Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



     I wrote other letters, as well, both to people that I knew and to people I didn't, asking for help. Here's a typical one of these letters, written to Ray Bradbury on December 21:

Dear Mr. Bradbury,

     I'm a young professional writer currently engaged in writing a book on Robert Heinlein for Advent, the fan-owned publishing company in Chicago. This book will be partly biographical, but mainly critical.  A book of this sort hasn't been done before on any modern science fiction writer, and considering Heinlein's influence within the field, I thought the project seemed worth doing when it was proposed to me.

     I want to be as careful, thoughtful and accurate as possible. I did an article a year or so back on Heinlein (in fact, it was what led to my being asked to do this book) that was thoughtful but over-abrupt and too hastily written. I want to do better in this book because I think the subject deserves better. I want to be both honest and complete. I intend to think as honestly as I can and to say what I honestly think. That means both praise and criticism -- no pedestals, no mud. I have, by the way, informed Heinlein as to what I am doing.

     The book approaches Heinlein's work from two angles. First, I'm discussing his work story by story in chronological order, dividing his work into what seem to be three definite periods. The first is his early period, continuing until he stopped writing during the war. The second period is postwar until 1959. The third starts with "All You Zombies--" and Starship Troopers and continues into the present. The second angle of examination takes up single elements as they appear and develop through Heinlein's entire work: characterization, dialogue, treatment of themes such as power, sex, and religion.

     In the interests of completeness, I'm seeking information, advice and quotable opinion. If you have any comment on, or criticism of what I'm doing, I'd like to hear. I'd like to hear suggestions of any kind that might make this a better, sharper book. I've read that Heinlein offered you encouragement when you first began writing. I'd like to hear anything you might have to say about this, as well as any thoughts you might have that I could quote on power, sex, or religion in Heinlein's work, on Heinlein's career in general, Heinlein's recent books, Heinlein's place in the field, Heinlein as an individual, or anything else that seems relevant to you

     I do feel somewhat hesitant about asking you to give time and thought to my problems, but to be honest I am somewhat lost with a project like this and I'm fumbling around trying my best to get a handle on it. Or as many handles as possible. What I'm most interested in is writing a book I can still take pride in after twenty years. If you can help me at all, it would mean a great deal to me.

                Alexei Panshin

     Some of the letters I wrote were answered, but many would not be. Bradbury, for instance, didn't respond.

     My failure to hear from the people who didn't write is understandable. Some may have been too busy. Some may have found me too gauche. Some may have thought my questions too vague. And some may not have wanted to go on record speaking about Robert Heinlein.

     Also, as L. Sprague de Camp kindly pointed out, I hadn't included a return address in the body of my letter. He'd had to fish through a wastebasket to find my envelope in order to answer me at all.

     However, de Camp did send me the address of Heinlein's oldest Navy friend, Admiral Caleb B. Laning. 

     Laning and Heinlein had collaborated on an article promoting a space program, entitled "Flight into the Future" in Collier's in 1947. And when Heinlein's last pre-war magazine novel, Beyond This Horizon, became his first book published for adults in 1948, it was dedicated to Laning and his family.

     I wrote to the admiral -- this time careful to put a return address on the letter -- and the answer I received from him was very encouraging. He said that he had known Heinlein since 1925, that he had a copy of Heinlein's earliest unpublished novel -- the seed out of which the Future History had grown -- and that he would help me if I would give him specific questions that could be answered in a paragraph.

     I wrote to Lurton Blassingame, Heinlein's postwar agent. He replied, saying that he thought a book on Heinlein's work was a good idea. And that when it was possible, he would discuss the matter with Heinlein.

     Avram Davidson suggested that I talk to Heinlein's friend, Arthur George "Sarge" Smith, and gave me his address. And Anthony Boucher recommended that I write to mystery writer Lillian de la Torre, who was a social friend of Heinlein's in Colorado Springs.

     Beyond this, however, much of the little that came back to me wasn't particularly useful. My aim was to discuss Robert Heinlein the science fiction writer, but what I got was reflections of Robert Heinlein the man.

     Isaac Asimov recounted several anecdotes. When he was young, he'd been Heinlein's earliest fan, the first person to praise his work in the letter column of Astounding. But when he had met Heinlein at a party at John Campbell's house, Heinlein had spiked his cola and then laughed at him. And then later, when they'd both worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, a job Heinlein arranged, Heinlein had bullied him by making him eat cafeteria food he loathed and forbidding him to make any complaint about it on grounds of patriotism, until Asimov turned the tables on Heinlein by "disagreeing" with a visitor's complaint about the food, but defending his right to say it.

     In spite of this small triumph, Asimov was still chewing on the way he'd been treated after twenty years. And when I didn't recount these incidents in Heinlein in Dimension because they had no place there, he would publish them himself, first somewhat jocularly in a keynote piece honoring Heinlein in the 1976 Worldcon program book, where he would be even more genially trumped by Heinlein in one footnote after another, and then again at greater length in his two-volume autobiography where Heinlein would have no opportunity to know better.

     Lillian de la Torre wrote to say that she and Heinlein had been friends until they'd had a disagreement, and, since then, through Heinlein's choice and not hers, they no longer had contact. Over time, I would hear similar stories from other people.

     There was a parallel in this to my correspondence with Heinlein in 1959 which had come to an abrupt end after I failed to agree that Russian dishonesty and bad intentions were sufficient justification for putting nuclear fallout in the air with continued atomic testing. It would gradually become evident to me that when it came to dealing with other people, Heinlein was comfortable only in situations where his dominance was conceded and his authority was not questioned. And when it was, he was quick to draw the line.

     I did not hear from "Sarge" Smith. Instead, his widow Virginia wrote to tell me that her husband had died in September. She said that Heinlein was a "sincere, kind and understanding" man. She informed me that he and her husband had carried on a continuing correspondence. Heinlein's letters were very interesting and she wondered if I would like to see them.

     I don't know either what is considered proper today or what standard was observed then when an offer of this kind was made to a researcher. In my case, what I did was to write back to Mrs. Smith to say that while I would like to see the letters for whatever light they shed on Heinlein's stories, she should be aware that I was writing a critical book. If she thought that permitting me to read his letters would be a disservice to Heinlein, I'd prefer that she didn't send them.

     Mrs. Smith did send me the letters Heinlein had written to her husband. And I read through them. But nothing that Heinlein had to say in them had anything to do with his fiction. This was a friendly not a literary correspondence. The only detail that I remember from them is Heinlein mentioning that his old neighborhood in Kansas City had now become black.

     Since nothing in the letters was of relevance to a book about Heinlein's stories -- and it was obvious that this was so -- I had to wonder why Mrs. Smith had written to me and volunteered them in the first place. I concluded that she must be lonely and want attention. And I returned the letters to her with my thanks.


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