Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

"Talk of the Town" by Gerald Jonas, The New Yorker, July 1, 1974

    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 outr? 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.

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