Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Death of Science Fiction: A Dream

        Part 6

Like all the other elements that have been excluded by modern science fiction, superior aliens have been knocking at the door again recently, craving admittance. Out in the darkness of the cosmos they lurk, these superior beings with unknown intentions toward us. This is the very problem that John W. Campbell banished from the pages of Astounding more than thirty-five years ago, presumably to keep his writers from becoming demoralized and losing their sense of possibility and optimism. What is most interesting is that the novels into which these aliens have been intruding themselves are the most technologically-minded, the most conventionally "modern science fiction" of contemporary SF stories.

It is as though now that the sense of possibility and optimism that kept them at bay has departed from modern science fiction, superior aliens have snuck back to haunt the degenerate, unhappy, technoyucchy future. Again and again through the Seventies, in one nuts-and-bolts science fiction story after another—Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, Anderson's The Avatar, Benford's In the Ocean of Night, Pohl's Gateway—fact-minded techno-men have discovered facts they cannot ignore. Techno-men can ignore many things, but they cannot ignore superior technology. And in all of these stories, alien artifacts have come drifting into the Solar System or turned up in parking orbit out beyond Pluto.

There is great fear and doubt. What do they want of us, these superior aliens with their cosmic greeting cards?

Now that we have ruined Earth, fouled our own nest, will superior aliens judge us for what we have done?

Or will those aliens prove to be just like us, but even more so?

Will they, too, be selfish, greedy, self-regarding manipulators of fact, but with a million years more practice at the game?

These questions are addressed directly in a new novel which popped into existence in our reality space here in the Critics Lounge only moments ago—Norman Spinrad's Songs from the Stars. Here is a book that is at least a half-step closer to the New Head transition than any of the other new books we've been reading. The specific advance that it offers is an understanding of higher aliens and our relationship to them that isn't bogged down in Old Headery.

It is clear from Songs from the Stars and other clues that the New Head will be able to cope with superior aliens without the anxiety that was displayed by a Victorian like H. G. Wells or a mid-Twentieth Century technocrat like Robert Heinlein. It's a matter of fundamental attitude. We can see the relevant attitudes on display if we state the respective answers of the Victorian patriarch, the mid-Twentieth Century engineer, and the New Head ecologist to the same question, the familiar popular problem of the chicken and the egg.

Which of the two came first?

An unorthodox Victorian—a Lewis Carroll or a Samuel Butler—out of a spirit of whimsy and perversity might answer that it was the egg. But the ordinary orthodox Victorian would give the ordinary orthodox answer—the chicken. And the ultimate reason, if pressed hard by a foolish doubter or an insubordinate offspring, would be the argument from authority: "Because I told you so."

"Because I say so" is not a fruitful method of approach to higher aliens. If they were already inclined to be hostile, as the Victorians feared, an attitude like that might make them testy. And if, on the other hand, these superior beings only wished us well, it seems more than possible that they might feel that our belligerence and dogmatism were an impossible barrier to our learning anything at all contrary to our present beliefs.

A higher alien couldn't get very far with a Victorian. He would either have to kill him or stay away from him. The mid-Twentieth Century attitude is less purely dogmatic. Its boast is that it stands back and lets the facts prevail. Instead of saying, "Because I said so," like a Victorian, a mid-Twentieth Century person might say either, "I have the facts," or "Prove it!" A mid-Twentieth Century person might make a case either for the chicken or for the egg, depending on which was more convenient.

But a recent London Sunday Times story tells us that a man was accidentally killed in Thonburi, Thailand, in a fight with a friend over which came first, the chicken or the egg. (He said it was the egg.)

And so we might ask—how fruitfully might a higher alien get on with a man who is capable of fighting to the death to prove that he has the true facts? Could a superior being teach anything to a man who secretly yearns to come marching into her house, say "Howdy, bub," to her, and then chop her into tiny little bits with his Mark Nineteen Remington Blaster? That might be just a bit of a barrier to understanding. Above all, could any responsible higher alien reveal itself to the sort of man who promises to fall to pieces before any being he can't dominate, particularly one who knows more than he does?

No wonder superior aliens have stayed away from modern science fiction, or been content in recent days to send us simple technological puzzles to study. A would-be student who is always contending, and who wobbles between hostility and demoralization is in no state of mind to learn anything.

The New Head attitude is different from either of its immediate predecessors. It is far less concerned with matters of precedence and is much less contentious. Where the mid-Twentieth Century was constantly urging its children to compete, compete, compete, to succeed and to win, the New Head watchword—repeated again and again on Sesame Street is "cooperation."

