Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Death of Science Fiction: A Dream

        Part 2  

2. The Butterfly's Mandarin

During the summer that we read "The Number of the Beast—" and answered Earl Kemp's letter, on through the fall and into the winter, we considered the subject of this essay and what it should contain. The severest critic of the first edition of SF in Dimension wrote of it—"the book has no form or structure and is annoyingly repetitive." If we were to write a new concluding essay for our book, it should do its level best to sum all the aspects of our varying explorations of the dimensions of SF and make them one. It should show that underlying form or structure of the book that is composed partly out of repetition and partly not—like the pattern of music made out of rhythm and repetition, sounds and silence. SF in Dimension itself is a kind of inadvertent sorites, a sorites by accumulation. This new essay should trace the webwork of thought that weaves through these essays and binds them together.

Having vowed to remedy this flaw in our book, we then came to think that this essay should do even more. It should present the philosophy of this book, and the aesthetic of this book. It should demonstrate one more time the tools and techniques we have evolved in the course of this book. It should solve puzzling questions left unanswered in earlier essays. It should be an experiment, one more exploration of SF, that multi-dimensional elephant in the dark. It should further the sorites by one more premise and conclusion.

All these "shoulds" on the shoulders of one unwritten essay.

But, at this point, we did have two necessities in hand. We had a practical aim: to satisfy—in our own terms and to the best of our ability—our sense of what might be necessary to make an indisputable whole of SF in Dimension. And we had an ideal goal for this essay: it should be an all-in-all, a one-hand trapeze act, a perfect dazzling expression of the nature and meaning of SF at one singular moment in time. Knowing that we were bound to fail. Knowing that All can never be told, but only indicated.

Still, that was the ideal we had in mind. You have to have an ideal in mind.

What was left for us to discover was the materials out of which our essay should be fabricated. Throughout all these essays, as far as our ideals and our speculations may have taken us, it has been our studied intent to stick to the letter of our texts, to respect the actual facts of SF. That is why we are given to quote so much.

To help us decide what we should read, and what we should write about, and how we should cast this piece, we went back to the beginning of SF in Dimension and read it through. Going back over things again often yields new perspectives and new conclusions. This time through we saw the essays dividing into three lines of investigation: one, probes into the nature and history of SF; two, reconsiderations of the particular strengths and characteristic limitations of Robert Heinlein as the predominant and epitomal writer of modern science fiction; three, descriptions of the current state of SF, inner and outer, in terms of books and the marketplace, as it changed through the Seventies, together with attempts to peer into the future.

Could all these different lines be braided together in a single pattern?

The materials out of which we might turn sausage into elephant were at hand. All that was required of us was to have steady nerves and to serve as transformers:

Appropriate to our first line of investigation, there was Who Killed Science Fiction?, which had been the long-ago, half-forgotten-'til-now stimulus for our inquiries into the nature and history of SF. Here it was again, a basis for discussion, just when we needed it. We decided to call Earl Kemp up and hustle him for a copy.

For point two, by happy synchronicity, there was "The Number of the Beast— ", Heinlein's first new novel since Time Enough for Love in 1973. This was a book immensely pertinent to the subject of modern science fiction—and we had a copy in our hands, another tool presenting itself as necessary.

For a description of the current state of SF, all we need do was look about us. In the days of the Golden Age, only a small number of novels were published in the science fiction magazines, and only the rarest SF book saw print. In our youth, science fiction books were still so rare and precious that when we saw one, we would slip it under our coat and run away chuckling. These days, SF books are published by the hundred—however slow the process for any one book—and all that is necessary is to sort amongst them to discover which of them have new things to say.

During all the years in which we wrote our regularly occasional book review essays for F&SF, we were always highly constrained in our choice of books. We had to find those that were not already chosen by the usual reviewer, Algis Budrys. We had to discover like books, or likenesses in books, as we could and discuss them in a very limited space. This time we had the opportunity to do something very different. We could take a broad overview of the books of the field, and not merely play with one circumscribed point of observation. Anything at all that it was appropriate to say, we could take the space to say. Any current SF book that chose to speak up and bear witness to the contemporary state of modern science fiction could be quoted, discussed or used by way of example.

