Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




     There is an amount of presumption in any critical book, and perhaps altogether too much in any critical book that deals with a particular author, especially one who is still living.  The final presumption in such a case is a chapter of conclusions.  On the one hand, the form of a book demands that having spent 70,000 words in sketching a writer's career and discussing his methods and his attitudes, a critic should put some sort of capstone in place.  On the other, the writer may not be ready for any sort of capstone, let alone a monument and epitaph.  It may well be that Heinlein has a Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Period ahead of him.  He may even be in a new period right now that I am too near to discern clearly. 
    If I were to guess where Heinlein is going from here and were wrong, I would look foolish.  If I were to guess where Heinlein is going from here and were right, I would sound either sycophantic or impertinent -- and possibly both.  I prefer to look on this book as an interim report, and one that can and should be argued with.  Even in the ground that it covers, there remains much to be said. I hope others will take the time to say it. 
    Still, I think this book demands a conclusion.  Rather than talk of Heinlein's immediate future, however, I'd like to leave his career still open-ended and talk instead of Heinlein's ultimate place in science fiction and his final stature as a writer, something remote enough to be relatively unembarrassing. 
    It is clear right now that even if his career were to be over, Heinlein would retain a historical place in company with Wells and Stapledon.  Awards would be named after him, his name would be cited, and his health would be drunk. This historical position has two bases. 
    The first of these is the story-telling techniques that Heinlein developed and that have been generally copied within the field.  It is these, I think, that caused de Camp's eighteen leading writers in 1953 to name Heinlein as the only contemporary science fiction writer who had influenced them.  I can't help but believe that a similar poll taken today would again acknowledge Heinlein's influence. 
    Most of the stories of the thirties were not basically extrapolative.  They depended on color, flash, movement, and raw idea, and they were comparatively lacking in detail and a concern for consequence.  Heinlein showed that it was possible to have both detail and consequence without any loss of dramatic impact and with a very definite gain in verisimilitude. 
    The last twenty-five years of science fiction may even be taken in large part as an exploration by many writers of the possibilities inherent in Heinlein's techniques.  It is this shift from basically speculative stories to basically extrapolative stories that accounts, I think, for Sam Moskowitz's lost sense of wonder.  I think there are evidences now of a shift back toward speculation, but these new speculative stories differ from the old ones in being built on an extrapolative base.  Heinlein's insistence in talking clearly, knowledgeably, and dramatically about the real world destroyed forever the sweet, pure, wonderful innocence that science fiction once had.  However, it cost it none of its range of possibility, and in fact, even extended its range.  It simply killed innocence.  In a sense, Heinlein may be said to have offered science fiction a road to adulthood. 
    The second basis for Heinlein's importance in science fiction is his position as the first, and so far, the most serious exponent of a particular sort of story. 
    It is fair, I think, to say that there are four general types of science fiction stories, plus various hybrids.  The four are adventure, satirical, extrapolative, and speculative.  The techniques of extrapolation that Heinlein developed are equally applicable to all four. 
    Heinlein himself has most often applied his techniques to extrapolative stories.  Other authors have done as much -- Mission of Gravity is an extrapolative story that is totally unlike anything Heinlein has ever done -- it is a particular type of extrapolative story that Heinlein can take credit for. 
    Most science fiction, even basically extrapolative science fiction, has concentrated almost as a matter of course on the atypical situation, the abnormal, the extraordinary.  It has never been willing to stand still and examine the ordinary person functioning normally in a strange context.  Yet life today and life yesterday have both been composed most commonly of the routines of living.  There is no reason to suppose that tomorrow won't be the same. 
    The problem has been that science fiction has been a pulp literary form, and without any question by anyone has automatically served us pulp plots, pulp motivations, and pulp action-for-the-sake-of-action.  We want variety in our fiction, to be sure, but the future is already strange. We don't have to compound the strangeness by tossing in monsters, revolts, chases, fights, torture, Imperial Guards, people-eating machines, and fertility rituals.  There is room enough for drama without them.  As Damon Knight has said, "Let us sit still, and unroll our mats, and tell our tales."*   There is true drama and unlimited possibility in stories about people who live lives that are strange to us, but normal to them. 
    Robert Heinlein is the one science fiction writer who has regularly dealt with the strange-but-normal.  Most often this has been in terms of chapters, or in short stories.  Occasionally, as in Farmer in the Sky, it has been in whole books.  He may not have taken this sort of story as far as it can go, but he has made possible those first-rate stories on this model that are yet to be written.  If there is as much potential in this vein as I believe, it is added reason to honor Heinlein's name. 
    To be a historical figure, however, says nothing about literary currency.  What sort of reputation is Heinlein likely to achieve?  Which of his books are likely to continue to be read 
    This depends in part on the future of science fiction.  Heinlein is bound so inextricably with science fiction that if the field were to fail, so would Heinlein. 
    Science fiction will probably never become much more widely popular than it is now, but I think it is likely to receive increasing amounts of serious critical attention and regard, and its unique possibilities and qualities are likely to be more widely recognized than they presently are.  This should happen when science fiction loses its pulp odor -- and that, I suspect, will occur when the science fiction magazines finally die.  If science fiction does eventually attract serious consideration, then necessarily so will Heinlein.  Heinlein is bound inextricably with science fiction, but the bonds are just as clear the other way:  Heinlein is a dominating figure in science fiction. 
    I would not be surprised to see Heinlein's reputation come eventually to resemble that of Kipling.  I am far from the first to notice their similarities.  Their temperaments seem similar.  Their attitudes toward life seem similar.  I think their reputations may come to be similar, too, specifically in two regards.  I think English letters will grant both small, secure places.  I think that security will be increased by the fact that unlike many important writers of the past -- including some of greater importance than either Kipling or Heinlein -- both men will continue to be read, and by a similar audience.  Today, Kipling is principally read by children -- if any of his work is neglected, it is that which was written specifically for adults.  Kim, "Captains Courageous," The Jungle Books, and Puck of Pook's Hill are the Kipling that continues to live.  In the same way, if Heinlein becomes neglected, I think it is his work for adults that will suffer.  I have no doubt that Red Planet, Starman Jones, and Have Space Suit--Will Travel will continue to hold readers for a good many years. 
    This assessment is merely a conjecture, of course -- but I can't help thinking that Kipling would enjoy having Heinlein in his corner.  They'd have things to talk about. 

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The print edition of Heinlein in Dimension is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690 or (autographed) from me .  $17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback.  I charge for shipping and handling, Advent doesn't. 
    For those who may be interested, the circumstances surrounding the writing of this book are described elsewhere at this site, in The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.

*In Search of Wonder, 2nd ed., p. 253.  [ Back

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee