Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Showdown at the Poetry Center

  by Alexei Panshin

  "To grow old involves a process, if you're not going to let your mind go into deep freeze, of unlearning things you used to believe."
--Robert Heinlein

     "Oh my God, I knew it would be a disaster, but I didn't think it would be a catastrophe!"
-- Alfred Bester


  Robert Heinlein and I encountered each other for the first and only time on May 29, 1974 after his delivery of a talk at the YM-YWHA Poetry Center in New York City.

  It wasn't an accident.  He knew I was going to be there.

  When I'd had occasion to write him six weeks earlier, I'd concluded my letter by saying I understood that he was scheduled to make several speaking appearances in New York and I hoped to finally be able to meet him so we might take each other's proper measure.

   J. Neil Schulman, a Young Libertarian who'd published a long interview with Heinlein and who conceived of himself as an honest go-between, had spoken to both of us.  It was he who informed me that one of the places Heinlein would be appearing was at the Poetry Center and suggested that I see him there, and when I said I would, he'd told Heinlein that I would be coming.

  At that point, I'd spent fifteen years in seeking out science fiction writers and talking to them with the aim of understanding SF, and ten years in writing about the nature of the beast -- efforts that would eventually lead my wife Cory and me to write The World Beyond the Hill, a book tracing the conceptual development of science fiction.

  Robert Heinlein had been my favorite SF writer while I was growing up.  And I was the author of Heinlein in Dimension, the first book on the stories of any science fiction writer.

  Heinlein hadn't wanted a book about his stories to be written.  He'd even threatened sight unseen to bring a lawsuit against Advent, my publisher, if they published mine. [See The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.] That threat delayed the book for three years but hadn't prevented its eventual appearance in 1968.  The work had even won a Hugo.

  But as of 1974, he and I had still never met.

  But it didn't work out as I hoped.  In fact, what did take place was a shock to those who were present.

  Before my meeting with Robert Heinlein finally took place that evening, I had three indications that it wasn't destined to go well.

  The first clue was the "talk" Heinlein gave.  It was in no sense original.  Like the autobiographical statements I'd read while researching Heinlein in Dimension, it was limited by design.  All of what he said, he'd said before, some of it many times and in very much the same words.  I knew it all by heart.

Heinlein with index cards  Half of his allotted speaking time was spent answering questions from the audience.  But the questions weren't allowed to be asked of him directly.  Instead, Heinlein insisted they be written down on file cards and signed.  He didn't answer all of them, either.  He shuffled through them, picking and choosing among them.  And the answers he gave were guarded and deflective.

  All of this suggested to me that the man I'd hoped to meet wasn't prepared to be either flexible or forthcoming that evening.

  After his talk was over, the people who remained moved from the auditorium where we had been seated to a large open room in the Poetry Center used for displays, rehearsals and receptions where Heinlein was to sign autographs.   It took a little while for things to get set up there.  And while Cory and I were waiting I got my second bad sign.

  We were standing over by one wall talking with Tom Collins.  He was a young man Cory and I had originally met at a late night room party at a world science fiction convention in Boston and we'd corresponded from time to time for several years.  This evening was the second and last time we ever saw him.

  While we were chatting with him, I saw Heinlein, Mrs. Heinlein and Neil Schulman standing together at some distance across the room.  They were all looking at me, and since the Heinleins and I had never met, it was clear that the Young Libertarian was pointing me out to them.

  The bad sign was that he didn't thereafter come over and speak to me, though he had plenty of opportunity to do it.

  Two weeks before, Neil had sent me his letter saying that he'd told the Heinleins I would be present at the Poetry Center.  He'd written:  "Beyond this, I fully intend to keep my nose out of your contact with the Heinleins unless, of course, both parties wish my assistance.  If you want me to arbitrate, my fee is ten per cent and expenses.  (TANSTAAFL)."

  Ah, those Young Libertarians.

  The day after Heinlein's talk, Neil wrote to me again in "explanation and apology."  He said:  "I found last night very difficult considering that I knew beforehand the probability of a scene such as occurred but was unable to intervene in any fashion without violating a trust.  Also, I have a feeling that if I wasn't rude to you (which I was trying to avoid) I was at least not as friendly as I might have been under less tense circumstances.  I did not feel it wise to have the Heinleins noticing us talking together ... precisely because I felt it might be interpreted by the Heinleins as a leaking of information."

