Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Death of Science Fiction: A Dream

        by Alexei and Cory Panshin

1. The Mandarin's Butterfly

In 1960, a year which memory says should have been only yesterday, but which the evidences of change assure us was a long long time ago—a Chicago SF fan, a printer by trade named Earl Kemp, compiled and published a significant symposium entitled Who Killed Science Fiction? A strange and disturbing question, that. This publication was intended to win a Hugo Award, and it did.

In those days, Earl Kemp was frankly ambitious. He was a country boy come to the city to make his mark. He was—he says today, time and California having made their mark upon him—"a person me now wouldn't approve of, except for the abundance of energy." Science fiction fandom was Kemp's chosen field of endeavor. In the Fifties, he was a founding partner and the initial sparkplug of Advent, pioneer publishers of SF criticism and the publishers of Heinlein in Dimension and SF in Dimension. In 1962, Kemp would be the Chairman of a World Science Fiction Convention. If in 1960 he aimed deliberately for a best fan publication Hugo, it was as part of a career as a science fiction fan—and because the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes seemed beyond reach, while this did not.

Because now is now and not then, the true scale of Kemp's ambition is hard to fully appreciate. Chicon III, the Worldcon in Chicago over which Kemp presided, drew 550 people from all over the United States. So much have things changed in the years since that these days a convention held in mid-week in the second-best motel in Earl Kemp's native dale in Arkansas would likely draw that many.

Science fiction fandom today is a full order of magnitude larger than it was in 1960. In 1980, a sensibly-run regional SF convention may cut its membership off arbitrarily at 2500 attendees—if need be turning away people in order to keep the con to a tidy size. The time is at hand now when a World Science Fiction Convention will draw ten thousand people.

In 1960, Earl Kemp was out to make his stir amongst a much smaller number. In the present climate, when movie stars like Christopher Reeve may present dramatic Hugos at a World Science Fiction Convention, it takes a real leap of the imagination to see what things were formerly like and to perceive that the scale of Kemp's campaign to win his Hugo was on the order of an outside run to be elected King of High School Homecoming.

What Kemp did was to send a letter with five questions to 108 people, and to print the 71 replies he received. The questions were bad questions—sloppily formulated, presumptive of the answers that Kemp wanted to hear, repetitive and open-ended. The best of them were the first "Do you feel that magazine science fiction is dead?"—and the fourth—"Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation?"

What Kemp was inquiring about was not truly, "Who killed science fiction?" In fact, his questions were not really about science fiction at all, but about changes in publishing economics and practice and their effect on science fiction.

For thirty years before 1960, the chief mode of publication for science fiction was the pulp magazine. So long and intimate was the connection between the two that there were those who confused form and content—identifying science fiction with the pulps, the pulps with science fiction—and could not see how if the pulps died science fiction could continue to live. And now the pulps were dying. The magazines of science fiction that had flowered in such profusion during the Fifties were withering in bunches and who could say if any would survive?

Kemp's questions sought to know what was happening and what was going to happen and who was to blame for it all. From this distance it seems that he was asking for a maximally-emotional response to a situation that his respondents were actually powerless to affect. In politics, this is called demagoguery. What it might be called in a campaign to win a Hugo Award, we know not.

In those days, science fiction fandom was a small family and science fiction professionals were fans, amongst whom they were known affectionately as "dirty pros." Kemp had a wide acquaintance and a lot of nerve. Among the people who replied to his questions were science fiction editors: John Campbell, Anthony Boucher, H. L. Gold, Robert Lowndes, Ray Palmer, Damon Knight. James Blish, Robert Mills, Donald Wollheim and Hugo Gernsback. Every one of these, of course, was a writer of SF as well as an editor. Many other writers were represented as well: Poul Anderson replied to Kemp's survey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley; Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury; Robert Silverberg and E. E. Smith, Ph.D. Never before or since in the history of science fiction have so many people centrally involved in the production of science fiction stood and spoken to a common topic.

More or less, that is. The nature of the questions insured that the answers would shoot off in all directions.

Along with his hype title, his sensationalistic questions and his big gun contributors, it was part of Kemp's strategy to make his publication as rare as possible—an instant collector's item. He mimeographed and distributed only 125 copies of Who Killed Science Fiction? Seventy-one were sent to the contributors. Forty more were distributed to the membership of SAPS, the Spectator Amateur Press Society, one of a number of fan organizations for the generation and exchange of publications. Two copies went to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes. The final dozen copies were given to friends of Kemp.

