Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
Earl Kemp tells me he likes me. And since when he says it, he delivers a sly little boot in the butt and gives me a wink, I gotta believe it's true, 'cause that's just the sort of thing they do where Earl comes from when they like you. It's the style.
Truth is, I'm fond of Earl, too, even though in the more-than-forty years that I've known him, we probably haven't spoken together in person more than half-a-dozen times. I like Earl in spite of his getting me into trouble. He's done it before and it looks like he's about to do it again.
The key to our mutual admiration society may be this:
Earl says he takes pride in the person that he is and the things he has done, and the manner (for the most part) in which he's done them. And I have a liking for people who set one difficult and unusual goal after another for themselves and then keep workin' away at them until they actually happen. I'm sweet and earnest and stubborn as a pig myself, and set left-handed goals to accomplish that don't always pay much heed to what everybody else is doing, and I think Earl likes that because Earl can be like that.
Earl says that early on
he marked me as one of his
own. I suspect that means that not only did he perceive from
outset the qualities in me that ordinarily make me a trial and a
to the people around me, he valued them. I think he said to
"You know, Alex is so haimish he could almost be
I first met Earl at the World Science Fiction Convention at the Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel in Detroit in 1959 -- attendance 371 people. Six months later, I would be put up by the Army in this same hotel on the night before I was inducted.
I had just turned nineteen, and it was my first convention ever. I was eager to understand science fiction, and I wanted to write it, too. Hell, I wanted to grok the fullness. So I was in hog heaven.
It started out like this:
I walked up to the hotel desk to register. There was just one person ahead of me signing in, an older man. When he was finished, he turned around and saw me.
He stuck out his hand and said, "Hello, I'm Doc Smith. Don't I know you?"
He didn't know me from Adam's off ox, of course, never having laid eyes on me before that moment. But it was so nice of him to pretend that he did. Kings don't ordinarily talk to peasants that way. I was blown away by the sweet simple goodness and generosity of the man. I introduced myself to him and shook his hand.
Doc Smith may have done as much for every eager, awkward, provincial kid he ever encountered. I wouldn't put it past him. But I received his recognition as a sign of grace and a blessing.
I think of Bob Dylan talking about the old bluesmen he encountered when he first arrived in New York as a youngster from Minnesota, saying that he just hoped he would be able to carry himself in the same manner someday. I've cherished meeting Doc Smith in my heart ever since, and tried to live up to the honor.
Next, I hit on Damon Knight and followed him into the hotel bar, even though I was underage, quoting In Search of Wonder at him relentlessly and plying him with deep questions about science-fictional mystery and truth. In fact, that's the way I would spend most of my convention -- trailing after Damon Knight, plaguing him with questions. And I'll tell you, he put up with my attentions with remarkable good humor.
Damon was bound on joining the circle of SF writers sitting around a large glass coffee table in the bar. I asked if it was all right if I sat there and listened as long as I kept my mouth shut. And I wasn't told that I couldn't. So I sat there and eavesdropped as the gods talked, hanging on every word that was uttered -- most of which had nothing to do with science fiction.
Finally, I zeroed in on Earl Kemp and George Price in the hotel lobby when I spotted the word "Advent" tattooed on their foreheads. I insisted on letting them know, too, just how much their publication of In Search of Wonder had meant to me.
And Earl actually
remembered my book order from Mount
Hermon School in Mt. Hermon, Mass. In a fit of whimsy, I'd
cockroachy little space monster doodle on the envelope and I guess Earl
had recognized either an incipient master artist or another
In any case, he threw his arms open wide and welcomed me to his bosom
a long-lost friend. Well, not exactly -- but it felt
Later that fall, I rode with science fiction writer Dean McLaughlin from Ann Arbor to Chicago to attend a party at the apartment of Rosemary Hickey, podiatrist and SF fan. I first met Dean when I got to the University of Michigan and found him working in a college bookstore there. Dean was the guy that everyone, customer or employee, consulted when they wanted to know about a particular book. I'd drop by the bookstore and quiz him about the science fiction world as often as I thought I could get away with it.
One day, Dean asked me if I wanted to drive to Chicago and take in an SF party. He said that we could sleep over at Earl Kemp's house. And, of course, that was an adventure that appealed to me.