We sorted through the stacks of freebie SF books from one publisher and another piled up on the library floor and chose out the most interesting. We let editors take us out to lunch and press on us their hottest new and forthcoming books. We called publishers for review copies of books that we had heard of and wanted to see. We collected hardcover books and paperbacks, galleys and manuscripts. We even bought books off the newsstand like regular civilians.

Oh, we read a mickle and a pickle of SF books. Unlike the early days of science fiction book publishing—after the Golden Age, in the years following World War II—only six of these books were short story anthologies. Three of them were the initial books in a series of retrospective best-of-the-year collections edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg beginning with the first years of the Golden Age: 1939, 1940 and 1941. Another was an anthology of Golden Age stories edited by Terry Carr. There was a book of contemporary French SF stories edited by Maxim Jakubowski, and another edited by him of international SF, published for the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England.

We read two slim volumes of interviews with twelve SF writers from Theodore Sturgeon to Larry Niven. Science Fiction Voices #1 was the work of Darrell Schweitzer, while Jeffrey M. Elliot was responsible for the interviews in Science Fiction Voices #2. The two take very different approaches to the art of interview. Schweitzer wings his questions and sometimes revises them after the fact to bring a dim or sloppy question into line with a good answer. Elliot takes a more structured and formal approach. Both methods, surprisingly, can produce the revealing remark.

Most of all, however, we read science fiction novels in a profusion that the Golden Age never knew. There were novels by writers who, like Heinlein and Asimov, entered science fiction in 1939, at the outset of the Golden Age: novels by A. E. van Vogt, Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl, all of them new books. We read novels by the smart-set writers of the Fifties: Robert Silverberg and Robert Sheckley. We read books by writers of our own age like John Crowley and Michael Bishop. We read books by women writers like Doris Lessing and Joan Vinge. We read books by up-and-comers like Arsen Darnay and Spider Robinson. We read British novels like Richard Cowper's The Road to Corlay and first novels like Rudy Rucker's White Light.

Here in these books and the others we gathered, and in Who Killed Science Fiction? and "The Number of the Beast—", were the materials of this concluding essay we needed to write. Shake the beads, see the pattern.

There, from "The Number of the Beast—", was to be taken a central metaphor identifiable with what we have been calling the World Beyond the Hill throughout this book: that realm of reality/imagination that contains ten million sextillion separate universes, none of which—most specifically not those of modern science fiction—are uniquely privileged. Also from Heinlein we might take warning of the Black Beast that lurks, and heed of the need to be tricky and fast on our feet.

In Who Killed Science Fiction?—the unknown, unread Who Killed Science Fiction? of our imagination, the Who Killed Science Fiction? to which we were chiefly replying when we wrote our answer to Earl Kemp—we might find a thesis and a title: "The Death of Science Fiction." Resolved: modern science fiction is dying, and it's not a bad thing.

And from the other thirty books, everything else. Everything else that we might need on this imaginary expedition of ours: Here in these books we could find stories from the Golden Age and memories of when modern science fiction was new, and look into them for messages. Here we could find all the evidence we might need of the limited, corrupt and decrepit state of even the best and most innovative contemporary science fiction when set beside the mathematical real/imaginary plenitudes offered by the Realm of 666. Best of all here in these books, when things looked darkest, we could find, like germinating seeds, the symbols and materials that will provide the basis for a new and even more splendid Golden Age of SF. A happy ending!

And the form of this piece should be a story. But no, no. Not merely another story—we've cast commentary in the form of a story before.

A story in the form of a dream.

A dream.

Only a dream could possibly reconcile all our disparate aims and ideals with the strange array of facts that we must set in order. Only a dream narrative could contain all the shifts and contrasts and radical alterations of value in this simple yet complex story we have to tell. And calling these memorial services for modern science fiction "a dream" just might serve to disarm and soothe those skittish readers who otherwise could find the death of science fiction too bald a thought to bear.

