Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Tonight I Met Robert Heinlein

  by Tom Collins


  First, I'll try to recollect what he said, then I'll get into what he did and what I thought and all that.

  He said an ancestor of his, Peter Heinlein, invented the escapement for watches, and that watches were a wonderful invention because that way you didn't have to shoot the speaker to make him stop talking.

  He said a word about taking creative writing courses:  Don't.

  He gave the five rules for writing (the major rules; there are also minor ones like always use a black ribbon, and throw it away when only half used because all editors suffer from eyestrain).  The rules were laid down by him years ago, and are something like write, don't revise, keep writing, keep submitting what you do write.  I didn't write them down.  They're in print already.

  He said he had used eight different pen names, and that whole issues of some pulpzines were by him.  (Just like Randall Garrett, I guess -- and how many others?)  He said those editors, then, "didn't want it good, they wanted it Wednesday."  He said he had stories on the stand while he still didn't know how they would end an instalment or two later.

  He said Katherine Anne Porter, whom he seemed to admire, had written the enormous novel The Ship of Fools as a 20,000 word novella, but that it kept growing and the characters were living lives of their own that she couldn't interfere with.  Shakespeare killed off Mercutio because he was stealing the scenes.  Mark Twain dropped them down wells only the well got filled up (a reference, though he may not have known it, to that odd twice-told tale Pudd'nhead Wilson, where that happened literally.)

  He said he wrote his notes for stories on file cards and accumulated cards perhaps for thirty years until, after shuffling they can be arranged into something like a story, after which he goes where the characters take him.  All good literature happens that way, with the author dragged along.

  "My wife says she knows I'm about to come down with a story when she finds my shoes in an icebox."  That's the stage when the fictional reality is supplanting the other reality.  He starts getting bad-tempered and blaming things on her.  Shortest time he ever did a book was 13 days, The Door Into Summer.  The cat actually existed, and is buried in Colorado where they used to live at 7000 feet before they had to go to sea level for health reasons.  Petronius the Arbiter -- Pete -- was Pixie in real life and "the toughest goldarn cat I ever saw."  One winter after the first snow it went around to all the doors with his wife, then with Heinlein, looking at the snow and complaining.  She said, "He's looking for the door into summer," and he vanished into his study, with what result we know.

  The longest time was 100 working days, but it was a much longer story.  It was written straight through with one day out for the dentist.  After talking about it he mentioned the name almost as an afterthought, Time Enough for Love.  It had to be long; it involved twenty-four centuries.  It had to be episodic also because there could be no way to make such a story unified.  "There were too many characters and they all wanted center stage and there wasn't anything I could do but sit back and let them take over."

 Halfway through I Will Fear No Evil he fell desperately ill.  The story was all written, but the cutting wasn't done yet, the paring to the bone that it needed.  He and his surgeon both thought it would be a posthumous book, and he signed over a power of attorney to his wife, which she still has, making an X from his bed with nurses for witnesses.  (Mind you these "quotes" and summaries are the product of my hasty and incomplete notes, and of my all-too-faulty memory.)  That novel was never cut.

  He won't comment on the work of living writers, but did mention Rostand who wrote s-f, Wells, M. Jules Verne (he pronounced it in French) whom he has "extremely high respect for" but Verne dealt more in gadgets and Wells in people; Heinlein thus preferred Wells because he (RH) also was more interested in people.

  About the space program, "I feel sure it will go on but I'm not sure in what language.  I'm amazed at the dexterity of the public relations department of NASA that turned something so wonderfully romantic into something as dull as dishwater...  Sure, sure, we're going out into space.  There's no reason the human race could not go on indefinitely out and out" as in Asimov's stories.

  "Writing is the best way I know of to have fun and make a living without actually stealing."

  He told about a writer of mild porn for lending libraries who began a book with the sentence, "Naked, Elaine stood at the front window and watched Tom come up the walk."

  He said, "My stories are very short on tragic endings and very short on villains.  I don't believe in villains."  He said he never met a villain who thought of himself in those terms; they were not villains to themselves.  "I never intentionally offered the market what I thought of as a story with an unhappy ending" though sometimes the lead character did die off at the end.  "I see no reason why stories should be written about anti-heroes doing unpleasant things among unpleasant people."  He doesn't like reading about them and he doesn't like writing about them.