At the party, there were a number of Chicago area BNFs and some small name pros. In addition to Dean, Theodore Cogswell was there, resting up from not working on his Ph.D. thesis. And I was introduced to Joe Hensley, an Indiana lawyer (and later a judge), whom I would visit and with whom I would collaborate on several published stories, including the first one I ever had anthologized. It may have been Joe's first, too.
And Howling Elephant was there, already notorious if not yet quite the three-ring-circus-in-a-pint-pot he would become. I remember Harlan fingering my brown blazer with the metal buttons I'd paid no less than $20 for, and saying to me, "So you want to be a writer? I'll tell you what you do. The first check you get, go out and buy a Continental-cut suit."
It was probably sartorial advice I needed desperately, but unfortunately it was completely wasted on me -- all but the precious memory of the occasion, which I laugh over still. Harlan never has been able to figure me out.
At some point in the evening, a remark was made that I didn't get about an ad that Robert Heinlein had published the previous year. So I said, "What's that?" And Earl, sitting on a couch across the room, poked his head up and said, "I'll show it to you when we get to my place."
And he did, too. Well, Earl showed me a number of things I was pleased to see that night. He let me see Who Killed Science Fiction?, which he was then in the process of putting together. And he showed me a book of fantastic drawings by Boris Artzybasheff called As I See.
That really bowled me over. My parents had a subscription to Time in the Fifties, and Artzybasheff drew covers for them throughout the decade. I was an admirer of his -- the only one I knew -- and having Earl give me a copy of his book to look at was to be handed a previously-unknown treasure.
I would briefly lay eyes on another copy in an Army library in Seoul, Korea, two years later. Otherwise, As I See was a wonderful mystery I thought I remembered, but then could never find again. At last, a few years ago, I said, "Oh, hell," and commissioned a bookfinder to locate a copy of the book. When he finally got back to me, he had a copy with no dustjacket -- and it was a good dustjacket -- and the book would cost me $325. But hey, I now have a copy of my own. Thank you, Earl. It's as good as I remembered it being.
And, after I reminded him, Earl rummaged in a drawer and came up with a full-page newsprint ad entitled "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" I don't remember my exact reaction when I read it. But very likely it was something on the order of, "Great Cooglie Mooglie! Heinlein's really gone over the top with this one, hasn't he?"
Altogether, then, on that
fateful night with wispy
witchclouds racing barefoot across the face of the moon, Earl Kemp had
the opportunity to make three observations about the kid who was
on his couch and to take his measure. One was that I was
curious to know what science fiction writers had to say for
Another was that I had the excellent good taste necessary to appreciate
the artistic designs of an Artzybasheff without recoiling from their
weirdness. And the last was that, mere sprat though I might
wasn't about to allow myself to be overwhelmed, even by a Big Fish
hero of mine like Robert Heinlein, merely because he happened to be
a flag, tooting a bugle, and employing his "command voice."
It was almost five years before I had another interchange with Earl Kemp. When I did, it was at a Midwestcon, the annual regional con in Cincinnati, in June 1964. It was just the third SF convention I'd ever attended.
In the course of a room party during this programless convention consisting solely of room and pool parties, I ran into Earl. And what he had to say to me after all this time was, "Hey, Alex. How'd you like to write a book on Heinlein for Advent?"
Wow! What a wild suggestion that was to lay on me! A book... by me... on Robert Heinlein.... And this at a time when no one had ever written a book on the work of any science fiction writer.
But then, there was no way that I could take Earl as talking seriously. He had a glass in his hand, and I was wise enough to the ways of the world to know that the words of people who are a glass ahead of you cannot be counted on in the morning. In fact, it seemed more than likely that Earl was just pulling my leg.
My first fanzine essay had been published about eight months earlier in the LASFS clubzine, Shangri-L'Affaires. It had leveled a challenge at Robert Heinlein's self-presentation as the voice of authority by focusing on the example of his handling of human sexual relationships, which I tried to show were not only something less than a model for living, but were also both cliched and less than truly adult. Redd Boggs, the new editor of Shaggy who'd been handed the piece without my knowledge by Bill Blackbeard, had then improved my essay by retitling it "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap," and adorning it with a drawing by Ted White of a living paper doll man with a pin through its heart.