Of course this final exploration of ours should be a dream. And properly should be dedicated to Lewis Carroll, too.

And so at last we were prepared to begin our conclusion. Ah, but where to begin it?

A dream and a sorites have this much in common: in either, any premise at all may be entertained and these strangenesses may occur in any order. Isn't it at least a little bit odd that the sorites, one of the classic models of formal reasoning, and the dream, the most freewheeling and least understood of ordinary human mental states, should carry us to the same place? For what else other than the land of dreams is the realm where—to quote the conclusions of a number of Carrollian logic examples—"no country infested by dragons fails to be interesting, my writing-desk is full of live scorpions, an egg of the Great Auk is not to be had for a song, no lobster expects impossibilities, I always avoid a kangaroo, and all my dreams come true."

And if it is true that a sorites is grumble-provoking to solve, not being arranged in regular order as we are used to, then what sort of laborious and torturous exercises of thought are necessary to construct one? Where ever do you begin?

Charles Fort, that great collector of anomalous data, advised (according to a contemporary T-shirt), "One measures a circle beginning anywhere."

First, however, we ought to say something about the new expanded edition of Who Killed Science Fiction? Earl Kemp did send us a Xerox copy of the manuscript, along with the request that we let him know what we thought of it. In the meantime, Who Killed Science Fiction? had run into one of those extended delays that affect contemporary publishing and been withdrawn from its new publisher by Kemp—which makes its connection with our inquiry here all the more singular and special. In the cosmic economy, has Kemp been using us, have we been using Kemp, or have we all been dancing together in some larger pattern?

Who Killed Science Fiction? is a fascinating collection of fragments, none of which, either separately or together, seem at first appearance to add up to a case for the death of science fiction. A queer book with a misleading title. Perhaps another sorites.

The new edition of Who Killed Science Fiction? begins with a long foreword by Earl Kemp entitled "Twenty Reconstructed/Fragmented Years"—which is as involuted and self-reflecting in its own way as Heinlein in "The Number of the Beast—". In bewildered amazement at it all, Kemp tries to express how he got from the days when he was a plotter of Hugo coups to his very different present self and state of mind, age fifty.

To find a way to say what a long strange trip it's been (Grateful Dead), Kemp reaches to the model of Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, who has come unglued in time and is everywhere everywhen he has ever been simultaneously in pieces, and he and we must put it all together somehow. In a collage of events and impressions, punctuated by fragments of song lyrics like "Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona, bought some California grass (Let it Be)," Kemp tells us what has made the difference: travel, sex, drugs, divorce, rock'n'roll, and conversations while in jail with a would-be Presidential assassin and a Manson Child.

Abruptly, there follows an introduction by Frank M. Robinson, "For Sale: One Cloudy Crystal Ball," detailing all of SF's apparent successes in the twenty years since the original edition of Who Killed Science Fiction?.

It is yet another jolt, then, to be thrown back into the murky atmosphere of 1960 and listen to those strange voices shouting answers to doubtful questions. The smell of ancient tempest in a teapot is overwhelming. But then, certain remarks still leap forth from the page:
Science fiction is by no means dead. It is, however, being killed off by the lack of science in stories.
    —Hugo Gernsback

It isn't science fiction that's in trouble—it's fantasy fiction!
    —John W. Campbell, Jr.

Anybody who announces that he is a science fiction writer is announcing that he is in damn bad company financially and artistically. You are trying to conduct a post-mortem without a corpse. I would love to provide you with one. I would love to see the expression science fiction butchered this very minute in order that stories with science in them not be identified, in the minds of intelligent readers, with pulpers, beginners and hacks.
    —Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
At this distance, what it all seems to prove is that there are a lot of different points of view floating around at any given moment, and that even awkward irrelevant questions can startle forth revealing answers, as Science Fiction Voices #1 confirms.