  He never spelled out what that information was -- but I have to suspect he meant that he knew that Heinlein did not intend to speak to me, but didn't feel that he could give me a warning lest it spoil the surprise.

  Heinlein was soon seated at a table signing autographs for a long line of people.  I didn't join them because I had no desire to call attention to myself or make a fuss.  However, I did see Mrs. Heinlein still standing alone where I'd seen her before.  So I walked across the room and approached her.

  I said, "Mrs. Heinlein, I'm Alex Panshin," and held out my hand.  But she didn't put out her own hand in return.  She didn't speak to me.  Instead, Mrs. Heinlein tilted her nose, turned her back on me, and deliberately walked away.

  It was the legendary "cut direct" of an earlier era.  I've never experienced anything like it before or since and I had to take it as a third negative indication.

  But I'm a stubborn fellow.  As far as I was concerned, I'd done nothing to merit her reaction.  I had reason to be there.  I wanted to speak at least once to Robert Heinlein and hear what he had to say.  I'd come a distance for the occasion and paid good money to get in.  And I saw no reason to feel shamed and slink away.  So I returned to Cory standing at the side of the room and waited for the line to shorten.

  After a time, when the line had shrunk to just two people, I joined it.  I watched Heinlein as he signed books for the person in front of me, and heard him answer a question about the suspense writers he read.  He said his favorites were John D. MacDonald and Donald Hamilton. That struck a chord with me -- they were my own favorites, too, both of them writers I'd been reading and collecting for almost twenty years.

Heinlein at the Poetry Center  At last, there was no one in front of me, just me on one side of the table and Robert Heinlein seated on the other.

  I took a step forward and said, "Mr. Heinlein, I'm Alex Panshin," and held out my hand.

   Heinlein ignored it.   Instead, he looked up at me and declared firmly, "Good day, sir."
  I tried to reply, but he rose to his feet and cut me off, his face turning beet colored.  A vein on his right temple stood out and throbbed.  He pointed a finger at my chest and repeated in a louder and even more authoritative voice, "Good day, sir!"

   I would find an explanation of this behavior in his book Expanded Universe six years later.  Heinlein had set it forth in "Inside Intourist," one of the two essays he wrote after his experience as a tourist in Russia at the time of the U-2 incident in 1960 when an American spy plane was shot down 1500 miles inside the Soviet Union and he and his wife had gotten hauled into a provincial Russian commissar's office to be lectured about America's conduct.  Here Heinlein advised:

  "Be prepared to simulate anger at any instant.  It is much better to pretend to lose your temper before things have grown so unbearable that you actually do blow your top; it saves wear and tear on your ulcers and enables you to conduct your tactics more efficiently."

  Further, he wrote:  "If neither polite stubbornness nor noisy rudeness will work, use the insult direct.  Shake your finger in the face of the most senior official present, simulate extreme rage, and shout, 'Nyeh Kuhl-toornee!'  ('Uncultured!')  Hit that middle syllable and roll the r's.

  "Subordinates will turn a sickly green and pretend to be elsewhere.  The official will come close to apoplexy -- but will probably make an extreme effort to satisfy your demand in order to shut you up.  This is the worst insult you can hand a Russian, one that hits him in cracks of his armor.  Use it only as a last resort."

  And further:  "It usually works.  In a bully-boy society often nothing but bullying will work."

  Perhaps because of my Russian name, Heinlein thought that the simulation of anger and, if necessary, the imputation of being uncultured, was appropriate behavior to use with me now as his first resort.  He went directly from zero to sixty as he came to his feet -- beginning with icy rejection, passing without a pause through dismissive rudeness, and culminating in barely contained rage.

   It was so sudden, aggressive and final that I was set back on my heels by it.  Once again, this was something I'd never run into before and have never encountered since.

  If anything, it hit me all the stronger because of the respect I'd borne for the man.  I wasn't some Russian peasant who'd been made a commissar and was ready to turn to putty at the first accusation of ill-mannered behavior.  I was somebody who'd once considered myself Heinlein's student and his greatest fan.

  Because of that, the part of me that stands to the side and looks on was bothered by what I saw.  I thought that turning purple and causing a vein to stand out on his forehead and throb couldn't be good for Heinlein's health -- however useful it may have been as a social tactic in getting his way.  Far from me suffering a stroke, I was afraid it could happen to Heinlein in playing this kind of game.