  He quoted a "schoolboy Latin" tag from Time Enough and Washington Irving, which he translated as "All is well without punishment, the time has come for fun; the time has come for laying books aside."  He added, "I like Latin for the sound of it, though thank God we've got one that has fewer declensions."  He digressed to say his wife has eight languages and that he "masticates French" and has some "cantina Spanish" picked up in Central America in the service.  He says his wife has "absolute pitch."

  He talked a good deal about the writer competing for beer money, for the money a person has to spend after the necessities are paid for, that he has a choice on.  He said his ideal reader was a guy with 95 cents who wanted to buy his book.  (That in response to a question.)  He said anyone who tries writing to see his name in print will never see his name in print -- a debatable hypothesis it seems to me.  He said the way to learn writing was by studying everything else but.  He used the image of the storyteller in a village talking along hoping for the chink of some coins in his bowl.  He spoke always in terms of money, rewriting to an editor's demands for pay, choosing to write s-f (as opposed to something else) because it sold, etc.  He consistently refused to take any responsibility for his creations.

  Could you name some of your mystery stories we might find?  I could but I won't.  They're strictly from hunger.  What happened to Mike in Moon Is a Harsh Mistress?  No, I don't know what happened to the computer.  How would I?  Nobody told me.  What is the future of s-f?  I don't know any more about it than you do.

  Would you name some favorite character of yours, or a favorite work of yours?  My favorite is always the work I'm on at the time, always the characters I'm working with when I'm asked.

  He said he was in the best shape he's been in in forty years, and has the weight and blood pressure he had when he graduated from Annapolis.

  He said Fear was more popular than Stranger, selling better and faster, and that Time Enough may sell the best of all.  Reason: he's not writing for an in-group where references have to be explained, but to the general public.  There are kinds of stories that can be written today that couldn't be written before; that's why he is writing a different kind of book than he was 10 or 15 years ago; there's a different market.

  "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."

  He said when his older brother took him out once to see an eclipse and to explain it, that gave him his interest in the heavens.  He called his brother Maj. Gen. Lawrence L. Heinlein.  He said his kid brother is teaching at the same school as Professor Armstrong, Neil Armstrong, that is.  He always used the most formal and elaborate name possible for anyone.  After the eclipse "I never from that moment to this lost my feelings of wonder and joy in the heavens."

  He talked about his place at Santa Cruz, without mentioning the exact location, the town, etc.  He said they were far enough from neighbors that when they shut the lights out they were in the dark under the stars with "nothing to keep you from getting dizzy with the glory of it."

  Asked about slang, he said the current stuff doesn't last long enough so he invents neologisms to fill the need to keep characters from sounding like term papers.

  He called Asimov one of the few Renaissance characters around today.  "If Isaac doesn't know the answer, don't go look it up in the Encyclopedia Brittanica because they won't know the answer either."

  Asked about an apparent dichotomy of worldview in Stranger and Starship Trooper, he said, "They are both descriptions of objects of human love.  Loving his fellow men enough to be willing to die for them in one, and the other -- well, the whole book is about it."  Which left undefined what he thinks the book is about.  Said he wrote Trooper whole in the middle of writing  Stranger on either side of it.  He keeps a log of his working time and can thus keep track.  Stranger was actually written in four different years, but the ideas came about ten years earlier.  He spoke with evident satisfaction of the people who said they could spot the break in the book, and so far all such people had been wrong.  He said he saw no dichotomy in them because he wrote the two in alternation.

  He said he has written engineering articles, engineering reports, "some of them classified," teenage love stories in the first person singular, adventure stories....  What is the greatest influence on your writing?  "Money."

  His books are in about 28 different languages.  He sees no dichotomy between the romantic and the realist.  "The real world is a romantic and wonderful place.  Anyone who doesn't think so writes fantasy, and dull fantasy at that."  He urged people to "run, do not walk" to their nearest library or bookstore to read Archy and Mehitabel and rehearsed at great length the story of the parrot who knew Will Shakespeare, who wished he had time to be a poet instead of writing pop pap.

  He said when he was ill, when he wasn't in a coma more than half of what he thought he saw didn't happen -- hallucinations.

  Will Lazarus and Andy Libby be in a novel set just after Methuselah's Children?  Any chance of that?  "All I can say to that is I'm not dead yet."

