Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

A Show of Hands

  by Guy Lillian

  He came to the front of the stage.  Behind him was a podium, brightly lit, shining like a jewel.  He walked to the very edge of that light from above, and his strong face was in shadow.  He wore a tuxedo, and faced us four-square.  We were applauding.  “I see my family got here,” he said, his tones Midwestern.  His jaw was moving exaggeratedly.  “If it looks like I’m chewing gum,” he said, “it’s because I am.  It’s been a rough week.  Ginny and I are outdoors folk, and the big city is tiring.  It’s Aspergum.”

  He turned to walk back towards the podium.  We were silent there in the audience.  He held an envelope which he opened and from which he dropped papers.  He bent and retrieved them, unembarrassed.  When he finally disposed of them shrugging them away, he mentioned that though this appearance was sponsored by the Poetry Center of New York’s 92nd Street YMHA/YWHA, he would be reading no verse of his own.  He courted his wife that way, he said, but considered his verses private and worthless to others.  He did quote a couple of lines by Sewell Ford (sic) to illustrate a point.  He spoke slowly.

   And for a reason.  He was a “somewhat reformed stammerer.”  “Don’t be afraid to laugh,” he said, “when I stop or whistle.  It makes me feel more at home.”  Again he came to the front of the stage.  “What should I talk about?” asked Robert A. Heinlein.

  Tom Collins had told me about this appearance while I was crashing at his lower east side apartment.  I had immediately ordered a ticket – for $3.00.  On May 8th, for absolutely nothing above and beyond the 35 cent token fee for the subway, I had accompanied Denny O’Neil to Baird Searles’ 8th Avenue’s Science Fiction Shoppe to see Harlan Ellison at an autograph party.  When Denny came in, a kid said “And I didn’t bring my comics!”  Harlan was seated at a table heaped with his in-print books.  Denny introduced me.  Harlan, pipe blazing, looked up and told me that he remembered the face and the name but could not have put them together.  Later, while fans both serious and neo clustered and talked, he told O’Neil – a martial arts enthusiast – about throwing a drunk with a kung fu toss and described acidly the speech Heinlein gave in Ellay this year, accepting a Nebula for Arthur C. Clarke.  According to Ellison the performance was pathetic – RAH had gone over every minute of Clarke’s life, had called for a show of hands, and so on, interminably.  I showed him the blue ticket the 92nd Street Y had sent me, and he croaked, “Oh God!  Tear it up!”

  We had a choice of topics, Heinlein said … writing in general, science fiction, specific books … what did we want to talk about?  Let’s see a show of hands.  Writing?  Very well, then …

  “Ideas are everywhere.”  He turned to the subject of watches – “Marvelous little machines.”  He’s proud that an ancestor, Peter Heinlein, had invented the escapement for watches, which until recently had been unsurpassed for enabling seamen to find longitude.  “Has anyone here ever taken a creative writing course?  Raise your hands.”

  From the fifth row, aisle seat on the left-hand aisle, I raised my hand.  Others in the auditorium, about full, joined me, shyly.

  “I have but one word to say about creative writing courses.”  Pause.  “DON’T!  Creativity cannot be taught!”  Well neither can leadership or character Mr. Heinlein so why did you go to Annapolis? I thought but of course did not speak aloud.  I was not here to argue but for something different.  “Spend your time writing!” Can’t argue with that.  He ran down his five rules for successful writing – (1) write, (2) finish what you write, (3) place it on the market, (4) never rewrite anything, (5) keep it on the market until it is sold.  He added little things like using a pitch-black ribbon and proper form: “All editors have eyestrain.”

  He then moved on to his own experiences, and everything came alive.

  When I walked into the 92nd Street Y at 6:45 that May 29th, 1974, I found a group of fans already thronging in the lobby.  You could not mistake them; they looked like fans.  And what do fans look like?  They were enthusiastic in manner, especially among their own.  Outside of their kind they are quiet and distant.  Phraseology and delivery is exaggerated.  Glasses.  Tom Collins was there, of course, and my fellow Southerner Hank Davis came in, beautifully attired, smiling.  Once we were let into the auditorium, I sat behind him.  (After Heinlein’s speech he told me, “I have seen God.”)  Alexei Panshin stood against the lobby wall.

  Sitting in the fifth row on the left side of the left-hand aisle, I found an old gentleman with whom I had shared a limo going from the St. Louis airport to the ’69 worldcon.  I asked him if he had ever talked to Heinlein, figuring that such an elder fan would have.  He told me no, but that he had seen him once.

  Fans are strange people.  Before the lights dimmed and while I tapped my teeth with a Flair pen and admired the curve of the behind of the girl holding the programs, I thought about being one.  It was with a sense of being foredoomed.

