Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


    If I pissed off Robert Heinlein, it was probably this essay, and not my teenage questions about the dangers of nuclear fallout that first did the trick.

    How the piece came to be written was this:

    In the summer of 1963, shortly after the publication of my first science fiction story, "Down to the Worlds of Men," I spotted a classified ad in the back of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  The ad solicited book reviews for publication in an SF fanzine.  It was signed by Bill Blackbeard, a fan I hadn't heard of before, who's best known to me today as a historian of comics.

    The ad interested me.  I'd read every book about SF that had ever been published, most of them over and over again, and a substantial part of what I knew about SF writing had been derived from studying Damon Knight's collection of pioneering book reviews, In Search of Wonder.  It occurred to me that if I were to write reviews myself, this might help clarify my thinking about science fiction and how to write it.  And here was my opportunity.

    So I tried my hand at a bunch of short reviews of current books.  The only one of them that I remember was The Night Shapes, a jungle adventure with dinosaurs that James Blish had written for the pulps early in his career, now issued in paperback as an apparently new work.  I think it was intended as a send-up, but it just came across as crude and clumsy and nothing you'd expect from one of SF's foremost technical critics.

    After a few weeks, I sent the little pile of reviews I'd accumulated to Blackbeard at the post office address given in the ad.  However, the answer I received didn't come from him, but from another fan who signed himself Al haLevy.  He said that he wasn't familiar with my name, but that I wrote well and with knowledge.  He couldn't help wondering whether I might be a hoax -- somebody already known to him writing under a pseudonym to establish a new fannish persona.

    It struck me as strange that guys with names as remarkable as Blackbeard and haLevy were thinking to question my reality as a person.  But I wrote back to assure them that I really was me, and to point out the novelet I'd just had published in the July issue of If.  When I heard from haLevy again -- or perhaps it was Blackbeard this time -- my genuineness had been accepted.  This note said that Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land was still a matter of controversy on the West Coast, two years after its original publication and a year after it had won a Hugo Award at the 1962 World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago.  Was it possible for me to write about the book?

    What a trap that was to set for an unwary young would-be critic!

    Stranger in a Strange Land hadn't yet become Heinlein's breakthrough book to the unprecedented mass audience he would command in later life.   Adoring intruders hadn't begun setting up camp on his lawn, so that eventually he would feel compelled to erect a fence to protect his privacy.   Nor had Stranger yet become notorious as a hippie bible and the one book that Charles Manson told everybody he knew that they just had to read.

    Even at this early moment, however, the novel was a source of friction and of polarized opinion among SF fans.  That may have been an expectable outcome of Heinlein's stated purpose in writing Stranger in a Strange Land, which he said "was to examine every major axiom of Western culture, to question each axiom, throw doubt on it -- and, if possible, to make the antithesis of each axiom appear a possible and perhaps desirable thing -- rather than unthinkable."   Whether or not he succeeded in this ambition -- and, for me, he didn't -- there was a contentious, in-your-face, like-it-or-lump-it quality about Stranger that, even more than Starship Troopers, served to divide those who loved the sound of Heinlein's voice and were prepared to follow him anywhere from those who felt antagonized by him.

    When I began reading the novel, I expected to like it -- but then found that I didn't.  Because Heinlein was offering the book as a systematic questioning of the axioms of Western culture, I was anticipating something like the early Heinlein stories such as "Universe," "Waldo," and Beyond This Horizon which had done me the favor of shaking my confidence in the sufficiency of assumed truth.  But Stranger didn't have that effect on me at all.

    Heinlein's stories of twenty years earlier had offered an outside-looking-in view of the present moment, our culture, and the human situation.  They challenged a reader to step outside ordinary perception and see things from a broader perspective.

    It was this that I hoped to find in Stranger, and did not.  The most exalted viewpoint offered in the novel was scenes of techno-minded angels with wings and halos trading banter in Heaven, and that was anything but a challenge to the conventions of Western culture.