  Well, there we have it: evasions, half-truths, curiously opaque answers, a persistent refusal to deal with his own work as an author with creative power and responsibility.  Like Vonnegut who set his creations free, Heinlein insisted they were all done for money, that plot and character and all that were not conscious but accidents of writing which occurred when they took over.  Thus he cannot be analyzed, what he produces is accidental, not his responsibility at all.  He didn't confront his own working habits or processes and denied there was anything to it.  Either this was overwhelmingly self-serving and protective to the point of neurosis or blindness, or he is utterly unperceptive and fatuously ignorant.  Those novels and stories could not have come out of nowhere simply for cash, otherwise any of us could have done the job, and otherwise he'd have churned out gothics instead.  For a man who insists on responsibility in others, he utterly refused to accept any at all for his words, his plots, his characters, nothing that he put down on paper was to be associated with him in any way.  He merely told stories to make money, and the yarns were just there.  He was a clown playing to the crowd, playing what they would pay for.

  I don't buy it; no intelligent person could.  He was so coldly aloof amidst the questions it was almost insulting.  Questions were raised on file cards, but then the names of the signers (each query had to be signed) were read aloud.  No anonymity here.  And the answers -- old stuff, the kind of standard stuff which goes out in signed form letters to unknown fans who have written in.  There was nothing new, nothing honest, nothing heartfelt, merely a polite public charade in which we asked questions because we were interested in what he thought, and cared to know his opinions, and he hid behind a persona that wasn't admitting a thing.  "What do you think will happen in the next thirty years?"  "I think they'll be tough, but I'm a long term optimist.  As for what will happen, I think I'll save that in the hopes of luring you to the paperback stand."  "Do you have any works in the fire now?"  "I have about 50 projects in various stages."

  In fact, his wife says he turned down a proposal from a composer (she wouldn't say who) who proposed a work based on Mistress, because he felt it would be too complex a subject.  They did nearly do a worked up version of "The Green Hills of Earth" with the other songs added, etc.  And he has about five things he's actually working on, five piles on the sideboard or dresser or whatever, of papers and notes.  But likely not short stories, he's mainly a novelist.  (In contrast, Zelazny says he -- Zelazny -- is mainly a short story writer.)

  He said he read Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, and was an admirer of the Matt Helm stories and of John D. MacDonald, especially his early s-f and his Travis McGee stories, in which he admired/enjoyed a secondary character named (do I remember aright?) Mike.

  Mostly one just wondered why he was hiding, and why he made what was probably the least interesting and least stimulating public appearance of anyone I've ever seen.  He spoke slowly, wanderingly, mostly said the merest commonplaces, things known before, or said better elsewhere.  Rarely was there anything out of the ordinary.  I have never seen any science fiction writer be so boring in public.  Never.

  I arrived late, just after he had started.  He was dressed in a tux with shirt in ruffs down the center and ruffly lace cuffs.  He wore an old-fashioned mustache of the kind that is a mere pencil-line across his lips, the majority of the space exposed. It is the same basic "greaser" style  he has affected for years and did much to combine with the mostly-bald  head and determinedly upright carriage to convince one he is not Jubal Harshaw but the kind of antiquated martinet who might have run a very proper military academy for young boys, say in a 40s movie version of Red Planet.  He looked just like the old description of him as the kind of guy who would dress for dinner even if he were in the jungle alone.

  After it was officially over, there were autographs to be signed and further questions to have evaded, in the reception room next door.  He sat in a chair surrounded by people in a pattern that reminded me of the lines of force around a magnet.  While the crowd was still heavy I noticed Alexei Panshin in the gathering, and said hello.  After a bit he walked over to Mrs. H and introduced himself.  "Mrs. Heinlein, I'm Alex Panshin."  She made an involuntary gesture, a twitch perhaps, of her mouth, and turned aside to talk with others.  He had unmistakably been recognized and unmistakably been given the "cut direct."  While Alexei had been prepared for something of the sort, necessarily, he was still shaken, and I must say I consider that possibly the most deliberately cruel act I have ever seen perpetrated in a social situation among people of alleged breeding and civility.

  In time he was able to approach the man himself, offered his hand, and said, "Mr. Heinlein, I'm Alex Panshin."  Heinlein became upset, said he did not care to know anyone who read other people's mail, and so on.  It was an outburst of bitter antagonism which I, in my ignorance, had not expected and thus was unprepared to judge or to properly record the details of.  Alexei tried to tell him that he had said in his talk that people had to change their ideas and -- but he was interrupted once; the man couldn't bear the sight or sound of him; and when he did get out the thought that perhaps after all these years the first opinion could be revised (my phrasing, perhaps not what he said at all.  It was a sudden, powerful outburst of emotion and my Fair Witness training is woefully incomplete), Heinlein again repeated that he had behaved shamefully by reading other people's private mail, and good-by.  He was on his feet.

