Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



     So there I was, at the beginning of April 1965, with a completed manuscript almost twice as long as the book that Advent had originally asked me to write. But I had no place of publication for it.

     It was more than a month since I'd written to Robert Heinlein, Lurton Blassingame and Damon Knight offering to let my correspondence with Mrs. Smith be examined and my book be judged by any or all of Heinlein's preferred critics. But my offer had not been accepted.

     Apparently, the next move, if any, was up to me.

     What I did was to write as honest and accurate an account as I could manage of what had happened and send it to Buck and Juanita Coulson in Indiana. It seemed to me that I had nothing to lose by telling the story, and that letting people know of the existence of my manuscript might stir up a place of publication for it.

     I can imagine Juanita crying, "Stop the presses!" when my piece arrived, and Buck ceasing to crank the handle of the family mimeograph, because when the next issue of Yandro showed up only a couple of weeks later, it featured my essay.

     This is what my account said:


     I swear to you that what follows is true. If it seems incredible, I can only answer that it seems incredible to me, too, and I know only too well that it is true. If it matters, I have documentary evidence to remind me -- more than 75,000 words of it.

     Robert A. Heinlein and I are not on good terms.
     I'm 24, an ex-PFC, a new college graduate. I've sold half-a-dozen stories or so, and had one anthologized. I have a novel almost finished that I think pretty well of (as opposed to the 200 pages of not-much-in-particular that I turned out when I was 18). I like to think that I'm getting someplace. But the truth is that when they rank people in order of their importance in this country, I don't come out very high, and certainly nowhere near Robert Heinlein. Why, then, should he shoot me down? The answer is that in the course of innocent scholarly pursuit I have offended him.
     About a year-and-a-half ago, I got a note from a Los Angeles fan, Bill Blackbeard, saying that Robert Heinlein's novel, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, was still considered controversial out there. He asked me if I would care to do a critical article on it. Since then, after making page-by-page notes and doing a lot of mulling, something I wasn't prepared to do then, I have written about STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, but at the time I shipped Blackbeard an article on the subject of sex in Heinlein's writing. It was hastily written, not exhaustive, and marred by at least one snap judgment -- but in spite of this I had what I thought was a pretty well documented central point. Blackbeard handed this article on to Redd Boggs, who had just taken over the editorship of Shangri-L'Affaires, and Boggs put the title "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap" on it and put it in his first issue. That was my first offense.

     I was at the Midwestcon last June. Earl Kemp, whom I have known for some years, walked up to me and said, "Alex, how would you like to do a book on Heinlein for Advent:Publishers?" Since he had a glass in his hand, I didn't take him seriously. However, in August, in Wabash, Indiana, Earl came up to me again and said, "Alex, I wasn't kidding. How would you like to do a book on Robert Heinlein?" Since he didn't have a glass in his hand this time, I decided to take him seriously.
     What Earl wanted was a minimum of 40,000 words and a serious critical study of Heinlein's fiction. Visions of glory aside, that is a lot of work. I thought it over carefully, and then wrote Earl a two-page, single-space letter saying I would try.
     I have written the book, 75,000 words of it, and the existence of the book alone -- not what is in it -- is my second offense.

     In December 1964, I began work. I knew what I wanted in general, but I was missing several stories and I had a number of questions I needed answers to. I sat down and wrote to forty-three people asking for material, information, advice, comment, criticism, and quotable opinion.
     The first person that I wrote to was Robert Heinlein. I assumed he would be interested. I mentioned the article in Shaggy, said that I intended the book to be much better, that I intended it to be comprehensive and responsible, and told him what would be in it. Then I asked him for help. I asked him for suggestions, comments and criticism. And I asked him a series of specific questions on pen names, non-science fiction writing, family background, movie writing, and so on, and hoped that he might answer some of them.
     I never heard from him at all. I was sorry about that because I wanted the book to be as good as I could make it, but I pressed on anyway.
     I wrote the book by a schedule. By the end of January, I had finished nine out of a projected 31 chapters, and I sent them off to Advent. They wrote back: "The manuscript you sent is eminently satisfactory, and if the rest of it is as good, we'll have a book both you and Advent can be proud of."

     At about this time, the end of January, I found out that even though Heinlein was not communicating with me, he was writing and talking to other people, and angrily. It puzzled me a little that if he didn't like what I was doing he would not write to me about it, but he did not.
     In December, I'd sent a letter to Lurton Blassingame, Heinlein's agent, and told him what I was doing, and asked him for information and advice. He answered and said that he thought a critical study of Heinlein was a fine idea, particularly now while Heinlein was around to answer questions and make rebuttals. He also said, however, that his cooperation rested on Heinlein's okay. I assume Heinlein didn't give it, because Blassingame didn't write again.
     Much the same thing happened with an Annapolis classmate of Heinlein's. L. Sprague de Camp had suggested that I write him, and I did, asking some very general questions. He answered by saying that he would be glad to help me, but suggested that I send him specific questions that might each be answered in a single paragraph. I sent him the questions -- innocuous ones by my standard and for all that he was glad to help me, I didn't get even a postcard for an answer.
     There were other people I never heard from in the first place. And Advent wrote to tell me that they had been informed that my letters to people had angered Heinlein.
     That's just hearsay, of course. Heinlein never wrote to me to tell me what might please him, though I would have been very happy to listen.