Three appendices follow. One, from the original symposium, is a graph showing the numbers of science fiction magazine titles and issues plunging grimly downward in 1958 and 1959. The second appendix presents a group of survivors from among the original symposium respondents, giving answers to Earl Kemp's new questions, saying, "It seems that I was right." And the third is younger persons like ourselves also giving answer to Earl Kemp's new questions and saying, "Sorry, I never saw a copy of Who Killed Science Fiction?." And all of these people explaining, explaining, explaining why, just as Kemp's questions asked them to do. Explaining why the implications of the graph were so wrong, so beside the point.

Finally, there is an afterword by Earl Kemp entitled "The Singer's Going to Sing a Song," in which, all alone with us, the original symposium, and his memories, Kemp fingers a tear and says . . . twenty years ago today . . . and . . . you're such a lovely audience . . . (Sgt. Pepper). He names some of the magazines that were already gone in 1960 and others that have ceased to exist since. He regrets the passing of Hugo Gernsback, John Campbell, James Blish, Anthony Boucher, Willy Ley, "Doc" Smith, and many others. He mourns a vanished world:
Who could have foreseen, twenty years ago, that anyone would be sitting here celebrating the absence of so much that is so dear to all of us, as I am doing at the moment I write these words?
Where did it all go?

Where did it all go?

The 1980? edition of Who Killed Science Fiction? is an often fascinating and possibly useful document, but it doesn't hang together as a coherent book. It flip-flops back and forth amidst a conflict of ambivalences, doubtful answers and mixed emotions. If finally Who Killed Science Fiction? has anything to say to us about the state of science fiction in 1980, it must be this—this is a moment of confusion, celebration and grief.

Similarly, if "The Number of the Beast—" is ultimately an unsatisfying and even repellent book despite its dimensional explorations, its puzzles and games, and its assertions about the state of modern science fiction, it is partly because this headtrip of Heinlein's, too, is fragmented and inconclusive. For all the scope that is implied by a meta-universe containing ten million sextillion separate continua, the characters of "The Number of the Beast—" are so caught up in the toils of fear and desire, so wrapped up in themselves, that they truly go nowhere at all. Instead they bicker and banter, fuck and philosophize, swap hats and shadow-box with their own reflections.

This book is so self-involved, so ultimately self-referential, that it comes to seem a Black Hole of egotism. It is one more trick of "The Number of the Beast—" that what is promised is access to all possibility, but what is actually presented—the imaginary/real continuum of the book itself—is a featureless interior in which disembodied voices talk and talk and talk and nothing ever really happens.

How can anything happen? The characters in "The Number of the Beast—" are a fearful lot, and their first concern is self-protection.

As in Methuselah's Children, Heinlein's early Future History novel about Lazarus Long and the long-lived Howard families, the protagonists of "The Number of the Beast—" set forth on their journey into space and time not out of a desire to explore new possibility, but as an attempt to escape from more trouble than they know how to handle. In fact, the code phrase that automatically sends their vehicle—"the Gay Deceiver"—into a safe place in another dimension is "Bug-Out."

These characters are cringing cowards. Once they are abroad in the Realm of 666, they do their best to locate universes that are safe and easy and cozy and warm—and that have medical facilities that they can trust.

Above all, they do their best to avoid any universe that might contain beings superior to themselves. It is not just that they want no part of H. P. Lovecraft's story universe, with its implacable human-hating Great Old Ones. As Jacob Burroughs, the inventor of the dimensional machine, puts it:

"Supermen or angels would trouble me more than vermin. I know what to do with a 'Black Hat'—kill it! But a superman would make me feel so inferior that I would not want to go on living."
As Heinlein characters will, these Heinlein characters (and Robert Heinlein fans) have the gift of mutual recognition. One glance and they know each other to be not low unworthy vermin, not intolerably superior supermen, but perfectly perfect Heinlein Individuals, all thinking alike and talking alike, all knowing precisely the same books and the same games.

This is an exclusive society, tightly circumscribed. Early in the book, they pledge mutual allegiance. One character says, "All for one, and one for all!" and another answers, "Us four, no more."