  Alexei said, "Good-by, sir," and turned around and left.

  Thus at one stroke did he say goodby to those childhood illusions he had, the influence he clearly felt from Heinlein's work.  More than most writers in the field (but surely not alone) Alexei has learned from Heinlein's fiction, and might be considered his natural heir.  Heinlein, looking at him in long hair and beard, could see only his imagined wrongs and talk fustian about a ten year old non-incident -- his only defense against the mirror to his own life that Alexei holds up, the only way to avoid confronting honestly the fact that he is, after all, an author with major themes, major elements of style, stuff that can be analyzed, dissected, understood.  For if he admitted Alexei as a person, he would have to admit the responsibility of his influence (RH's influence) and he would have to admit the possibility that analyzing his (Heinlein's) writing could even (shudder!) tell something of the man.

  It is a very comforting doctrine that all one does is harmless and meaningless and that one can do whatever one wants and still escape responsibility, and still remain anonymous.  Particularly if one is filled with self-loathing, but even if one is merely insecure or frightened of finding out who he really is, it is necessary to preserve the facade no matter what.  What could be more terrifying than to wake up one day and find people were taking you seriously, poking into your motives, prying into your technique, guessing about your subconscious?  If you are afraid of finding out what your tricks are for fear that if anyone gets them down they'll vanish, or for fear if you find out what makes you tick you won't be able to tick any more (somewhat like the caterpillar who, set to analyze which foot moved first, couldn't walk at all) -- if you fear horribly being taken seriously because it would prove you exist and that your actions are real, not games, then by all means, any means, no matter how shameless and degrading, refuse to face the truth.

  And how to affirm your own triviality, your own guiltlessness?  Prevent the book from appearing via lawsuit.  When that fails, and bluster fails, refuse to read it.  After all, if the author is not a gentleman -- !  Of course!  How obvious, the matter, the danger, vanishes as if in smoke!  It is all mere vulgarity beneath our notice, then.

  Never mind that it is all a lie.  If it is not a lie, then the rest must be admitted, and that cannot be, else the heavens fall.  No matter that at the door of death you are given a second chance to make amends, and get what you previously failed to get....

  The truth is simply that Alexei, at 24, was offered some letters from the widow of a friend of Heinlein.  Alexei, then a successful author working under contract, nonetheless told the widow if she felt any doubts about violating the confidence, or making him look in a bad light, etc., then refrain.  And when the letters arrived and were of no particular use and were returned, somehow this gets twisted into "conned the widow out of them" and "alleged author" and "supposed book contract" and a whole shockingly dissolute set of morals, to read such letters.  Shit, most authors leave that stuff to libraries.  The matter here is not private letters, but any excuse in desperation.  Otherwise some of the things Alexei said about him might have to be (gasp!) taken seriously, perhaps even acted on.

  Well, all the records are in the author's hands.  All the original correspondence.  Time will tell whether he is, ultimately, more honorable than the disgraceful display of vulgarity and pigheaded temperament displayed tonight.  The way we shall find out is when we see whether the documents in his possession, which make a lie of all his hysterical charges, are filed at the Santa Cruz library Heinlein Collection as Alexei has asked, to supplement the possibly slanderous material by RAH currently stored there.


  The next morning, still unsatisfied with what I wrote, I sat down and typed two additional pages for Transient #32.  That night I returned home, corflued out my colophon and joined the two together:


  The words that come to mind now as the ones I most frequently used in talking about that frustratingly elusive and contentless speech of his are "responsibility," "confrontation" and "acceptance."  Perhaps if I did not use them as much as I think I did, and perhaps even if so their meanings were clear.  I was attempting to say, via repetition perhaps, as if repetition would convey the meaning through sheer force of my will, where I was perhaps otherwise failing (like yelling at a foreigner to make him understand) -- that I believed from everything I saw and heard that he was ducking issues, denying things out of some deep psychological need to escape responsibility for them, and that to accept responsibility for his own actions and their consequences was of paramount importance.  For a man who seems to insist on that point clearly enough, the man clearly enough denied it by his actions and manner.