  Summoning all the aplomb I could muster, but finding the words difficult to get out in the face of so sudden, vehement and repeated a dismissal, I said to him, "I heard you say on the stage tonight that it is necessary for a man to change his opinions as he grows older."

  He declared, "Not on this!  'Gentlemen do not read other people's mail.'"

  That may sound like a dictum straight out of The Gentleman's Handbook.   But I recognized it as an allusion to what Henry Stimson,  Secretary of State and twice Secretary of War, is reported to have said in response to America's successful cracking of Japan's diplomatic code prior to World War II.

  There was a dissonance here.  Was Heinlein presenting himself as a lofty judge of acceptable behavior or as someone who was outraged because I'd read the letters he'd once written to Arthur George "Sarge" Smith which Smith's widow had sent me?  Or was he somehow trying to play both parts at once?

    I couldn't be sure whether he was identifying with Secretary Stimson's choice of gentlemanly principle over American cleverness and ingenuity or with the right of the Japanese government to speak privately prior to Pearl Harbor without fear of being overheard on matters they didn't wish to share with the world at large. 

   He appeared to be saying that he was either as stubbornly wrongheaded as Stimson or as secretly bent on aggression as the Japanese -- and this ought to be respected.  Or was he speaking as a member of a superior class standing arm in arm with each other around the world against the impertinence and intrusiveness of all inquiry from lesser folk?

   In any case, as damning as it may have been meant to sound, what Heinlein said didn't ring in my ear as quite the devastating putdown he'd intended it to be.

  For a third time, he said, "Good day, sir!",  this time pointing to the door.

  Clearly he'd made his mind up and wasn't about to budge, even though he was aware that I hadn't sought his old letters, nor had I made any use of them in writing my book on his work, as he'd admitted the previous year and permitted me to know.
  It was apparent that Heinlein had no intention of talking to me that evening.  And I had no desire to argue with him.

  The immediate goal I'd had in coming had been fulfilled.  I'd met the man, asked him a question and heard what he had to say.

  So, I said, "Good day, sir" to him in return, turned, walked to the door and left the building, followed by Cory and by Tom Collins.


  That evening at the Poetry Center, an onlooker was present from The New Yorker.  In "Talk of the Town" for July 1, 1974, he wrote:
  We went to the Kaufmann Auditorium of the Y.M - Y.W.H.A. the other evening to listen to Robert Heinlein talk about writing. At the age of sixty-six, Heinlein is probably more responsible than any other man for the curious development of modern science fiction -- a literature of ideas expressed in pulp-magazine prose. He was trained in two of the roughest schools imaginable -- the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, and the penny-a-word magazine market of the nineteen-forties and fifties. He made his name as a science-fiction writer with vigorous stories about the impact of futuristic technology -- rocket ships, nuclear weapons, time travel -- on society. He speculated fearlessly about revolutions in economics, politics , and warmaking. But his stories, like most science fiction of the time, were virtually sexless; his characters seemed to care more for their machines than for each other. In the nineteen-sixties, however, a new wave of younger writers introduced sex to science fiction, and Heinlein, the dean of the old wave, more than kept pace. Consider the plots of his last three major novels, "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961) is about a young man born of Earth parents but raised by Martians, who teach him many outre things, including a taste for group lovemaking and the ability to grok, which is to have a kind of instant, nonverbal grasp of reality. "Stranger" was eventually adopted as a cult book by a generation of young people whose experiments with drugs had led them to believe they could grok long before they heard the word. Then, in 1970, Heinlein wrote "I Will Fear No Evil," in which a rich old man has his brain transplanted into the body of a beautiful young woman and learns all about love from the other side. Heinlein's most recent novel, "Time Enough for Love" (1973), is about a man named Lazarus Long who lives for thousands of years, gets bored, has himself sent back in time to the Kansas City of 1916, meets his own mother, and has a passionate affair with her. Heinlen's treatment of this ancient theme is no more pornographic than Sophocles'; in fact, the real hero of the book is not Lazarus Long but the human germ plasm, which takes any available path to fulfill its built-in program for survival. "Time Enough for Love" is six hundred and five pages long, and it reads as if Heinlein had set down on paper every idea he ever had about society and technology, and then had dared the reader to disagree with him.