    Instead of offering a more comprehensive view of life, Heinlein appeared to be working overtime in this book to make attitudes and actions appear desirable which, if actually adopted and put into practice without benefit of a safety net or the blessings of a higher power, could lead to harm to self and to others.  It seemed that rather than attempting to broaden the vision of his readers, Heinlein was indulging in a personal wish-fulfillment fantasy.

    However, while it would be possible for an impressionable reader to feel he'd been given license by the fantasy to ignore conventional constraints, Heinlein would not accept responsibility for any social damage which might take place if the book were adopted as a model.  When it was reported that Charles Manson had used Stranger as his guide in discorporating people he found unworthy, Heinlein's response was to act indignant and say, "Who, me?"

    In 1963, I wasn't yet capable of suggesting that Stranger in a Strange Land might be dangerous to handle without a waldo.  All that I knew for certain was that I found more than one aspect of the book troubling,

    I'd never said anything about this to anyone, let alone Blackbeard & Co.  So why should they have gotten it into their heads to suggest to me -- a young aspiring writer known to only a very few people in the world of SF fandom -- that I might be suited to take on the largest and most problematic novel of the man who'd been the leading writer of science fiction since the time I was born?  Sure beats the hell out of me.

    I'd like to believe that it was some extraordinary order of knowledge and perception blazing forth from those book reviews I'd sent them which made them believe I was qualified to grapple with the likes of Robert Heinlein.  But I have no reason to think that was so.  As far as I'm aware, the reviews went lost-strayed-or-stolen and never saw publication anywhere.  Just like the original ad that I first saw in F&SF, they served no other purpose than to put me in touch with Bill Blackbeard and Al haLevy.

    Do you suppose that the ad was just a blind?  Maybe what these two were really up to all along was searching the world for some bumptious innocent who had no better sense than to speak up and say what he actually saw in Stranger.  But of all the eager would-be reviewers who flocked to answer this ad, I was the only one who was enough of a fool to respond to the follow-up letter suggesting to us that one of us might take on that Heinlein book people out there in California were still talking about.

    Well, it's a theory....

    There's no question that I was an innocent.  And furthermore, one set forth on a path I couldn't easily be dissuaded from following.  I aimed to understand SF, which had been a deep source for me; to attempt to write it myself as well as I could; and to always set new challenges for myself so that every time I tried to write a new piece, there was something about it that was different from anything I'd ever done before.

    It was because I wanted to get to the bottom of things and didn't want to avoid any challenge simply because it looked difficult that I was receptive to the request that I write about Heinlein.  But if what was being suggested to me was a review of Stranger, I didn't want to write one, even if I were able to do it.

    I wasn't altogether happy with the book reviews that I'd been writing.  My first model for reviewing science fiction was Damon Knight and it had occurred to me that I might be imitating his limitations as a reviewer as well as his strengths.  My real aim wasn't to pick on the flaws of imperfect books, as Knight was given to do, so much as it was to work out answers to the most perplexing questions I still had about science fiction.

    And I didn't want to write just about Stranger in a Strange Land.  All through the 1950s, Heinlein had been my primary guide to life, but now it seemed that I was no longer able to follow where he was leading me.  Four Heinlein novels in a row -- Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, Podkayne of Mars and Glory Road -- had struck me as questionable, as poorly made, or even as irresponsible.   And I was uncomfortable about that.

    To this point, Heinlein's stories had served as my best example of what a science fiction story should be like, so that even Rite of Passage -- the novel I was writing which took exception with Heinlein on the use and misuse of power -- was Heinleinian in conception.  All things considered, no doubt this was appropriate.  But it was clear to me that I had no desire to write SF that was anything like the last four Heinlein books.

    In fact, these stories were causing me to have second thoughts about the reliability of Heinlein's writing voice.  Even though the novels were flawed, they had the same tone of authority as always.