  Heinlein pronounced his name “Hine-line.”  He never anglicized the diphthong.  He told us that he used eight pseudonyms at one point in his career, sometimes filling whole issues of pulp magazines.  He mentioned “an old shipmate,” Katharine Anne Porter, and used something she had told him to illustrate a point about writing – that the story will seek its own length and characters insist upon their own lives.  Porter’s Ship of Fools, “a book the size of the Old Testament,” began as a contracted-for novella (a word Ms. Porter despises).  But it just grew.  Heinlein said all his writing is like that.

  “I wonder what one does with used Aspergum."
  He spoke about being a writer, and how one behaves when work has gestated long enough in one’s mind and is ready to emerge.  A writer becomes impossible to live with and should be penned up.  “My wife says that when she finds my shoes in the icebox, it’s a sure sign a story is on the way.”

  He started talking about specific books.  It took him thirteen working days to write A Door Into Summer, he said, and he told us that the cat in that story really existed.  Pixie was the name of the real gato.  He told a funny story about how Pixie hated the snow on Lookout Mountain, where the Heinleins lived before health reasons forced them to the Pacific shore.

  Thirteen days was the fastest time he’d ever done a full-length novel.  The longest?  108 working days – one off in there to see the dentist – for a much longer story, the title of which he could not recall for a moment.  Finally people volunteered, “Time Enough for Love !” and he smiled, “Of course.”

  “At my age,” he said, “that’s a long stretch.”

  They had passed out 3x5 cards early on in the speech.  For questions, they told us.  As my shoulder was time and again tapped to call me to pass cards forward, my own burned my hand.  A question, a question … what do you ask Robert A. Heinlein, now that at last you have the chance?

  He discussed I Will Fear No Evil, a book half-edited when he was struck with what everyone thought would be his final illness.  Editing is a process Heinlein has only once granted to another, that awful day when reality slipped away from him, he saw roaches on the walls of his sterile hospital room, and he signed power of attorney to his wife and his agent.  They did not touch the book, he said; they let it be published half-cut.  The story as he wanted it is still there, said Heinlein … just lost in too many words.

  Nevertheless he considers I Will Fear No Evil a successful book … more so than Stranger in a Strange Land, for its sales picked up quicker and it has already made more money.  He expects Time Enough for Love to surpass it.  Commercial value is the highest value for Robert A. Heinlein, or so he asked us to believe.  The success of this massive trio of novels he lays to their general aim – towards a wider audience than science fiction readers.

  He continued with advice.  “Unlearn things that you thought were true once.  That way you can grow old out of the deep freeze: stay alive.”  Cards kept moving forward over my shoulder.  I started questions, blotted them away with my Flair.  Finally I decided, I must be a fan and yet more than a fan, and wrote down three:

             Any comment on the space program?

             What is your favorite American city?

              Who is your favorite man?

  The rationale behind these questions should be immediately obvious.  The first time I heard Heinlein’s pleasantly sans-serif Midwestern voice was on my 20th birthday, when he and Arthur C. Clarke discussed the landing of Apollo 11, earlier that day.  Asking about the space program was a natural question, designed to cover up the other two.

  Because if what I’d heard was true, New Orleans was Heinlein’s favorite American city.  My “home” town was then running for the 1976 worldcon, and I hoped to win a sly boost for the Big Easy in the voting that summer.  (Of course, I was running a calculated risk – Heinlein was brought up in one of our rivals, Kansas City.)  As for the last question, I was, I admit, trying to get into the great man’s head.  Foolish!  Foolish!  But my figurative tongue was tied.

  While I wrote the straight, tough figure on stage continued talking about writing.  He illustrated the technique of “the hook” through a story about Jack Woodford, who satisfied an editor and sold a million books by putting sex into the first line of the first page.  He admitted that his stories were short on tragic endings and villains … no one thinks of himself as a villain, he explained, and as for happy endings … “a man who has given up a six-pack of beer to buy a book wants to be left feeling good!”  Over and over that image was used: writers in competition with beer.  Clowns.  Jesters.  Beggars offering tales for alms, part of a profession that predates written language … story-telling.

  Finally Mrs. Heinlein, front row center, stood and waved a fistful of cards in her husband’s direction.  He crossed to stage front and picked them up.  Mine was among them, my name legible in the lower right hand corner – Heinlein had warned us that he never answered unsigned questions.  Had I been feeling precocious.

  He answered the first card:  "I don’t know what happened to the computer at the end of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  If I knew I would’ve said so.”

   The next card came up.  “’Critique some of your fellow science fiction writers.’   I never discuss living colleagues, nor those who have not been dead for a decent interval. “ However, he did consider de Bergerac, as a writer and a man, Wells, and Verne (with humanist reservations) worthy of posthumous applause.

  “’Any comment on the space program?  What is your favorite city?  Who is your favorite man?’ ‘Guy Lillian.’”