So great was the prestige, the mystique of this publication—and so small and malleable was science fiction fandom then—that Kemp's strategy was completely successful. His publication did indeed win the Hugo it was aimed to garner. As Kemp says, "It was especially rewarding because it meant that the people who voted for Who Killed Science Fiction? were, in most instances, voting for something they had to borrow even to see, as there was no chance for them to own a copy."

And that was that. A successful coup—Kemp had his award. He went on from that to his convention chairmanship, and from there to a career in editing in California.

Years passed. Science fiction successfully completed the transition from the pulp magazine to the paperback book already in progress when Kemp set up his cry of doubt and accusation, and it even prospered. The content of science fiction and the nature of its audience changed and changed again.

And such was the lasting effect of Kemp's strategy in winning his award that for fully twenty years after 1960. no one was able to read Who Killed Science Fiction? It was not available unless you knew one of the contributors or a SAPS member vintage 1960. The two of us never saw a copy and never had a chance to read it in all that time.

On the other hand, such was the mystery and prestige of Kemp's award-winning symposium that the question asked by its title was given leave to take on life of its own: "Who killed science fiction?" Like the boy asking about the king's clothes, the effect of the existence of this unthinkable question was to make the unthinkable thinkable.

What was the degree of mortality of science fiction? Could its most fundamental materials and attitudes and assumptions become exhausted? What might follow them?

It is questions like these that underlie this book. If in these essays we have perceived SF as something like a phoenix, clearly dying in its incarnation as "modern science fiction" while simultaneously being reborn in new form—both the same SF as always and something crucially different—well, this is an image that is at least remotely owed to the existence of Who Killed Science Fiction?

We were reminded of this last summer when Earl Kemp's question, "who killed science fiction?", loomed up again out of nowhere at exactly that moment when we were most ready to appreciate its power and influence on our work. We were then in the earliest stages of planning this concluding essay for a new edition of SF in Dimension—an essay that by all rights should identify and resolve the recurring themes of this book—when a letter arrived from Earl Kemp.

Alexei had first met Earl Kemp at a World Science Fiction Convention in 1959, and after the manner of fandom had seen him half-a-dozen times over the years at science fiction gatherings. It was at one of these, and then another, in the mid-Sixties that Kemp suggested that Alexei write his critical book on the fiction of Robert Heinlein for Advent. That was in the days when Kemp still lived in Chicago and took an active role in the affairs of Advent.

Now, for old time's sake, Earl wished a favor. A new edition of Who Killed Science Fiction? was in progress and Earl wanted a contribution from Alexei. Four questions were enclosed.

How strange! How wonderful! There was no doubt that we would answer. The universal laws of reciprocal maintenance are inexorable, and we had no choice. But beyond that, we were as curious as anyone as to what really might be contained in the original edition of Who Killed Science Fiction? when Kemp's time capsule was finally opened to the light of day. We wanted to see what it had to say ourselves.

In 1960, there were none of today's dedicated collectors of interviews with science fiction writers. Interviewing science fiction writers is now a profession, even an industry, but Hugo Gernsback and E. E. Smith are long dead and there is no hauling them back for an interview with Darrell Schweitzer or Jeffrey Elliot. The opportunity offered by Who Killed Science Fiction? to overhear the likes of Gernsback and Smith now takes on the appearance of a special occasion—something like seeing rare silent movie footage of D. W. Griffith stalking about and flailing his arms—important for its documentary value, even though the event of record was a trivial, long-forgotten brouhaha.

If now, twenty years after, a contemporary publisher wished to reissue Who Killed Science Fiction? in updated and augmented form, dignifying this one-time mimeographed amateur publication with the immortality of hard covers and acid-free paper, we were more than ready to do what we could to help the project along. But it wasn't easy. Earl Kemp's questions presented difficulties.

The first one was: "Looking backward for twenty years at the fortunate turn of events that has brought us from science fiction's low reception in 1960 to today—what single event (or person) do you feel contributed most to 1980's success, particularly in academic circles and visual mediums such as television, film, etc.?"

That is a fuzzy and presumptive question. One of the things it presumes—like the original symposium questions in 1960—is that the container of science fiction is the same as the content. In 1960, there was an assumption that if science fiction publishing was undergoing transition, science fiction might be dying. In 1980, there is the assumption that the current commercial success of science fiction means that all is well with science fiction.

'Taint so.

Science fiction—modern science fiction, that flashy new form of SF that John W. Campbell mother-henned into being when he assumed the editorship of Astounding, the science fiction of the Golden Age, that science fiction—is dying.

Who killed science fiction?

