1. The Land of Make Believe
When I was
small, my imagination was formed by The Land of Make Believe,
a 1930 poster by Jaro Hess of the world of nursery rhymes, fairy tales
and original quirkiness with myriad wonders to look at, along with
danger and mystery.
Here it was
simultaneously night and day. The poster featured the
house of the Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, a Magic Carpet, the
Cow That Jumped Over the Moon, the Talking Bird and the remote House of
Grandfather Know-All at the top of an impossible peak where my kids
would say I lived. There were ships and mermaids, castles and
mysterious places like the Enchanted Woods and the Bottomless Lake. At
the end of a side road was a hole labled Do Not Go In Here. Best of
all, the whole was united by The Path That Goes Nowhere Eventually
which wound through and around the entire picture.
one day I went looking for it in a local map store, but
when I asked if they had a map of fairyland, they showed me something
obvious and crude. I described the map I remembered and they actually
had it among their racks of maps on display, but they no longer had
copies for sale. When I asked whether I could purchase the display copy
since they were no longer selling it, they gave it to me outright. I
had it framed in red, just like the one we had when I was young and I
have it hanging on the wall of my workroom today.
times, The Land of Make Believe has become
available once more in many forms including a play rug for little
picture book in those days was The Tenggren Tell-It-Again
with pictures by Swedish-American artist Gustaf Tenggren and
twenty-eight stories like "Hansel and Gretel", "Beauty and the Beast"
and "Rapunzel"—including a number represented on The Land
of Make Believe poster—retold by Katherine Gibson.
knew his name or not, and mostly we didn't, Gustaf
Tenggren was every child's favorite artist. He did brilliant work in a
variety of styles. He drew designs for Walt Disney movies, in
particular for Snow White and Pinocchio.
And he illustrated many Little Golden Books including the all-time best
seller The Poky Little Puppy. But The
Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book,
published in 1942, was his masterpiece, with memorable otherworldly
illustrations, a few of them like the ogre and his minions in "Puss in
Boots" just scary enough to be challenging for a small child like me to
that made a lifelong impression on me was Old Peter's
gathered by Arthur Ransome in 1915 and illustrated by Dmitri Mitrokhin.
A copy of it was given by my father to my older brother Danny as a
Christmas present in 1945 when he was seven and I was five. I was
fascinated by these stories of firebirds, horses of power more clever
than their masters, and malevolent witches with iron teeth.
particularly struck by the ur-witch Baba Yaga who "lives in a
little hut which stands on hen's legs. Sometimes it faces the forest,
sometimes it faces the path, and sometimes it walks solemnly about."
girl in the story is sent off to Baba Yaga by her cruel
stepmother, who is another bad 'un armed with iron teeth. "'How shall I
find her?'" asks the little girl, and the witch pinches her nose.
"'Follow your nose and you will find her,'" she says.
I loved that
line for its multiple meanings and have always done my best to heed it.
Then the book
mysteriously disappeared and I never knew where it had gone.
years after its disappearance, in 1954 when I was in 8th
grade, I followed my nose one day to a window box in my homeroom and
there I spotted Old Peter's Russian Tales again,
my brother and stamped and dated by him. I proved ownership of the book
to the teacher and regained possession of it.
Danny was 16
then and didn't care about having it back, but I did, and do, and I
have it yet.
Life in an Imaginative Desert
youngster during the 1940s, I was a voracious reader with a
hunger for the imaginative. But the imaginative was all but impossible
for a child to find. From a distance, the 20th Century begins to appear
flat, mundane and materialistic, short on spirit and the magical. But
the Forties in particular were not a heady time to be young and in
search of otherness.
This was an
era when public libraries like mine abhored the
fantastic except for the hints in the more outlandish Dr. Seuss books
like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. They
admit fairy tale books, let alone anything as strange as L. Frank
Baum's Oz stories, which were looked down upon and excluded. I was
lucky enough to read two Oz books passed along from my mother's
childhood, Baum's favorite The Scarecrow of Oz
and his final book The Magic of Oz.
The Dr. Dolittle books from the Twenties, featuring a talking parrot as
a figure of wisdom, intelligent animals, and a two headed beast called
a pushme-pullyou were about as imaginative as anything I could find to
read in those days.
I had to be
taken to the State Library in Lansing to discover books
of any kind which were other than mundane, and they were rare. There
was Tolkien's The Hobbit or There and Back Again
from the late Thirties. The one other truly different library book I
can remember encountering was The Angry Planet by
John Keir Cross, a story about a trip to a Mars populated by weird
alien creatures, and then back to Earth again.
Forties there weren't many imaginative movies for
children. The ones that existed were mostly from Disney, and they were
either based on fairy tales or 19th Century sources like Pinocchio
and the Uncle Remus stories in Song of the South.
Then when I was 8, there was a revival of the 1939 version of The
Wizard of Oz, which enchanted and frightened me. But during
the entire decade there were few films like that.
The one place
that I might have found anything of what I was seeking
was in pulp magazines in their years of decline, but the pulps were too
racy, too adult and too declasse for my parents to accept.
until I was ten when I read the serialized abridgement of Robert
Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky about a colony on
Jupiter's moon Ganymede in my older brother's Boys' Life
that I encountered anything at all like what I was looking for. The
story wasn't exactly magical but it was as near to something of the
right kind as I could find in those barren years.
In order to
borrow more Heinlein juvenile SF in the early Fifties I
would have to drive with my mother to the State Library. They had just
three titles—Space Cadet, Farmer in
the Sky and Red Planet. Whenever we
went there, I was always hoping I'd find a new one waiting for me, and
eventually I would.
Heinlein from one book to the next through his Scribner's period,
missing only one of them, Starman Jones.
Eventually I'd catch up with that one in the Ingham County Library
branch in Okemos.
Heinlein was the standard by which I would come to measure
science fiction. He may not have set my imagination alight, but he
definitely broadened my imaginative horizons. I learned more from him
than from anyone else, and I thought of myself as his greatest fan.
more stuff like that and looked for it everywhere in hopes
of finding it somewhere. But Heinlein was the best there was. I read
everything he wrote that I could find.
during the Fifties when I caused my parents to be afraid I
might be reading too much science fiction and be too heavily invested
in a single writer. They never dreamed there would come a day when
Heinlein Idolators would take me for the Anti-Heinlein and Heinlein
himself would be agitated by me like no one else. But those things
would eventually come to pass.
3. Discovering Science Fiction
When I became
a reader of science fiction at the age of 10, thanks to the Boys'
Life serialization of Robert Heinlein's Farmer in
there was precious little of it to be found. In those days, science
fiction was rare, marginal and ill thought of. It was the product of
low class pulp magazines which were dying then under the paper shortage
of World War II and the postwar advent of television. And as yet there
were almost no paperback books to take their place.
war, thanks to the dropping of the Atom Bomb, two large
anthologies of pulp magazine SF stories had been published by Random
House and Crown. But these books stood alone. Consequently, in the
absence of interest in imaginative fiction by professional book
publishers, science fiction fans with enough knowledge and experience
to do the job began founding their own specialty publishing houses to
issue book versions of favorite authors—most notably Fantasy Press,
Gnome Press, and Shasta. These books would include titles by Robert
Heinlein, E.E. Smith, A.E. van Vogt, Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de
Camp and L.Ron Hubbard. But libraries would never buy anything so
questionable and obscure. These were strictly limited editions,
well-done fan productions for a specialized fan audience.
In order to
feed my hunger for the fantastic, I had to settle for
the first four Heinlein juveniles which I would read over and over.
There was no other SF available to a child like me.
would change radically in a number of different ways in the
early Fifties. And when it did, by following my nose I was able to find
science fiction in every place it was manifesting itself but one:
science fiction magazines existed then, all of them digest sized,
meaning the size of Readers' Digest. First
amongst them was Astounding,
founded in the early Thirties, which had survived the war and the death
of the pulps by making itself small, plus two new titles, The
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, whose first issue
was in the fall of 1949, followed by Galaxy
one year later. At the time, however, because my parents denied me
access to the few places they were available locally because of their
sales of tobacco and alcohol, science fiction magazines like these were
still off limits to me. At most, I might catch glimpses of their covers
from a distance, so I kind of knew that forbidden fruit kind of existed
but without any clear idea of what it might be.
1952, however, because of the example set by Scribners
with their yearly books by Heinlein, juvenile science fiction began
being published. There was Andre Norton's Star Man's Son,
which to my disappointment proved to be a post-nuclear war survival
story and not the interstellar adventure suggested by the title. And
there was a series of original novels from Winston.
gave me a subscription to the Junior Literary Guild for
my birthday that year and the first book I received was a Winston
juvenile—Rocket Jockey, a planet-to-planet
space story by Philip St. John, a pseudonym of Lester del Rey. "This is
great," I thought, and hoped more such books would follow. But they
didn't. This would prove to be the only science fiction book the Junior
Literary Guild ever sent me during the year my subscription lasted.
other books from Winston's initial offering of ten titles
identifiable by their brightly-colored jackets with a rocket symbol on
the spine, would make it into the childrens' stacks of the State
Library before I left the childrens' room behind me. But none of them
were a match for the Heinlein books which had called them into being.
Forties, a handful of adult novels deriving from the SF
pulp magazines—six books that I can think of—had been issued by
established publishing houses. The East Lansing Public Library owned
one of them—Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe
a mind-bending trashing of pulp story conventions which had first been
published in the pulps. Knowing no better I took the novel straight and
it scared the bejesus out of me. It would be several years before I
could summon the nerve to read it.