  Heinlein looked askance at my idiotic questions.  The New York fans who knew me giggled and glanced back and my friend Bart, sitting next to me, slapped my arm.

  “The space program will continue, but I’m not sure in what language.  The public relations teams at NASA deserves credit for taking one of the most glorious moments in man’s history and making it seem dull as dishwater … Thanks to what man has already done, the tens of thousands of men supporting the astronauts, the human race may possibly, probably, almost certainly outlive this planet.  It is our destiny to go on and on and on and on and out.

  “’Who is your favorite man?’  I am.”

  Two healthy rounds of applause, two high points.  Was I a fool for feeling good at hearing the great man speak my name?

  Other questions followed.  How did he become interested in science fiction?  It began when his eldest brother took him outside to show him a lunar eclipse, when he was 7 and his brother -- now Major General Lawrence L. Heinlein – was 12.  At 10, a comic strip (unnamed) caught his imagination, and later, Gernsback pulps.  And always the stars – he waxed poetic about the lovely skyscapes to be seen in California, and, remembering the nights I myself have stood chin high in the Mojave Desert, where I was born, and let the Milky Way carry my soul, I could verify his thoughts.  You can too.

  When did he start writing and why?  During the Depression … no other work.  Ph.D.s had apple carts; what could engineers do?  Where’d he pick up his use of slang?  He never used current slang, said the creator of “grok” and “TANSTAAFL”, it doesn’t last long enough.  So he just made it up, that’s all, which got him started on Isaac Asimov, recalling the opening poem in Nine Tomorrows.  “If Isaac doesn’t know it,” Heinlein proclaimed, “don’t bother with the Encyclopedia Britannica.”  Applause general.

  The next question was one I’d wanted to ask, but had frankly feared to, owing to RAH’s saturation with queries about Stranger in a Strange Land.  He was asked why there was so much difference between Stranger and his previous novel, Starship Troopers.  He huffed a little in a friendly fashion and denied there was any difference at all, seeing as he had worked on the two Hugo-winning books simultaneously, alternating one to the other.
  Earlier, he had showed us a handful of blue note cards, the like of which he was never without – “I even keep them on the rim of my pool.”  He had begun keeping note cards on the concept of Stranger in 1947 or ’48, and the idea so excited him that he wrote “thirty or forty” cards about it.  However, other, more commercial projects intervened, and it wasn’t until ten years later that he was able to compose the “hook” sentence – “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.”

  More delay set in.  In all, he spent four years working on Stranger, not continuously, but a piece at a time.  No one has ever been able to spot the true breaks.  In that time, Starship Troopers was conceived – the “new” Heinlein born.  For a time he alternated between those two books, both of which, he claimed, were descriptions of aspects of human love.  The soldier in Troopers loves in that he is willing to die for his comrades-in-arms.  As for the concept of love in Stranger in a Strange Land … “Read the book!”

  I did, in 1964.  I was 14.  With horror I reached the section where the stripper, a typical Heinlein female, seduced Jubal Harshaw.  It wasn’t immoral to me – but it was terrifying.  And somehow I did not approve.  To this day I have not read that book through again.

  Another card appeared in Heinlein’s hand, bone-white in the glaring spotlight.  “Do you consider yourself a romantic, a realist or a cynic?”  Heinlein admitted to being a romantic, and a realist too, since “the real world is a romantic and wonderful place.  Anyone who thinks otherwise falls into fantasy, and dull fantasy at that.”  Enormous applause.

  He recommended Archie & Mehitabel, the first time I’d ever heard of it, and told a story about a parrot and Shakespeare that I have unfortunately forgotten.

  Why were there so many changes in his fiction through the years?  He was sticking with the market, of course … throughout his speech Heinlein insisted upon the total commerciality of his writing.  Money was the sole reason for writing; writers were competing with six-packs; writers were jesters, beggars, clowns.  I didn’t believe he really felt like that—he would not have pushed ideas at all in his fiction if risk were involved, were his feelings truly so.

  The watch on his wrist, that “marvelous little invention,” ticked on towards nine, the hour the speech had to close, and the gathering move into the outer room for autographs.  Heinlein took a final question.

  “Is there any chance for a novel about Lazarus Long taking place after Methuselah’s Children?”

  Heinlein said, “I’m not dead yet.”

  We moved into the other room.

  After getting home from work at a few minutes past 5 that May 29, I busied myself eating something, anything, changing my clothes, choosing the books I would carry with me to have the great man autograph.  Tales of the ’62 worldcon revealed a man who was understanding about such things, so I knew I could take some.  Besides, I had called the Y and asked.

  As you might know, I am interested in getting Hugo winners and classics autoed, and not much else.  Four books, therefore, were drawn from my Hugo-winners shelf, and one thick mutha from the nominees for the 1974 award.  Hmm, that’s quite a handful … the decision-making process began.