Given the question of the chicken and the egg, a New Head person would neither dictate an answer from on high like a Victorian, nor fight to the death over the issue like some mid-century type. Instead. the New Head takes its clue in this matter from the old Chinese folk song, "Inside of Every Yang There's a Little Bit of Yin."

To the New Head what is central is neither the chicken nor the egg—one of these being considered "cause" and the other "effect"—but the overall pattern of which both are necessary parts. Their relationship is perceived as one of mutual interdependence. To say that one exists is to say that the other exists—the chicken contains the egg, the egg contains the chicken.

The New Head is not an either/or way of thinking. It opts instead for both/and. It is New Head to believe in two contradictory things before breakfast.

In short, compared to its two predecessors, the New Head is more open to multiplicity and to ambiguity. It is more ready to recognize mutual interdependence. And it is willing to cooperate rather than compete. All of these qualities make the New Head person a readier subject for contact by superior aliens than either the Victorian patriarch or the mid-Twentieth Century technocrat. If a higher being did have something to tell us we didn't already know, these New Head attitudes would be the minimum necessary for a lesson to be absorbed.

Norman Spinrad is aware of this in Songs from the Stars, a book which more than any other epitomizes the current transition. Songs from the Stars is specifically about the differences between technocratic Old Head thinking and the ecologically-minded New Head.

In Songs from the Stars, many years after an eco-disaster there is but one viable, prospering culture in all the world—the neo-hippie, eco-society of Aquaria on the West Coast of North America. This culture divides all science into White and Black. Black Science--the mid-Twentieth Century kind of science--brought the world to ruination. Aquaria follows the "law of muscle, sun, wind and water."

Secretly, however, this sweet civilization is supported by crucial technology turned out by surviving enclaves of Black Scientists on the other side of the mountain. Two key Aquarians, the karmic judge Clear Blue Lou, perfect master of the Clear Blue Way, and Sunshine Sue, who runs the Aquarian communication network, are made aware of this dependence.

In one sense, this initial situation is artificial and unlikely. The ecological culture surviving technological catastrophe is a typical late modern science fiction situation, an analog of the magical planet that survives the fall of galactic empire. The situation is a set-up, an exception, a special case.

But then so were the exploratory scientifiction stories of Smith and Campbell, Weinbaum and Williamson special cases, exceptions to the dictatorial laws of the Victorian cosmos. And Spinrad's ad hoc situation does have a certain measure of obvious truth to it. It is only fair to recognize that any ecological society to come will build on a base established by the Black Science of the mid-Twentieth Century.

It turns out that Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue are being deliberately led by the nose. They are willy-nilly acting out parts in a behavioristic scenario manipulated and directed by the chief Black Scientist, a man named Arnold Harker. Harker intends to show Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue that their civilization is based on unacknowledged Black Science as one step in convincing them to join together the resources of both societies in a project to send a spaceship to a long-abandoned space station—the Big Ear.

Spinrad, author of Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream, has always been fascinated by Old Head power-brokers. He loves them almost as much as he hates them. He paints Arnold Harker convincingly as he pulls strings, boasts of his power, and aims for the stars. And he acknowledges the undeniable brute effectiveness of Old Head psychology and technology.

But he also sees clearly the necessity of New Head attitudes. In Songs from the Stars, the Old Head survives as a few thousand fanatical people living in artificial oases not unlike the remnant technosociety living in the orbiting satellite in John Crowley's Engine Summer. Aquaria is following the only truly viable path in spite of its dependence on bits and pieces of Old Head science.

Harker convinces Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue to join him in launching the spaceship. The prospect of re-establishing a world-wide communication system is sufficient to entice them to play Harker's game.

Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue deliberately deceive their own Aquarian people in order to send the spaceship Enterprise to the Big Ear. They lie. They manipulate facts. They even pass Harker off as a superior alien.

It is this compromise with the worst habits of the Old Head that flaws the success that Spinrad envisions in Songs from the Stars. Lying, cheating and manipulation of fact are not the Clear Blue Way. To pass a man like Harker off as a superior alien can only be a karmic error.

And this becomes apparent when the characters arrive at the space station. Here, in the last days before the eco-disaster, an alien information transmitter assembled itself. To use this machine is to enter the consciousness of one alien race after another, all of whom are joined together in a galactic communications network: "An interstellar brotherhood communing over thousands of years of space and time."

Harker, the technocratic man, man-the-all-conqueror, proves unable to cope with the actualities of space. He hates what he expected to love. He finds the stars overwhelming. And he looks upon this alien machine and fears it:
"Why would beings who didn't even know we existed when they sent out their broadcasts care what happened to us? Why would they go to all that trouble unless . . . unless . . ."

