Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



    In March 1965, I graduated from Michigan State University. My senior thesis wasn't finished, but my advisor, Dr. Bettinghaus -- God bless him -- cut me some slack. When I told him that it was going to be a few weeks late, all he said was, "Give me a copy of the book when it's published."

     But who was going to publish it? And what book was it going to be? The partial manuscript that Advent returned to me at the end of February was of a book being written for Advent to meet the needs of Advent. And there wasn't any other regular publisher of books about science fiction.

     When the manuscript arrived, I read through what I'd written. As I'd laid out the book originally, there were to be thirty-one chapters. I'd sent the first nine chapters to Advent in January, and then sent them a second set of nine chapters just prior to Heinlein's bombshell. But as I read my pages, I wasn't satisfied with them.

     What I'd written might have been good enough for Advent's purposes, but it wasn't good enough for the inner critic now in charge of my book. It was too much of a primer.

     If I was going to persevere in writing a book about the stories of Robert Heinlein without the security of having a publisher for it and against the wishes of the author, then I couldn't just write a first order book in a first order way. I had to kick things up a level.

     This had to be the best and soundest book I was capable of writing just then, able to stand on its own two feet and accept responsibility for everything it said. It needed to be focused on what it was about -- and then be that and do that and no mistake.

     So I went back to page one and began writing the book over. I worked away at it through the month of March. I didn't even bother to go to my graduation. Wrestling with the book seemed a realer thing to be doing than sitting in a football stadium listening to speeches of mass congratulation and exhortation.

     In this new version, I took an approach unlike anything I'd ever seen in any of the books of literary criticism I'd read. Rather than pretending that what I had to say was either objective or the final word, I offered observation of Heinlein's work by one person at a particular moment in time.

     As Heinlein had pointed out in his letter to Advent, I lacked a license to practice criticism. I wasn't recognized as an authority, I had no standing as an academic expert, and I didn't have an official position as an arbiter of taste. There was only me, Alex Panshin, all by myself, saying what I was able to see in Heinlein's stories.

     But that was the simple truth. And I didn't have any problem writing a book which presented itself as one individual's attempt to understand Heinlein's writing. At the moment, my own limited state of knowledge and personal point of view were about all that I could be certain of.

     And I had reason not only to admit this, but to insist upon it. In his stories, Heinlein wrote as an ultimately knowledgable authority on everything. Recently, however, he'd given me cause to see this intimidating posture as a screen which shielded an underlying and more fundamental personalism.

     If I was standing barefaced and alone, so was Heinlein. He might attempt to conceal this, but I wouldn't. So, near the outset, I wrote:

     "This book is a personal reaction to Heinlein's writing. I don't believe in the possibility of objective criticism. To speak of objective criticism at all implies that there are eternal standards by which literature can be judged and that these can be known and applied. Those things treated as facts in this book are, to the best of my knowledge, actually facts. Those things which are not clearly intended as facts are my own prejudiced opinions. Even though I may omit an 'I think' from time to time, its existence is implied. There are no final, settled judgments in this book, unchallengeable and sacrosanct. There are only my opinions, subject to change and justified as best I can manage."

     But then, having insisted at the outset on my imperfect knowledge and understanding, I did my best to observe accurately and to write as truthfully as I could. I was by no means free of gaps in my awareness nor of presumptions that warped my ability to fully grasp what I encountered, as several incidents in my college psychology classes had demonstrated to me -- just as they were meant to. For me to satisfy my inner taskmaster, it was necessary for me to do all I could to avoid mistakes, and, beyond that, to be ready to acknowledge and correct the errors that had escaped me as I became aware of them.

     This attempt to be in balance, and to right myself when I wasn't, was as near to "objectivity" as I could manage.

     In stories from "Gulf" to Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein had presented people who'd been trained in objective observation by the methods of laboratory psychologist Samuel Renshaw. In Stranger, Heinlein called them "Fair Witnesses" -- which you might say was what I was attempting to be.

     But my own investigation of Renshaw's work suggested to me that while his methods might be useful in improving the rapid recognition of small wholes -- as in the plane-spotting training he'd done during World War II -- there was no reason to think that anything like objective witnessing reliable enough to be licensed and accepted as definitive could be trained through sessions with Renshaw's fast-blink device.