  Stranger had to be among those I took; it was his best-known novel, and ‘62’s Hugoer, after all.  My personal favorite among his books was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, ‘66’s winner, so that too was sure.  But if I took Starship Troopers and Double Star, let alone Time Enough for Love, wouldn’t I be that despicable creature, the fan who thought of pro writers as trophies, autograph machines?

  So, a compromise … Stranger and Moon went with me, the rest stayed home.  I went out to catch the bus.

  From behind a grand piano in the Art Gallery – photos on the walls of various Poetry Center speakers, including my old Berkeley teacher, Lillian Hellman – a table and chair were brought.  Heinlein sat and called for books – they would take precedence.  I set Stranger, open to the title page, before him.  The crowd clustered around, looking at him, up close, and before I placed Moon down on that little table, I looked at him, up close.

  On stage Robert A. Heinlein had appeared straight and yet frail.  A foot away, he seemed strong.  Not a move was sloppy or ill-considered; even a 12th Century Zouave resurrected from the ranks of the hereafter would know that this was a military man who sat there, signing his name over and over again.  His skin was pale but not pasty.  Liver spots dotted his wrists.  His face, I was told the seat of his recent medical problems, seemed taut and firm.

  I spotted my friend Bart, waiting patiently by the door, and near him, my Berkeley comrade and onetime roommate, Tom Collins.  Tom introduced me to Alexei Panshin, whom I had last seen at St. Louiscon after the Hugo ceremony.  Rite of Passage had just lost to Stand on Zanzibar and he looked depressed.  Then he thought he was depressed.

  Bart and I left to scarf a slice of pizza down the block.  After Bart departed via the underground, I walked back to the Y.

  Harlan turned to me and muttered, “I hate fans.”

  The celebrated Mr. E had two very good reasons for saying this.  At the 8th Avenue Science Fiction Shoppe, two kids of around 12 or 13 were bedeviling him unmercifully.  That’s the type of fan Harlan seems to attract, when he isn’t getting the Clarion hopefuls.

  “So do I,” I said.  “And I’m one myself.  Schizophrenic.”

  “Aw, you’re growing out of it, Guy,” said Harlan, and squeezed my arm.

  The fans I meant in talking to Harlan were the adulators.  Worship must be reserved for gods, and writers are not gods.  Hemingway was a man in pain.  Faulkner was a man in pain.  Certainly the commercial giants of our field of interest are simply men trying to make a living, or if they are aesthetically oriented, write as well as they can.  They aren’t autograph machines and shouldn’t be professional jokebutts.  But still, the urge to talk to special men like Harlan or Heinlein moved in me as well.  I suppose this fannishness is what I “hated” – what I feared.

  When I returned the art room was considerably thinned out.  The circle around Heinlein’s table was only one or two fans deep.  Tallest among them, Alexei Panshin.  For a moment, feeling melodramatic, I looked over Panshin’s shoulder at the man whose influence on his life must have been immeasurable.  I turned away to examine again the photos on the walls and the framed letters of thanks – I was surprised at how many were from writers I’d heard give readings – until I heard one single, strong word:  “Goodbye!”

  Heinlein was on his feet, an index finger pointed at Panshin’s chest.

  “Well,” Alexei stammered, stepping backwards, “you said for people to come up to you with their ideas …”

  Heinlein cut him off.  “You read private letters of mine to an audience,” he said, “and all I have to say to someone who reads another man’s mail is … Goodbye.  Goodbye!”

  Panshin left.   Collins, very upset, followed with others.   A copy of Heinlein in Dimension sat abandoned atop the piano.

  RAH sat and signed some more books, then rose, wearily I thought, posed for photos with a fan and congratulated the fan’s father on his musicianship; apparently he was familiar with the man’s work.  Nervously I kept trying to approach him and communicate in some way.  Finally, as Mr. and Mrs. Heinlein were walking out the door, I asked him if he had heard from our mutual friend, Daniel F. Galouye.
  “It has been a long time,” he said.  “How did he look when you saw him?  I haven’t been to New Orleans in so long … Ginny, have we heard from Dan and Carmel recently?"

  Another fan jumped in to pay his obeisance.  For a few moments, outside, I watched while the director of the poetry center waved down a cab for the Heinleins.  It was 10PM and they had an early morning interview show.

  Jackson Burgess, my writing teacher at Berkeley, once told my class about literally running into Ernest Hemingway on a New York City street.  Watching the genius get into a cab, he was struck by the stiffness with which Hemingway moved.  Heinlein lowered himself into the taxi the same slow, agonizing way, and apparently he bumped his head on the door jamb, since Miss Virginia was rubbing the back of his head as the cab launched itself into the tumultuous mechanical torrent of 3rd Avenue.

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