1950, Doubleday began a continuing line of hardcover science fiction
books which included Pebble in the Sky by Isaac
Asimov, and Waldo and Magic, Inc,
two long stories by Robert Heinlein. Through somebody's
misapprehension, the Heinlein book showed up in the State Library
shelved with his Scribner's juveniles. That book was scary to me, too.
& Dunlap, known for their unconventionally marketed
cheap hardcover editions, issued four reprint SF titles, two in 1950,
one more in 1951, and finally Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon
in 1952. This was Heinlein's first adult novel, originally issued by
fan publisher Fantasy Press. I spotted it on the mezzanine of Knapp's
Department Store in Lansing and bought it for a dollar.
lines sprang up at this time, too, and these would
also begin to issue science fiction books mostly derived from the SF
magazines. When I was in 7th Grade, two of them, both single-author
story collections that had originated with the fan presses, would be
offered to me at school through the Scholastic Book Service: Heinlein's
The Green Hills of Earth and Fredric
Hands. I snapped them up, of course, the only kid in my
class who did.
The principle publishers of these paperbacks would be Signet,
Ballantine, and Ace, a company that offered two short books bound
importantly, however, I followed my nose downstairs at the
State Library and checked the adult card catalog under the words
"science fiction". The only titles listed under the heading had the
number 808.3. And, feeling like a daring intruder as a kid barely
turned twelve, I tracked them down back in the adult stacks.
to be the Dewey Decimal number for American story
anthologies. And there amongst them I would discover a motherlode of
significant science fiction—seven books in particular, three of them
important were the two classic postwar anthologies from
in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J.
Francis McComas, and The
Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff
Conklin. And there were three further fat Crown anthologies edited by
Conklin—The Big Book of Science Fiction from
1948, The Treasury of Science Fiction in 1950 and
The Omnibus of Science Fiction in
1952. There was also the recently published The Astounding
Science Fiction Anthology, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr..
Finally there was The Galaxy Reader, edited H.L.
Gold, which reprinted every single story from the first year of this
new magazine without omitting a single one. That
was a headbending collection.
When I found
them, I checked these books out again and again, taking
on the stories as I could, reading and rereading them because I only
had a partial understanding of what I was reading, gradually working my
way through the books. I had to learn a whole new conceptual language
to cope with them at all, and I was challenged both intellectually and
imaginatively by what I discovered.
stories which were an imaginal match for the Heinlein
juveniles and more, discovered as they were reborn in book form.
Is Science Fiction?
a kid of ten who liked the kind of thing he was
discovering in the novels of Robert Heinlein, but couldn't find more of
it, suddenly in the course of 1952 I found myself inundated by science
fiction stories old and new, juvenile and adult, coming at me from
every direction. I was swamped. I didn't know what to make of it all
and I didn't know anyone else who read SF and understood it better than
I did who could guide my comprehension of what I was encountering. I
was all alone in the midst of strangeness—a lot of it much harder to
get my head around than the Heinlein juveniles—challenged to work
out for myself and by myself where I was and what it was all about.
Gernsback, the pioneer magazine publisher who named the genre
in 1930 may have wanted it to be a literature of future invention
educating and entertaining young technologists-in-the-making. But by my
day in the early Fifties science fiction had long since escaped his
hands. And no one was ready to tell me what it really
wasn't merely stories about imaginary science. As an
example, just a decade after Gernsback, Heinlein was able to publish a
story like "Waldo" in Astounding in which the
reality of our
world isn't stable, but is subject to change by the power of thought.
And during the course of the Forties, Fredric Brown could write one
story in which someone falls in love with the thought projection of a
cockroach from another planet, and a second in which a writer is faced
with an alien spaceship temporarily stranded in the sandwich he's
eating, and these would be considered science fiction, too.
Fifties, a number of publishing houses—albeit few of the
most distinguished—might begin to issue SF because money was to be
made from it, but academics and established cultural commentators still
had no use whatever for this new popular imaginative literature. The
only people who had any interest in the subject were writers and fans
of science fiction, so if I wanted to understand what SF was really
about, it was to them I'd have to turn.
book on the subject was Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of
Science Fiction Writing,
edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, the person behind the first serious fan
publishing house, Fantasy Press. This 1947 symposium consisted of seven
brief essays by writers like Heinlein, Jack Williamson and A.E. van
Vogt who were authors of Fantasy Press's first titles. But the book was
more a collection of individual accounts of personal writing choices
and methods than a coherent discussion. Even if I had been able to find
a copy of this little book—an impossibility for me at the time I was
most in need of guidance—it wouldn't have been much help in the task
of comprehending science fiction.
would be two books published in 1953 for people in the
same position I was—new to SF and in need of orientation—but who
were some years older than me: Modern Science Fiction: Its
Meaning and Its Future, edited by Reginald Bretnor, and Science-Fiction
Handbook by L. Sprague de Camp.
the days when even whether or not there was to be a
hyphen between the word "science" and the word "fiction" was in
Science Fiction was a book of essays intended to
legitimize SF culturally which I tracked down in the Michigan State
College library. It contained eleven essays divided into three parts.
The first group was about SF publishing and the appearance of science
fiction in media like the movies and radio. The second section
considered science fiction's strengths and weaknesses and the ways in
which it differed from conventional mundane fiction. And the final part
of the book was about science fiction's relevance to the world around
us—society and science, morals and religion—and what was to be
expected of the genre in the future.
L. Sprague de
Camp, the author of Science-Fiction Handbook,
had a long essay entitled "Science Fiction and Creative Imagination" in
Bretnor's book on the way in which science fiction stories were
conceived. He said they were a product of the creative imagination, but
didn't believe science fiction was inspired literature. It merely
recombined sensory data in new and provocative ways.
I didn't find
this argument compelling. It was true I'd learned a
great deal from the factual knowledge I picked up from science fiction,
probably more of it than from any other source. That was one of the
things I valued most about the Heinlein stories I'd read over and over
which had provided me with a wider window on the world around me.
But what I
personally liked best about the imaginative material I
was finding was the headbending stuff—the simultaneous night and day
of the Jaro Hess poster, Gustaf Tenggren's fairy tale pictures, the
reality creation in Heinlein's "Waldo," even Fredric Brown's thought
projections of an alien cockroach. And it was the absence of this
mindmoving quality that I would come to feel was the major weakness in
de Camp's own stories.
Handbook was a more instructive book
than the Bretnor symposium. It told about science fiction's antecedents
and history, what its present markets and who its editors were, who
read it and who'd been writing it, and how a good science fiction story
This was a
book I loved when I first read it. It filled me in on a
great deal I needed to know, and did the same for others. Many years
later at a science fiction convention room party, Roger Zelazny told me
he wished he owned a copy. I answered that he was in luck because I had
seen one just the day before in a glass-fronted bookcase near the
checkout counter in the Strand Bookstore in lower Manhattan. It was, in
fact, the only time I would ever see a copy for sale in a bookstore.
Handbook was an artifact of its time.
Many years later, a second edition of the book would be published
without all the elements in it that screamed "1953". However, without
them the book now seemed limp and lifeless.
books, and a little book by Basil Davenport, Inquiry into
several years later would be the beginning and the end of serious
public discussion of science fiction. There would be no others.
Thereafter for many years, SF would be left to its fans and writers to
In 1956 eight
Chicago fans—one of whom, Sidney Coleman, would
later become a prominent theoretical physicist noted for his
humor—banded together as Advent:Publishers to produce serious books on
science-fictional subjects. The motive figures of the group were Earl
Kemp who had the ideas and George Price who executed them.
first book, In Search of Wonder, was a collection
of reviews and essays by Damon Knight, an SF writer and anthologist who
would become the founder of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the
Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, and the Clarion Science
Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshops. Knight cared deeply about the
craft and meaning of science fiction and probed the question
unmercifully in his analyses.
search for wonder was what I cared about most this was a
book I'd been waiting for. As soon as I learned of its existence, I
sent off for a copy from the boarding school I'd been imprisoned in in
Massachusetts, putting a little space monster doodle I'd worked up the
year before under the return address on the envelope.
In Search of Wonder
Knight's In Search of Wonder—the first
critical book I ever owned—arrived in my hands at Mt. Hermon School,
it proved to be a joy to read, the only source I'd seen specifically
concerned with the quality and meaning of individual science fiction
stories. The book was informative, snarky, and acute in its
perceptions. But it didn't resolve the fundamental question of what
kind of thing SF really is.
The title of
Knight's book was a reference to the phrase "sense of
wonder" coined by fan historian, Sam Moskowitz. SaM was the editor of Science-Fiction
Hugo Gernsback's shortlived final attempt at publishing an SF magazine,
as well as a scholar devoted to documenting the history of science
fiction fandom, uncovering SF's forgotten antecedents, and writing
brief biographies of its major writers.
felt that in the course of development of modern science
fiction something vital had been lost—the quality of wonder.
Knight's book was a promise to seek wonder again.
Knight actually cared about wasn't wonder, but rather
what he and his friend James Blish thought of as "technical criticism."
Blish said that the technical critic "should be able to say with some
precision not only that something went wrong—if it did—but just how
it went wrong," while Knight declared that his concerns were
originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity,
and garden-variety grammar. Wonder wasn't on their list, or anyone
else's during the 1950s.
By that time,
it was generally if not universally agreed that the
true nature of science fiction was neither scientific nor prophetic—the
original defining characteristics laid down by Gernsback. The vital
question now for most commenters was whether SF was extrapolative or
speculative in nature.
