Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



     When I wrote to Heinlein, I'd said to him that his reaction to my book would partly determine what it was to be. I think now that this was even more true than I appreciated at the time.

     Imagine that when he'd read my letter, Heinlein had been capable of dealing with it with tolerance, patience and tact. In that case, he might have written to me to say that it was flattering to hear that Advent and I intended to do a book about his stories and he felt honored, that he'd read my article in Shangri-L'Affaires and gotten a good laugh from it and hoped I would do better in my book, and that while I'd overloaded him with questions, some of them more complex than I appreciated, he would do his best to answer them as time and work permitted.

     A reply like that would have disarmed me completely. The resulting book would surely have been more accurate and complete for Heinlein's cooperation. And where I was dense, ignorant or inadequate, he'd have had every opportunity to set me straight. Heinlein, Advent and I might then have shaken hands all around at the result.

     Or imagine if you will that Heinlein had been as genuinely indifferent to me as he would generally present himself as being. Then, if an Alexei Panshin wrote something critical or even judgmental about his stories in a mimeographed fan magazine like Shaggy, so what? It was only the opinion of that kid who'd plagued him about nuclear testing, thrown off in a fanzine. And if Advent asked Panshin to do a book about Heinlein's stories, and Panshin then wrote to say that he intended to be real earnest about it, well, that was just fans playing their own little fan games. Heinlein could go on about his life as though none of this existed.

     We will never know what the book I was writing would have proven to be if Heinlein had been as completely uninvolved as this. It is possible that it could have been the simple book I was sending to Advent in chunks as I finished them. Or perhaps it might have mutated. If Admiral Laning had shared Heinlein's proto-Future History manuscript with me -- as his mentioning it at all suggested he might -- then the book I wrote could have been very different than it was.

     Instead of cooperation or non-involvement, however, Heinlein did perhaps the least productive thing he might have done. He elected to treat me as an adversary to be contained and neutralized.

     In fact, as I look back on the situation now, it appears to me that by the end of January 1965, Robert Heinlein must have thought he was under siege and had already taken rounds of incoming fire.

     First and worst was "HEINLEIN: BY HIS JOCKSTRAP." This essay suggesting that his hard-won sexual sophistication was basically conventional and adolescent was clearly absurd, and yet it was maddeningly difficult to refute. Heinlein felt that he had been personally attacked (as I have no doubt that he had been by the editor of Shangri-L'Affaires) and he wasn't willing to accept my word that I hadn't been a knowing participant in snapping his elastic, but had only been co-opted into the game. I'd written what I'd written, and Heinlein found it impossible to forgive or to forget.

     And then, after a silence, here came a series of further shots.

     There was my letter of December 15, belatedly opened. From Heinlein's point of view, all that stuff I said about being responsible could be discounted. What really mattered was the promise of negative comment and low blows. That he could believe. And I also promised to poke my nose into matters where it didn't belong -- as a number of the apparently innocuous questions I asked in my letter indicated to him.

     Further, there was my suggestion that Earl Kemp -- for whom he'd done the favor of delivering a talk which had then been reprinted as part of an Advent book, and then the favor of flying to the Worldcon in Chicago to accept the Hugo for Stranger in a Strange Land in person -- had unaccountably turned on him by soliciting the writing of my hostile, intrusive book.

     And then, when he checked with people like Lurton Blassingame and Caleb Laning, it was to find out that I had already contacted them and was asking them questions, too.

     Heinlein's reaction to these tests of his willingness to defend himself was one that came naturally to a Navy man. He battened down the hatches and set out to secure everything that was loose.

     But then word came to him of another and even more damnable provocation. By some trick, I'd managed to get my hands on the personal letters he'd written to "Sarge" Smith. And that was intolerable.

     Hardly had the dirt settled on the poor man's coffin when here I was to sweet talk Smith's widow out of Heinlein's private letters. Had I no sense of honor at all? What might I have discovered in reading them?

     So Heinlein made a reconnaissance. He got on the phone and called the man behind the scenes -- Earl Kemp.  And he asked him flat out whether or not it was true that Advent had commissioned Alexei Panshin to write a book about him.

     It seems very possible to me that under that kind of confrontation, Earl Kemp may have done a little tapdancing. At least, I can imagine him saying something like:

     "Well, it's true that Panshin is writing a book on your stories. But whether Advent publishes it or not depends upon its accuracy and fairness. So far, we've seen a number of his chapters, and they seem pretty sound to us."

     Heinlein informed Kemp that I was someone with whom he'd had trouble in the past, and that not only was I poking my nose into his affairs now, I'd conned his best friend's widow out of the letters Heinlein had written to him.

     Again, I can imagine Kemp saying something that was true from his point of view but totally inadequate from Heinlein's, like: "Panshin can certainly be tactless, but I know him and he's well-meaning. Would you like to see what he's written so far?"

     However, whatever Kemp actually did say Heinlein interpreted as conflicting with what I'd written to him. In the letter he asked to have passed on to me in 1973, Heinlein would state:

     "I was never able to determine the facts about this alleged assignment to write a book. Only one thing is clear: Either Earl Kemp lied to me about Mr. Panshin or Mr. Panshin lied to me about Earl Kemp. But I changed my mind with cause about Kemp's reliability; I now judge tentatively that Kemp lied and Mr. Panshin told the truth or close enough to the truth."

     Did Earl Kemp actually lie to Heinlein? It seems far more probable to me that the two of them were simply on completely different pages and were talking past each other.

     When Heinlein called Kemp, what he wanted to know was whether it was true that Advent had asked me to write a book. If Kemp had said flat out that Advent had commissioned me to write a book about him -- and that they'd done it because they liked my Shaggy article -- that would have been proof positive to Heinlein of Advent's malice toward him.

     But Kemp never did admit that Advent had sought me out. Instead, he'd equivocated, which was quite as bad as lying. In fact, it was worse because it wasn't forthright.

     I tend to think that Heinlein was ready to believe me from the outset on this point, if on nothing else. And it really didn't matter much to him whether Kemp acknowledged his ill will openly or whether he attempted to conceal it. The fact that there was to be a book on Heinlein written by me was all the evidence that Heinlein needed of Advent's real intentions.

     For their part, Advent thought that what was central was not whether there was to be a book on Heinlein's stories, or whether I was the person who wrote it, but whether or not the book was sound. So they wrote a letter to Heinlein and not only offered him the opportunity to see what I'd written, but said that they would have me change any point that Heinlein identified as beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism.


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