Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



     I drove home to Michigan from that party sky high at the thought that I might now be writing not just one book, but two.

     But that was a pretty daunting load, especially while I was still going to school. So, with college starting again, I went to see my advisor.

     I'd been directed to Dr. Bettinghaus in the first place because he was unusually flexible. And, in the name of Communications -- whatever that was -- he'd allowed me to carve out my own program of history, philosophy and psychology courses.

     Now I told him that I was at work on two books -- a science fiction novel, and an examination of the stories of Robert Heinlein. Could I get credit for either one?

     Dr. Bettinghaus said, "I don't think we can give you any credit for a novel. But we can call your book on Heinlein your senior thesis and give you credit for that."

     I'd never heard of any such thing as a senior thesis before, but that was just fine with me. It was an easy way to earn a couple of A's, doing what I was going to be doing anyway. And it gave me some free time in which to do the work.

     What that work was to be was defined a little more sharply at a meeting I had with all the partners of Advent -- including a ski resort operator and a not-yet-prominent theoretical physicist -- in a hotel room at the 22nd World Science Fiction Convention in Oakland. We agreed that I was to write a book of at least 40,000 words which would discuss Heinlein's fiction fairly and accurately. One of the fan partners, George Price, would serve as my editor.

     But then, having obligated myself both to a book for Advent and a senior thesis for Michigan State University, I was all on my own.

     I had no formal training of any kind in researching and writing critical books. The criticism of science fiction as opposed to other kinds of writing was still in the process of being invented. And I had no prior examples of a book like this one to guide me.

     Whatever I did, I'd have to make it up for myself. And never mind the fact that I was an ignorant 24-year-old.  I would just have to do the best that I knew how to do, and rectify my mistakes as I went along.

     I started thinking about how to organize the book and what I meant to say. I finished whatever work I had in progress or found a good resting point for it. Then I began re-reading all of Heinlein's fiction and tracking down every bit of commentary on his work that I could find.

     Finally, I began writing letters to everyone that I could think of. The first person I wrote to was Robert Heinlein.

     Here is the letter I sent him, dated December 15, 1964:

Dear Mr. Heinlein,

     Last summer, on two different occasions, Advent:Publishers of Chicago asked me If I would consider writing a comprehensive book on you and your work. After some initial hesitation and some careful thought, I finally agreed to do my best. It seemed to be a project worth undertaking, particularly since a book of this sort hasn't previously been done on any modern science fiction figure. Your wide influence is admitted which makes a critical book on your work all the more worth doing.

     What prompted Advent to ask me to do this book, I am sure, is an article I did for the fan magazine SHANGRI-L'AFFAIRES a year ago. It was on the subject of sex in your work. This article suffered in several ways: it had an unfortunate wiseacre title slapped on it by the editor, it was a short article on a limited subject, and it was somewhat hastily written. I intend to do much better on the book. It is going to be comprehensive and responsible.

     The book is going to consider your work from two different angles. The first is story-by-story criticism, taking the stories in the order they were written. Your work seems to fall into three periods -- one up until the Second World War, another from the war until 1958, and the last from 1958 until the present -- and I intend to point this out and discuss the periods separately and together. The second angle will be a concern with continuing elements In your stories: characterization, religion, and so on, as they change and develop throughout the whole body of your work.

     I'm writing this letter for two reasons: one, I didn't want the book to be a total surprise to you, and two, I want to be as complete as possible. The book I'm writing Is going to be neither puff job nor hatchet job. It is going to be critical: that is, I intend to be as honest as I can be. I realize my own debts as a writer to you, and I know most other writers of modern science fiction owe you a debt also. There Is much in your work to be praised. There are things to be picked at. I know, however, that any book containing negative commentary that is sprung suddenly on you is bound to seem like a low blow, no matter what else it says. I thought, therefore, that I ought to tell you now what I am up to. As far as the second point goes, I think the worth of a book like this one depends to a great extent on its thoroughness. For instance, even if I never comment on "Tenderfoot in Space," I think I should read it, and it should have a place in my thinking. In this interest, I thought, whether you cared to answer them or not, that I should ask you some pertinent questions.

     I'm interested to know why "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" appeared in UNKNOWN WORLDS under the name of John Riverside, while your earlier stories in the same magazine appeared under your own name. I'm interested in knowing the circumstances of your collaboration on the story "Beyond Doubt." 

I understand that in the 1940's you had some mysteries published under a penname, but know no more. I'd be interested in any details you would care to supply on this, partly out of general interest, partly because I would like to take these stories into consideration if I possibly can. I intend to include a short biographical chapter in the book, and I'm interested in your family background -- for instance what your brothers and sisters do -- and anything else that isn't too personal to talk about that doesn't appear in the four or five short biographies of you that I have seen which all seem substantially to duplicate each other. I'd like to know the circumstances of the juvenile series you did for Scribner's: how did you join them, and why did you come to leave? I'd be interested in any comments you have on the direction of your recent work.

     If you have any suggestions, comments or criticism of what I am doing, I would like to hear. In any case there will be a book, but your reactions to it will partly determine what the book is to be. For myself, I want it to be as complete, responsible and intelligent as I can make it.

                Alexei Panshin

     Robert Heinlein didn't answer this letter. If I had to guess, I'd say that he was traveling at the time I sent it, and didn't catch up to it until some time in January. But when he did read it, he didn't elect to answer it.

     In 1973, in the letter he sent to the curator of his manuscript collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz and asked her to share with me, he said that my fan magazine article had much to do with his decision not to answer me, and the other major factor was the tone and content of this letter.

     My letter seems very young and self-conscious to me now, all the more so because I was still in awe of Heinlein. It thinks out loud, and anticipates and second-guesses itself. It could be improved by being shortened by half. It also used an unfortunate convenient phrase -- "low blow" -- which Heinlein can't have liked at all considering the title on the Shaggy article. Come to think of it, "hatchet job" probably wasn't a fortunate word choice, either. But except for its kiddishness, the letter was transparently sincere and consistent with the book that I did write.


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