I first ran
into the term extrapolation in a 1952 article by Robert Heinlein in Galaxy
entitled "Where To?," and later called "Pandora's Box". Here Heinlein
said, "'Extrapolation' means much the same in fiction writing as it
does in mathematics: exploring a trend. It means continuing a curve, a
path, a trend into the future, by extending its present direction and
continuing the shape it has displayed in its past
performance...." A story title expressing the essence of extrapolation
is Heinlein's first short novel in Astounding,
"If This Goes On—".
was another term owed to Heinlein. His 1947 essay in Of
had been entitled "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction," a sly way of
proposing an alternative to the name "science fiction" which he failed
to develop further in his essay. Five years later, however, in the
"Where To?" article in Galaxy, Heinlein said that
took the basic facts admitted by extrapolation and then threw in some
additional wonky element like little green men from Mars. A title that
could be considered speculative might be my story collection Farewell
to Yesterday's Tomorrow.
fiction" would become an occasionally used alternative
to the name "science fiction" which had the virtue of retaining the
"SF" abbreviation familiarly understood to indicate both science
fiction and fantasy. At the outset of In Search of Wonder,
Damon Knight declared that "science fiction" was a misnomer we were
unfortunately stuck with, but he personally thought "speculative
fiction", which he credited to Heinlein, was a better name for the
terms extrapolation and speculation have in common is that
both of them are based on the assumed primacy of the so-called real
world. As L. Sprague de Camp said in his essay "Imaginative Fiction and
Creative Imagination " in Modern Science Fiction: Its
Meaning and Its Future: "Please let us assume that the world
of the senses is
the real world. If you believe that in addition to sensory data the
mind also draws upon divine inspiration, universal consciousness,
racial memory, or some other suppositous non-sensory factor, we shall
have to agree to disagree."
notable exception to this standard set of assumptions would come from
A.E. van Vogt. He wrote in his essay in Of Worlds Beyond
in 1947, "Ever since I began writing for the science fiction field, it
has been my habit to put every current thought into the story I
happened to be working on. Frequently, an idea would seem to have no
relevance, but by mulling it over a little, I would usually find an
approach that would make it usable."
That is, van
Vogt held that the thoughts which popped into his head,
rather than de Camp's "real world" plus extensions and variations upon
it, were paramount in his creation of science fiction.
self-accounts van Vogt would amplify this by saying that
while he was writing a story, he would program his dreams to feed him
ideas as he needed them, waking himself every two hours during the
night to harvest the results. He said, "Generally, either in a dream or
about ten o'clock the next morning—bang!—an
and it will be something in a sense non-sequitur, yet a growth from the
story. I've gotten my most original stories that way...."
"I have tried to plot stories consciously, from
beginning to end, and I never sell them. I know better, now, than to
even attempt to write them that way."
Theft and Discovery
My access to
science fiction increased radically starting in the
fall of 1954. Instead of me continuing at Okemos School, where I'd gone
from second grade through eighth, my parents sent me to high school in
East Lansing as they had done with my brother before me.
And every day
I got fifty cents lunch money. But instead of wasting
it on a school lunch, as I was expected to do, I walked up to Grand
River Avenue, the boulevard separating the main shopping in East
Lansing on one side of the street from Michigan State College on the
other. And there, with fifty cents in my pocket every day, I ran wild.
fiction paperbacks priced at twenty-five or thirty-five
cents had begun to proliferate as never before, and I obtained a new
one every day. One day I would buy a book and spend the rest of my
money on a bag of half-a-dozen day-old Spudnuts or a quarter pound of
Spanish peanuts and an A&W fountain root beer at Kresge's. The
day, I would steal a book and spend the full fifty cents on a more
I was very
good at swiping books, slipping them under my arm inside
my jacket and holding them in place with my elbow while I eased out the
door. I didn't steal too much or too often in any one place. And I made
sure to buy books in the stores where I stole so my honesty never came
into question. I was never caught.
My days as a
thief lasted for my freshman and sophomore years of
high school until I was sent off to boarding school as a junior. I
never stole again after that except for the occasional olive. But
between misappropriation of lunch money and outright theft, I obtained
a lot of science fiction books during those two years, some of them new
titles, some of them reprints. And I read them in class, too.
expanded my sources of reading from paperbacks to magazines.
The first SF magazine I ever bought was the December 1954 issue of Astounding
with a giant picture of Mars on the cover by Chesley Bonestell. I sat
at the lunch counter in the five and dime store and thumbed through it.
The issue had an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr., illustrated
stories with a cryptic little Campbell comment before each one, a
speculative science article, book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller and a
letter column called Brass Tacks. All of this was new to me and had to
struck me the hardest was the unique odor of the paper the
magazine was printed on. That odor, that tan paper, was typical of Astounding
in the middle Fifties and I imprinted on it strongly. If I smelled it
again today more than sixty years later, it would affect me deeply.
I bought Astounding
regularly from that day on and would
read it for the next dozen years. Even when I stopped reading the
stories I would still read Campbell's editorials at the newsstand. They
were intentionally provocative and taught me even when I disagreed with
months after I started reading Astounding, my
mother informed me that the son of her friend Mrs. Schultz was going
off to grad school and was getting rid of his science fiction magazine
collection. I could have them if I wanted, and of course I said yes. I
wasn't anticipating much, but when my mother brought the box of
magazines home, it was a very large box.
I laid the
magazines out on the floor of my bedroom and sorted them
by title and date. What I'd been given proved to be a run of Astounding
from 1947 until a few months before I started buying the magazine, a
complete run of Galaxy from the first issue, and
a complete run of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
A year later,
I took a further step. I wrote a fan letter to Robert
Heinlein tapped out on my mother's portable typewriter. I told him that
he was my favorite writer and that while other science fiction stories
might be nourishing his stories were steak to their hamburger. That
would be the one and only time I ever tried to catch the sound of
A month after
that, when I was newly arrived in boarding school in
Massachusetts, I received a blue postcard from Heinlein forwarded by my
mother. Heinlein took note that I'd said in my letter that he didn't
need to answer, but said my letter was a pleasure to answer. Wow again!
beginning of summer in 1958, when I was still seventeen, I
wrote Heinlein a second time on my own brand new typewriter. I said I
was heading west on a summer job and wondered if I could pay him a
visit on my way. This time he didn't answer me.
"So You Want to Be a Writer"
receiving a typewriter as a high school graduation present in
1958 along with a backyard revelation that I should use it to write
science fiction stories, I began teaching myself how to do it. By that
time, I'd read all the science fiction and the science fiction
criticism I could lay my hands on, so I figured I had a basis to work
from. From that time on, I thought of myself as a writer and not just
another science fiction reader.
think of myself as an SF fan since I had no contact with
science fiction fandom and had no idea what fans did except for the
ones who had published In Search of Wonder. The
one exception to this is that somehow I obtained an Australian fan
parody of an issue of Astounding which I was
prepared to find funny. In those days, each issue of Astounding
had a symbol in the upper lefthand corner of the cover with the
revelation of what it represented on the contents page. The parody had
a rubber band as the cover symbol. The explanation was "Propulsion."
In the fall
of 1958 I began college at the University of Michigan. I
didn't take an English writing course because I didn't want my writing
messed with. I concluded I was right about this when a friend told me
that in his English writing course science fiction was not acceptable.
contact with another SF writer came that fall when I met
Dean McLaughlin in a college bookstore down the street from my dorm.
Dean, nine years older than I, was the go-to guy in the store who knew
where everything was, and was called upon constantly to aid less savvy
employees. Ten years after we met Dean's Analog
novella "Hawk Among the Sparrows" would be nominated for both a Hugo
and a Nebula.
familiar with Dean's name from L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction
where his second published story back in 1952 had been used as an
example of the inner inconsistency that de Camp advised was to be
avoided in constructing an SF story. I overlooked this minor flaw in
Dean's perfection and instead picked his brains relentlessly for
whatever he could tell me about the science fiction writing world. Dean
was incredibly patient with my daily drop-by visits at the store to
learn more from him.
writing assignment at the University of Michigan came in my
introductory psychology class where we were told to take some bit of
psychological research and compare the reality with a popular
representation of it. I chose the work of Samuel Renshaw as portrayed
in the stories of Robert Heinlein.
treated Renshaw as a super-scientist in the novella "Gulf", and then in
the juvenile novel Citizen of the Galaxy, and
would again for a third time a few years later in Stranger
in a Strange Land.
Like Alfred Korzybski before him, Renshaw was presented by Heinlein as
someone who could take smart people, eliminate impediments and
imperfections, and make them much smarter—swifter readers,
infallible witnesses, trained geniuses.
Heinlein out, I interviewed a couple of University of
Michigan psychologists and read a 1948 three-part profile of Renshaw
and his work in the Saturday Evening Post
Not as Smart as You Could Be" which would prove to be Heinlein's
primary source of information on Renshaw and his research. My
conclusion was that Heinlein had inflated Renshaw's work for fictional
effect. What I would say now is that Heinlein portrayed Renshaw as a
maker of more competent people—Homo Novis—whereas a more accurate
characterization would be that Renshaw was a student of thresholds of
I got an A
for the paper and sent a copy of it to Heinlein who
responded with a three-page letter. The one thing I recall from it now
is that Heinlein said that while he was writing a story he knew it so
well that he could correct punctuation in it mentally after he went to
bed, but once it had been published, he remembered so little of it that
he could read it for pleasure.
fall, I rode with Dean and graduate student X J Kennedy
to a meeting of the convention committee of the following year's SF
Worldcon in Detroit. Kennedy, who would become well-known as a poet,
had had a former life in the Forties as science fiction fan Joe
Kennedy. I think he and I represented the past and future of science
fiction fandom to Dean. In the event, I kicked my heels in a basement
family room during the confab of the con committtee, and was introduced
to the con chairmen Roger Sims and Fred Prophet, and that was about
all. I never laid eyes on Kennedy again after that day.