    If I'd loved Heinlein, some part of that was because I'd been a kid trying to get the world straight, and by his manner Heinlein declared that he was one step ahead of everybody in all things, that he was utterly confident about everything he said, and that he was always right.

    But was he really?

    Did Heinlein know as much as he claimed to know?  Did he always do his homework?  Were there whole areas of human experience that Heinlein was deaf to or ignorant of?  And were there things that he presented himself as knowing, but didn't really understand?  Did he always use his voice of authority to utter the truth as best he knew it?  Or was he faking some of the time, or even putting his thumb on the scale, and then snowing everybody with the certainty of his manner?

    Just as in 1959, when I'd had to accept that Heinlein wasn't prepared to meet the question I was asking him about the human costs of nuclear testing, I had to face the possibility that I had a real difference with the man who had been my idol.  If I did intend to write SF stories, I had to sort out for myself which part of Heinlein's appeal for me had been because he really did know better than everyone else, and which part because he was skillful at sounding as though he did.

    One instance I could think of where Heinlein used his authoritative manner but then told less than the whole truth was the central sexual arrangement in Stranger in a Strange Land.

    In this novel, Heinlein challenged the current convention of American culture -- nominally observed monogamy -- with the alternative of "nests" of "water brothers," all sexually active with each other, and did his best to make this appear desirable rather than unthinkable.

    As sexually inexperienced as I was, I had done my share of thinking on the subject of sex and how I ought to relate to it.  And it seemed clear to me that in presenting his alternative sexual configuration, Heinlein was sliding right past the problems of social dominance and of personal jealousy that would crop up in such a situation.

    The way that Heinlein imagined things, within a nest everyone would screw anyone, and everybody would be happy.  One nest wouldn't be a more desirable place to be than another.  Within a nest, no alpha-male water brother would ever favor himself and pull rank in order to have things his own way.  Two people would never butt heads or pull hair over the same desirable partner; they'd just pass the time with someone else, and wait their turn.  There would be no exclusive pairings, and no breaking-and-remaking of pairings.  No weaker person would ever feel coerced by a stronger one.  Nobody would be too abrasive, ugly, stinky or old to be included.  No one would ever be disappointed, and no one would ever feel hurt.

    Heinlein blinked all such problems right out of existence by invoking the psychic reorientation which attends the adoption of a new religion brought from Mars.  Just think Martian, too, and dive in.

    This seemed a strange wave-of-the-hand idealism.

    Heinlein didn't present much specific detail about the new religion beyond the frequently repeated tenet Thou art God.  But that didn't need to be imported from Mars.  Depending on which handle you grab it by, it's already a deep mystical insight or a common mystical misunderstanding here on Earth.

    The proof of this new religion wouldn't be the wisdom it teaches, but rather its founder's display of super-powers.  And the consequence of the religion would be far more a means of showing people the way to good sex than of providing them with a way to complete their humanity.

    When skeptical outsiders visit a nest and then decide they like it and want to stay, it isn't so much that they adopt the new sexual order because it comes along with religious enlightenment as that they accept the new religion because it is an adjunct to Heinlein's harem-fantasy-in-disguise.

    And then it occurred to me -- I was sitting at a table in the grill in the common basement of two dorms at Michigan State University at the time -- that an unrealistic idealism where sex was concerned wasn't just an aspect of Stranger in a Strange Land.  It had always been a weak spot in Heinlein's stories.

    And, with that, I suddenly had the basis for an essay rather than a book review -- a way of addressing the issues of Stranger in a Strange Land, as I'd been asked to do by the people in California, and also a way of giving voice to the doubts I'd begun to entertain about Heinlein's all-knowing air.

    At the time, I didn't know much about SF fanzines.  The only one that I had ever seen was a mid-Fifties parody of an issue of the Campbell Astounding.  So when I made this first attempt to write a critical essay, I was writing for a medium I wasn't familiar with, for an unknown publication, and for a specific audience I had no clues to beyond the fact that they'd probably read Heinlein.

