Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Why I No Longer Pretend to Write Science Fiction
    a letter to Foundation

Ian Watson has written to me on behalf of Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, asking me for a contribution. I wish I could write one. I've had tremendous respect for Watson ever since I read his Belgian Guest of Honor speech in a fanzine sent mysteriously to me a year or so ago. But the letter has arrived too late. I no longer live at the science fiction address. I no longer think in science fiction terms. Much as I might like to oblige Ian Watson, I don't think I can take part in a debate on science fiction within the context of a review of science fiction. Perhaps the best thing that I can do is to write this letter and explain why.

There was a time when science fiction frightened, awed and attracted me like nothing else I knew. It was the nearest thing to a wellspring of magic in my life. If I had been told then that one day I would grow up to become a writer of science fiction, that would have seemed to me a fate marvelous beyond belief. I'm sure I could not have imagined God being so good to me as that.

I remember when the bond between me and SF was made. Like so many crucial experiences, the surrounding details escape me. I remember the essence of it —  that one central moment, how things looked, what I felt. But to tell of it now means that I must fill in the year and the circumstances by guess and reconstruction. It's as though in my mind, the experience was timeless, an essential part of me my whole life long, and therefore not to be burdened with irrelevant specific detail.

It was about twenty-five years ago, and I was twelve. The place was Detroit, the metropolis. The journey was unusual — to shop at a major Detroit department store. In earlier years, my parents didn't drive to Detroit to shop at Hudson's. In later years, they used a suburban branch. But for a short period, we made an annual drive down Grand River Avenue to the heart of Detroit, put the car in a parking lot and did the Hudson's thing, and then off to Briggs Stadium to watch the Tigers in a big league ball game. This was the first time and the baseball game was a surprise. Oh, to watch Ted Williams, last of the .400 hitters, wiggle his ass as he settled in to the plate! I never thought I'd see him. A dangerous and magnificent man, an epitome of power and concentration, even at the end of his career, even skying a harmless fly ball to center.

Wonderful as the ball game was to my twelve-year-old self —  a sudden recompense for the drudgery of travel and hours of hanging around in a department store on a beautiful summer Saturday — it was not what was most wonderful to me in this venture into unknown Detroit. That was arranged not by my parents' contrivance, but by the most fateful powers of the universe.

The parking lot my parents were guided to in downtown Detroit was across the street from an upstairs bookstore. In the window, among other things, it said: "Science Fiction." I'd never seen a sign that said that before. Having seen it, I knew that I desperately wanted to go inside that store.

I can't say for certain now what was the first science fiction story I ever read, but I do remember reading the serial version of Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky in my older brother's Boys Life when I was just turned ten. I had read all the juvenile science fiction I could find, what little there was.

I spotted Fredric Brown's Space on My Hands among the books available through the school paperback service, and picked it off. What a bizarre book that was! I still have the same tattered paperback all these many years later. The Puppet Masters was given to me to read by my Patrol Leader, one day in Boy Scout Camp when I was feverish with sunburn. I read it outside the tent in a deserted camp in broad daylight, near out of my mind with terror and delight.

Adult science fiction disturbed me and drew me. I'd been taking adult Westerns out of the library since I was eight. I ventured deeper into the adult section of the East Lansing Public Library looking for science fiction, but mostly I didn't find it there. Very little science fiction had been published by respectable New York trade publishers, and the library only had a few titles lost among the general adult novels. Michigan State College, where my father taught, acknowledged no science fiction in its library. However, the State Library in Lansing did list some science fiction anthologies in its card catalog. I ventured back into the stacks and dug them out — fat books of short stories edited by Healy and McComas, Conklin, and Derleth. I read them through, making what sense of them I could.

I was avidly hungry for science fiction. I felt drawn to it by an affinity I couldn't name or explain. And very simply, I didn't know where to find it.

Where I might have found it at the time was in pulp magazines, but I didn't know that they existed. I was sheltered. Had I known, I would certainly not have been allowed to have them. My parents' tolerance of vulgarity was limited. It would never have extended to breast-plated space maidens.

This sign in the bookstore window was my first clue as to where science fiction might be found. How could I have been kept away? At some point during the lunch hour, after the shopping and before the ball game surprise, I was able to steal ten minutes and lunge free.

Up the dim stairs I went and into the mysterious store, like an attic filled with dust and treasure. Wild and shy, I looked around, half afraid that someone would see me and ask my business. Then I saw the science fiction books. They were in two glass-fronted bookcases there along the top of the stair.

I'd never seen so many science fiction books. I didn't know that many science fiction books existed. It was a revelation.

I didn't open the glass. I was too overwhelmed. In fear and trembling, I bent and looked at those strange alluring books. Colorful spines on which could be seen flashes of mystery and the names of publishers I'd never heard of before: Prime Press, Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, Shasta.