But I did
attend Detention, the Seventeenth Worldcon in Detroit, the
following Labor Day weekend. There were 381 people in attendance. As I
was checking into the hotel, the older man in front of me in line
turned around, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hello, I'm Doc Smith.
Don't I know you?" I was completely bowled over by his generosity and
tact, which were not at all what I expected to encounter from a science
fiction icon like Smith.
The first con
members I met were Earl Kemp and George Price of
Advent. They remembered me from the space monster doodle on my order
for In Search of Wonder. Very soon after that, I
Damon Knight and began reciting bits of his book to him. I attached
myself to him and followed him around all weekend pestering him with
questions as I had with Dean McLaughlin before him.
I even bought
an hour of the time of the convention's Guest of Honor
Poul Anderson at auction for $25, and talked to him of my writing
fall, I rode to Chicago with Dean to attend a science
fiction pro party. I hadn't sold a story at that point, but because of
knowing Dean I was treated with a degree of respect that I hadn't yet
earned. I was told we would be staying overnight with Earl Kemp.
On our way to
Chicago, Dean informed me that I had a good science
fiction writer name, like van Vogt, Heinlein, Sturgeon or Asimov. I
I met a few
writers at the party—Harlan Ellison, Theodore Cogswell whose first
story had made the cover of Astounding,
and Indiana lawyer (later judge) Joe L. Hensley, with whom I would
collaborate on a couple of stories, including my first anthologization,
"Dark Conception." When Harlan and I were introduced, he fingered my
blazer on which I had spent no less than $20, and said: "So you want to
be a writer. The first check you get, ditch this and buy yourself a
continental cut suit." He didn't know me very well. I haven't owned a
suit to this day, continental cut or otherwise.
course of the evening, mention was made of a broadsheet
that Heinlein had circulated the previous year. I said I hadn't heard
of it, and what was it? Earl Kemp poked his head up across the room and
said he would show it to me when we got to his place.
In fact, Earl
would show me three things: He showed me the
manuscript for "Who Killed Science Fiction?", a question and answer
super-fanzine which would win him a Hugo and provide the basis for him
chairing a Chicago Worldcon. He showed me Boris Artzybasheff's artbook As
which I would eventually be fortunate enough to own a copy of. And he
showed me Heinlein's "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?"
newspaper ad was an answer to a series of ads by SANE—The
Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy—opposing atmospheric bomb
testing. I wasn't any too keen on those tests myself because I didn't
fancy nuclear fallout in the milk I drank.
only supported atmospheric testing as a matter of
patriotism, but beat the drum for a new organization, The Patrick Henry
League, and asked for people to sign up. He would then reprint the ad
as a broadsheet and circulate it in Navy circles and in the science
fiction community. But to his bitter disappointment, he would get
little positive response from either quarter. Heinlein didn't let go of
the piece, either, but would reprint it again more than twenty years
later in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe.
reading the broadsheet Earl had taken from a drawer, and said, "Wow.
This is a little over the top, isn't it?"
bothered by the ad as well as by the passage in Heinlein's new novel, Starship
in which he said that radiation was necessary for evolution to take
place, which I took as a covert reiteration of his support for the
atmospheric tests. So I wrote to Heinlein expressing my concerns about
fallout and pointing out that in stories like "Solution Unsatisfactory"
and "Blowups Happen" he himself had stressed the dangers of atomic
me by saying, "The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming." And
recommended that I read three books.
I found all
three in the University of Michigan library and read
them. The books were from vehemently anti-Communist rightwing
publishers. I remember the point of one of them was that we had
supported the Russians during World War II with money and machines and
they hadn't paid us back, the dirty swine. So I wrote Heinlein again
saying as nicely as I could manage that I had read the books but didn't
think they answered the question I was asking about Strontium 90 in the
As I would
find out however—and William Patterson would later
confirm in his official biography—Heinlein couldn't abide
disagreement, and not at all on this particular subject. He didn't
answer me this time. Instead I got a note from Virginia Heinlein saying
that her husband was now occupied in writing a new book, presumably Stranger
in a Strange Land, and had no time for correspondence.
didn't forget or forgive my having disputed him and would bring it up
when he was trying to prevent the writing of Heinlein in
the first book on his work. In fact, however, this exchange of letters
would be the point at which I ceased to be Heinlein's unquestioning
Number One Fan and began to apply all I had learned from the critical
opinions he presented in his stories to the man himself and his own
work. I think it's fair to say that this aborted correspondence marks
our parting of the ways.
Learning to Write
When I began
trying to write stories in the summer of 1958, I was
completely ignorant and totally inept. I proved as much that fall by
writing an unpublishable SF novel, but I learned a lot in doing it.
Mainly what I learned was to get my think-think out of the way and
listen to the words I was being given to set down on paper.
For a year
and a half I did nothing but collect rejection slips. But
about six months after Harlan Ellison fingered my inadequate jacket and
told me to buy a continental cut suit with my first writing check, I
sold a story to Seventeen magazine for $300
called "A Piece of Pie" based upon the annual intramural cross country
race at Mt. Hermon School.
year and a half with more rejections, while stationed
at the headquarters of a US Army preventive medicine company in a
compound outside Seoul, Korea, I got an idea for a science fiction
story. I was still bothered by the chauvinism and belligerence Heinlein
had shown in Starship Troopers and I wanted to
write a story with a devastating conclusion that I imagined Heinlein
would endorse, but I would not.
to constructing the story was to accumulate a number of
key factors I wanted to work with and then allow them to reveal
themselves as a single narrative.
I had just
read Harper Lee's new novel, To Kill a Mockingbird,
and as much as I liked it, I hadn't been completely convinced by her
portrayal of the mentation of a six-year-old girl. Neither had I been
convinced by Heinlein's little girl character Peewee in another book
I'd loved, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel. As of
that time, Heinlein had yet to include a young female protagonist in
any of his juvenile novels.
attempted such a character in any story I'd written
myself. And I was always trying to do something I hadn't done before in
every story. So a young female lead became my second factor.
just read an article in Astounding by G. Harry
Stine called "Science Fiction Is Too Conservative." In it, he proposed
the idea—not actually new—of giant spaceships carrying colonies
to the stars. That was my third factor.
piece of my story fell into place when I picked up a new novel called Walkabout
in the camp library. The blurb spoke of a rite of passage in which
Australian aborigine boys were sent off to survive for a month in the
wild by themselves.
So there was
my story: a young girl from a starship would be dropped
on a human colony planet to survive for a month in order to become an
adult and earn citizenship on her ship. But the starship would be
offended by the colony and vote to destroy it.
soon as I thought of the story, I found myself transferred
to the company detachment at Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu. There I was
drafted by the second lieutenant in charge to do his typing. This was
the only opportunity to write that I would have during my two years of
Army service and I made the most of it. Over the next several months, I
wrote my story. At 20,000 words, it was the second longest story I had
I sent the
manuscript off to John W. Campbell at Astounding,
by that time renamed Analog.
But while it was gone and then being returned to me I came to the
conclusion that to bring off the devastating ending I aimed for, the
story needed to be longer. I submitted it again to Fred Pohl, editor of
Galaxy and If,
and then set to work on the longer version.
to buy my story, but only if I cut it in half. I did
the job in one night while on charge of quarters duty back at company
headquarters. I typed furiously through the night rewriting the story
and eliminating the overwhelming ending for which it existed while I
listened on the radio as John Glenn orbited the planet three times.
And Pohl did
buy the shortened story which he retitled "Down to the
Worlds of Men" and published a year and a half later in the July 1963
issue of If following the serialization of
Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, which had a young
female protagonist, though not one whose voice I believed in.
That was my
second story sale, this time for $100. For a time there,
my story checks kept getting smaller and smaller—$50 from Datebook
for "A Tale of a Trunk", then half of $50 from F&SF for "Dark
Conception," a collaboration with Joe Hensley, and then finally, before
the bounceback happened, $20 for a story called "The Death of Orville
Murchison" from a magazine called motive. After
that, the checks started getting larger again.
I wrote new
stories and criticism, as well as a whole other
nonfiction book, while continuing to work on my novel for four more
years. My aim was to write a story of the future more plausibly
textured than SF was accustomed to being, which told about someone
growing up in a society with a substantial power advantage over others,
at first accepting its values as natural, and then coming to reject
them. Just like me and America.
While I was
still at work on the book, I submitted another portion
of it to Fred Pohl as a stand alone story. But he turned it down—not
unreasonably—telling my agent, "I used to think that Panshin wrote
this way because he was stubborn. Now I think he just doesn't have a
very interesting imagination."
of Passage was done in February 1966, I attempted
to sell the novel, but it was rejected again and again, thirteen times
in all. Once the reason given was that it was about a young girl, and
girls didn't read science fiction, or so I was told. Another time the
reason was my funny name, which casual readers would take as the
product of a foreign writer and pass by in a bookstore. When publishers
don't want to accept a submission, any excuse will do.
This was a
very frustrating time for me. In the summer of 1967 I
even wrote a cri de coeur called "How to Get Kicked in the Head and
Learn to Love It." I showed it to one friend, who gave me the sympathy
I was seeking, and then I deposited it in a wastebasket.