  My point, further, was that the manner in which he handled the meeting with his most prominent critic and most prominent fan, Alexei Panshin, not only did him no credit (to put it mildly) but was actually a form of self-protection, a way of lying to himself so that he could avoid confronting the basic issues involved in considering whether the points Alexei raises in his books and articles are valid, and so that he can pretend, on grounds of Alexei's "honor" that he need not accept not just the conclusions but the whole idea of being taken seriously as one of the most powerful, widely-read, and influential popular authors of the century.  He seemed willing enough to take pride in the fact of his wide sales and numerous translations, but to draw the line from probing further to see what that popularity means to him and to his readers.  And my further point (I repeat them here, not because you are stupid and need a recapitulation, but because I am, and feel I must have a second chance at explaining something important to me which I may have said badly once before) was that his conduct in public, the way he did not answer questions, the persona he set up of one who did not choose to write s-f because it appealed to him but merely because of the money, that all that was a cop-out just as his angry rejection of his long-lost (one is inclined to say "prodigal" though the word does not fit here) son was primarily an excuse for failing to accept himself as a man with a life's work behind him (however much he may yet write).

  Now, when he said his last books had been aimed at the mundane reading public and not s-f afficionados (he did not use the word "fans") he was saying he was playing to the gallery, those people to whom he was anonymous (like Charles Manson), not to the people who took him seriously.  The point was not that those mundanes didn't take his work seriously, but that they made no connection between it and him -- at most, perhaps, between it and his name.  It was no accident that he refused to accept or deal with the one person who HAS insisted on taking him seriously, and dealing with his work the way any critic who deals with the oeuvre of any author (with some attempt at objectivity and balance, critically but with fair praise).  It was helpful that he could find an excuse for his conduct, but if it were not that it might well have been another.

  Ironically, while he attempts to spurn the friendly advances of Alexei he fails to see himself -- or as the oracle enjoined, to know himself -- and yet accomplishes nothing else.  He seems to consider the critical materials done on him to be insolent, forward, infuriating invasions of his privacy (the allegedly sneaked letters are merely a metaphor for the whole).  He dares not admit anyone's right to produce such criticism, nor to honestly confront the possibility that it might be valid and even correct -- admission that would destroy his own carefully nurtured self-image.  And yet when the final rendition is handed up, one of the chief obituaries and all of the final evaluations of the work and the writer, will inevitably come from or be based on Alexei's work.

  The two are bound inextricably one with another.  Alexei recognizes this and apparently Heinlein does not.  Each has dealt with that fact (which neither planned for or could have expected -- and perhaps neither does realize the fact; I'm not writing out of some vast fund of secret information, but my own speculations and reactions to that strange evening and stranger confrontation) and found some way to come to terms with the other, one by accepting and analyzing, the other by denial and refusal.  It is a karass built for two, and will last a long time, despite what either does or could plan to do, and whether either ever said another word or wrote another line about science fiction at all, much less about each other.

  You see, Heinlein was bound not to like the book, and even more certain to be repelled by the article in The Alien Critic and the one forthcoming in Is later this summer.  What he was not bound to do was to act like a cad under the guise of fustian, nor to refuse to recognize Alexei as a person.  Beyond that, the Panshins -- both of them (and, if I have not said so, Cory was also there, watching silently) are brilliant writers and, if possible, more brilliant critics.  Their work amazes and terrifies me because of the clearness of its insight and the power of its command over language.  To behave toward them as if they were scoundrels is to deliberately miss the point, and to demean oneself immeasurably.

  He cannot be so insensitive that he does not understand -- can he?  That Panshin, at 24, an earnest kid, a fledgling professional writer with some seven stories under his belt, trying to grapple with and come to terms with the work that nurtured him through childhood (one assumes), writes a simple but straightforward book about that work trying to see how it operates, its limitations and virtues, and then gets rejected.  OK.  But then years later, the putdowns increase in force as the same young man tries to justify himself, tries to amend a youthful and unintentional "wrong" in the eyes of the other.  Finally, even knowing they are widely known non-friends (a one-sided decision) the one person who has taken him most seriously says they will meet in New York.  And then --

  I am projecting, and it is not fair to Alex and it is not fair to Heinlein.  I see the Grand Old Man and the Eager Acolyte or some other pair of archetypes at work.  I see Bartok, hat in hand, visiting Debussy to be insulted.  I see Houdini finally working out his long involvement with Robert-Houdin in a long debunking book.  It is not Disillusionment at work here, but the conflict of (cliche) generations, of two viewpoints, and of those two, one being the intransigent father, the tyrant who hauls his daughter with babe in arms out into the snow with fiercely pointed finger.  All of these images are mine; perhaps they overstate or misstate the case.  And yet I have to give them because of some profound inner chord of my own that was wrung there.

