Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


      I couldn't anticipate all this in 1961, of course.  All that I knew was that Heinlein, who had taught me about larger frames of reference than the  immediate present, now appeared to be locked into a concern of the moment.

      In his first World Science Fiction Convention speech in Denver in 1941, Heinlein had said, "Any custom, technique, institution, belief or social structure that we see around us today will change, will pass, and most of them we will see change and pass."

      That wasn't the opinion of the present Robert Heinlein, however.  In his  "Heirs of Patrick Henry" ad, he invited others to join him in telling President Eisenhower that they wanted America made "supremely strong."  And in  Starship Troopers, he said that Man was what he was, and that it was immoral to think otherwise.

      But if every custom, technique, institution, belief and structure that we see around us is bound to change and pass, how can it ever be possible to declare with certainty what Man is?  Even if human nature really were fixed, it seems that what we think about the matter is certain to alter.

      And what security can there be in having supreme strength if some other rooster is going to be perched on top of the dunghill crowing, "Look at me!   Look at me!  I'm Number One!  Call me El Supremo!" five minutes from now?

      With Robert Heinlein as my authority, it seemed to me that I had a fundamental disagreement with Robert Heinlein.

      Not that he was all alone in chasing after the chimera of supremacy.  Part of what made my problem such an acute one is that Heinlein, the teacher of unorthodox thinking, had fallen into step with the most hawkish elements of the U.S. establishment on this one.

      It was the United States of America that was setting off nukes in Nevada and sending spy flights over Sverdlovsk, ringing the Soviet Union with missile emplacements and keeping armed bombers in the air at all times.  Not to mention sending troops in to occupy little countries any time we pleased, and maintaining permanent garrison armies in Germany and Korea.

      And there I was in 1961 -- stationed in one of those garrison armies.  I had time to do some thinking while walking guard duty at night around the perimeter of my army compound, following a beaten path inside a high fence topped with barbed wire designed to keep Koreans out of this little patch of America transplanted to Korea.

      What exactly did it mean to be in a spitshine Army if all the actual spitshining was done by the barracks' houseboy?  The houseboy in my barracks was working his way through college, and had more character and self-discipline than any of the American soldiers whose boots he shined.

      And I could tell the difference between the Korean who salvaged a discarded cigarette pack to make a useful object out of the foil inside and the career Spec 5 from my outfit who was stopped a hundred miles away from home with no trip ticket and no way to account for what was in his vehicle.

      America's presence in Korea didn't feel like supreme strength to me.  It felt like relative power used for self-advantage.

      There was something I wanted to say about growing up in a privileged society but not always liking the way it behaved.  About the overbearing way the United States conducted itself in the world.  And about Robert Heinlein and the limitations of his present attitudes.  I didn't know exactly what it was I wanted to say, but I was bursting to say it and find out.

      I wanted to write a story.

      I wanted to write a science fiction story that would use everything I'd  learned about SF storytelling from Robert Heinlein to present a situation of relative power in which I could imagine Heinlein supporting an abuse of strength taken as a matter of right and privilege, but my character, because of the events of the story, would not.

      What I had wasn't exactly a story, of course.  It was nothing that was well-enough defined for me to put in words.  It was more of an intuitive certainty -- an angle of view, a balance of forces, a scent in the wind.  But this was exactly what was necessary for me to proceed.  And, gradually, over the next few months, I began to recognize and accumulate the specific elements of the story I had in mind to tell.

      The first piece I found was in an article entitled "Science Fiction Is Too Conservative" by G. Harry Stine in the May 1961 issue of Analog.  Here, in passing, Stine tossed off the idea of giant starships carrying human colonies out to the stars.

      I snatched up this suggestion.  I could imagine giant ships like that having both a freedom of movement and an advanced degree of technology which newly-established colony planets didn't have.  And that offered opportunity for a casually self-favoring use of power.

      I also was aware -- and, of course, Stine knew it, too -- that Heinlein had used the idea of an asteroid converted into a starship in Methuselah's Children.  Having a ship like that in my story would be a way of alluding to Heinlein without being centrally dependent on Heinlein.

      Then, about a month later, a Spec 4 from my company and I were on a road trip from one isolated military base to another when there was a coup in Korea.  Martial law was declared.  By racing over dirt roads, offing a chicken in one village we speeded through without stopping, we managed to beat six o'clock curfew and go to ground in the Army compound in Taegu.  It was in the base library there that I found a new book my mother had recommended to me in a letter -- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I read it right through, and liked it so much that I read it a second time before we returned to the road.

      However, as much as I admired this novel, a story from the point of view of a child in Alabama during the Depression learning to take issue with white racism, and as much as I loved the texture of its prose, which was tasty enough to eat with a spoon, I wasn't convinced that an adult woman would be able to remember the perceptions of her six-year-old self so exactly, or that any six-year-old could possibly be as aware as this one was.