By that time,
I was living in a fifth floor walkup in Brooklyn
Heights and sharing a half-sized football with Terry Carr, who lived a
few blocks away, which we would toss around in the street after his
work hours. Terry was an assistant editor at Ace Books and had proposed
a new line of more ambitious science fiction books to A.A. Wyn, the
owner of the company. Wyn was then in his final months of life and
apparently desirous of making a mark to leave behind him, because he
said yes to Terry.
seeking books to be published as Ace Specials. And one
afternoon while we were chucking the football back and forth he asked
to have a look at the manuscript of the novel I couldn't sell.
accepted Rite of Passage! It would be published
in June of 1968 between novels by R.A. Lafferty and Joanna Russ, a
perfect place to attract notice.
spring, Rite of Passage received a Nebula Award from
the Science Fiction Writers of America as Best Novel of the Year. It
won 21 to 17 over Joanna's Ace Special Picnic on Paradise.
I knew it was
going to win but was forced to pretend otherwise.
Barry Malzberg informed me in advance. He said he was sure I'd want to
know, although I really didn't. That's the writing life for you.
Writing Science Fiction Criticism
"Down to the Worlds of Men" was finally published in
1963, I began writing science fiction criticism. I'd returned from the
Army and then spent the next eight months working on turning the story
into Rite of Passage before taking up college
Michigan State. One evening while I was sitting in the grill in the
basement corridor connecting the men's dorm Snyder where I lived and
the twin women's dorm Abbot, it struck me that there was a weakness in
Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land.
stated that his book took on the assumed truths of the
modern Western world and cast doubt upon them. But it came to me that
his handling of the subject of sex in Stranger,
brotherhoods where everyone screwed everyone and no one was jealous or
unhappy because of their clear new Martian-style thinking, wasn't
actually as radical or enlightened as Heinlein presented it, but rather
was something of an adolescent fantasy.
presumptuous of me. I was completely sexually inexperienced
myself at the time and more than a bit of an idealist where sex was
concerned. When my soldier friends went off to fuck in a Korean
whorehouse, I remained downstairs with a girl on my knee until they
were done. By contrast, Heinlein was someone who considered himself a
insight wasn't totally mistaken. In his Naval Academy
days, Heinlein was known as a guy who was led around by his dick. Sex
was the root cause of many of his troubles in life. And when he
proposed to his third wife, he admitted to her that he could lose his
head where sex was concerned at any time and might well do it again.
Sex was definitely a weakness in his self-presentation to the world as
a mature master of knowledge and behavior.
So I got up
from the table I was sitting at, returned to my room and
wrote my first critical piece. It might be fair to say that it was half
naive, but also half intolerably perceptive.
When it was
finished, I had nowhere to send it. The obvious place of
publication for it was a science fiction fanzine, but I had no contact
with anyone who was in the business of putting out a fanzine. But then,
by happy chance, I spotted a classified ad in F&SF
which said that someone named Bill Blackbeard was looking for fanzine
material, so I mailed the piece off to him in California.
immediately, I got an answer back, not from Blackbeard, but
from a person who signed himself Al haLevy. He asked if I was a known
fan writing under a pseudonym. I assured him that I was me, and pointed
to the story I had just had in the July issue of If.
I got no
reply to the note I wrote him. However, about three weeks
later (!), I opened my dorm mailbox to find a manila envelope. Inside
was an issue of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society's clubzine Shangri
L'Affaires, familiarly known as Shaggy.
And there in the Table of Contents on the front cover was my name given
as the author of a piece called "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap."
dismaying. I thought the title was half-clever as a play on
Heinlein's story title "By His Bootstraps", but it was also rude and
crude. And I was none too thrilled to be identified as Heinlein's
jockstrap. That wasn't at all the way I wanted to introduce myself as a
critical voice. Not surprisingly, the piece also offended Heinlein
mightily because of the vast gap between how he saw himself and how the
piece represented him.
wrote a letter to Shaggy saying that he knew
me and I was a good kid—which was generous of him—and pointed out
that not everything a writer wrote was what he believed personally, but
rather what markets would accept. So I wrote another article for the
zine saying that you could begin to believe a writer meant what he said
if he said the same thing multiple times, and I cited one of Anderson's
own tropes as my example.
point, however, I really didn't want to write anything further for Shangri
L'Affaires, feeling I'd been taken advantage of by
Blackbeard, haLevy and Shaggy
editor Redd Boggs, who apparently had their own fish to fry. When I
told Dean McLaughlin about this, he suggested that I might write for
Buck and Juanita Coulson's fanzine Yandro and
gave me their address.
next year I would produce a number of serious constructive articles for
Yandro on the subject of science
fiction. The true nature of SF was still my question and I tested it
from one angle after another.
models were Damon Knight and James Blish. I didn't
consider myself a technical critic in the same way they did since I
thought I was still in the process of learning how to write, but I
definitely thought of myself as the youngest member of the group of SF
writers who were concerned with the true nature of science fiction and
how SF might be made better.
was a marvelous place to publish. It was around
thirty yellow mimeographed pages in length with a new issue every
month, never missing an issue for years on end, with an editorial,
essays of various kinds, book reviews by Buck who was a prodigious
reader, and letters of comment.
You may think
of this amateur publication as fannish activity at its
best with no pretensions and no agenda, a more personal and haimish
version of the creative expression exemplified by the Chicago fans who
had created Advent:Publishers in order to issue books by people like
Knight and Blish. Roger Ebert would write testimonials to the formative
power that involvement with Yandro had on him
when he was a young fan. My contributions to the Coulsons' magazine
were so frequent during 1964 that when Yandro won
a Hugo as Best Fanzine the following year, I was pleased to think that
my sercon essays were part of the reason why.
I must have
made an impression with what I was writing, too, because
that summer at Midwestcon, my first regional science fiction
convention, Earl Kemp called to me at a crowded room party, "Hey, Alex,
want to write a book about Heinlein?" I hadn't seen Earl since he'd
showed me the "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" broadsheet back in
1959, and I thought he was kidding me about "Heinlein: By His
Jockstrap." But he wasn't because he said it again at a party at the
Coulsons' in rural Indiana a month later. And I agreed to do it,
returning to Michigan with a singing heart and a buzzing head.
before my final term as an undergraduate at Michigan
State, I told my advisor that I was presently at work on two books, Rite
and another on Robert Heinlein, and I wondered if I could get credit
for either one. He answered, "Well, we can't give you credit for a
novel, but we can call your book on Heinlein your senior thesis and
give you credit for that."
Heinlein was the first person I wrote to when I was
researching the book, but he failed to answer my letter. However, in
February, when I was two-thirds done with what proved to be the initial
draft of the book, Heinlein wrote to Earl Kemp. He said that if Advent
was serious about a book on his work, they would have engaged a more
established critic. He accused me of having conned his best friend's
widow out of a file of personal letters. He refused to read the book in
progress and threatened to sue me and Advent if it were published.
intimidated by this, exactly as intended, and immediately
withdrew from publication, sending me a check for $50 and no fewer than
three letters—one official, one from Earl, and one from George
Price—saying how sorry they were. I wasn't intimidated, however. The
was to be my senior thesis. It was the next step in my development as a
critic. And no one, Heinlein's list of established critics nor anyone
else, had yet written a book about the work of any science fiction
writer and I wanted to do it.
following month, I wrote the text of Heinlein in Dimension
as the book now stands. I didn't think of it as anti-Heinlein in any
way, but rather as a fair-minded first look at all his stories and a
raising of issues like sex and solipsism that merited further
After it was
done, I had the problem of finding alternate publication for it. So I
wrote a piece for Yandro
entitled "Lese Majesty"—"an offense against the King"—setting
forth the situation. And it was effective. Over the next year, Heinlein
in Dimension would appear in pieces in four different
fanzines. So word of it got around.
attempt to kill the book outright before it was written
turned out to be counter-productive. Specifically because of the
fanzine appearances of Heinlein in Dimension, the
writing I published in 1966, I would win the initial fan writing Hugo
presented at the World Science Fiction Convention held in New York the
its nerve back and decided they would publish the book and be damned.
And Heinlein in Dimension appeared as a hardcover
book in the spring of 1968 with an introduction by James Blish two
months before the publication of Rite of Passage.
After it was
published, Damon Knight took me aside at a Milford
Writers Conference to tell me that he didn't like the book. But I
couldn't tell you now what it was that he didn't like about it.
The Villiers Books
period of getting kicked in the head and learning to love
it finally came to an end in the fall of 1967 when I signed a contract
with Advent for Heinlein in Dimension and another
with Ace Books for Rite of Passage,
Terry Carr of Ace suggested that I write a series of science fiction
novels for him. I said yes, but working up a proposal for the first one
didn't come easily to me since my approach was not to plot out a book
in detail beforehand but rather to accumulate crucial factors I wanted
to include until they reached what I thought of as "critical mass," and
then just start writing.
In this case,
marijuana was getting around in my circle of
acquaintance just then. Our expectation of it at that early date was to
get stoned and then scarf down a Sara Lee cake. But what I valued in
the experience was that it triggered a series of strange insights,
weird cross-connections, and funny perspectives in me. I jotted down
any number of them on notecards some of which I retain to this day. I
wish I had more of them, particularly the half-dozen I posted on the
wall in front of my typewriter as a reminding factor, and perhaps I
still do somewhere if I dig hard enough. Here are a few examples:
rock: 'I'm not stupid. I'm dull normal.'"
does nothing all his life but sit and think. Ask him why?
He has observed that actions can have untoward consequences. He's still
thinking about things. At last he leaps up, does something enigmatic or
decisive or .... And bops off down the road."
people are always bumping into rocks. I used to be a rational person. I
could show you scars."
understand you, sir.' 'I don't propose that you should.'