Reduced to their essentials, Earl Kemp's new questions asked for comment on the current happy reception of science fiction, for looks backward twenty years, and forward, and for the choice of a favored science fiction book from the last twenty years.

The problem, the challenge, presented by the letter from Earl Kemp was to write an answer that said everything that needed to be said. In this new edition of Who Killed Science Fiction? it seemed only right to acknowledge just how much of a stimulation to our writing and thinking the title of this symposium had been. And since the nominal occasion for speaking at all was Earl Kemp's new questions, it seemed no less than appropriate to do our best to answer them. But, most urgent of all, it seemed proper, even necessary, to say what we really believed: that modern science fiction is an aged actor, a tired old gasper taking his last bows, with his bright young replacement already waiting in the wings preparing to take his place on stage.

How ever were we to say all of these incompatible things in almost no space at all? But then, SF itself regularly attempts to knit together the incompatible and express the impossible. Should less be asked of SF criticism?

Out of the materials at hand and our sense of what we had to say came the answer. We announced that we had solved the case at last. We knew, we said—half-serious, half-joking—who had killed science fiction. It was Robert Heinlein in his new novel, "The Number of the Beast— ".

Now it was by pure coincidence—some would say by meaningful synchronicity—that we had just read a copy of Heinlein's immense new fiction. As we are writing this, "The Number of the Beast—" has just been published in England and will not see print in the United States until this coming August. In the summer of 1979, Heinlein's book was placed in auction on the literary block in New York where it was knocked down for a reputed half-million dollars from a paperback house whose intention it is to issue the book in large paperback format with over fifty illustrations by Richard Powers.

Oh my my, have things changed since 1960 when H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy, could write in Kemp's symposium: "No writer should try to make his living out of science fiction." And Alfred Bester, who himself has prospered in the contemporary SF publishing boom, could say: "Sensible people have always known that science fiction is a luxury for the writer....  The man who dedicates himself exclusively to science fiction today has my sympathy, because he's fallen on hard times, but he doesn't have my respect."

Another measure of change from former days is to be seen in the great length of time between the sale of Heinlein's book and its publication. These days even a hot item like "The Number of the Beast—" may be in the publication pipeline for a year or year-and-a-half. That is a far cry from the early days of modern science fiction. Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line," saw print in the August 1939 issue of Astounding only four months after it was bought by Campbell.

Because of the auction, many copies of the typist's manuscript of "The Number of the Beast—" were in circulation in New York.

One of them drifted into our hands.

Now, this was no mere accident even if we didn't look for it to happen. We are interested in Heinlein's work. We have had more to say about his stories than anyone else. It is only natural in view of the power of an interest such as ours that the universe should arrange to grant us an early view of a new Heinlein novel.

But it never happened before.

Perhaps it is enough to say that here in our hand the Kemp questions were, and there across the room the Heinlein book was, and the two seemed to fit together. It was fate, intertwined destinies.

After all, Heinlein was the original link between Kemp and Alexei; and Heinlein in Dimension had been the reason that Heinlein, who abhors all discussion of his work, had ended his friendship with Kemp. So that was one reason for bringing Heinlein into our answer. Another was that if ever there was an example of the current clout of science fiction, about which Kemp was inquiring, it must surely be "The Number of the Beast—", the first half-million dollar SF book.

Most of all, however, if we indicted Heinlein's new book for being the culprit in the death of science fiction, it was because it was appropriate to do so. There can be no doubt at all that one of the specific intentions of "The Number of the Beast—" is to kill science fiction.

We wrote: "From the perspective of the year 2000, if one is concerned with the fate of science fiction, the most important book of the period 1960 to 1980 may well be Robert Heinlein's 'The Number of the Beast—', for Heinlein's deliberate undermining of the metaphysical centrality and veracity of the Future History series, Heinlein's fundamental contribution to modern science fiction."

If John W. Campbell, as editor of Astounding, was the architect of the Golden Age of science fiction, Robert Heinlein was its chief engineer. Heinlein has been the deepest as well as the most central writer of modern science fiction. That is the reason for our continuing interest in him.

Heinlein's impact upon science fiction was immediate. He sold "Life-Line" in April 1939. In the following year, he wrote no less than three short novels, four novelets and seven short stories. He was admired by Campbell and frankly hero-worshipped by Campbell's cleverest young disciple, Isaac Asimov. Asimov still remembers. In a recent anthology, Isaac Asimov Presents the Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 1, 1939, Asimov, now grown gray-haired and himself become an institution, says: "No one ever dominated the science fiction field as Bob did in the first few years of his career."