"Oh shit, Arnold. unless what?"

"Unless they wanted to control us, unless they want us to follow a scenario we can't even understand, unless they want to turn us into something. . . into something that isn't human any more. . ."
Arnold Harker, who thinks in terms of control and forcing others to follow his scenarios, inevitably projects these Old Head attitudes onto the unknown aliens, and fears them. Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue, on the other hand, are at their best in this moment. They revel in the chance to participate in alien thought processes, which Spinrad specifically calls both "dreams" and "songs."

Harker can only mutter fearfully: "As far beyond us as we are beyond crawling worms. . ." And shiver in his socks.

But Clear Blue Lou delivers the New Head answer to both the Victorians and the Twentieth Century technocrats
"Damn it, do you suppose that intelligent creatures could survive millions of years of their own history possessed of such enormous physical power and knowledge without being as advanced karmically as they are scientifically? A civilization of power-mad mindfuck artists and would-be conquerors would never last that long. Its very survival for millions of years is proof of its wisdom and goodness.Mere superior knowledge wouldn't be good enough—they have to have superior wisdom."
And, a moment later, Clear Blue Lou has this further thought, this judgment of Black Scientists like Barker:
Their arrogance had blinded them to the difference between knowledge and wisdom; possessing superior quantities of the former, they could not see their own lack of the latter. They were scientific geniuses, but moral morons.
Let that last sentence stand as an epitaph for the entire mid-Twentieth Century. It can serve as a last word for Arnold Barker as well. He tests the machine just enough to assure himself that it is superior aliens with a greater command of fact that he is dealing with—and then he gives up. He commits suicide.

Perhaps the competent man is not the survivor that Robert Heinlein always said that he was. At least in Songs from the Stars it is the competent man of fact, Arnold Harker, who is dead, while Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue bring their spaceship back to Aquaria. And Aquaria lives—now connected to the stars.

In the clearest possible symbolic language, Songs from the Stars tells us that the mid-Twentieth Century Age of Technocracy is passing. It treated human beings as mere facts to be manipulated. It despoiled the environment without pausing to reckon costs. And its justification was its dream of conquest of space.

But it is the very hunger, pride and greed that has driven techno-man toward the stars that must cause him to recoil from a stellar world populated by superior aliens, fearing their dominance and exploitation—not unlike the thirsty jackal who dodges back from the pool of water at the sight of his own reflection. Outer space is the mirror of inner nature, and if you press an Arnold Barker too hard with the prospect of superior aliens—whom he must see as his own awful reflection—he will inevitably kill himself.

The Twenty-First Century Age of Ecology is being born out of the ruins of the Age of Black Science. And the stellar dream of the Aquarian Age of Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue is very different than the dreams of conquest of technological man. In the mirror of outer space, ecological man perceives not the prospect of domination and exploitation, but the promise of cosmic connection and cooperation.

The Old Head kept meeting the enemy and discovering him to be themselves. The New Head perception is "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." (Magical Mystery Tour) This difference in perception is what causes Arnold Barker to commit suicide while Clear Blue Lou and Sunshine Sue continue on toward an unknown higher destiny.

In the land of the imagination—call it the World Beyond the Hill, the Infraworld, or the Realm of 666--what you perceive is what you get. This is our explanation for the Black Beast--Heinlein's bÍte noire in "The Number of the Beast-- ".

The title of Heinlein's book, as we have pointed out, is from the Book of Revelation. Through the years, and perhaps more frequently than any other science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein has used the Bible as a source for his story titles. Stranger In a Strange Land is one example. "'Let There Be Light'" is another. The working title of Heinlein's first serial in Astounding, "If This Goes On-- ", was Vine and Fig Tree an allusion to the Book of Micah.

In "The Number of the Beast-- ", several of the chapter titles are from the Bible—including Chapter XXXVIII, which has the title (resurrected after all these years): "—under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid—." But the very last chapter of the book—the single chapter contained in the envoy—has a a title that is slightly different. It is not a Biblical quotation, but a Biblical reference. Chapter XLVIII is titled "Rev. XXII: 13."

This verse reads: "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, the first and last."

The book "The Number of the Beast--" is an Alpha and Omega, a beginning and an end, for modern science fiction. Before there was modern science fiction, the imaginary universes visited in "The Number of the Beast-- " existed: Lilliput, Wonderland, Oz, Barsoom, the world of the Lensmen. The Realm of 666 described in "The Number of the Beast--" contains within itself not just the Future History and other Heinlein stories, but all of the imaginary continua of modem science fiction. And, by indicating the existence of iso-universes to the number of ten million sextillion plus, "The Number of the Beast—" suggests possibilities of the imagination far beyond the scope of modern science fiction.