'But you don't understand me, either.' 'And you don't propose that I
should.' 'Exactly.' 'Understood.'"
factor was to write a book that was full of stuff like
that. Editor Fred Pohl had said to my agent that he used to think I
wrote the way I did because I was stubborn, but now he thought I just
didn't have a very interesting imagination. I wanted to show him that
he was right the first time and that my stubbornness was that I was
working on Rite of Passage at the time and
voice of that book—but I was also quite capable of writing in
totally different ways. The voice of this book wouldn't be at all the
factor was that I thought science fiction was too committed
to a sober meta-narrative constructed over the years by the writers of Astounding
I wanted to fight against the Empire of science fictional convention by
presenting a quirkier and more amusing state of existence in which
fanciful and unanticipated things might take place: peels could grunt
at midnight, large furry alien toads could ride red tricycles if the
opportunity arose and they were of a mind to, and little pink clouds
could claim to be God.
And yet a
third factor was that while I was in graduate school at
the University of Chicago, I'd found stacks of Canadian paperback
copies of the books of Georgette Heyer in a local bookstore and read my
way through them all. One book of hers which didn't knock me out in
general was The Grand Sophy. But the last several
it were a hoot with different characters wandering on and off stage,
interweaving in an almost dance-like way. I wanted to do something like
that myself—write prose performance pieces depending on timing and
tempo—but at book length.
I once had
someone suggest to me that P.G. Wodehouse was my model
for doing this, but that's not so—even if it should prove to be so.
I've never been a reader of P.G. Wodehouse. My inspiration was the last
two chapters of The Grand Sophy, which I've never
I didn't want
to imitate anyone. I wanted to catch a dynamic and let it determine
what things happened and how.
But how do
you write a plausible book proposal which says that you
aim to write a science fiction novel, or a series of them, which don't
have ordinary plots but instead are pure improvised interactive
quirkiness and fun? Somehow I managed to cobble together something
about a young lord who's a remittance man in a dinky future "Galactic
Empire" encompassing a few hundred stars within a galaxy of stars by
the hundreds of billions, together with his amiable but inscrutable
traveling companion, an illegal alien being with the power to cloud
men's minds. This was plausible enough to satisfy Terry, and he gave me
a contract for it.
I quit my job
at the Brooklyn Public Library figuring that I could
finally make a living by writing. I turned out to be wrong, but I did
I dashed off
the first book, Star Well, in two months. The
second book in the series, The Thurb Revolution,
took me three. But the third book, Masque World,
came harder. It would take a full year to write. I've never written The
Universal Pantograph, which was to be the fourth book,
although I've carried materials for it around in my head for nearly
for never writing it were manifold. First of all, I
didn't want to repeat myself. I could get away with three Villiers
books, but I wasn't sure about doing yet another one only to find
myself writing a template series like John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee
books in which the elements were all familiar and cut to a pattern.
Secondly the Sixties, which provided the cultural context and social
climate in which books like mine could be written, were now over, and
the Seventies wouldn't offer as friendly an atmosphere for writing
tightly phrased but intuitively imagined Sixties-style whoop-te-do. Not
least, however, was that A.A. Wyn, the not-completely-honest one-man
owner of Ace Books, had finished dying near the beginning of the period
of small publisher acquisition that was starting to happen then. The
company was sold to Charter Communications, a many-headed monster
oriented toward possession and profit rather than authenticity. In this
new corporate climate, Ace's resourceful editor-in-chief, old-time fan
Donald A. Wollheim, left the company after twenty years on the job to
start his own line of books. My editor, Terry Carr, would depart for
the West Coast, as well, and once again I was stranded without a
result of the whole cosmic arrangement of events in
1968 was that I, who a year or so earlier had been getting nowhere at
all with my writing, had no fewer than four books published in the
course of one volatile, heady year. So when I made my appearance in
public awareness within the science fiction microcosm, I made a splash.
That gave me
all the cultural capital I would live on for the next twenty years.
Down on the Farm
Well was published in October 1968. A few weeks later,
I received a fan letter—my first fan letter ever—from Cory
Seidman telling me how much she liked the book, and setting forth her
take on what it was I'd done.
I first laid
eyes on Cory at Tricon, the 24th World Science Fiction
Convention in Cleveland, in 1966. She was the girl in the leafy brown
dryad costume. Cory was a Radcliffe student in linguistics at the time
and hung out with the MIT Science Fiction Society. She even took a
course at MIT with Noam Chomsky. Over the next several years she and I
would see each other from time to time at gatherings at Charlie and
Marsha Browns' apartment in the Bronx.
related to Star Well, I won her heart with The
We were married the following June. It may tell you something about us
that our initial wedding present to ourselves was the acquisition of
the four-volume boxed set of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of
later, in the spirit of many others who were leaving
the city at the end of the Sixties and moving to the country, we found
ourselves living in a converted carriage house on a farm in upper Bucks
County and acquiring a pushy tuxedo kitten named Fang who demanded to
live with us and wouldn't be denied.
consequence of our move to Open Gate Farm was losing direct
contact with the science fiction professional and fan world within
which we had previously functioned.
It may have
been no accident that we would be confronted by a mass
invasion of crickets that fall, something I'd never seen before and
haven't witnessed since.
isolated on a farm which had no gate of any kind but a
very long driveway while listening to a symphony of crickets bespeak
our situation had its advantage inasmuch as it threw us back on our own
company. Cory and I spent the next several years working on reconciling
our respective concepts and vocabularies. In the process, I discovered
just how bright Cory is, something that took me time to properly
particular skill was research and organization of data. In 1971
while I was teaching a course in science fiction at Cornell inherited
from Joanna Russ, Cory spent the summer in the university library going
through the Golden Age of the Campbell Astounding
at a time making intensive notes on every one which she kept in a black
binder I still have on my shelf of science fiction indexes today. In
times to come it would prove a unique and invaluable resource.
meantime, in spite of my newly-established success as a
writer of novels, I'd never let go of my basic inquiry into the true
nature of science fiction and I pursued it in a bi-monthly column for Fantastic
called "Science Fiction in Dimension."
1966, during my period of intense frustration over Heinlein
in Dimension and Rite of Passage,
I received a commission from Twayne Publishers to contribute a general
book on SF to their United States Authors series, and between May and
July of the following year I wrote one for them called Science
Fiction: A Critical Introduction.
But by the time I submitted the manuscript, the editor who'd asked for
the book had departed from the company and I got no response whatever
from them for month after month until I'd finally had enough and took
the manuscript back. I tried submitting it elsewhere a couple of times
without success but it was so tailored to the specifications of Twayne
that I was never really happy with it and soon killed it altogether.
as the Sixties were on their way out the door, my friend Ted White
inherited the editorship of Amazing and Fantastic,
two SF magazines of minimal circulation, and asked me to write a column
for him. With the turmoil then going on at Ace my fiction-writing
career was in limbo, so I accepted.
At first I
thought of the column as an extension of the essays on the nature of
science fiction I'd written for Yandro
in 1964, only paid for this time. And I would manage to keep writing
them for eighteen issues over the next three years—making a grand
total of $630 for doing it—while I was simultaneously at work on a
novel called The Son of Black Morca, a fantasy
set against a science fictional background.
seven installments of "Science Fiction in Dimension" were
devoted to an alternate history of science fiction that Cory and I were
evolving based around the idea that science fiction wasn't really about
future science and outer space as it was ordinarily considered to be,
but rather was about inner space—the head states of the people who
wrote the stories and of the audience that received them. These columns
would be the first work to be signed by both of us.
thinking in "Science Fiction in Dimension" had two
direct results. The first of these was that I made myself persona non
grata, apparently for life, with the academic community then beginning
to teach science fiction at the university level.
First I wrote
a column entitled "Science Fiction and Academe"
questioning whether academics were qualified to teach science fiction
at all. If that weren't bad enough, a month after it was published,
Cory and I attended a Secondary Universe Conference, an academic
gathering held in Toronto that year, where I delivered a talk, later
another column, entitled "Metaphor, Analogy, Symbol and Myth." My fatal
sin then occurred when I told the whole gathered conference that
science fiction couldn't be addressed effectively using the same
analytical conventions they were accustomed to applying to mundane
fiction, but had to be addressed on its own terms. Science fiction
criticism needed to be science fictional in nature.
professor Leslie Fiedler, who I think was positively
disposed toward us, rose at that point to ask whether I really meant
what I was saying. I said I did mean it. And ever since then, science
fictional academia has treated me as a non-person—and who could
blame them? It has to be affronting to be told that the peripheral
territory you think unoccupied and unexploited and ripe for possession
is in fact not a secondary universe at all, and is not your property,
and what's more you haven't got the key to it.
result was that three years after we finished our column,
we would be contacted by Ricardo Valla, editor for Italian publisher,
Editrice Nord. He proposed to publish those final seven columns as a
book, and we agreed to it. It was duly issued in the spring of 1978
under the title Mondi Interiori, which is to say,
1973, having learned of the forthcoming publication of Time
Enough for Love, a new novel featuring Lazarus Long, the
central character of Heinlein's 1941 Astounding
serial Methuselah's Children,
I wrote a long essay of the same title in a single week discussing what
the book would need to be in order to satisfactorily attend to the
unfinished business of the earlier story. When I was done, I sent a
copy of the manuscript to Heinlein. He read it and made copious notes
in the margins addressed to me. But then he didn't share them with me.
managed to catch up with Heinlein's marked copy in recent
times in the Heinlein Archives. He protested that it was a book review
of a book I hadn't read. He didn't understand that the essay was
speculative criticism—along the lines of his "speculative fiction"—a
science fictional reading of a forthcoming science fiction book,
exactly the kind of reading I didn't think the academicians were
capable of doing.
