Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



      During the time I was growing up, I set my compass by Robert Heinlein, just as many of the people who participate in still do today.  Heinlein was my greatest influence, and a point of reference for me from the time I was ten.

      I can't say that I ever learned much in school.  Mainly, I learned from the reading that I did on my own.  And it was Robert Heinlein I counted as my real teacher.

      At the outset, Heinlein was forbidden fruit that I had to steal.  I first discovered his writing in the pages of my older brother Danny's Boys' Life -- which he'd made it painfully clear I wasn't allowed to touch.  I touched it anyway, and there I found a serial story about a Boy Scout in the future who emigrates with his father to Ganymede.

      There was something about this story that caught me up and made me want to read it.  I'd never spent any imaginative time in the future before.  And I'd never been hulled by a meteor on my way to Ganymede and ruined my Scout uniform by using it to plug up the hole.

      I had to be constantly vigilant, with one eye looking over my shoulder, to follow Farmer in the Sky -- or Satellite Scout, as it was called here -- through four monthly installments.  No doubt because of that, I was hooked all the harder by Heinlein and by science fiction.

      Science fiction was my own private subversive literature.  It told me of things beyond the scope of the daily world around me.  I was eager to read every bit of it I could find.

      I tracked down Heinlein's other juveniles in the State Library in Lansing, and read them over and over again.  Each time I visited the library, I was hoping I'd find a new one.  In this series of books, Heinlein deliberately expanded my frame of reference.  Without calling attention to the fact, but simply doing it, he took me one step at a time from the moon out to the stars, and made me feel that I belonged there.

      Then, when I was in Seventh Grade, I spotted Heinlein's The Green Hills of Earth as a school paperback book club offering.  I snatched it right up, and found myself in the middle of Heinlein's Future History.  There was even a chart of the future filled with mysteries and enigmas for me to study.

      Could there really be a revolution in Little America, or a religious dictatorship in the U.S.?  Who was Voorhis, and what might "the Voorhis financial proposals" be?  And then there was the final entry in the chart: "Civil disorder, followed by the end of human adolescence, and beginning of first mature culture."  Was it possible that present-day adult society was still in an adolescent state and needed to grow up?  What would a truly mature human culture be like?

      It was a revelation to me to think of the future as having a complex, interconnected nature and -- with Heinlein serving as medium -- to have that future speak to me in the past and inform me that real adult human work lay ahead of me which had to be prepared for.

      Heinlein was the person who gave me my orientation in space and time.  He constantly presented me with facts, references and perspectives that were new to me.  He expanded the size and complexity of the world for me, and also showed me the limits of my view of existence.

      There was a stray copy of Waldo and Magic, Inc. shelved among the Heinlein juveniles in the State Library, I cannot imagine why.  That was an extremely challenging book to encounter at the age of 12 -- in particular, the story "Waldo," with its explicit denial that reality had a fixed nature.  I found that a lump to swallow.

      I looked for more science fiction in the adult collection of the State Library.  But all I could find in the card catalog under the heading "science fiction" were a number of story collections with titles like Adventures in Time and Space and The Treasury of Science Fiction.

      I ventured back into the stacks feeling like an intruder who might be confronted and evicted at any moment, because I was only twelve and had no proper business looking at adult books.  And back in the maze of shelves, I found the giant early SF anthologies which would become my basic education in classic science fiction: Healy and McComas and Groff Conklin.

      It was in Conklin's first anthology, The Best of Science Fiction, that I encountered Heinlein's "Universe."  Here Heinlein would make the statement that, all unrecognized, there was a larger and realer frame of reference beyond the limited bounds of conventional life.  He also said that people might actively resist learning this.

      Not me.  Not me.  And yet, I could empathize with those people.  What Heinlein had to say to me could be all that I could handle and more, psychologically and emotionally.

      I can recall being left alone in Boy Scout camp with a bad case of sunburn the summer I turned 13.  Before he departed for the day, my patrol leader handed me a paperback copy of The Puppet Masters to read, which was the first I knew that he read science fiction.

      Even the cover of that book was unnerving, with its darkness, its dynamism,  and its implication of threat and conflict.  There is a large reproduction of this picture by Stanley Meltzoff, without type, on page 101 of Infinite Worlds, Vincent di Fate's recent book on SF art.  Di Fate describes it as "one of only a handful of commercial SF paintings that could legitimately be called a masterpiece."  Take a look at it and you will see how I could find its aura of menace disturbing.

      I sat there alone in camp in broad daylight, from time to time sneaking another look at the unsettling picture on the cover.  I was frightened, and it was all I could do to make myself keep reading Heinlein's story of human beings taken over by mind-controlling slugs from Titan in flying saucers and turned into zombies without any will of their own.

      Most of all, however, Heinlein challenged my ideas of who I really was and what I ought to be doing with myself.

      I read Beyond This Horizon for the first time one night when I was 14 and babysitting the Anderson children across the street, and I never got over it.  The spin on this novel was so strange, and the questions it raised about the useful employment of an individual human life, and also about who or what might ultimately be responsible for what happened in that life, were so fundamental and so headbending that I could hardly stand the strain of what I was barely able to comprehend.  I had to go walk round the outside of the house three times to get a grip on myself.

      Even to this day, Beyond This Horizon remains a touchstone for me of the sort of questions that it is possible to pose in the form of an SF story.

      During my teen years, I went out of my way to read every scrap of Heinlein's writing I could track down.  His complete work wasn't nearly as available then as it would be in a later time.  I had to be patient, and I had to stretch myself to get my hands on it.  I studied Heinlein carefully, trying to sort out what he'd said, (because some of it seemed contradictory), to understand it, and to figure out what it had to do with me.

      If Heinlein was my teacher, what I learned from him was to hold final opinion in abeyance, to find out the facts, to broaden my frame of reference, and to take on the largest field of knowledge and responsibility I could, regardless of what anyone else might think about what they thought they saw me doing.

      It was to tell him so that I wrote my initial letter of appreciation to Heinlein in the summer of 1957 -- the one I said he didn't need to answer, but which he did answer.

      I was just turning seventeen.  I found the man overwhelming, even awesome.  And I'd never written a letter of this kind to anyone before.  So all I managed to say to Heinlein was that I thought his stories were steak next to the hamburger that was all the other science fiction I'd been reading.  I said this in a pseudo-Heinleinian phrasing -- the last time I would ever try to sound like him.

      What I really wanted to convey to Heinlein, however, was that I had found a more challenging standard of human living, human awareness and human maturity in his stories than I'd discovered elsewhere, and to thank him for that.


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Graphics courtesy of Jelane