Them four, no more, hiding out in the foothills of the metauniverse, sneaking into cardboard towns erected for their benefit, and then high-tailing it back out of town. Always ready to bug-out.

With cabin fever such as theirs, they have nothing to do but wrangle with each other and wrestle for dominance. Since all these characters, regardless of nominal sex or age or role, are really the same character—multiple persons locked inside one head, as it were, as in Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil—this is not easy for them to do. They manage the trick by divvying up shipboard functions, and then regularly changing the duty roster. They fight to find out which of them will make the worst Captain.

To make this question of blurred identity even more confusing, within any chapter a character is likely to be referred to only by his or her current function. Other characters may speak and not be identified. Since first-person narration is passed around among the characters, too, from chapter to chapter, it is very easy to lose track of which speaker is who.

The question arises, just how much of this confusion is a fault of the book and how much is a deliberate design? How much does Robert Heinlein know?

Since at least as early in his career as "By His Bootstraps"—another story of identity in conflict with itself—Heinlein has found it possible to present characters at the centers of his stories who are less than admirable, less than likeable, or less than sane, without directly acknowledging to the reader that these persons might be strange in his eyes. With all those many pages of nearly-interminable four-way monolog in "The Number of the Beast—", there is no sign to the reader from Heinlein as to what we should think of the strange comedy game of musical chairs being played, and no direct comment at all from Heinlein on the untrustworthiness, cowardice, purposelessness, greed and insincerity displayed by his four cosmic stray lambs, all of whom have been given leave to sound so typically, self-confidently and dogmatically Heinleinian.

Heinlein's book has three parts and an envoy. Part One is entitled "The Mandarin's Butterfly." Part Two is entitled "The Butterfly's Mandarin." These opposed images—a reference to a traditional Chinese paradox, like the Red King's dream of Alice while Alice is dreaming of the Red King in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass—ask us to say which frame of existence it is that is really real, whose consciousness it is that is privileged, which dreamer it is who determines the dream?

"The Number of the Beast—", then, is like Chris Boyce's novel of a couple of years ago, Catchworld, in asking which among a variety of contending realities will prevail in a contest of strength. But there is this difference. In "The Number of the Beast—" there is only one consciousness at war with itself. The question is altered and becomes, "In a continuum that is populated solely by Heinlein Individuals, which among them is to have precedence?"

Eventually, Heinlein's party of four beats out a solution to this special problem: they call it "pantheistic multiperson solipsism." This is token of their recognition and acknowledgment that they are in a common dream. And it means that when they meet Lazarus Long, a Heinlein character who cheats for the pure pleasure of it, and Andrew Jackson "Slipstick" Libby, resurrected from the dead and altered in sex to female, Heinlein's Gang of Four is not flummoxed. They can afford to recognize these other Heinlein Individuals, wrestle with them, fuck them, and add them to the collective conscious/unconscious.

With this settled, a grand jamboree is held: "The First Centennial Convention of the InterUniversal Society for Eschatological Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism." The avowed purpose of this party is "to define the difference—if any—between 'real' and 'imaginary'."

The guests here include a wide variety of earlier Heinlein characters. Jubal Harshaw and Mordan Claude are present, Oscar Gordon, Rufo, Podkayne of Mars, Hazel Stone, even Jonathan Hoag. The official guest list includes many writers of SF, living and dead, a variety of Heinlein's favorite fictional characters, and friends of Heinlein from all over:
"Some of the most bloodthirsty people in Known Space are attending this convention. Female authors. Critics. Harlan. Both Heinleins. I not only insist that you be armed but I hope you stick close to someone fast on the draw."
But even here there are special exclusions. Those critics are stuck away in a private little hell guarded by Jonathan Hoag. This special Critics Lounge is shaped like a Klein bottle, and once in, we are warned, you can be trapped there forever. Lazarus Long (why ever does he hate critics?) describes this special place to Jubal Harshaw:
"I promised critics free entrance, I made no mention of exit. I promised them typewriters and tape recorders; I did not promise typewriter ribbons or recorder tapes. I promised them their own private bar, no charges. Wouldn't be fair to charge as the bar has no liquor in it. There is a lavish dining room but no kitchen."