Ah, but then
I did it again. On the heels of the last seven columns for Fantastic,
I tested out our new alternate interpretation of science fiction on
Robert Heinlein in an essay called "Reading Heinlein Subjectively."
didn't appreciate it. When asked by young fan Gary Farber,
he wouldn't admit to having read it, but he didn't like it. He thought
I was reading his mind when I was only reading his stories and what
they really said about him.
Creative Imagination and Transcendence
Sixties were a period of difficulty and frustration for me
during the years in the wilderness before my annus mirabilis of 1968,
the Seventies would prove to be an even more trying time for me and my
the decade it seemed that nothing could go right. New
material failed to sell. Anthology proposals went nowhere. I couldn't
crack non-SF markets. There were stories I tried to write but couldn't
finish. I had work commissioned that was never used. I even had a
signed contract for a hardcover version of Rite of Passage
torn up because "Ace stole our accounting department. We don't do
business with Ace."
selling The Son of Black Morca, now called Earth
Magic, without success. Rite of Passage
was turned down a mere thirteen times. Earth Magic
was turned down twenty-eight times before it was finally mis-published.
may have come the closest to telling me why. He said the
story was about surrender. And I told him that he was right about that.
"I could never surrender."
"That's because you've already surrendered. Moslems say
there are a hundred names of God. I don't know what they are, but one
of them might be 'science,' and 'science' is the name to which you've
made your surrender."
biggest hangup during that difficult time was writing a
definitive book on the nature of science fiction with which I could
live. Starting with Science Fiction: A Critical Introduction
for Twayne in the Sixties, we made six different attempts at it.
most interesting of these failures was The F&SF
History of Modern Science Fiction, a compilation of book
reviews from the magazine together with extensive commentaries.
The book that
went the farthest was called Masters of Space and Time.
David Hartwell at Pocket Books liked it enough to give us a contract
for it, but thought we should start it at an earlier point than we had.
However, before we had completed the necessary research and writing,
David lost his job and once again we were left without an editor,
writing on pure speculation.
always a problem for us. We lived month to month and hand
to mouth, getting by on occasional sales and erratic payment, temporary
jobs, credit card advances, help from both sets of parents, and finally
welfare and food stamps.
I might have
regularized my income by taking a day job like a normal
person, but I never did that. Instead, I adopted Bob Dylan's attitude
that I was doin' God's work and just kept grinding away at it.
I lost a year
altogether in 1975-76. In what was a bad time for the
industry, it had become clear to me that the royalty statements I was
receiving from Ace were completely unreliable. There was one printing
of Rite of Passage I wasn't even notified of let alone paid for.
Ace had long
had a reputation for shorting their authors including
one notorious case when a writer had both sides of an Ace Double and
then received wildly different sales figures for each of them. When I
had had enough of being jobbed I circulated a questionnaire to the
members of the Science Fiction Writers of America asking about their
experiences with Ace.
vulnerable and are used to being cheated, but the
results of my survey were so unmistakable that the SFWA was compelled
to act. The organization audited Ace's financial books and as a result
the company had to pay its authors no less than half a million dollars
they had wrongfully withheld.
was told I was owed $4000. But I had all my statements
and that was clearly much less than I was due. So I rejected the
settlement, and took Ace to arbitration as called for in my contract.
Ace was overwhelmed by my stack of paper and offered me $10,000, and
even though I knew the true figure was higher than that, at that point
I was thoroughly exhausted and took what I was offered.
result of instigating the audit and then following it up
with successful arbitration was that I made myself anathema in the SF
publishing world. This meant that I'd now managed to alienate three
different powerful parties—Heinlein and his Idolaters, science
fiction academics, and science fiction publishers. And once again I
wouldn't be forgiven for my transgressions.
thing was that Cory and I continued to survive. When the
money had to be there, somehow it always was. That wasn't an easy way
to live and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a
mandate and know it, and a nose to follow.
Even so, in
the midst of all this failure and frustration, the work
we were doing went on. The most important result of this was that Cory
and I had the time and solitude to develop two new key concepts.
The first of
these was that the essential quality that made science
fiction and fantasy different from ordinary "realistic" fiction was
what we termed transcendence.
In any SF
story—in order for it to be SFnal—there is always
some non-existent element. And that quality was what all the future
science and unknown realms of being of science fiction have been about.
idea we developed was that the interior element expressed
by SF writers wasn't merely a matter of personal psychology as we'd
suggested at first but rather was creative imagination.
had first been used by L. Sprague de Camp in his essay for Reginald
Bretnor's Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future
back in 1953. But de Camp hadn't made the most of its implications
because he immediately denied that creative imagination derived from
"divine inspiration, universal consciousness, racial memory, or some
other suppositous non-sensory factor." Instead de Camp insisted that it
meant moving around known pieces of knowledge and information and
arranging them in novel ways.
The two of us
picked up on the phrase in Henry Corbin's 1969 book Creative
Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, which these days
passes by the alternate title Alone with the Alone.
al-'Arabi (1165-1235) was a Sufi master, a prolific
writer and poet who was born in Spain and died in Damascus, known to
this day by those who follow him as the Highest Teacher. There's even a
current American group founded in 1977 called The Ibn 'Arabi Society.
book a distinction is made between the imaginary—which was what L. Sprague de Camp was actually invoking when he spoke
of recombining elements received through the senses in new and
meaningful or useful ways—and the imaginal, which is the expression
of things not previously existent.
Cory and I
came to a recognition that the creative imagination is
the means by which transcendence is perceived and then expressed. And
the World Beyond the Hill—the realm of that which lies beyond
ordinary knowledge—is the place where transcendence dwells.
that country of non-existent things is the very same place that's
represented in the Jaro Hess poster The Land of Make Believe
which first captured my imagination when I was a small child and that I
was seeking thereafter by reading fairy tales and then science fiction.
concepts in place, it was finally possible for us to
write the book on science fiction we'd been struggling with for so
long, but it would take us a further ten years to do it.
Encountering the Sufis
It was no
accident that we found the concept of the creative imagination in a
book about the Sufis' greatest teacher.
encountered the Sufis as a freshman at the University of
Michigan in the fall of 1958. In my first semester I had four required
courses—or perhaps it was three—and one free elective. So I went
through the catalog of courses available, most of which weren't open to
freshmen, and for whatever reason picked out one titled Great Books of
the Near East, at that point having no idea of what college courses
were like or what the great books of the Near East might be.
was George Makdisi. There were only four students in the
class, three upperclassmen and me, and we all sat around a rectangular
table in a small room with me on the right side and Mr. Makdisi at the
The one book
we were to read that I can recall nearly sixty years later was The
Confessions of Al Ghazali.
But the books in the course weren't available at the college bookstore.
We had to order them from Blackwell's in England. And the books didn't
arrive and didn't arrive. At least half the term went by before they
So there we
were, the four of us, in a reading course with nothing
to read. It became a matter of Mr. Makdisi talking and us asking
questions. But the three upperclassmen—one at the end nearest the
door and two across the table from me—didn't have much to say, so it
largely became Mr. Makdisi talking and me, the new kid in school,
asking questions of him.
It was a
strange and intriguing experience because I soon came to
the conclusion that while we were using the same words, they didn't
mean the same thing to the two of us, and I had to figure out what he
was getting at by guess and by gosh. It was far and away the most
stimulating course I ever had in college and I was spoiled by it
because I thought all college would be that way and it never was again
until an open discussion course with Margaret Useem in my last two
terms at Michigan State six years later.
I'm not sure
that we ever talked about the Sufis as such—even
though the books, when they did come, all proved to be Sufi classics.
It was only years later that I came to the conclusion that Mr. Makdisi
himself was a Sufi and this was what Sufis were like. However, the
course had a great impact on my way of thinking which remained with me
me say that once late in the year and a half that I
spent at the University of Michigan, I passed Mr. Makdisi in a busy
hallway between classes. But I didn't speak to him and he didn't speak
In the years
following my University of Michigan experience with Mr.
Makdisi, I checked out what various reference books of the time could
tell me about the Sufis. But I found what they had to say superficial,
contradictory and unhelpful. Here's a typical entry from The
of a Mohammedan sect of mystics, mentioned, for
instance in Omar Khayyam. The literal meaning of the word is 'clad in
while I was working as a librarian for the Brookyn Public Library, I
found Idries Shah's The Sufis,
a very strange book which began with a fable, followed it with a series
of jokes about a wise fool named Nasrudin, and eventually pointed to
connections between the Sufis and a variety of Western manifestations
like alchemy, the Knights Templar and Francis of Assisi.
got hung up in the passages on the abjad system of
numerical word equivalence, which seemed dubious to me at best. Then I
left the book on the subway by accident from where, fortunately, it was
returned to the library. But I didn't go back to it and pick up where
I'd left off.
caught my attention was an essay by Doris Lessing
entitled "What Looks Like an Egg and Is an Egg" in the May 7, 1972 New
York Times Book Review which cited no fewer than nine of
I found one
of these books, a collection of Nasrudin stories—The
Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin—in the Bucks
County Free Library. It was illustrated by Richard Williams, the man
who would do the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Nasrudin story for you:
bought a donkey. Someone told him that he would have to
give it a certain amount of food every day. This he considered to be
too much. He would experiment, he decided, to get it used to less food.
Each day, therefore, he reduced its rations.
Eventually, when the donkey was reduced to almost no food at all, it
fell over and died.
"Pity," said the Mulla. "If I had a little more time before it died, I
could have gotten it accustomed to eating nothing at all."
more of the books named in Lessing's essay in paperback
form from Kenny's bookstore in Doylestown. And the book order lady Mrs.
