Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


    Once upon a time, there was a private discussion group of a kind that had never existed before, consisting of science fiction writers and editors and a few well-placed SF fans.

    The organizer of the group was the disorganized but lovable Theodore Cogswell, a college teacher of English perpetually a thesis shy of his Ph.D., who had published several excellent SF stories in the early Fifties.

    Contributors would send Cogswell short letters or long, or sometimes reprints of pertinent essays or reviews they had written.  From time to time, he would type them up -- at first in hektographed form in primitive purple -- and send an accumulation to all the members.  The result was something like a very slow, all-at-once, internet mailing list of a highly selective kind.

    The group's publication was called The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies or PITFCS.  Six issues were published in 1959, six in 1960, three in 1961, and two in 1962, with one last issue of material dating from 1963 published belatedly in 1979.  In 1992, all eighteen issues of PITFCS would be gathered and published in one volume by Advent:Publishers as a unique reference work.

    The members of the group talked to each other about the sad current state of science fiction publishing, the difficulty (or impossibility) of making a living writing SF, and whether they ought to form a science fiction writers union -- the seed from which the Science Fiction Writers of America would grow.  They teased each other in a collegial way and, following Cogswell's example, they indulged themselves in verse.  And they talked about what SF ought to be.

    One of their most interesting and longest running discussions was devoted to the most controversial SF novel of the time -- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

    The debate was touched off in issue #131 (the PITFCS numbering system began with #127A for the pure arbitrary delight of it), dated August 1959.  Editor Cogswell offered a quote from Starship Troopers, then in serialization in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title Starship Soldier:

    "When you reached that spiritual mountain top you felt something.  Perhaps you haven't words for it (I didn't when I was a boot).  So let an older comrade lend you the words, since it often helps to have discrete words.  Simply this:  the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation."

    Cogswell paired this with a poem by Wilfred Owen, most highly regarded of the World War I poets, who was killed in 1918, saying that if you ever witnessed a death from gas attack you would not be so ready to tell children the lie that it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for their country.

    The debate over Starship Troopers would continue for more than two years, through half the issues of PITFCS.  That debate is reprinted here.

PITFCS #133, February 1960 -- Poul Anderson, Anthony Boucher
    Poul Anderson was one of SF's most consistent and highly-honored writers, the winner of seven Hugo Awards between 1961 and 1982.
    Anthony Boucher was a mystery writer, author of occasional SF stories, and founding editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

PITFCS #134, March 1960 -- James Blish, Dean McLaughlin, James McConnell
    James Blish was the winner of the Hugo Award in 1959 for his novel A Case of Conscience, Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1960, a pioneer SF critic, and the first author of Star Trek fiction.
    Dean McLaughlin was a writer of SF stories.
    James McConnell was an academic psychologist, editor of The Wormrunners' Digest, and author of eight early Fifties SF stories.

PITFCS #135, April 1960 -- Sidney Coleman
    Sidney Coleman was a fan, an Advent partner, and later a well-known theoretical physicist who has been called "the world's greatest expert on nothing."

PITFCS #136, June 1960 -- Poul Anderson

PITFCS #137, October 1960 -- Jim Harmon, George Price
    Jim Harmon was a writer of SF stories.
    George Price was a fan, technical editor and Advent partner.

PITFCS #138, December 1960 -- John Brunner, Damon Knight
    John Brunner was a British SF writer, winner of the Hugo Award in 1969 for his novel Stand on Zanzibar.
    Damon Knight was an SF writer and editor, winner of a Hugo Award for his SF criticism, and founder of the Milford Writer's Conference, the Clarion SF and Fantasy Writers' Workshop, and the Science Fiction Writers of America.

PITFCS #139, March 1961 -- Philip Josť Farmer
    Philip Josť Farmer was Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1968 and winner of the Hugo Award in 1972 for his novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

PITFCS #141, November 1961 -- Robert A.W. Lowndes, Brian W. Aldiss
    Robert A.W. Lowndes was the editor of several SF magazines between 1941 and 1971.
    Brian W. Aldiss was a British SF writer, winner of the Hugo Award for short fiction in 1962, and Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in London in 1965.

Return to The Critics Lounge Annex

The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies is available from Advent:Publishers at PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690.  Hardcover, $50.  It includes contributions by dozens of major science fiction writers of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's, from E.E. Smith to Isaac Asimov to Harlan Ellison, discussing their own and each other's work, as well as a variety of other novel and thought-provoking topics.

Graphics by Kelly