Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



     It seemed to me that my first task as a Fair Witness was to establish a basic ground of discussion. So I spent three chapters of my book on a complete inventory of Heinlein's stories in the order in which they'd originally been published. I attempted to set them in context, to identify their respective strengths and weaknesses, and to point to unresolved questions I thought needed further consideration.

     My own particular contribution to the task of setting Heinlein's stories in order was to indicate ways in which his writing -- while always remaining the distinctive work of Robert Heinlein -- had changed both outwardly and inwardly, and then changed again, until it was useful to speak of it as falling into phases.

     In a sense, this was only a way of pointing to what everybody already knew. After all, there had been a five-year break in Heinlein's writing for publication during World War II. And the Saturday Evening Post stories and the juvenile novels for Scribner's that he produced when he resumed writing after the war were distinctly different from the Future History and Anson MacDonald stories he'd formerly written for Astounding. Joseph Major has even demonstrated that they were originally intended to form an alternative future history.

     There had been another noticeable discontinuity in Heinlein's writing at the end of the Fifties, after the Russian launching of Sputnik. That was when he'd published his political declaration, "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?", and the solipsistic short story, " 'All You Zombies--'." He'd switched publishers from Doubleday and Scribner's to Putnam and begun writing edgier, more contentious books like Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land.

     People were aware of this shift at the time it happened. It was these two provocative books which first polarized opinion about Heinlein and touched off the flamewars over his work that still continue to be fought on today.

     It was my own uneasiness with "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" which had led me to raise my hand in the fall of 1959 and ask Heinlein questions about his support for atmospheric nuclear bomb tests that he would not (or could not) answer. That was when I'd ceased being Heinlein's pupil and begun to study Heinlein instead -- a path which had led me to undertake both Rite of Passage, the novel I was working on, and this book.

     These different phases -- the period prior to World War II when Heinlein had established himself as the leading writer in Astounding; his postwar years with Scribner's; and the new era of provocative novels for Putnam -- were self-evident to anyone following his writing. But since no one had ever tried to deal with Heinlein's work as a whole before, nobody'd previously had cause to state the obvious.

     I dubbed his Astounding days the Period of Influence, the time with Scribner's the Period of Success, and his new Putnam phase the Period of Alienation. As convenient handles, the first and third of these still seem appropriate to me. But success is in the eye of the beholder, and I suspect now that when Heinlein looked in the mirror of the Fifties, it wasn't "success" that he saw reflected. A more apt name for the years from Hiroshima to Sputnik, expressing both Heinlein's aims and his achievement, might be the Period of Professionalism.

     I also suggested that there might be further phases to come in Heinlein's writing. And, looking at Heinlein now from a later perspective, I'd say that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in 1966 was the last new book of his third phase. And that you might well mark a fourth period in his work beginning with the first of his humungous, introverted, metaphysical novels, I Will Fear No Evil, in 1970.

     If the three long chapters devoted to these periods were primarily concerned with the immediate outward appearance of Heinlein's stories, in the two chapters which followed, I began to draw observations together and to talk about Heinlein's work in more general terms, just as I'd suggested I intended to do in my letters to Heinlein and others in December. I discussed Heinlein's characters, his imagined backgrounds, his story problems, his attitudes, his techniques and his style.

     I'd never been satisfied by my first fanzine article in Shangri-L'Affaires about the limited and conventional nature of Heinlein's handling of sexual relationships. So I used this opportunity to do a more thoughtful version of the piece.

     I also wrote about the archetypical Heinlein protagonist, whom I called the Heinlein Individual. And I described him in three guises -- as a naive but promising youngster, as a mature man who knows how things work, and as a wise elder who knows both how and why.

     That Heinlein's heroes bore a mental resemblance both to each other and to their creator was an insight which had occurred to more observers than one. I hadn't yet encountered James Blish's essay, "Heinlein, Son of Heinlein," but in the very same issue of Shaggy as my first fanzine piece, there'd been a letter from a fan in London named Charles E. Smith, who'd written:

     "It's struck me that, in fact, Heinlein has been producing the same character in each story, simply varying the background slightly. Thus the hero of Glory Road is simply an underprivileged Rico of Starship Troopers. A thought anyway."

     But my version of this observation was both broader and more developmental than either Smith's or Blish's.

     I've seen it protested on the Net that the concept of the "Heinlein Individual" isn't universally true, but is only a relative indication of one aspect of Heinlein's writing. And that seems about right to me. At the same time, since that aspect does exist, this was my way of pointing to it.

     More tellingly, I've also seen it said on the Net that while there may be many examples in Heinlein's stories of a naive youngster in the process of metamorphosing into the Man Who Knows Better, there aren't any examples of the process by which this second stage Heinlein Individual becomes transformed into a third stage Wise Elder. This seems an acute observation to me, and why it might be so an intriguing question.

     I'd originally seen these two different angles of consideration of Heinlein's work -- as it had developed over time, and by topic -- as a kind of inter-weaving of warp and woof out of which a reasonably complete picture of Heinlein's nature and qualities might emerge.

     But while I was writing the book, this changed. I thought of another axis of discussion of Heinlein's fiction at right angles to the other two.

     This other axis, which transformed my previous understanding of his writing, was the recognition that while Heinlein might appear to be most objective of all SF writers, in fact, his work had a highly subjective side, as well.

     Because Heinlein spoke with such assurance and authority about so many things -- and could operate a slide rule, too -- it was easy to understand him as talking about the world at large. It took a reversal of perspective to read what Heinlein wrote in his fiction as an expression of self.