I wasn't prepared to disavow what I'd written -- although I did wish I'd expressed myself better than I had. But I was more than a little embarrassed by the hostility and vindictiveness surrounding the way my essay had been presented, which I had to see as rubbing off on me. And I suspected Earl of kidding me by reminding me of the sticky residue I hadn't quite gotten washed off my hands yet.
Six weeks later, in August 1964, I drove down to Wabash, Indiana to attend a party being given by Buck and Juanita Coulson. This enterprising couple managed to turn out a new issue of their fanzine Yandro every month. And I'd lit upon Yandro as an altogether saner and more congenial place than Shaggy to publish my essays probing the nature of science fiction.
Earl was also there. And this time I saw him before he'd had a chance to get drunk and flip out. In fact, he corraled me early and sat me down. He explained that he hadn't been kidding at Midwestcon. If I was willing to write a critique of Heinlein's stories, Advent would publish the book.
I hadn't quite been able to believe that Earl could really be serious the first time that he asked me. There were no books whatever of the kind that he was suggesting, and I thought of myself as merely someone back from the Army, finishing college and trying to write. At the time, I'd had something like half-a-dozen stories published in widely scattered places -- SF magazines, magazines for teenage girls, and magazines for horny men -- and half-a-dozen essays about science fiction published in fanzines, and I was working on a novel. That didn't qualify me in my own mind as an obvious candidate for an assignment like this.
Except here Earl was,
asking me again. And
he'd had time in which to have second thoughts. He had
Earl Kemp and I have recently been exchanging memories and sorting out the past.
I'm now in the process of working my way through all the various pieces of writing I've done about Heinlein during the last forty years. I'm putting them all up on my website in the order in which I originally wrote them, together with new essays and introductions intended to fill in the gaps and provide context, as a kind of online-metabook-in-progress.
I still haven't finished the job of trying to get my head around Robert Heinlein. I perceive him both as the most powerful writer of modern science fiction and my own beloved teacher from whom I've taken much of what I know and do, and also as an increasingly cranky, self-centered and even dangerous old man who eventually turned into a tweety-bird, flew up his own asshole and disappeared.
My aim is to sort that out -- for my own sake, for the sake of SF, and for the sake of the culture. I want to know the sources of Heinlein's power and the basis on which he established and maintained himself as the paramount writer of science fiction for such a long time. I want to figure out in what regards he was right on when he was right, and I want to work out to my own satisfaction how, when and why Robert Heinlein went astray and how that affects the rest of us.
The point I've reached now in the ongoing story I'm setting down is a 20,000 word essay entitled "The Story of Heinlein in Dimension" which tells how the book came to be, and about the opposition that it received from Heinlein before it was published or even written. And because of Advent's role as the original instigator and eventual publisher of Heinlein in Dimension, I passed copies of what I'd written along to both Earl Kemp and George Price so that they could correct me and fill in the story.
This must be a moment of reflection, because my essay found Earl sitting in the desert, gazing at the moon, and writing his memoirs. You might say that he's been looking back over his life and trying to sort out the righteous moves he's made from the wrongteous ones.
Because of our long-ago association on Heinlein in Dimension, there's been an intersection between what I'm up to and what Earl is doing. And, as a result, Earl has struck off a hot fragment of Kemp-memoir entitled "Heinlein Happens" to augment "The Story of Heinlein in Dimension" and I'm writing this reflection in the spirit of my metabook to accompany Earl's memories. Just like Dylan had it so long ago -- "You can be on my webpage if I can be on yours."
But what Earl has had to say about why he hit on me to write a book on Heinlein in the summer of 1964 hasn't been all that revealing. He's said no more than that I was exactly the right person for the job -- but not why he thought so.
So let me make my guess about that:
What Earl asked me for at that party at the Coulsons' was a minimum of 40,000 words devoted to a basic discussion of the fiction of Robert Heinlein. However, what Earl didn't tell me then -- and is only revealing to me now -- is that he had highly mixed feelings about Heinlein.
Like us all, he had read and loved Heinlein's fiction. But he also knew Heinlein personally, and the person that he knew was a vain and domineering egotist.
The end of enough had come at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in 1962. Earl was chairman of ChiCon III, and Heinlein had acted particularly outrageously there. As his price of attendance, he had demanded that he be awarded the Hugo for Stranger in a Strange Land, quite aside from whether the book actually won or not. He'd also stipulated that as he strolled around the convention floor in a white jacket and black tie, he be followed everywhere he went by a spotlight.