     I took my cue instead from the Heinlein of an earlier day who'd set forth the outlines of a very different program for staying on the right side of life. Rather than practicing speedy identification of discrete objects with a tachistoscope, the Heinlein who was my teacher had recommended withholding judgment, discovery of the facts, and acceptance of the largest possible whole.

     That seemed like a good way to proceed. And what could be more appropriate than to apply this program of inquiry -- which I'd learned from Robert Heinlein -- to Heinlein's own writing?

     I set out, then, aware of my imperfect knowledge and partial perception, but nonetheless aiming to speak truthfully and to take in Heinlein as a whole. In this first examination of the work of any science fiction writer, I was an innocent-at-large wandering through Heinlein's imagined worlds taking note of what I encountered there, not knowing beforehand exactly what I was going to see or say.

     Please be aware, however, that while I may have felt personally responsible for all that I wrote, and may also have had moments when I felt quite alone in the world, the truth of the matter was that the complete account of Heinlein's work I was writing was also an interdependent activity in more than one way.

     For example, I wouldn't have even been able to attempt a critical synthesis of Heinlein's fiction if it hadn't been for the existence of reference tools compiled and published by fan ordinologists.

     I'd used books like Donald B. Day's Index to the Science Fiction Magazines 1926-1950 and W. R. Cole's A Checklist of Science Fiction Anthologies to expand my knowledge of the facts of science fiction and to track down particular authors and stories in pulp magazines and story collections. Because these reference works were my daily tools, I could sometimes take them for granted as established facts and lose sight of what difficult and demanding individual labors of love they'd actually been.

     Though all of them might bear marks of their amateurish origins, their real measure is that all subsequent SF scholarship -- most definitely including mine -- has been built on the foundation of this work-for-love, and couldn't have been done without it.

     I found both Day and Cole helpful in putting together my overview of Heinlein's work. But most useful to me was a bibliography of Heinlein's stories compiled by Donald H. Tuck of Hobart, Tasmania.

     If you are an SF fan living in Tasmania, you have to do some work to keep up with science fiction published in America and Britain. By working particularly diligently, Donald Tuck would become SF's ultimate data-keeper with his The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, published by Advent in three volumes in 1974, 1978 and 1982.

     The Tuck bibliography that I used was not nearly so grand. It was only a few mimeographed pages stapled together with half-a-dozen such story lists for other writers. But Tuck gave me information that wasn't in any of my other sources -- such as the fact that Heinlein had had a two-part serial story in Boys' Life in 1949 called "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon" which had never been reprinted.

     I wouldn't have possessed Tuck's bibliography in the first place, along with much else, if it hadn't been for the cooperation and generosity of science fiction fandom. In those days when university research collections of SF books, magazines, manuscripts and fanzines had yet to be established, a number of fans shared material with me from their personal collections that I didn't own and sometimes was completely unaware of, and wouldn't otherwise have had access to.

     George Price of Advent contributed a broadsheet version of Heinlein's then-unreprinted "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" manifesto. Another Advent partner, Ed Wood, overcame his loudly expressed reservations about the post office and me, and mailed me rare pulp magazines with obscure Heinlein stories in them. I treated them with care and returned them safely.

     Al haLevy -- who'd now reverted to spelling his name more conventionally as Halevy -- loaned me a reel-to-reel tape of the speech that Heinlein had given as Guest of Honor at the 1961 Worldcon in Seattle in which he'd advised his audience to build fallout shelters and stock unregistered weapons against the tribulation to come.

     Detroit bookdealer Howard DeVore -- known to fandom with affectionate irony as "Bighearted Howard" -- did me a favor and charged me nothing for it. And Frank Dietz, a fan collector in Queens whom I wouldn't meet for several more years, did me another. Someone even gave me a legal-length photocopy of a 1954 Irish reprint of "How to Write a Story," a 1942 fanzine article by Heinlein's alter ego, Lyle Monroe.

     But if what I wrote was built on bibliographic work done by fans, and if I was given access to the personal collections of other fans for some of my materials, the most significant interconnection of all may have been the degree to which I included earlier remarks about Heinlein by other people in my book. I took comments from essays, book reviews, story blurbs, introductions, remarks in passing and any other place I could find them.

     I thought of myself as gathering, responding to, and extending a pre-existing, if largely subliminal, conversation in the science fiction community about the nature of SF and the meaning of Heinlein's stories. And I salted my narrative with every thoughtful observation of Heinlein's writing that I could lay my hands on -- agreeing with some of them and offering alternatives or modifications to others.


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