No less than eight of the stories that Heinlein wrote in his first year, including "Life-Line," were part of his Future History series. The effect of these stories, set against a common structuring of time-to-come, was to take the future—in earlier SF pictured as a remote, undifferentiated and alien location—and to bring it close and make it apprehensible. In the same way, Asimov, with the inspiration of Heinlein's example and with direction from Campbell, would put spatial and political structuring around the galactic expanses in his Foundation stories.

These structurings of space and time were absolutely central to modern science fiction. Asimov had it right—they were the foundation.

The great claim of modern science fiction was to realism and to truth. Until recently, it has been hard for a child born during the era of modern science fiction to appreciate how very different was the SF that came before it. That was wild speculation, baseless fantasy. Campbell as a new editor insisted on fact and upon extrapolations from fact. All those who found this too difficult or not to their taste—as Edmond Hamilton for one did—ceased to write for Astounding or were swept out of the magazine.

No more fuzzy romanticism. Campbell's modern science fiction was the way the future would be.

This conviction of ability to weigh and measure and map and historically recount the future is apparent in a statement Campbell made in a 1942 issue of Writer's Digest describing the fiction he wished to buy for Astounding. Terry Carr found it in a fanzine of the period and printed it in another recent anthology, Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age. Campbell said: "We want stories of the future told for scientifically trained, technically employed adults; central theme usually problems of an ordinary technician employed in an industry of fifty to fifty thousand years hence."

This was a pose. The fiction printed in Astounding was not really like this. But of the fiction printed in Astounding, that which was most like this description—and most concerned with increments of future time, besides—was Robert Heinlein's Future History stories.

It has been more than forty years since "Life-Line" was first published and through all that time, whenever lists have been assembled of essential books of modern science fiction, Heinlein's Future History stories have invariably been at the top. As late as 1980, among the respondents to Earl Kemp's new set of questions, more than one picked Heinlein's Future History stories as their favorite book of the last twenty years.

If you speak about the Future History stories of Robert Heinlein, you are talking about the spinal cord of modern science fiction.

Heinlein's new fiction, "The Number of the Beast—", is a very strange book. Like his other two novels of the last ten years, I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough for Love, Heinlein's new book is long, windy, rambling and private, an old man's fantasy far removed from the rigor and exactitude of the modern science fiction of the Campbell Astounding. In fact, it would be fair to say that "The Number of the Beast—" is not really a novel at all. Rather, it is something more like a long dramatic meditation on the relationship between reality and the imagination, an extended headtrip.

A few years ago, we heard Heinlein give a public talk. With the masterly timing and subtle misdirection of a quick-change artist, he rapped his knuckles on the lectern, saying, "I know the difference between this and reality."

Heinlein has always been a tricky devil, full of disguise and deceit under his surface of simplicity and command of fact. From the very first, he has known that one of the best ways to say the incredible and get away with it is to speak with such boldness and charm that no one credits you for a moment with sincerely believing what you are saying. Heinlein is still like that, but with wrinkles.

From the first, there was more to Robert Heinlein than the Future History. During the Thirties, before he began to write, he was into weird stuff. Among the stories that burst out of him during that first year of writing were two that John Campbell immediately rejected. They didn't fit into the structure of modern science fiction that he was erecting. One of these stories was "Lost Legacy," based on the cults that cluster around Mt. Shasta and worship the knowledge of Lemuria. The other, published by Campbell only after two years and rewriting, and then under the never-again-used pseudonym Caleb Saunders, was "Elsewhen," based on the six-dimensional space/time speculations of Pyotr Ouspensky, the disciple of the pop-eyed mystical master, Gurdjieff.

When Heinlein and Campbell got their signals straight, Heinlein went on to write the strangest and most powerful stories of the Golden Age—stories in which the light of wonder and mystery shines through holes that open in apparently straight-forward reality: "They," " 'And He Built a Crooked House'," "By His Bootstraps," and "Universe."

"The Number of the Beast—" is stranger than any of these. It is the queerest thing Heinlein has ever written.

From the beginning in this book, nothing is as it seems. This is a constructional principle.

Everything is misleading here, changing its role, changing its identity, revealing itself as something other than what it has been taken for. The initial chapter begins with what proves to be a case of mistaken identity. What has the appearance at first of a story with a robust action plot of the sort Heinlein was writing thirty years ago becomes a dimensional travelogue and four-way conversation by a gang of Robert Heinlein fans. (Yes, you may believe this: two prefer Stranger in a Strange Land, two the Future History series.) So tricky indeed is this book that it is at least an arguable possibility that by the end of the second of this book's forty-eight chapters, all four major characters are dead.