     Then I made a mistake that made Heinlein even madder at me.
     Again at someone's recommendation, I had written to Arthur George "Sarge" Smith, whom I knew only from the dedication of STARSHIP TROOPERS. The answer came back from Mrs. Smith, saying that her husband had died in September. She also said that she had a file of letters from Heinlein to her husband that might be of interest to me.
     I don't apologize for writing back that I was interested, but I do acknowledge that it was a mistake -- for two reasons. One is that the letters that I ultimately saw didn't have any bearing on the book I was writing. The other is that my looking at them was something that made Heinlein madder.
     I wrote to Mrs. Smith saying explicitly that some of the conclusions I would be making in my book would not be favorable. I said, "I can see that you have a great deal of respect for Mr. Heinlein (she had spoken in detail of Heinlein's sincere, kind and understanding nature) and if there is any possibility in your mind that letting me see his correspondence might be in any way a disservice to him, I would prefer that you did not send me the letters."
     I shouldn't have written that at all. I should have taken to my heels the moment her letter landed in my mail box.
     When Heinlein found out that I had seen the letters -- I had made no secret of it and one of his friends told him -- he called Advent. This was early in February. Advent wrote him a letter that offered not only to let him see the manuscript but also the opportunity to change any point in which I stepped outside the bounds of legitimate criticism. (And they wrote and told me to return those damned letters. I'd already done that.)

     I sent Advent nine more chapters.
     Heinlein sent Advent a registered letter, the original to Earl Kemp. Carbons were listed as follows: AGA (who?); Science Fiction Writers of America (a newly formed organization of which Heinlein and I are both charter members); George Price (another Advent partner); Harris, Laura & Harris (another registered letter -- these, I would guess, are his lawyers); Lurton Blassingame (that, if you recall, is his agent); and three more carbons for his files. None to me -- I gather polite society doesn't recognize me.
     I have seen a copy of this letter and it is one of the strongest letters I have ever seen. It called into doubt Advent's purposes since they had chosen me, "an untried college student", to write the book, instead of an experienced, respected and qualified critic such as Conklin, Knight, Merril, Moskowitz, Boucher, or P. Schuyler Miller (Heinlein's list).
     The letter accused me of having shown ungentlemanly, unethical, and in one case, dishonorable and illegal methods of gathering material. It said other things, too: that I had pried into his affairs (that letter he never answered, perhaps?), that I had caused him trouble in the past (the Shaggy article, or the fan-letter I wrote him when I was a boy?) and that I had conned his best friend's widow out of a file of letters (ha!!).
     The letter forbade Advent the right to quote from any of his copyrighted works, the use of his name or picture, or anything in which his permission could be required.
     He refused to look at the manuscript (why???). Moreover, he said that if it were published he reserved the right to sue, bringing criminal action or whatever else seemed appropriate.
     Advent sent me $50 and a letter that said (a) they still liked my manuscript, and (b) goodby and good luck.
     That is what it feels like to be stepped on.

     One thing is clear to me, if not to Heinlein. Writing a book like this isn't likely to return much for the time and effort involved. Ask Advent's other authors how much they realized for their work. It is very possible that none of his chosen critics might be interested in writing a critical book for Advent:Publishers on the stories of Robert Heinlein.
     Why Heinlein never wrote to me so that he could be assured that I was writing nothing other than the critical, responsible study that I told him I was writing in the first place, I don't know. Perhaps that is the way important figures deal with untried college students.
     I wrote three letters: one to Science Fiction Writers of America, one to Lurton Blassingame, and one to Robert Heinlein. I offered to let any or all of Heinlein's preferred critics read my manuscript. I said that if any of them pointed out illegitimate criticism, I would change it to satisfy or delete it. I said that if any of them thought my manuscript worthless, I would drop it entirely. I offered to let my book and my correspondence, including that with Mrs. Smith, be scrutinized.
     Damon Knight, for the SFWA, wrote that he had sent a letter to Heinlein asking if there was anything the SFWA could do to smooth things. This was more than a month ago and since I haven't heard anything from the SFWA since, I assume Heinlein didn't think there was anything the SFWA could do.
     Lurton Blassingame sent a note that said before I wrote a biography, I should find out the reaction of the person involved. I replied that I wasn't writing a biography and that I had tried to communicate with Mr. Heinlein. That was the last I heard from him.
     Robert Heinlein never answered.

     My book is done -- 75,000 words on the writing of Robert Heinlein. I think (pardon me for saying it) that it is a fair, perceptive, thorough piece of work. Before I started writing the book, I had a meeting with all the partners of Advent and we agreed that the book was worth doing because of the importance of Heinlein in the field, and the quality of his writing. We also agreed that the book would only be published if it were fair and accurate -- we all wanted that.
     The thing that makes this whole mess seem like such a bloody farce to me is that the book Heinlein is so anxious not to see and not to have published is far more admiring than not.
     And I still haven't heard from Heinlein. It's funny, too. I know I put my return address on the envelope.

     FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD, page 88: "...a book need never die and should not be killed; books were the immortal part of man. Book burners -- to rape a defenseless friendly book."


Back Home


Border and navigation buttons by MiZClose