Fortunately for Earl, Stranger in a Strange Land won its Hugo legitimately -- at least, I think it did -- so he wasn't forced to choose between Heinlein's demand and the integrity of the award. However, he had given Heinlein the personal spotlight he insisted upon at ChiCon III and otherwise arranged the world to flatter and cosset the man almost as much as he thought he deserved.
So Earl had reason to be both aware and wary of the overwhelming Me-Me-Me Field projected by Robert Heinlein, and the distorting effect that it could have on people, most definitely including Earl Kemp. Not only did it actively warp the behavior of those who had to deal with him personally, again and again Heinlein would demonstrate that he wouldn't tolerate anyone in his presence who was not affected by it.
It also bent the thoughts, words and actions of all those among his readers who allowed their own identity to be swamped by Heinlein's to the point that they thought they were Heinlein, or the next thing to it. So extreme could the hypnotic effect of Heinlein's Ego Field be that I can recall trying in vain to point out to one Heinlein Idolator in a later day that the novel he was defending so vociferously was actually a denial of the reality of his own existence. I said to him in wonderment, "You don't seem to understand that while you're busy identifying with Heinlein -- saying, 'You'n'me all the way, huh, Bob?' -- it's you who's the target he's shooting at."
Having Earl ask me at the Coulsons' party in an unmistakably serious way to write a critical book for Advent caught me by surprise. I can see now, however, that without my realizing it, I must have been demonstrating my growing credentials to him for quite a while.
At the outset, with the drawing I'd put on my book order in 1957, I'd clearly identified myself to Earl as another weird beard in the making. Then at the Worldcon in 1959 where we became personally acquainted, I'd shown myself to be a kid eager to get to the bottom of science fiction. Two months later, when I stayed overnight at his house, I'd revealed myself as a person with the perception and taste necessary to love Boris Artzybasheff, an artist not everyone was prepared to look at and appreciate.
By 1963, I'd begun to publish SF stories professionally. And recently I'd been writing essays for Yandro probing the nature of science fiction that would contribute to the Coulsons winning a Best Fanzine Hugo for this year.
However, Earl made no sign at all to me of what may have been my most important qualification in his eyes for writing a book about the stories of Robert Heinlein -- the quality that made me exactly the right person for the job. I think Earl perceived me as somebody relatively free of the effects of Heinlein Hypnosis.
No doubt it would have been easy to arrange the writing of a book about Heinlein which adored his stories uncritically. And even though it would have been more difficult, it might also have been possible to commission the writing of a book on Heinlein by somebody who had no use for him at all -- a woman, say, or a skeptical Brit, or one of the people to whom Heinlein had displayed the less endearing side of his nature.
However, what Earl indicated to me that he wanted was a clear-eyed introduction to Heinlein's stories which recognized his special qualities but didn't turn away from the problems his work presented. And that kind of evenhandedness where a polarizing writer like Heinlein is concerned has to have been rare.
At the risk of immodesty, then, my guess is that Earl thought that if there was anybody in the SF world who was capable of dealing with the actualities of Robert Heinlein -- both good and bad -- in a reasonably balanced fashion, it was me:
I had never met the man personally, so I wasn't going to be overwhelmed by his presence. I was singleminded about getting to the bottom of SF, so I wouldn't be dissuaded from asking the most fundamental questions I could frame. And, because I had a sense of humor, I wasn't vulnerable to getting locked into the absolute certainties of Heinlein's point of view.
Not least, even though the man had been both my hero and my teacher, I wasn't intimidated by him. Immediately after reading his "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" ad, I'd been ready to declare that Heinlein was attempting to fife-and-drum people into support of a bad policy. And (although Earl was not aware of this) I'd even sent a letter to Heinlein asking him questions about his position which he'd ultimately declined to answer. Once again, in my first fanzine essay in Shangri-L'Affaires, I'd been ready to say, innocently, awkwardly, bumptiously and embarrassingly, what nobody else had been able to bring themselves to say aloud -- that Heinlein's presentation of sexual relations in his stories, including Stranger in a Strange Land, was really pretty shallow.
