Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



    Going through this stack of letters one at a time while I stood in the lobby of the Okemos post office was a heavy blow for me.

     As far as I knew, I'd just been working along on my book on Heinlein -- doing the reading, doing my homework, writing correspondence and sending bunches of chapters along to Advent as I finished them. And now from out of the blue came this accusation from Heinlein that my methods of gathering material were ungentlemanly, unethical, dishonorable and even illegal. He claimed that I had attempted to pry into his affairs and to violate his privacy.

     And, just that fast, without even asking me about it, Advent was out of the picture and there was no longer to be a book.

     I couldn't help feeling abandoned by Advent, who, after all, had asked me to write a book about Heinlein's fiction in the first place, and now at the first sign of trouble were ready to leave me under the gun and holding the bag.

     But then, I could also understand why Heinlein's letter had shaken their resolve. It was very loud, very accusatory and very angry, and they were only a bunch of ordinary SF fans engaged in a fannish enterprise -- the actualization of a book about the stories of science fiction's leading writer. If Heinlein was going to make that kind of fuss about it, it made good sense to them to find some other less problematic project to pursue.

     My suspicion is that the crucial factor in Advent's decision was the double-bind Heinlein's letter placed them in. He wouldn't read my manuscript so they could rectify mistakes; however, they were warned that if there was anything in the published book to which he took exception, he was prepared to take legal action against them of any and every kind imaginable. That left Advent with the threat of suit ringing in their ears, but no clues from Heinlein as to what sort of thing might cause him to execute that threat. I think this seemed like much too dangerous a guessing game for them to play, and so they retreated.

     But if I was able to make my peace with Advent's lack of willingness to continue, I found Heinlein's letter harder to understand and Heinlein much more difficult to make peace with.

     In his letter to me, Earl Kemp had spoken of evolved misunderstandings. And as I read Heinlein's letter, it did appear to take one misconception after another for established fact.

     As Heinlein presented things in his letter, I was only a tyro as a critic -- a college student without the necessary qualifications to deal with his work. At the same time, I was a liar and con artist who'd made trouble for Heinlein in the past and who meant him no good now.

     According to Heinlein, the purpose of the book I was writing wasn't actually to discuss his stories -- as Advent and I both kept insisting -- but rather to talk about him personally. Heinlein expected this book would contain allegations about him which might be false, but which also might be true.

     It was Heinlein's claim that in order to gather this personal material about him, I'd quizzed his friends and pried into his personal life. And he characterized the methods I'd used as both unethical and illegal.

     He charged Advent with complicity in this. They had no real intention of publishing a valid critical evaluation of his work, as they claimed. Their actual motive for selecting me to write this book while not telling Heinlein that they'd done it, and then condoning my repeated attempts to violate his privacy, was to make money.

     What an odd set of premises from a man who'd once said that the first order of business was to get the facts!

     Heinlein certainly didn't understand Advent very well. This little do-it-yourself fan operation published the books they did precisely because there wasn't any money to be made from them, but Advent believed the books should exist anyway. If there were money to be made from them, ordinary commercial publishers would publish them, and there would be no need for Advent.

     Except for a collection of the fannish writings of Robert Bloch, all of Advent's books had been about science fiction. There hadn't been a single personal exposť among them. Why Heinlein would think they'd change their habits now, or what Advent might imagine they had to gain from publishing a book about Heinlein's life rather than Heinlein's stories was a mystery.

     When I'd met the partners of Advent in Oakland, they'd made it clear to me that they wanted a basic discussion of Heinlein's fiction. And my editor, George Price -- who has to be one of the most meticulous people I've ever known -- was on the job to make sure that's what I delivered. If Heinlein had any doubts about their intentions, Advent was willing for him to read the manuscript and see for himself what kind of book it was.

     Heinlein didn't appear to have a very accurate idea of who or what I was, either. Even if both Advent and Michigan State University had been willing to allow me to act like a pit bull -- a highly unlikely prospect -- I wasn't out to attack Heinlein personally. I wasn't an investigative reporter and I wasn't a flimflam man. Nor was I just some student who'd been picked at random from a college classroom.

     What I was, in fact, was the newest member of the self- selected guild of people who both wrote SF stories and also wrote about the nature of science fiction. And I'd been chosen to write this book because I had a particular interest in the meaning of the stories of Robert Heinlein, and also because I was willing to take on the job.

     Heinlein appeared to hold it against Advent that they hadn't advised him in advance of their intent to do a book and to have me write it. And yet, telling Heinlein beforehand of Advent's intent to publish a book and to have me write it was exactly what I'd done in my letter of December 15th. I'd also offered Heinlein the opportunity to make suggestions, comments and criticisms about the project.

     But Heinlein seemed to believe that Advent had a moral obligation to consult with him about this book before anyone else. If Earl Kemp did get his flash about a book at Midwestcon, then he should have left the party and put in a call to Heinlein before he talked to me about it. Advent ought to have done Heinlein the courtesy of allowing him to say who was acceptable to write about him and who was not.

     This assumption seemed odd to me. And I had problems with Heinlein's list of more "experienced, respected and qualified critic(s)," as well. Only one person among them, Damon Knight, belonged to the same guild as me. The rest were editors, book reviewers and profilers, not people who had shown themselves to be interested in both the craft and the mystery of science fiction.

     And the name of one member of my guild was conspicuous by its absence from Heinlein's list -- author James Blish, who also wrote criticism as William Atheling, Jr. Although I didn't yet know it, back in 1957, Blish had written an article entitled "Heinlein, Son of Heinlein" for a critical fanzine edited by Damon Knight and himself. Here, Blish suggested that different Heinlein first-person narrators were not only the same individual, but were an idealized self-portrait of Heinlein himself.