  The audience that gathered in the Kaufmann Auditorium was predominantly college age, long-haired, and blue-jeaned, and it had obviously come not to disagree but to worship.  Some of them had been reading Heinlein since they were ten years old.  But if his more recent novels had led them to expect an elderly mirror image of themselves -- a gray-bearded guru in love beads -- they soon realized their mistake.  Heinlein, who lives in northern California, arrived onstage in a black tuxedo and fancy dress shirt.  The sparse hair around his ears was clipped short, and he was sporting a neat, pencil-thin black mustache in the style of the early Ronald Colman.  Standing behind the lectern, he looked exactly like what he is: a retired naval officer with a background in engineering.  And instead of talking about the provocative ideas in his recent books he chose to talk about the five rules of successful writing he had learned back in the old days when he almost single-handedly filled issue after issue of pulp magazines like Astounding Science Fiction.  The five rules, he said, are: "You must write, you must finish what you write, you must place it on the market, you must not rewrite it (unless an editor guarantees to buy the rewrite), and you must leave it on the market until it sells."  By following these rules, Heinlein has produced thirty-eight books, which, in all their trade editions, fill a bookcase in his house four feet wide and eleven feet high.  Heinlein said that his working habits were quite simple.  He writes fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, until a book is finished.  He also keeps a log of his working time; the shortest time he ever spent on a trade book was thirteen days, the longest time was a hundred and eight days. Dialogue is no problem.  "Once I heard the voices of my characters, I just take down what they're saying," he explained.

  In the question period after his talk, several people in the audience tried to get him to discuss his own fiction.  Someone asked him why in the nineteen-sixties he had suddenly started writing so freely about sex, and he said, "Because there was no market for sex in science fiction before then."  When someone asked him what the most important influence on his career had been, he replied, without hesitation, "Money!"  And when someone asked him whether he wrote with a specific "ideal reader" in mind, he said, "A writer is like a beggar with a bowl.  No one has to read fiction.  A man can always spend his spare cash on beer.  The reader I have in mind is someone who bought my book instead of a six-pack of beer.  My purpose is to be entertaining enough to get him to do it again."

  The audience did not seem at all alienated by Heinlein's Portrait of the Writer as a Grub Street Hack.  When he was done, a large crowd gathered around him, waving copies of his books to be autographed. For nearly an hour, Heinlein graciously obliged all comers.  Watching the scene, we were reminded of a classic theme of science fiction -- the "first contact" between Earthmen and another race of intelligent beings somewhere in interstellar space.  The other beings may look like giant spiders or blobs of mucus, but it turns out that they think we look pretty funny, too.
  The New Yorker reporter, Gerald Jonas, left too soon to witness what took place when I attempted to introduce myself to Robert Heinlein.

  Here are four more accounts from 1974 of what happened that evening.

  The first, Robert Heinlein at the Poetry Center, is by Gary Farber, who was then a fifteen-year-old fan.  He dashed off a letter about what he'd seen to the editor of the premier fan magazine of the day, The Alien Critic, which published it.

  The second description of what took place, A Show of Hands, is by Guy Lillian, a young science fiction fan then employed by DC Comics.  His version of events appeared twice in fanzines in 1974, in Transient 34 and in Spiritus Mundi 22.  In 2007, he published it again in his often Hugo-nominated fanzine Challenger 26.

  The third commentary is by Tom Collins.  After the encounter with Heinlein, he walked with Cory and me to a bookstore and then to a coffee shop where we sat and talked about what had just happened.

  Tom clearly had his head spun by the events of the evening.  That night he sat down and poured his feelings about what he'd witnessed directly onto mimeograph stencil.  The next day he went over what had happened for a second time.  Then he came back to it again that night, writing two more stencils -- which he then discarded.  And finally he chewed over what had taken place one last time before publishing all of it as one long discontinuous blurt under the title Tonight I Met Robert Heinlein as issue #31 of his limited circulation fanzine Transient.

  Before running Gary Farber's letter, Dick Geis of The Alien Critic sent me a copy and asked for comment.  Was It Really Heinlein? is the reply I sent him, which he published after Farber's letter.

  These four contemporary reactions are followed by an Afterword by me commenting on that strange night in May from my present perspective.

  Finally, there is a new exchange of correspondence between me and Neil Schulman under the title The Mystery Deepens.

Showdown - FarberLillianCollins - Reply - Afterword - Mystery
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Photographs of Heinlein at the Poetry Center by Julius Schulman, courtesy of J. Neil Schulman
Border courtesy of FDZ Graphics