White put me in touch with Gus Linton, somebody who was ordering the
same books that I was.
Over the more
than forty years of our friendship, Gus has proven to
be the only person I've ever come in contact with who was also reading
Shah's Sufi books. What is particularly interesting is that Gus and I
have rarely if ever discussed the substance of those books.
All of Shah's
books are subtly different in arrangement and outward
appearance from each other, and each of them is the same in terms of
having an unpredictable, enigmatic and provocative nature. In addition
to jokes, the materials they present include dervish teaching stories,
anecdotes, original stories, translations from classical Persian poets
like Rumi, lectures, and conversations.
Three of my
particular favorites are Thinkers of the East, The
Way of the Sufi, and Learning How to Learn.
The first of these offers lessons in conduct and conception from
various Sufi teachers. The second is translations and statements from
different Sufi manifestations over a thousand year period. And the
third consists of lengthy responses to various questions received by
like Gus, could as legitimately choose three other books.
I was amused
and entertained by what I was reading, and I also
learned from it. I certainly didn't understand everything that I read.
Just as when I first encountered science fiction, I had to hold opinion
in abeyance, accumulate and integrate information, and work out for
myself what was really going on.
really going on was not indoctrination in a belief system. Rather it
was learning the nuances of an operating system.
times, I've encountered a Sufistic (because anyone can
claim to be a Sufi) guru figure saying that people have read Shah's
books for ten, twenty, thirty or forty years and gotten nowhere with
them. Which is quite true, I'm sure. What you get out of these books is
what you are prepared to get out of these books, and the very fact of
his own stuckness is evidence that he never did the necessary work.
It turns out
that none of the material made available by Shah is
actually Sufic in nature. Rather it's the byproduct of past Sufic
is that even the name Sufi and the presence of Sufis in
the shelter of Islam for a matter of centuries is only partial and
temporary. What Sufis do and how they do it antedates Islam and can and
does go on outside its parameters.
What Shah was
teaching in his forty books was not Sufism, but rather
learning what is necessary in order to be capable of operating in a
Me, I haven't
gotten to the bottom of those books yet. There's much
in them that I still don't fathom after all these years, but I'm
working on it.
The Business of the Sufis
One night in
the privacy of a hotel bedroom turned coatroom at a
convention party for science fiction professionals, I said to Roger
Zelazny that he was the last SF writer to have had an influence on me
like writers such as A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, and Fredric
It was Robert
Heinlein who'd been my first and primary science
fictional mentor. I found him immensely broad, and learned from that
breadth. There's no question in my mind that after he entered the
field, Heinlein widened the parameters of science fiction again and
however, I found I had a talent for identifying
Heinlein's limits. The primary one was that while he was very good at
unifying information outside himself and presenting it in unusual and
cleverly-phrased ways, when he and his identifications were questioned,
he would short out.
Sturgeon—had demonstrated to me how well science
fiction could be written. But I told him that influence had ceased
after his novel Lord of Light, and I asked him
what had changed. He indicated his baby asleep on the adjacent bed and
said, "I had a living to make."
point I discovered science fiction by way of Heinlein until
then, SF had given me information, broadened my horizons and fed my
imagination, but after this it no longer taught me in the same way. I
was still curious to know its essential nature, but it was no longer my
primary teaching source.
This is when
my attention shifted to learning from the Sufis.
particularly liked about the Sufi material Idries Shah
provided was that it could be understood in multiple ways, each with
its own validity. It could be both ha-ha and a-ha at the same time.
Heinlein might have breadth, but the Sufis had depth.
that one statement or joke might have as many as seven
different levels of meaning. And the Sufis were also masters of
"scatter"—providing bits of knowledge that readers had to accumulate
and integrate for themselves. Shah provided the material, but you had
to permit it to make its significance known to you and in the process
raise your level of perception.
difficulty was that Sufis were nowhere to be found. The Sufis
weren't a public presence. You might show every sign of interest in
them, but never be recruited or enlisted by them. Shah always said that
in order to make Sufic progress, a teacher was necessary, but where
were those teachers?
I only had a
few glancing encounters with Shah. Gus Linton, Cory and
I traveled to New York City to view a screening of "One Pair of Eyes,"
a BBC program by Shah shown by Tony Hiss, the son of Alger Hiss, which
is now available on YouTube.
The three of
us traveled again to New York to the New School for
Social Research to listen to a well-attended lecture by Shah arranged
by psychologist Robert Ornstein. Ornstein was the author of The
Psychology of Consciousness,
a book which introduced many people to the concept of the functional
specialization of the two halves of the brain, and he would later write
The Mind Field which discusses the
Sufis in contemporary Western psychological terms.
A few years
later the lecture we heard that day would form the first half of a book
called Neglected Aspects of Sufi Study.
I remember two things in particular from the event itself. One was that
Shah held up his right hand in front of the microphone and
demonstrated—quite plausibly—the sound of one hand clapping. The other
during a break in the session, I heard one person complaining loudly
that Shah was only saying things that were already to be found in his
sent Shah a newspaper clipping about a campus goose which
had been killed by a student who said the goose had startled him while
he was meditating. I received a note back signed by O.M Burke, whom I
knew as the author of a book called Among the Dervishes,
saying that Idries Shah hoped to meet me some day.
been recently that I read A Noose of Light, the
memoirs of Alan Tunbridge, who designed book jackets for Shah for
twenty years. He said that Burke was a pseudonym of Shah's.
used the clipping as far as I know, and we never did meet—unless, of course, the statement meant that Shah hoped that I might
learn something from his books.
period of failure and frustration in the Seventies when
Cory and I were attempting without success to write one book after
another on the true nature of SF, I wrote to Leonard Lewin, a professor
of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado and holder of
many patents, who had edited a book called The Diffusion of
Sufi Ideas in the West,
saying that we had run into an impasse on the subject of science
fiction and wondering how we might connect ourselves to the Sufi work.
He answered by giving a page reference in The Exploits of
the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. When I looked it up, the
story was this:
Nasrudin searching for something on the ground.
"What have you lost, Mulla?" he asked. "My key," said the Mulla. So
they both went down on their knees to look for it.
After a time, the other man asked: "Where exactly did you drop it?"
"In my own house."
"Then why are you looking here?"
"There's more light here than in my own house."
I took that
as a clue that I should look for my key in the dark
where I'd dropped it. So we persevered at the work we had been doing
and eventually produced The World Beyond the Hill.
What made The
World Beyond the Hill different from what we
had written previously and from other books on the subject of science
fiction was that our central concern was not who had written science
fiction or where it had been published, but rather the cumulative
development of its images of transcendence—its imaginal vehicles,
the non-existent places they went to, and the beings that were
encountered there—and how these affected the familiar world of
ordinary assumption and experience, the so-called "real world".
World Beyond the Hill received praise from people
outside science fiction like Northrop Frye and Charles Tart as well as
from SF giants like Isaac Asimov. It also won a Hugo Award in 1990 for
Best Related Non-Fiction Book.
I drew two
conclusions from writing the book. The first was that it
wasn't an accident that I'd been told by Leonard Lewin to keep working
on the subject of science fiction.
What I would
say now is that connections exist between the Sufis and
science fiction. I don't know exactly what active hand the Sufis may
have taken in seeding and feeding the development of SF, but I can tell
you that at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century when the Western
world, mesmerized by its newfound rationalism, had largely lost touch
with the creative imagination, the two means of its preservation and
re-introduction in Europe were collections of fairy tales like those by
Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy and the publication of The
Arabian Nights, and that among the stories contained in that
book were Sufi teaching stories.
conclusion that I came to is that the work of the Sufis
has always been to help humanity grow up and complete its unfinished
business of becoming fully human. The essence of Idries Shah's work was
to break the grip of conventional Western habit and assumption in order
to admit a more comprehensive form of knowledge access to our minds.
died, Shah told his son Tahir two vital things. One was
that his books constituted a complete Sufic teaching program. The other
was that if Sufism came to the West, it wouldn't be called Sufism.
of what Shah had to offer would seem to have been to
produce a new order of Sufically-developed people who aren't known as
and I finally completed The World Beyond the Hill,
as a writer who's not-a-Sufi I was faced with the question of what I
should write next. I'm gathering the result in a book which like this
essay is called Following My Nose.
Part One of
the book is my imaginal autobiography—how I got where
I am today by means of science fiction and the Sufis, and what the
puzzling turns my writing has taken through the years have been about.
part is the irrational adventures of a rational man—how my father made the transition from his boyhood as the youngest of
thirteen children in a family of provincial aristocrats in southern
Russia to a radically different adulthood in America as a professor of
wood technology who built and lived in a house of the future, all
thanks to a marvelous series of unacknowledged miracles. I once made a
count of them all and came up with a dozen.
part is about Lewis Carroll and the happy afternoon on which he
improvised the beginning of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—the falling-down-a-rabbit-hole story—and how the story came into
part is an account of the early stories of A.E. van Vogt—the once well-known but presently under-appreciated science fiction
writer whose prose was lumpy and full of holes but whose concepts and
images underlie Star Trek, and Alien,
and Dr. Who,
as well as any number of Philip K. Dick movies, plus Marvel Comics
super-heroes, not to mention Japanese anime, manga and video
games—documenting his fictional exploration of the idea of an emergent
order of man.
part consists of three different views of the crucial
wrong move made by Robert Heinlein, the dominant science fiction writer
of his era, when he turned his back on the personal mandate he'd been
given to take giant mutant blue chipmunks dwelling in an interstellar
ship that's lost its way, lead them out of the basement in which they
presently reside, and show them the stars.