     When this essay was published (by Advent) in book form in 1970, Blish would add in a footnote that he understood at secondhand that this identification had angered Heinlein. This might explain why his name did not appear on Heinlein's list of acceptable critics.

     At the same time, however, even though Heinlein had been advised repeatedly that the subject of my book was his stories, in his letter to Advent he would persist in speaking of "a book about me," as though there were no distinction at all between him and the books that he'd written. Quite remarkably, in his letter this author of thirty books would not only claim to be a "private person," immune from scrutiny, but appear to want to include the books that he'd published within his sphere of personal privacy.

     If Heinlein did identify his books with himself, that could be the reason he was able to take the prospect of a book about his stories as an attempt to pry into his personal life.

     Certainly, Heinlein knew that the only direct inquiry into his life I'd made in my letter to him had been when I'd said, "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."

     As for the "quizzing" I'd allegedly done of Heinlein's friends and colleagues, I hadn't probed any harder there. Because I'd written so many letters at the outset -- more than forty of them, each one typed up from scratch -- my language had very quickly become standardized. And what I'd asked Ray Bradbury was typical of what I'd asked everyone:

     I had sought "information, advice and quotable opinion," and "any thoughts you might have that I could quote on power, sex or religion in Heinlein's work, on Heinlein's career in general, Heinlein's recent books, Heinlein's place in the field, Heinlein as an individual, or anything else that seems relevant to you."

     If, for Heinlein, this gush of general questions amounted to prying into his personal affairs, then it was no mere happenstance that the biographies of Heinlein I'd seen should all have been so limited and so much alike. As he said in his letter to Advent: "You are warned that only the barest facts of my private life are public knowledge...."

     It appeared to be Heinlein's belief that he had a right to control what was known of him. And he was ready to take an attempt to find out anything else as an outrageous invasion of privacy.

     Heinlein's greatest accusation against me was that I'd obtained the letters he'd written to "Sarge" Smith by underhanded means, and then violated Heinlein's privacy by reading them.

     Except that Heinlein claimed to be familiar with my correspondence with Mrs. Smith. That meant he should have been aware that I'd originally addressed Smith at Avram Davidson's suggestion, and that Mrs. Smith had chosen to write back to me in his place; that she was the one who'd called my attention to the existence of Heinlein's letters to her husband and offered them to me; and that the only interest I'd expressed in them was for their relevance to Heinlein's stories.

     In order for Heinlein to think of me as some widow-swindling conman -- as he apparently did -- he had to believe that I'd known that Smith was dead before I first wrote him; and also that a hot file of letters from Heinlein to him existed; and also that Mrs. Smith was the sort of person who would be ready to volunteer them to the first Mr. Slick who dropped a note to her late husband.

     Heinlein claimed to Advent that he had laid himself bare in his letters to Smith. He declared, "These letters cover many subjects including but not limited to my professional methods, my evaluations, my religion, my ambitions, opinions, etc., and many facts of my personal life."

     And now his privacy had been irrevocably breached. As he said, "The damage was done as soon as Panshin read those letters."

     If only it were so. I would have been quite interested to learn something of Heinlein's ambitions, his literary evaluations, and his professional methods, not to mention his religious beliefs. All of these things might have helped me to understand his fiction better.

     Unfortunately, however, I hadn't seen anything such as Heinlein described in the letters that I'd read.

     Did this mean that having offered the letters to me, Mrs. Smith had then gone through them and only sent me the innocuous ones? Or that I'd been incredibly dense when I read them and missed all the good stuff? Or was it possible that what Heinlein claimed was in the letters wasn't in them after all?

     What a great heap of misapprehensions this was!

     What's more, the appropriateness of Heinlein's letter depended on every single one of them being true. For Heinlein's wrath to be justified, Advent had to be greedy, unscrupulous liars and villains, and I had to be both unqualified to make comments about Heinlein and a relentless snoop who meant Heinlein ill, and my book had to be a personal exposť of Heinlein rather than a discussion of his stories, and everything that I knew about Heinlein outside the official facts, I had to have gleaned from the Smith letters I'd obtained by illicit means.

     Talk about an evolved misunderstanding! If you took away any one piece of this story, the rest of it instantly turned into nonsense.

     Well, that was addressed easily enough. I wrote to Heinlein. And I also sent letters to the Science Fiction Writers of America and to Lurton Blassingame, Heinlein's agent, who had both been listed as recipients of Heinlein's letter to Advent, asking for their help.

     I offered to let my correspondence concerning the book be examined, including the letters I'd exchanged with Mrs. Smith. I also offered to let my manuscript be read by any or all of Heinlein's chosen critics. I said that I would change anything that any of them thought was illegitimate criticism, and if anyone declared that the book was worthless, I would scrap it altogether.

     I doubt that I would make any such offer today. But I was young then, and I had confidence in what I'd written. One look at my manuscript should be enough to demonstrate to anyone that it was the book I'd said it was at the beginning, and that it wasn't personally intrusive in any way.

     But my offers went unaccepted. No one was prepared to look at my correspondence or to read my manuscript.

     On behalf of the SFWA, Damon Knight said that he'd written to Heinlein to ask if the organization could help. But, after that, I heard no more.

     Lurton Blassingame, previously enthusiastic about a book on Heinlein's stories, wrote to tell me that before I wrote a biography of someone, I should find out how they felt about it.

     Robert Heinlein didn't answer.

     So I was on my own.


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