     I'd experimented with this view in my article questioning Heinlein as an authority on sexual relationships in Shangri-L'Affaires a year and a half before. And, responding to what I'd said, Poul Anderson had specifically wondered whether it was possible to know what a writer really thought from what he wrote. My answer had been to confirm that I believed that writers do reveal themselves in their fiction, especially if they say the same thing over and over.

     More than that, it seemed to me that if their intention -- like Heinlein's in Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land -- wasn't just to entertain or to share information, but rather to instill values and advocate a point of view, then it was essential that they be read this way.

     I hadn't gotten much farther than this, however. There weren't any previous examples that I knew of in SF criticism of reading an author from his stories. It was more of an inkling on my part than anything I knew how to consistently apply.

     And yet, as I think about it now, it seems perfectly possible to me that all Heinlein needed to recognize from my Shaggy piece was that I had an inclination to see things this way for him to be certain that he didn't want his stories examined by me.

     This may explain why Heinlein took the action he did to suppress my book, but, if so, there's an irony involved, because the book as I was originally writing it for Advent looked at Heinlein's wizardry and not at the man operating the machine behind the curtain.

    The book that I'd half-finished had something of the nature of a handbook on Heinlein's stories. Ten years earlier, I'd found L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook a treasurehouse of different kinds of information about SF. And it's likely that de Camp's book had been somewhere in the back of my mind as a model for the way that a number of partial views might together form a comprehensive picture of Heinlein's work as of one particular moment.

     But this approach had been ended by Heinlein's letter to Advent. He'd called my credentials as a critic into question, accused me of being a con artist and a liar, and cast doubt on my objectivity. And, just as he'd intended to do, he'd severed my publishing relationship with Advent and left my book isolated.

     No doubt he hoped that without the support of a publisher, it would wither and die. And, in fact, one consequence of Heinlein's letter was that the book as I'd been writing it for Advent did die.

     But it immediately sprang back to life again -- and in its new incarnation was both a reflection of the actualities of my situation and my way of responding to Heinlein's accusations. If I was now writing in the person of a simple unprivileged observer who was aware that he had limitations and was self-confessedly subjective, but aimed to be a Fair Witness anyway -- well, that was the sort of student of his work that Heinlein's letter brought forth from me.

     In short, the result of Heinlein's success at suppressing a book that he would in all likelihood have found innocuous was to turn me into exactly the kind of examiner of his work that he didn't want and was attempting to forestall.

     Heinlein's letter kept coming into my mind while I was working on the book during March. It was a persistent mystery that I couldn't make add up no matter how hard I tried.

     Heinlein was so goshdarn Heinlein-certain about all he said, so black and white in his judgments, and so self-righteous as he counted his spoons -- and yet his premises were all cockeyed. He issued warnings and forbiddings like commands from on high -- yet went much further than anything that either law or common sense would support. (I mean -- reserving the right to draw and quarter me for high treason if it should seem appropriate to him was a bit extreme.) Heinlein didn't appear to recognize that telling me I was forbidden to do what was perfectly legitimate to do would only make me determined to put his name in the title of the book where it belonged and to quote whatever needed to be quoted from his stories, and dare him to sue me. Most of all, I was baffled by Heinlein's attempt to draw a great magic circle of privacy around himself and his stories. Wherever did that come from?

     It all made me wonder. If it was possible for Heinlein to act in such an overbearing and self-favoring way toward nonexistent threats like Advent and me, how did he choose to behave in more genuinely trying circumstances? Was he more scrupulous when the stakes were higher, or was he less? And if Heinlein did identify himself with what he wrote, as his letter suggested, to what extent were his stories affected by this side of his nature?

     It was a combination of concentrated effort on the book, looking at Heinlein's work with an unpresuming eye, and picking these questions up and then setting them down again which finally provoked the crucial insight to come bubbling up into my consciousness. And at last I finally became aware of what this new version of the book was leading me to say:

     There was a highly subjective aspect to Heinlein's fiction in addition to the objective one.

     And there at last I had it -- the fundamental insight that I'd been working my way toward for more than five years.

     If you looked at what Heinlein wrote not as a description of the way the world was or might be, but rather as a reflection of Heinlein's own states of mind, then a whole new dimension of consideration opened wide.

     I was under no illusion that having this insight meant that all secrets were revealed and Heinlein was now an open book for me. Rather, I thought it was enough to demonstrate that there were elements in Heinlein's stories which were ordinarily passed over in silence that took on meaning if they were understood as subjective expressions.

     So I wrote a single chapter, the most original in my book, in which I put together some of the notes of Heinlein's personal song. I linked recurrent motifs -- Heinlein's passionate desire for liberty, his psychically similar protagonists, and his twin themes of solipsism and the unreality of the world -- and showed that in his most recent fictions, the way he handled them suggested a loss of nerve on Heinlein's part, and an increasing introversion.

     It was only with this insight that I finally got a title for my book. Since it dealt with three different dimensions of Heinlein's work, I'd call it Heinlein in Dimension.

     These six basic chapters -- three on the course of Heinlein's career, two on his individual characteristics, and one on the subjective aspect of his stories -- were the heart of the book.

     Before them came an introductory word and the short biographical sketch of Heinlein that I'd promised.

     After them came a discussion of Heinlein's essays and speeches, a somewhat inconclusive concluding chapter, and a year-by-year Heinlein bibliography, my small contribution to ordinology.

     And then, after an intense month of writing, I was finished.


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