  The principals were geared to that event.  Each had worked out in advance what would happen.  The options were open, and depended on Heinlein's lead.  It was interesting to see once again that those who prate most continually about love, love no one, least of all themselves.

  ...After which, that night, I wrote two more pages, typing directly onto stencil as before.  But the product of the day's thoughts and reassessments remained ungelled, it wouldn't firm up into more than babble, and so I threw them out, and am now trying again to include some final thoughts.

  The big thing, I guess, has to be a disclaimer.  My friends won't need it, and those who don't know me won't believe it, but it ought to be here.  I saw Alexei and Cory at the autograph party and reception afterwards, and we spoke briefly about the lack of content and so on.  Then, after awhile, I saw the events discussed above, and we departed.  There was a bookstore visit, and then we stopped at a coffee shop for food and drink and discussed what had occurred.  The only part of that conversation reflected herein is the factual matter of what the letters were, and all that -- the same story some issue of Yandro carried way back when, before I was a fan probably.  The rest is my opinion, my own interpretation and outrage and pain at discovering not only feet of clay, but at seeing someone I care for shamefully treated.  I suspect neither Alexei nor the other author in this story would like very much the conclusions I have come to and stated.  But they are mine, and are not to be blamed on or attributed to anyone else.

  I am not involved in this matter, so I can and do feel free to analyze at length, and to project myself into the scene.  I do so in my familiar persona as the guy people ask about, "What does he use in place of brains?"  Whatever Alexei thought or said, I have deliberately left it out.  His feelings are no one's business except insofar as he declares them a matter of public record.  And should he do so, he'll have to give them himself because, as usual, I was too busy broadcasting to tune in very well, and besides we got off the subject entirely before long into a generalized discussion of the differences between generations, the problems of the present and the past, and the different opportunities available now than before, for our parents.  I took a pessimistic view in the short run, and they took a more optimistic stance, though I think (perhaps wrongly) we were in general agreement as to what was going on in society and why, or at least how.  Maybe not.  It is a topic I hope we will have opportunities to explore further.

  One relevant point did turn up which I think worth passing on, and that is that Rite of Passage was sold before Podkayne was in print.

  As for the rest, you will not find it in these pages.  The profound psychological analysis is all mine, and no doubt displays the acumen for which I have already become famous -- a wry statement if there ever was one, but outside of LA fandom, probably only a labored private joke.  And incomprehensible at that....

  You see?  And the discarded two pages wandered even worse.  But it was such a curious scene, I wish I could get it into focus.  The prepared manuscript and numerous notecards he had with him (or seemed to) and which were never used.  Why?  What was he planning to say?  Did he feel compelled to prove himself a non-hero, or were we not worthy of the full spiel he is perhaps saving for the Knights of Pythias tomorrow night?  Could it be the knowledge that his literary biographer, being known to be present, cast a damper over the whole proceeding?  Such knowledge and the strong reaction made evident later, suggests he had planned his response (thus making it seem even more a matter of self-protection than gratuitous cruelty).  The constant dodging of questions with non-answers in a manner really unprecedented in my experience.  A mutual friend said I might not agree with Heinlein, but I would not be bored.  There was no evidence of that famous incisive mind and the brilliant and perceptive thought evident in the books.  But why, then, the insistence on answering questions?  After the main event, the afterparty of autograph hounds and question-mongers involved a lengthy scene of him going through all the cards (or many of them) that were left, and answering the queries -- dodging them, rather.  It was an elaborate ritual of taking on all comers, but it was empty; there was no content, and the one challenger who came forth (what if people had asked hard questions, like, "Why are there three sentient female computers in Time Enough for Love?  Wouldn't one be enough?  or What do you mean your characters "run away" with the story?  They all seem like cardboard to me, and mostly stuck in tightly-structured plots) was ruled ineligible.

  One final thought.  I rather had the feeling that he was very ill at ease that night.  It might have been, as I've said, Alexei's presence (and I don't think that is far-fetched at all) but it might also be simply that this was an audience who took him seriously, and therefore one he could not talk to safely, and one for which he felt impelled to disabuse them of the hero notion.

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