      In every story that I wrote, I tried to do something that I hadn't done before, and I'd never written a story from the point of view of a young girl.  There weren't many science fiction stories like that.  None of Heinlein's juvenile novels had a female protagonist, and I hadn't been completely convinced by Peewee, the bright little doll-clutching girl child in Have Spacesuit -- Will Travel.  I wanted to have a try at a first person account by a girl who was a little older, on the edge of adolescence, and find out if I could bring that off to my satisfaction.

      In July, I was recalled from the southern port city of Pusan to the headquarters of my company near Seoul.  And, while I was there waiting to be reassigned, the last major piece of the story I was incubating tapped me on the shoulder.

      One evening, I picked up a new novel in the compound library called Walkabout by James Vance Marshall and read the blurb.  It said that before Australian aborigine boys became adults, it was traditional for them to be sent into the bush alone on a walkabout to survive for a month.

      That was exactly what I needed to see, and I put the book back again without reading any further.  The story in my head had clicked into place:

      A young girl from a giant starship would be dropped on a colony planet to survive for a month as a rite of passage to adulthood.  And what she encountered there would be disturbing enough to her people to trigger them into a self-righteous overreaction -- with which the girl would not agree.

      In Tunnel in the Sky, Heinlein had stranded young adults from high school and college survival classes on a wild planet, so that what starts out as a limited test turns into a challenge in earnest.  My story of a rite of passage with an inappropriate consequence wouldn't be like that -- but once again there would be present just enough of a resonance with Heinlein to serve as a reminder of who my story was taking issue with.

      What I now had still wasn't a story.  Rather, it was the outlines of a character, a setting, a situation, and a change in attitude.  But my original sense that there was a story I wanted to tell had now taken on sufficient definition -- what I thought of as "critical mass" -- for me to begin writing my story, discovering the details as I went along.

      And, by happy chance, when I got to my new assignment at Camp Red Cloud near the Demilitarized Zone, it turned out that I was the only person in the detachment who knew how to type.  The lieutenant in charge of the detachment put me to work typing his reports for him.  This presented me with the only opportunity I had while I was in the Army to write a story at precisely the time that I had a story I wanted to tell.

      So, at the very moment that Robert Heinlein was advising a Worldcon audience in Seattle to build fallout shelters and buy weapons, I was writing my story in Korea using the example of Heinlein to find my distance from Heinlein.

      I began my story with a group of kids being loaded aboard a scoutship to be taken down to a colony planet for their period of Trial.  Writing when and as I could, I finished the story in October with the destruction of the planet.

      This was the second longest story that I'd ever attempted, but I thought it was easily the best thing I'd written to that point.  I mailed it off to the United States -- what soldiers in Korea called "the Real World" -- to John Campbell, the editor of Analog.

     Campbell rejected the story.  But during the time that it was traveling to America, being considered, and then making its way back to me in Korea again, I had time to do some thinking about what I'd written.

      When I read it over, it seemed to me that the story was top-heavy.  The  overwhelming conclusion wasn't well-enough established by the events of the story.  To bring the ending off and make it seem plausible, I would have to begin at an earlier point.  The story would have to become a novel.

      By then I'd been moved again, this time back to company headquarters, and I no longer had the use of a typewriter.  So I just thought about the work that I needed to do, and made notes.

      My second submission of the story was to Fred Pohl, editor of Galaxy and If.  And in February 1962, I received a letter from Pohl.  Instead of thinking the story I'd sent him was too short, he thought it was too long.  But he said that if I would cut it in half, he was interested in buying it.

      And, once again, things arranged themselves to make work on the story possible.  I was assigned Charge of Quarters duty one night.  This meant that I had to sit all night in the company office, check the barracks every few hours to see that the space heaters were burning properly, and answer the phone if it should ring.  Warm-body work.

      Most people who drew this duty kipped out on a cot in the office.  I sat up all night rewriting my story on the office typewriter.

      By coincidence, my duty coincided with a first in the U.S. space program -- sending astronaut John Glenn in orbit around the earth three times.  I listened to this on the radio, all the while typing furiously, cutting 70 manuscript pages down to 35.

      I dropped the destruction of the colony planet entirely, thereby reducing the story from a bittersweet tale of overreaction to the simpler story of a successful completion of a rite of passage.  My original concept was muted, if not lost entirely.  But because I was already at work in my mind on the novel version of Rite of Passage, where the ending would be retained and strengthened, I didn't mind the sacrifice.

      I finished the job in that single night, and mailed the shortened version of the story to Pohl.  And, true to his word, he did buy it.  He paid me $95 for 10,500 words.  My second story sale.


Part 5ContentsPart 7


Graphics courtesy of Jelane