Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




     In 1967, two new categories were added to the Hugo Awards -- Best Fan Artist and Best Fan Writer.

     I was the winner of the first award for Best Fan Writer on the basis of the various pieces on Robert Heinlein's fiction I'd published during the previous year. And, in recognition, I received a plastic-and-wood trophy. (That year, all the Hugo Awards were plastic rockets glued to a wooden base, which had an unfortunate tendency to come apart.)

     I could hardly have not been given this award. And the one person who was most responsible for seeing that I got it was Robert Heinlein -- not by conscious intention, but by the law of reverse effect, the universal operating principle which turns seeming triumphs into disasters and apparent blows into blessings.

     It happened this way:

     Early in 1965, Heinlein -- acting in accordance with one of those paradoxes of his nature which permitted him to proclaim the necessity of freedom of thought and expression one moment and to manipulate and censor information the next without quite noticing that there was a contradiction -- attempted to stop publication of the book I'd informed him I was in the process of writing about his fiction.

     He threatened to sue Advent, the semi-professional fan press which had commissioned me to write it. And the intimidation was immediately successful. Advent dropped the project.

     But the unforeseen result of quashing the book in one place was that different parts of it were published widely instead in fanzines in Canada, England and the United States. And because of the buzz that had been created by Heinlein's attempt to suppress what I was writing, and also because this was a more ambitious and extensive piece of work than fanzines had been accustomed to publishing, I found myself lined up to be given a newly-created award that I otherwise wouldn't have been considered for.

     I was first asked to write a book about the fiction of Robert Heinlein in the summer of 1964. The person who made the proposal to me was Earl Kemp.

     Kemp was a country boy from Arkansas now working as a graphics artist for a printer in Chicago. But his primary energies were put into science fiction fandom, where, in his own understated way, he was a major creative force. He was a doer, not only full of bright ideas, but also able to bring them to fruition. A typical Kemp project had an element of originality, called for a lot of work by a number of different people, but yielded results that only imagination and effort could achieve.

     When a group of young Chicago fans established a publishing house in the mid-Fifties to produce work of near-professional quality by essentially amateur means, and issued first a hardcover book collecting the SF criticism of Damon Knight and then a portfolio of drawings by Kelly Freas, it was Earl Kemp who organized the Advent project and brought it off. And this game of pretend-publisher was successful enough that Advent passed for real rather than the fan operation it actually was.

     A few years later, Kemp deliberately set out to win a Hugo for Best Fan Publication with a multilithed symposium in which he asked the same questions of a number of SF professionals and then published their answers under the provocative title, Who Killed Science Fiction?  He worked to make this publication an item of prestige and also one of limited availability -- and by this method was successful in winning his Hugo.

     But that was only a means to an end, which was gathering attention and support for Chicago's bid for a World Science Fiction Convention in 1962. It was Earl Kemp who headed the bidding committee, and then, when Chicago won, chaired the convention.

     I had introduced myself to Kemp a few years before at the World Science Fiction Convention I attended in Detroit in 1959. When I'd ordered a copy of Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder from Advent as a junior in high school, I'd drawn a distinctive little doodle on the envelope. But that was enough for Kemp to remember me.

     I met him a second time later that fall when I rode shotgun with science fiction writer Dean McLaughlin from Ann Arbor to Chicago to attend a party of SF fans and pros. By prearrangement, McLaughlin and I slept over that night at Kemp's house.

     To entertain me, Kemp showed me three items of interest. As he'd promised at the party, he found Robert Heinlein's ad "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" in the drawer of a desk and let me read it -- and you know where that would lead. He allowed me to have a peek at Who Killed Science-Fiction?, which he was about to launch upon the world. And he introduced me to a headbending book of drawings by Boris Artzybasheff entitled As I See, which, years later, I would pay big bucks to own a copy of myself.

     After that, however, I don't think I laid eyes on Earl Kemp again for nearly five years.

     In the summer of 1964, both Earl Kemp and I attended Midwestcon, the annual regional science fiction convention held in Cincinnati. That was only the third SF convention I'd ever been to.

     I saw Earl there in passing at a party, as laid back as ever. And he said something to me like, "Hey, Alex. How'd you like to write a book on Heinlein for Advent?"

     But I didn't take him seriously. Nobody had ever written a book of any kind about the work of an SF writer, and no ambition of that sort had ever entered my head. In my mind, I was just an overage college student returned to school after serving in the Army, trying to teach myself how to write by producing stories and essays and working along at a novel.

     I might even have thought that Kemp was twitting me about the essay on Heinlein with the unfortunate wise-ass title that I'd published in Shangri-L'Affaires the previous fall.

     But then, about a month later, our paths would cross again. We met at a party given by Buck and Juanita Coulson, the publishers of Yandro, the fan magazine I was writing my essays for, at their home in rural Indiana. And this time there was more opportunity for us to talk.

     Kemp said that he hadn't been kidding me in Cincinnati. If I was willing to write a book on Heinlein's fiction, Advent would publish it.

     It seems that Earl Kemp had had another bright idea.

     Advent, which by then had published more than half-a-dozen books, three of them in 1964, had a need for material. A critical book about the stories of a particular SF writer may have seemed the next step to take. And once Kemp had started thinking along those lines, the length of Heinlein's career, the variety and influence of his work, and the controversy surrounding Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land would have made him the obvious choice.

     But why me?

     Well, that was probably obvious, too. I'd bought every book that Advent had published, and I'd been turning out serious constructive essays on science fiction for Yandro. My curiosity about the Patrick Henry ad in 1959 and my essay in Shaggy demonstrated my continuing interest in Robert Heinlein. And I wrote well enough to have sold stories professionally.

     What's more, I was cheap. Which is to say that I didn't have a living to earn and a family to support.

     If what Kemp was seeking was an ambitious young critic willing to take on a job with no precedents and carry it out for the sheer love of doing it, then I was probably the natural choice for the job, whether or not I was aware of it.

     In fact, now that I think about it, it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that the original idea which came to Kemp arrived as a whole, and that I was an integral part of it from the beginning. Kemp may not have given the matter any conscious thought at all until the moment he laid eyes on me again at Midwestcon. And then it may have come to him that if Alex Panshin wrote a book on Heinlein, Advent could publish it. So why not ask him if he wants to do it? And the words came out of his mouth.

     And, at the party in Indiana where he actually got me to hold still and listen, my response proved that once again he'd had an idea for a project unlike anything anybody had done before which might actually be brought into being. I tentatively agreed that I'd write a book on Heinlein for Advent, and then accepted definitely in a letter I sent to Advent several days later.


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