In this book, Ouspensky's six-dimensional space/time is brought forth again and raised to its own power and then raised again. Six to the sixth to the sixth. This is both 666, the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, and ten million sextillion plus, the number of universes that are available to be explored in what at first is called, misleadingly, a time machine. This opener of dimensions, of course, the book being what it is, at first is mistaken by one of the characters for a portable sewing machine.

Heinlein's characters are goosed into flight by an encounter with what they call a "Black Hat"—an alien lobster disguised as a Forest Ranger. They identify this Black Beast with the Beast of Revelation, quoting to each other—" 'And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and spake as a dragon'." Heinlein's characters chop this creature to pieces with swords, and then, in fear and trembling, off the voyagers dash into the dimensions of space, time and the imagination.

These characters are named "Carter" and "Burroughs." One is even named "Dejah Thoris." They travel first to Mars, which they jokingly call "Barsoom." And they go much further, from one storybook universe to another. They buzz Lilliput, and they travel to Oz. They even encounter E. E. Smith in the guise of a Lensman—as though after death authors were preserved as characters in their own fictions.

But here, too, there are problems of identity. "Barsoom" turns out not to be Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars. Instead the story has British and Russian colonies locked in imperial struggle on Mars—as though this switched situation were something that Heinlein remembered from another scientific romance that he had read in boyhood. And can one completely believe and assent to an Oz where Glinda the Good speaks of "lebensraum"—with all the connotations of bully-boy brutality that word has had in the Twentieth Century?

But that is this book for you. At any given moment, values seem fixed and secure, but a blink of the eye, a turn of the head, and values and facts prove to have shifted.

And everywhere that Heinlein's characters travel through the ten million sextillion universes of the imagination, they encounter evidences of the mysterious Black Beast they have killed—appearing as one, appearing as many, appearing in disguise, appearing under a variety of names like "wog" and "vermin," but always hanging around.

One important clue as to what is going on in this strange book is offered in an episode where Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, is encountered by Dejah Thoris Burroughs Carter beside a rabbit hole. The chosen mode of discourse between them is the sorites. This is a logical form in which a number of apparently separate propositions are set forth—such as "When I work a Logic-example without grumbling, you may be sure it is one I can understand" and "I can'n't understand examples that are not arranged in regular order, like those I am used to"—and a chain of reasoning must be followed through them to produce some proposition not explicitly stated—such as "No kitten with green eyes will play with a gorilla."

In the mouth of Lewis Carroll, Heinlein places a sorites borrowed from Carroll's book Symbolic Logic, the implicit conclusion of which is, "All my dreams come true." Deety replies with another sorites—lightly adapted from another of Carroll's examples—to indicate that the machine nearby is a time-traveling device.

It becomes apparent that "The Number of the Beast—" itself is a kind of sorites. It piles one screwy statement on top of another. The promise of this book is that if a chain of reasoning is discovered and followed back and forth, through and around the events of the story, unusual conclusions not explicitly stated will be forthcoming.

It has been a constructional principle of modern science fiction for little bits of information to be scattered here and there, by the way and between the lines. It is a requirement of the genre that out of facts and clues and fragments of action, the reader must assemble a picture of the on-going context and meaning of the science fiction story. Heinlein was the originator and first master of this technique.

What is presented in "The Number of the Beast—" is a challenge of integration to the reader something like this, but far more difficult because here there are no facts that can be firmly and finally trusted. All is tentative, all is in doubt, no matter how positively stated or presumably true. There is no firm foundation here, unlike a traditional modern science fiction story, for a stable reality to be built upon.

However, at least one conclusion can definitely be drawn if the information revealed here and there in "The Number of-the Beast—" is carefully knitted together: The home base of the four central characters of the story is not our continuum, and the Future History continuum—where they encounter and join forces with Lazarus Long—is neither their own future nor ours.

In short, "The Number of the Beast—" says that the Future History stories—the backbone, the life-line of modern science fiction—are not the future. Nor the future of any world remotely parallel to our own. According to "The Number of the Beast—", the Future History is to be found at right angles to our continuum. It is as explicitly storybook a universe as Oz.

At a stroke, the pretensions of modern science fiction are ended.

The chief engineer of the modern science fiction project has himself set the charge and pressed the button that must slowly, beautifully, majestically bring the modern science fiction edifice crumbling, tumbling down. Heinlein knew what he was doing and did it deliberately.

It was no accident. Story and the imagination is what this book is about.

Who killed science fiction?

If one person is to be given credit or blame, it should be Robert Heinlein

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