Heinlein has found an organizing principle that completely surrounds and incorporates modern science fiction, and changes it from an all-in-all to an atom. The frame of reference of SF has been decisively and permanently altered by "The Number of the Beast—". Modern science fiction was "realistic." It was linear. It was oriented toward space travel. Because of "The Number of the Beast—", SF-to-come will be non-linear. It will be imaginary and know it. And it will discover its adventures in the meta-dimension of consciousness.

"The Number of the Beast—" opens the door to this meta-dimension—the Realm of 666—but then does not pass through it, like Moses indicating the Promised Land, but not entering into it himself. It is fear of the Black Beast who waits that keeps Heinlein from entering the full Realm of 666.

In certain significant ways, "The Number of the Beast—" is like Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. Just as Star Maker, published in 1937, was a summational work of Victorian SF, so "The Number of the Beast— ", published in 1980, is a summation of modern science fiction.

Star Maker was also a visionary work. It delineated the universe of interstellar space that would be the ground of modern science fiction. But Star Maker itself was not modem science fiction. Stapledon could identify the interstellar universe to come, but Victorian convictions he could not shake prevented him from imagining human beings as active participants in interstellar affairs. Stapledon's human characters in Star Maker are but prophets and seers of interstellar possibility.

In the same way, "The Number of the Beast—" delimits the metauniverse of consciousness that will be the ground of New Head SF-to- come, without itself being a work of New Head SF. Heinlein's Gang of Four are indicators of possibility to us, but they are not full participants in that possibility. Their fear—and Heinlein's fear—of encountering superior beings prevents them.

The glory of "The Number of the Beast—" is that it indicates the possibility of so much. But the awfulness of the book is that it is so self-referential, so self-protective, so self-limited, and ultimately so self-defeated.

Heinlein rightly perceives that in a universe of consciousness, as opposed to a universe of fact, we all must be solipsists-in-collaboration. This is a conclusion that his characters come to, and they throw their grand jamboree—"The First Centennial Convention of the InterUniversal Society for Eschatological Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism" just to prove this point.

But still, Heinlein and his chief characters want to make exclusions. They want to be able to pick and choose among egos. They are capable of thinking in terms of "wog" and "vermin." They may ship a Jonathan Hoag and other persons of critical temperament off to a Klein-bottle-shaped Critics Lounge in order to be rid of them. As it always has been in Heinlein stories, okay people are okay, but not-okay people—instantly identifiable—deserve the worst fates that can be imagined for them.

That's flatly contrary to the New Head way of looking at things. To the New Head, the universe of collaborative consciousness requires the active participation of all types of human being, not just some privileged few. (We won't even go into the possibility or necessity of having non-human consciousness in the mix.) Any universe based on such a limited range of consciousness as may be found among Heinlein's Gang of Four, Lazarus Long, Jubal Harshaw and the like must be an egotistic partiality—a mental snake's-hand—and not be the true Realm of 666.

If "The Number of the Beast—" is a Black Hole of egotism, and if the Critics Lounge is a Klein bottle within "The Number of the Beast—", we may ask—just what is the effect of entering a Klein bottle within a Black Hole?

There has hardly been a writer of SF from Poe, Verne and Wells to the present who has not contributed some note or essay or critical comment to the common continuing discussion of the nature and meaning of SF. And so we might inquire—just exactly who is it that still remains in attendance at the Universal Ego Convention rather than stepping aside to join the party going on in the Critics Lounge?

We Panshins first came into the Critics Lounge to find Jonathan
Hoag and ask him a question. The short novel, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag." published in Unknown in October 1942, was the last and strangest of the stories that Robert Heinlein contributed to the Golden Age before he ceased to write during World War II. In this story, Jonathan Hoag—named for a friend of H. P. Lovecraft's—is a Higher Critic from some meta-reality in which our world is the creation of a talented but immature art student. If Hoag decides that our world is lacking in artistic merit, he may cancel us out altogether.

Heinlein can't feel easy about that. Hoag is not just an ordinary superior alien of the sort that Heinlein characters have never been able to tolerate. He does not merely cast our personal purposes and competence into doubt. He is a meta-alien, a being so superior that he throws into doubt our entire universe. And yet, here he is, with dirty fingernails and a prissy expression, pretending to be ordinary, but guarding the entrance to the Critics Lounge. We must believe he is there for a purpose.