My future was there before me, but at the moment I couldn't touch a book. I could only stare at them in wonderment. At last, even the very fact of their existence became too much for me, and I had to turn and plunge away down the stairs to join the ongoing sunlit world and learn of impending baseball games.

Wonder on wonders! But today, I don't remember who won that Tiger-Red Sox game. It was an event without consequence. But that timeless stolen moment before the glass bookcase lives with crystal clarity in my heart.

That day in Detroit, I felt the sense of wonder.

The sense of wonder has been a matter of concern to readers and writers of science fiction. What was it that Damon Knight said the sense of wonder was? Oh, yes — "some widening of the mind's horizons, no matter in what direction — the landscape of another planet, or a corpuscle's-eye view of an artery, or what it feels like to be in rapport with a cat...any new sensory experience, impossible to the reader in his own person is grist for the mill, and what the activity of science fiction writing is all about."

This definition covers one part of my experience that day in Detroit — the sudden widening of horizons that I felt sitting behind third base and watching Ted Williams at bat. It may be an accurate description of the limits within which wonder has been constrained in science fiction writing. But it doesn't begin to account for my experience before the glass bookcase.

I thought that it did for the longest time. But I was wrong.

When I returned to the bookstore in Detroit a year later on a trip that was a duplicate of the first — same parking lot, same shopping, same ball game — I was less frightened. I had money in my pocket, and more autonomy. I had some time in which to choose. I opened the bookcase and bought three books, the foundation of my science fiction collection.

And what opportunities I had to collect science fiction — that one touch of magic in the unmagical Fifties. All the old science fiction pulp classics, and new novels, too, became available in paperback form, and I bought or stole them. Science fiction was the only thing I stole as a teen-ager, the only thing I had to have and couldn't pay for, and I stole a lot of it. And there was the vague promise of some science fiction magazines to be passed on to me from the son-in-law of a friend of my mother's, which in the event proved to be two large boxes filled with years and years of Astounding and Galaxy. One way or another, over the years, I must have owned or read all those books that I once saw behind glass, or if I didn't, I could have.

It was five years before the bond between SF and me manifested itself as a sudden irresistible conviction that I ought to be writing stories. I sat down immediately and wrote a science fiction story, more or less. It was a crude imitation of what I read.

I apprenticed myself to the writing of science fiction, and little by little my imitations and attempts to approximate got better. My crowning piece of apprentice work was my first published novel, Rite of Passage, which I labored over for years. It used the materials of Heinlein and the inspiration of Heinlein and the example of Heinlein to take exception to Heinlein and find my difference from him. And the novel was certified by an award as Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year.

So my attempts to write science fiction must be valid. I must be a science fiction writer — that which was beyond my wildest dreams at twelve.

I was so wrapped up in my learning program that I only came to recognize some significant facts very slowly. One was that I no longer enjoyed reading new science fiction, this at the very same time that I was so earnestly attempting to write science fiction. I found current science fiction unwonderful, no matter that it widened the mind's horizons in some direction or other. Rite of Passage fulfilled Damon Knight's definition of the sense of wonder — but in my heart of hearts I knew that it did not fulfill mine. It was up to the standards of wonder of science fiction — that which I had been struggling to write — but not up to the standards of wonder that I once felt in that attic store full of treasure in Detroit.

Somewhere in the two issues of Foundation that were sent to me for familiarization, there is a telling comment made by Ian Watson. It is, in fact, a rip-off of a paragraph in that Belgian Guest of Honor speech — the very remark by Watson that first won my attention, Watson says:

"I suggest (perversely, it may seem) that SF is a way of thinking which should be trying to put itself out of business — because one day SF will be as obsolete as a stone axe — because it has fulfilled its specific role, thrown up by the present stage in historical, cultural, mental development, of creating a climate of thought and feeling about Future Man who awaits us; and because there will be other, finer tools. But meanwhile there is SF — and let's at least fashion that stone axe as well as we can!"

What I came to feel after Rite of Passage was that science fiction was a stone axe. That when I was younger, I had perceived within the stone axe a mighty power to transform. I had labored to learn to make the stone axe, shaping it as the elders shaped it, working within the forms they had set forth, extending the art of the stone axe to its last implication. But while I was doing this, stone axes lost their mystery. They had become ordinary. Now I was a licensed axe maker with a shaped stone in my hand, and in my heart the conviction that what I was holding was not what first inspired me.

What first inspired me was the sense of wonder, and the sense of wonder is not merely what Damon Knight and science fiction have held it to be. Only time could reveal that to me. Only time could show me the difference between the ephemeral wonder of a big league game and the eternal wonder that I had felt before those bookcases of science fiction. I am still led by the second one — even though science fiction is a dead lump of stone to me now.