"Lafe, wouldn't it have been kinder to have liquidated them?"

"Who said I wanted to be kind to them? They won't starve; their commissary is by the Kilkenny Cats method. It should please them: they are used to human flesh and enjoy drinking blood—some I suspect of eating their young. But, Jubal, there is an easy way out for any critic who is even half as smart as he thinks he is."

"Go on."

"He has to be able to read! He has to be able to read his own language, understand it, not distort the meaning. If he can read, he can walk out at once." Lazarus shrugged. "But so few critics ever learn to read."
And so, presumably, there we would be, we Panshins, stuck away forever in the Critics Lounge—along with Damon Knight, James Blish, Cyril Kornbluth and all the others, including Bob Heinlein, who have tried to resolve the puzzle of SF. Now left to our own devices, we'd no more hang out in a bar like this (even with this high-tone company) than we would match writing muscles in Elaine's. It's not our sort of scene. More likely, we'd be off in a convention room somewhere, Alexei toking it up with the Caterpillar and Torve the Trog, Cory sitting cross-legged and talking earnestly to the Mother Thing from Have Space Suit—Will Travel and the High One from "By His Bootstraps," and our eighteen-month-old son Adam grabbing tit or showing off or bouncing from lap to lap.

But this isn't our dream. We are Heinlein's critics—there is no doubt about that. If he means anybody, he means us. If we are going to play a role in his dream, let it be the one that he has assigned us. He wants us in that Klein-bottle-shaped Critics Lounge of his and we will please him by going. All three of us: Alexei, Cory and baby Adam.

(Don't go, we hear you say. Don't go!)

Let's say we went up there to invite Jonathan Hoag to that party in our room and we got stuck. Okay? And now we are faced with the problem that Heinlein has set for us: no way out, no typewriter ribbons, no liquor, and nothing to eat but the baby. Just where he wanted us.

So there we are, stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again (Blonde on Blonde), with nothing to do forever but think about this piece and never be able to write it. But that's our problem.

Everybody else's problem is the Black Beast. Is it there, skulking around the edges of the party? Is it all the servants? Is it the "totally empty suit of armor" that takes part in the jousting tourney? Is it the original Forest Ranger, but this time presenting himself as an InterSpace Patrol Agent attempting to arrest one of the Gang of Four? It is! It is!

As soon as it is detected, the Black Beast runs away, leaving its badge, #666, behind. It runs up the Bridge of Bifrost to Valhalla (don't ask), the Bridge and Valhalla dissolve, melted into thin air, and the Black Beast tumbles and falls.

One character says: "We've seen the last of it."

But another answers mechanically: ". . . are you sure?"

And so this long convoluted constipated puzzlement comes to an end, after 686 manuscript pages. On a note of doubt.

Leaving us wondering

Whatever was this fascinating, tedious and aggravating fiction about? As it stands, there is no obvious story, merely talk and game playing. Is there some other rneta-reality to which the movements of the characters in "The Number of the Beast—" can be related like the chess moves in Through the Looking-Glass?

It is not the Critics Lounge, but Heinlein's book that feels like a construct from which there is no escape. (There must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief—"All Along the Watchtower.")

And what is the Black Beast? That is the central puzzle of this book of puzzlements. We are obviously meant to come up with an answer.

Ah, lost in a maze, and no easy way out. Stuck in the Critics Lounge with a piece that can't be written about "The Number of the Beast—", an involuted, self-involved, Satan's intestines of a book.

Round and round and round.

But then, Lazarus Long said that there was an easy way out of the Critics Lounge if we could but read. What else would this place of special frustration be equipped with more appropriately than books—Borges' infinite Library of Babel, perhaps—that cannot be written about for the lack of those typewriter ribbons? Not until, that is, the key to escape is found and we make our way outside. Or until some far-sighted critic brings typewriter ribbons with him into the Critics Lounge.

So let's get down to it. Let's read.

Let's read some of those new science fiction books.

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