The question that we came to ask him was this: Just exactly who or what is the Black Beast that so haunts Heinlein's book?

We know very little for certain about the Black Beast. We know that it looks like a lamb and speaks like a dragon. We know that it is instantly detectable as "wrong" by Heinlein's characters. We know that if they kill it in one place, it returns in another. And we know that it has access to all the same iso-universes as Heinlein's characters. If the implication of the title "The Number of the Beast—" is correct, it may be the true master of the Realm of 666.

Heinlein's characters would like to trap this dragon-beast and dispose of it—possibly by dropping it down the oubliette of the Critics Lounge. But always it eludes them and defies their control. The conclusion of "The Number of the Beast—" is the promise that it will be back again.

Just what is this strange creature—the Black Beast?

Is it us, Heinlein's critics? We do look like lambs and speak like dragons. And there is no question that when Lazarus Long looks at us, he groks wrongness.

Can it be Jonathan Hoag, the Higher Critic from a meta-dimension?

Or is it everything Heinlein despises, everything that he fears, everything that he would exclude from the creative stewpot of his "pantheistic multiperson solipsism"?

The Black Beast must be all of these things and more. It is the essence of Outsider. It is a being of a higher order of reality, capable of manifesting itself in ten million sextillion different continua at one and the same instant. Of course it can't be killed when Heinlein's Gang of Four chop it to pieces with their swords—no more than you can be killed by skinning your knee, even though a few replaceable cells may perish.

"The Number of the Beast-- " presents but a shadow of the true Realm of 666. Taken by itself, the book is all false presentation. It offers us a false Oz, a false Barsoom, and a false Realm of 666.

How can we say so? If we may recall, Lewis Carroll told us, "No country infested by dragons fails to be interesting." The true Realm of 666 is the land of the dragon. If "The Number of the Beast—" is often false and even more often a bore, it is because it attempts to avoid all those places where dragons might be found.

The true location of the Realm of 666, in fact, is not in "The Number of the Beast—". Unlikely as it may seem, it is in the Critics Lounge. as we can demonstrate.

Lazarus Long would have us believe that the Critics Lounge is a claustrophobic and fatal place, a trap for the unwary, and a place of doom for critics who cannot read. Indeed, as Lazarus Long describes it, it sounds very much like the sort of place that we have found "The Number of the Beast--" to be—full of promise, but ultimately a snake's-hand.
But the Critics Lounge cannot be like that. It is shaped like a Klein bottle, and a Klein bottle is a fourth-dimensional construct. To enter a Klein bottle is to find an automatic escape hatch from the prison of any three-dimensional continuum.

Jonathan Hoag could have told us so. So could the Black Beast. But we found the relevant information in a book lying on a coffee table in the Critics Lounge—The Dragon, by Francis Huxley. On page 28, Huxley writes:
The dragon world seems to be formed in the manner of the Purse of Fortunatus—known to us as a Klein Bottle—whose singular property, as described by Lewis Carroll, is that "Whatever is inside the Purse is outside it, and whatever is outside it, is inside it."
The Critics Lounge is the dragon world. No wonder, then, that all the time we have been inside the Critics Lounge, a woggish, verminous person claiming to be "the caterer" should have been keeping the party going with constant supplies of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And so we have the answer to the question of greatest urgency posed by "The Number of the Beast—": By what route may we depart from the Black Hole of modern science fiction and enter into the true Realm of 666?

The route lies through the Critics Lounge. And that is the path we have taken in this piece.

Now, waiting before us is the World Beyond the Hill, the Infraworld, the Realm of 666. We have only to enter it.

But, if we are to enter it, we cannot enter it alone. The Realm of 666 is dependent on diversity. Old Head thinking can only bar the door to us, as it has barred the door to Heinlein. If we are to enter this land of the imagination, we cannot go on making the same Old Head mistakes of domination, exclusivity, hostility and rejection.

All of us need all of us. And somebody must be the first to lay down his Mark Nineteen Remington Blaster.


The last competent man sat alone in a room—together with his clones and avatars. It was very crowded. The room kept shrinking and they were starting to get on each other's nerves.

There was a knock at the door. It was the Black Beast. "Jonathan Hoag sent us," they said. "Can you come outside and play?"

                            "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. I said that."
                                                                                        —Bob Dylan

— written in the Critics Lounge with ink manufactured from peanut butter and jelly, il-May-June-J 1980

(This essay was originally published in the second edition of Alexei and Cory Panshin, SF in Dimension, 1980.  The complete text of both versions of Who Killed Science Fiction? may be found here.)

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

Return to the Critics Lounge

Background courtesy of Eos Development