    I was also way over my head in taking on the topic of sex at all.  At 23, I was a virgin who had remained downstairs in a whorehouse in Pusan with a girl on my knee while everyone else paired up and went upstairs.  I not only had my share of practical ignorance, I was wrestling with my own ideals and inhibitions, trying to work out how I ought to conduct myself.  If an innocent like me were to call an omniscient sophisticate like Heinlein a case of arrested adolescence, I stood a good chance of being laughed out of town unless I was right about what I said.

    Moreover, sex is a highly emotional area, and, as I had been informed, Stranger was still a controversial subject in SF fan circles in California.  Nobody told me at the time what this actually meant, but my best (and still fragmentary) understanding now would be that Stranger in a Strange Land had legitimized experiments in sexual nesting and the sharing of water.  This had stirred up problems of dominance and jealousy, and caused the rearrangement of relationships, but no one had yet had the nerve to point a finger in public at Heinlein and Stranger.

    I was doing a kind of writing I hadn't done before; I knew nothing about fanzines; I lacked sexual experience; and I wasn't aware of the volatile emotional undercurrents in California fandom.  The only way for me to negotiate this minefield of ignorance and survive the experience was to do my best to tell the truth as I understood it.  But I didn't know that, either.

    I just sat down and wrote my essay as best I could.  I said that there were problems with Heinlein concerning sex and power and authority.  Specifically, I said that there was a continuity between the old Heinlein and the new one, and that he'd always been an adolescent where sex was concerned.

    Then I mailed what I'd written off to California, by no means sure that it was what they wanted to see, since in the event I'd said very little about Stranger in a Strange Land.

    I think now that my article was precisely what somebody wanted to see, and all the more so since it didn't speak directly about Stranger and whatever turmoil it might be causing, but instead questioned Heinlein's authority as a representer of fictional sexual relationships.

    I didn't hear back immediately.  However, it can't have been as long as a month between the time that I finished the essay and the day that I opened my dorm mailbox and found an envelope inside containing a mimeographed fanzine, Shangri-L'Affaires #67 for November-December 1963.

    But then when I took out the magazine and looked at it, my heart sank.  There my name was, listed third in the table of contents on the front cover.  My first fanzine appearance.  Except my essay had been retitled.  I was given as the author of something called "HEINLEIN: BY HIS JOCKSTRAP."

    That was a lump for me to swallow.

    Yes, Heinlein was the author of a story called "By His Bootstraps," so the new title was half-clever.  But it was also crude, disrespectful and gleefully vindictive.  And I didn't like the way the subtitle could be misread as a byline; I had no ambitions to be Heinlein's jockstrap.

    This was not at all the way I would have liked to introduce myself.  But now it seemed that I was going to be stuck with it.

    How had it happened?

    Shangri-L'Affaires, known familiarly as Shaggy, was a well-known fanzine of the day.  It had been published off and on by the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society since the early Forties.  In the issue, there was an editorial which said that the three people who had previously produced the magazine had gotten burned out and resigned as a group at a LASFS meeting in late September.  Redd Boggs, who had put out a highly regarded fanzine called Skyhook in the early Fifties, but only been intermittently active since as an SF fan, had been made the new editor.

    Resignation en masse at a club meeting didn't sound like burnout so much as the slamming of a door on the way out in order to make a point.  And if Redd Boggs had only just been put in charge of the magazine, this meant that he couldn't have been intended to be the original recipient of anything I'd written.  No -- he had become editor; Blackbeard had shown him my article; and Boggs had recognized it as something he wanted to publish in his very first issue.

    I was only more dismayed when I opened the magazine to my piece and saw how it was presented.  Boggs had illustrated my text and his title with an old drawing from the magazine's file drawer, by Ted White under the nom d'art Ron Archer.  This was a simple but effective sketch of a living paper doll man pinned to a wall, with another pin through its heart.

