with letters to a friend of his.  I can't give you the gospel version, so don't take this as such: this is a hazy recollection: I *think* a widow of Heinlein's friend sent Panshin a bunch of letters Heinlein had written her dead husband.  Panshin read them, found them only relating to Heinlein's personal life, and returned them.  Heinlein was given the idea that Panshin had intruded into his personal life and he found this unforgiveable.

  "I was one of the few eye-witnesses to their only meeting after this, in 1973, when Heinlein spoke at the 92nd St.Y in NYC.  After his talk, Heinlein sat at a small table in the lobby and signed autographs.  Panshin walked up and stuck out his hand, beginning an apology to Heinlein.  Heinlein wouldn't let him complete his first sentence, interrupting him with the coldest 'Good day, Sir!' and refusing to take his hand.  Panshin tried several times, but just got his words interrupted with 'Good day, Sir!'

  "After several attempts, and Heinlein's utter refusal to even listen to a single sentence of an apology (which Alexei Panshin was clearly trying to do, managing to get out a few bits), Alexei gave up: it was his only possible choice.

  "I was still neo enough in 1973, lord, a mere 23 years ago, to write up a brief semi-coherent version of this for Dick Geis, with whom I'd been corresponding in my young, neoish way (I was 13), and -- here's the idiotic part -- I was so naive and neoish, I didn't think Geis would print what I wrote in THE ALIEN CRITIC (the once and future SFR).  I thought it was just private gossip.  After all, who would care what little me said?  Who would publish me in this Mighty and Important zine?

  "Nitwit.  As if any gossip about *Robert Heinlein* wouldn't be printed.  So Geis printed my incoherent version, which gave Alexei Panshin the impression I was sucking up to Heinlein, and he gave me the back of his hand, figuratively speaking.  At the age of 13, I was distraught.  I survived.  I learned.

  "Heinlein never forgave Panshin.  It never seemed at all fair, as I understood the situation."

  Farber's account touched off a thread from hell in that lasted for weeks and generated more than twelve hundred entries, a lot of them heated.  The incident was clearly difficult for some people to assimilate.

  I can't say I blame them, either.  Even now, with the passage of another dozen years, the event still remains a puzzle to me -- an open question I'm not sure I'll ever resolve.  I'm looking forward to all the Heinlein biographies that have been promised in hopes they may offer me some explanation why Heinlein's self-presentation that night should have been a staged event from first to last.

   It had been announced -- and charged for -- as a talk, a speaking appearance.  In practice, however, it had more the style of a star turn, complete with dress-up costume, the retelling of familiar anecdotes, carefully controlled questions and the signing of autographs, than the original address people may have been anticipating.
  The nature and the ground of our encounter was a matter of Heinlein's choice, too.  If he'd cared to do it, he had plenty of time to write to me beforehand and arrange a quiet meeting.  Or he might have sent Neil Schulman across the reception room at the Poetry Center with a message telling me where and when I could see him privately.  Or even, when I finally introduced myself to him, he might have said, "I'm busy now, as you can see, but we can talk for a few minutes if you care to stick around 'til I'm finished."

  In fact, however, Heinlein's conscious intention that night was to make a big production number out of humiliating me before witnesses.

  When Mrs. Heinlein cut me and then when Heinlein informed me that he wouldn't speak to me because of my ungentlemanly behavior, that hadn't been anger expressing itself spontaneously in the heat of the moment.  As Neil Schulman indicated to me the next day, the Heinleins had worked out in advance how they intended to behave.

  I'd suggested to Heinlein that we would have the opportunity to take each other's measure when we met.  In response to that, I think the Heinleins were determined to demonstrate my true status to me and see how I liked it.

  There were four reasons why what they chose to do wasn't completely successful.

  The first was that in the same way that no villain thinks badly of himself, as Heinlein said that night during his talk, I didn't believe that I had acted uncivilly and so wasn't vulnerable to being called on it. His charge went right over my head missing me completely.  I was confident that he knew better than what he was saying.

  The second reason was that I hadn't behaved badly on this occasion, either.  Tom Collins wasn't wrong when he speculated that I, like the Heinleins, had gone over what might happen in my mind beforehand. I was aware that I would be on Heinlein's turf, that this would be his event and that I'd be playing by his rules.  And I realized that whatever he might elect to do, I was going to have to respond to it as simply, directly and honestly as I knew how if I was going to come through our meeting intact.  So I was minding my p's and q's that evening.

  Third was that because of the age of my parents and the nature of their backgrounds [see Meeting Ahmed Again and The Padget History of America], I'd received an old-fashioned upbringing in the House of Tomorrow they built for themselves.  I hadn't been elevated to the state of Gentleman by Act of Congress the way Heinlein had been.  Instead, with nothing ever being said about it explicitly, I'd simply been expected to act like one in a postwar world where such things had already pretty much passed out of fashion.  The result was that without my consciously being aware of it, let alone making an issue of it on that night, in fact Heinlein had actually been less well-schooled than I when he tried to come over more-gentleman-than-thou on me.
  As I understand it, at least, the rule among real gentlemen, as opposed to the untutored, to those hoping to pass for gentlemen, and to those without honor, is that if you play the gentleman card, you aren't one.  Fits of temper aren't acting like a gentleman, either.

  And last, I'd been right when I suggested to Dick Geis and the readers ofThe Alien Critic in 1974 that something hadn't rung true about Heinlein's display of high dudgeon.  As that essay of his in Expanded Universe, written nearly fifteen years earlier, would in time reveal, making a pretense of outraged anger was a convenient life-long habit for Heinlein which he continued to be ready to use at a moment's notice whenever he felt in a tight spot because it usually worked, even though making that sort of calculated show of righteous indignation for tactical advantage was nothing a real gentleman would ever do either.

  And indeed, it did work that night, too, at least to the extent that I said goodby and left Heinlein standing his ground at the Poetry Center. He carried the day on the question of which of us would stay and which of us would go.

  On the other hand, when it came to being true to truth, Heinlein hadn't done so well.  Not only had he deliberately staged a public scene -- spurning my hand, faking anger, and asserting his social superiority -- but he had repudiated something he'd said on stage not two hours before, even as he demonstrated its aptness.

  But if the playacting and stage management behind what Heinlein did that night are apparent, what still remains unanswered is why he should have felt it necessary to dress up and put on a charade of this kind simply not to have to speak with me.  Why did he feel it necessary to pretend to be a big dog with eyes the size of millwheels and bark and growl until I went away?

  I can only think that there must have been some question he thought I might ask or observation he feared I might make that he didn't want to hear.

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