Alexei Panshin's Abyss of Wonder

Introduction to:

Reading Heinlein Subjectively

Robert Heinlein’s long and varied book, Time Enough for Love, featuring the immensely long-lived Lazarus Long, was published in May 1973.  Like the prototype for this character, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ similarly unaging John Carter of Mars, Lazarus is a perpetual adolescent who never grows up and never grows old.

That February, after the book had been announced but before it was published, Cory and I wrote an essay also called “Time Enough for Love,” pointing to issues of maturation in Heinlein’s earliest stories which had reached a peak in his original Lazarus Long novel, Methuselah’s Children.  This story about the first human trip to the stars was serialized in Astounding in 1941 and then published in book form in 1958 with a rewritten ending.

In both versions of the story, there is a crucial confrontation with a higher being which Lazarus cannot face, intimations of human alteration he cannot accept, and a hasty return from the stars.

The problem is Lazarus Long’s attachment to himself as he is.  Like a teen-age kid unprepared for adult responsibility, he just isn’t ready to grow up yet.  But the 1958 version of the story ends with a resolve that someday he will be, even if it takes him another thousand years.

If Time Enough for Love was to be an honest success, Heinlein would have to redeem his authorial promise and deal with the unfinished business of Methuselah’s Children. Lazarus would have to go back to the Temple of Kreel and do better at dealing with the Gods of the Jockaira than he’d done the first time around.

If he looked for his key where he dropped it, then he had a chance to redeem the evasion, denial and retreat of Methuselah’s Children. However, if he never went back to the Temple of Kreel, but just used his uniquely long life for endless centuries of more-of-the-same -- going round and round in circles locked in his own self-regard -- fighting, fucking and flimflamming forever, and never learning what the Gods of the Jockaira had to teach him -- Lazarus would never grow up, and Heinlein’s book would be a failure.    

When Time Enough for Love was published in May, we were disappointed to see that Lazarus doesn’t use his centuries well.  He never returns to the Temple of Kreel.  And he never learns what the Gods of the Jockaira know that he doesn’t.

All that time.  All those experiences. And he’s still not ready.

Heinlein set a challenge for himself in Methuselah’s Children but then didn’t deal with it in Time Enough for Love.  What was the hangup?

In “Reading Heinlein Subjectively,” written on the heels of the publication of Time Enough for Love in June 1973, we put together Heinlein’s stories, human growth psychology and the inner nature of science fiction in search of an answer.

The essay was published in Science Fiction Review in May 1974.  SFR was consistently the top fanzine of its day under a series of different titles, voted a Hugo six times.  Its editor, Richard Geis, won another seven Hugos as best fanwriter.  To our dismay, however, Geis -- without changing a word of what we’d written -- had re-paragraphed the essay throughout in a way that made it more difficult to read.

The day the issue arrived, I took the magazine along with me on the bus from Frenchtown, New Jersey to New York City. Waiting in the line ahead of me to board the bus was Alfred Bester, author of the two most dazzling science fiction novels of the Fifties, the Hugo-winning The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.  This was the only time we were ever on that bus together.

I’d met Bester once.  With Cory and writer Jack Dann, I’d spent a couple of hours in his company one afternoon.  Presuming on that small acquaintance, I handed him the magazine and asked him to read the essay on the bus ride.

We didn’t sit together, and Bester handed the magazine back when we got off at Port Authority.  I don’t remember now what he said to me, but it might have been to ask if our essay had been tinkered with editorially.

He wrote a letter about it to Science Fiction Review taking them to task for having messed with the essay.  He said that it couldn’t have been conceived of, let alone written, in the form in which it appeared.  And Dick Geis bowed to the rarity of a comment from Alfred Bester and apologized for having “improved” the piece.  I’ll always appreciate both of them for that, Alfred Bester not only for seeing what he had and being right about it but for speaking up as he did, and Dick Geis for admitting that he might have made a mistake.

A few weeks later, after Robert Heinlein had finished delivering a talk at the Poetry Center in New York City and was autographing books -- but before I found my own opportunity to speak to him -- a cheeky young fan named Gary Farber asked him if he had read our essay in the latest issue of SFR.  According to Farber, Heinlein replied coolly, “I do not read fan magazines.”

Nonetheless, Heinlein kept a copy of this issue of SFR in his Panshin file.  So possibly he did read it after all. 

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