    Taken together, the three elements declared: "Ha!  Gotcha, Heinlein!"

    When Heinlein had lived in the Los Angeles area prior to World War II, he'd interacted with local fans, and he still remained friends with some of them.  So for the LASFS fanzine Shangri-L'Affaires to go out of its way now to publish this deliberately offensive combination of drawing, title and article was a specific act of personal repudiation.

    It seems that there were people in California who were mad as hell at Heinlein.  And I'd been drafted into service to be their hitman.

    All things considered, I have to count myself lucky that the letter column of the next issue of Shaggy wasn't filled with cries of anger and outrage.  But I have no memory of any.

    The one letter I recall now came from science fiction writer Poul Anderson.  He said that he knew me, and that I wasn't a bad kid.  But that you couldn't necessarily tell what a fiction writer really thought from what appeared in his stories, and that much of what I was pointing to in Heinlein could have been merely a result of him observing the editorial conventions of the markets he was writing for.

    I answered this with another essay in Shangri-L'Affaires.  I said that you could have confidence that a fiction writer did mean what he said if he said it repeatedly in different contexts.  And I gave as my example Poul Anderson and his consistent presentation of human life as tragic.

    But after this oblique defense of what I'd written about Heinlein, I'd had enough of California fan politics and began to look around for a calmer and less contentious place to publish my essays.  And, as an indication that they had gotten what they wanted from me, and there was an end to it, I heard nothing further from Redd Boggs, Bill Blackbeard or Al haLevy.

    Yandro was the new magazine I found to write for.  This was a personal fanzine issued monthly (!) in rural Indiana by husband-and-wife Buck and Juanita Coulson, both of whom would later publish SF novels professionally.  And, for the next year or so, I regularly contributed essays on science fiction to Yandro.

    Heinlein himself made no immediate comment about what I'd written, but I have to believe that once again I had stepped on his toes, this time very very hard.

    In 1973, Heinlein wrote a letter to the curator of the Heinlein Collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz, in part discussing the question of whether or not I should be allowed access to the collection.  Heinlein asked that a copy of his letter be sent to me.  And here he said:

    "My dislike for Mr. Panshin goes back to an item he wrote for an amateur fan magazine....  The article ... was titled HEINLEIN: BY HIS JOCKSTRAP.   Mr. Panshin told me in a letter dated 15 Dec 1964 that the title was placed on his article by the editor, but he did not assert that the title was used for his article without his permission.  I think that the title was exceptionally apt, as it fits perfectly the content and tone of his work."

    Since in the course of his letter, Heinlein said that he was interested to know the factual accuracy of a couple of things that I'd claimed about myself, I wrote to give him the facts.  I concluded by saying:

    "I did not give the article 'Heinlein: By His Jockstrap' to the editor who published it.  I did not know that it was to be published.  I did not know of the title and was ashamed of it when I saw it.  I apologize to you for it, and if I had been older in 1963, I would have apologized to you for it then."

    However, I didn't retract the article itself, or agree with Heinlein that its tone and content were no better than its title.  And he didn't acknowledge my apology, which suggests that he was still smarting from what I'd said.

    The question remains whether I was just yanking Heinlein's chain to get a rise out of him or whether the ignorant kid Panshin was basically right when he suggested that while Heinlein might be able to present himself as a sophisticate when it came to the subject of sex, he wasn't actually mature or likely to become so.

    I suspect that this suggestion was maddening to Heinlein.  And all the more so coming from a kid.  And that this might explain the increasingly bizarre (and also unspecifically imagined) sexual couplings that mark Heinlein's later novels.  It's as though Heinlein were yelling louder and louder at me, "I'll show you who's sophisticated!"

    But if a mature sexual relationship is one which assists the people involved to become more complete in their humanity, then Heinlein never would portray a mature sexual relationship in his fiction.

 Sex in the Stories of Robert Heinlein

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