It was Sam Moskowitz, writing about the sterility of Fifties' science fiction, who first brought up the sense of wonder. Moskowitz borrowed the term from the psychologist Rollo May: "Wonder is the opposite of cynicism and boredom; it indicates that a person has a heightened aliveness, is interested, expectant, responsive. It is essentially an 'opening' awareness that there is more to life than one has yet fathomed, an experience of new vistas of life to be explored as well as new profundities to be plumbed."

It was this that I felt that day when I was twelve. A sense of a different dimension of being asserting itself and erupting into ordinary life. It was a revelation of new vistas of life to be explored, an awareness that there was more to life than I had yet fathomed.

It was not Knight's mere "widening of the mind's horizons, no matter in what direction." It was not merely that the amount of science fiction that I knew to exist became fifty times larger in an instant.

What I felt was something else. It was awe, and fear, and power and truth, as though a goddess had for a brief moment lifted her veil before me.

It is that wonder that I must reflect, not the outward form of the books that I saw. The container is not the content. Science fiction is not the same as SF.

Only time could reveal that to me.

I may have served my apprenticeship in science fiction, but there is no way that I could ever have grown up to be Robert Heinlein and to write science fiction, however much I may have wished it. No more than Robert Heinlein in his time could have grown up to be H.G. Wells and to write scientific romances, however much he may have wished to when he was young. The world moves on. There is no going back.

SF is a snake. Science fiction is a skin that it is shedding.

Or, to put it another way — yes, science fiction is a stone axe.  
But SF is a stone implement of another sort, a wheel, fire, the concept of the tool, and more. I can drop my stone axe.

I cannot be a science fiction writer. I have to be a writer of the form of SF that comes after science fiction.

I haven't written a science fiction story in five years. I haven't written a complete new story of any kind in five years. I have been busily engaged in trying to reason my way to what comes next and failing again and again. At the same time, I have never lost my conviction that I ought to be writing SF. The result is that I have written nothing.

But now that I am clear of it, I have noticed a number of things about science fiction that have confirmed my intuitive conviction that the days of the stone axe are past.

Typical techniques of science fiction like extrapolation are not SFnal any more. They are the common property of thriller writers and mimetic novelists.

Typical symbols of science fiction like robots are not SFnal any more. They are co-opted instead to sell office equipment and household cleanser on television.

Typical story materials of science fiction like galactic empires are not SFnal any more. They are pasted together into movies that are not so much of the present as homage to the Thirties.

Older writers of science fiction — the pioneers of the form — are dying.  Younger writers of science fiction are claiming that the rewards of the form are limited, or that they are exhausted, and retiring from the field.

What is apparent to me now is that the form of science fiction, its concepts and parameters, were based on the science, the facts and the assumptions of 1940. And these are no longer valid. They are not our science, our facts, or our assumptions. Therefore we cannot believe in science fiction, or pretend to, and we cannot write it.

I don't think that anyone has fully believed in the premises of science fiction who came to write it during these last twenty-five years. We've all been imitating those who did believe, like Asimov, Heinlein and van Vogt. But we ourselves have all been pretending. Playing the science fiction game.

But what a limited game it actually was — narrow, crippled, materialistic. Science fiction was the best vehicle for the sense of wonder that the time could produce, but it was always more of a lump of stone than an effective tool, no matter what wide-eyed dreaming boys may have seen in it.

I still don't know what comes next. I'm not at all sure that it can be reasoned out, except after the fact. The path to follow, I see now, is the path of intuition.

Before me there is not just "wider" but "level on level." The bond between me and SF was not an accident. The apprenticeship I served in science fiction was not an end in itself, but only a predicate, a necessary preliminary. What comes next is whatever is appropriate, expressed whatever way I can find.

As matters sort themselves out, as science fiction fades away just as the lost race story did before it, as the new form manifests itself more and more clearly, I think we are going to discover that the ancestors and forerunners of the new form of SF have been hidden invisible within the great body of work that has been pretending to be science fiction because it hasn't had anything else to claim to be.

It may be that I and others who always thought that we were writing science fiction will eventually prove to have been writing something else from the very beginning.

At this moment, all that I can say for certain is that I am ready to write a story again. An SF story, but not science fiction. I'm not quite sure what it will look like when I am done, or what anyone will call it. What is clear to me is that it won't be science fiction — and it won't pretend to be. It will be an expression of the sense of wonder in a new and contemporary form.

It will honor the original bond made between me and SF in that bookstore in Detroit twenty-five years ago.

For the first time.

(This letter originally appeared in Foundation #14, September 1978.)

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