However, if it was Earl's belief that I was one person who could assess Heinlein without being thrown off balance by him, he didn't share it with me. He only said that Heinlein was the most important contemporary writer of science fiction and deserved to have a book done on his work. Advent wanted a complete initial examination of his stories, and Earl thought that I was capable of writing it for them. Would I do it?
But, hey, I was cool, too. Inwardly, I may have been shouting "Yahoo!" to the skies at the opportunity that was being offered to me. But outwardly all I said was that while my immediate inclination was to give it a try, I would have to think about it.
And now we come to the nut of the matter:
In February 1965, when I was two-thirds done with the study of Heinlein's fiction that Earl had recruited me to write for him, Earl Kemp done me a dirty. In the words of the title of the memoir he's now sent me -- Heinlein happened. RAH brought the full power of his will to bear on Earl, and Earl crumpled before it.
Heinlein had been pressuring Earl in phone call after phone call to kill the book. And Earl had been evading and resisting Heinlein and telling him off in his mind. Finally, however, on February 17, Heinlein wrote a letter to Earl in which he made it clear that he was exercising his pleasure and the book would be canceled or else heads would roll and mountains would fall into the sea. And Earl, doing his best not to notice exactly what he was doing, gave Heinlein his way and dumped the book.
Earl never has been able to make this right with himself. Instead, he's attempted to deal with what happened to him by coming up with all kinds of stories: It wasn't him who pulled the trigger. He shoulda said no. It wasn't his gun. He'd really been packing to leave town at the time. He was real sorry to hear about what went down -- but, hey, the bullet had missed and nobody had been hurt anyway.
In his heart of hearts, however, I think that Earl regards what he did as an unforgiveable act of bad faith.
He'd led me -- someone who didn't know the real score on Heinlein and was too dumb to shut up -- to stick my neck out and challenge the reigning King of Science Fiction. But then, when Heinlein had bared his fangs and roared at him, Earl had done a "Feets, do your stuff!" and run away, leaving me to cope with the trouble that he'd brought down on my head.
That's never sat right with Earl. He's never been able to reconcile what he believes he ought to have done with what he actually did do, largely because he's never been able to make himself hold still and look what he actually did do square in the eye without flinching.
Consequently, when my version of the story of what happened to Heinlein in Dimension showed up out of the blue, and Earl discovered in reading it that I held no grudge against him over what had gone down in 1965, I think it was both a relief and a shock to him.
It certainly goosed him good. Earl has returned my essay to me with numerous annotations in red. He's also sent me "Heinlein Happens" -- a blurt of undigested memories, some of which are clearly relevant to "The Story of Heinlein in Dimension," but most of which don't seem to be -- and dedicated it to me. And, not least, he's asked me to write a Good Parts Version of my essay to accompany the memoirs that he's writing.
Wow! What a heavy trip for me to tap into!
The unspoken message that comes through to me from all this is that what Earl would really like is for me to apply some of that same clearsightedness, evenhandedness and humor to him that he once wished me to bring to bear on Heinlein's fiction, to sort out his tangle of memories for him and put them in narrative order, and then to tell Earl the story of what actually happened in 1965, and how things really can be okay between us.
And that is what I'm
doing. However, there is a price
to be paid -- and the price is that Earl has to hold still and listen
the story as I tell it.
Yes, I do forgive Earl. Of course I forgive Earl. I forgave him back in 1965.
This is what Heinlein said in his February 17th letter to Earl:
"I will not preview his MS. If you publish, you do so at your own risk. I reserve all redresses under the law of privacy, of libel, of copyright, or other statutes or common law or equity, by suit, by criminal action, by injunction, or other legal processes, against you, your directors, your writer, or others, as the circumstances may appear."
What a royal mindfuck: "I won't look at what's been written about my stories, but if I don't happen to like it, I'll have your ass six ways for breakfast. I'm setting out the fava beans and Chianti right now."
No wonder Advent threw in their hand.
The stunt that Heinlein pulled wasn't just a one-time thing, either. How do I know? Well, twenty-one years later, Jeremy Tarcher, Cory's and my publisher for The World Beyond the Hill, our book tracing the conceptual development of science fiction, asked Heinlein to read the pages of the manuscript concerning his early career. Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov would all read the book. But Mrs. Heinlein declined on behalf of her husband. She wrote:
"While we can sympathize with your desire to have any book you publish as accurate as possible, Mr. Heinlein will not be able to look at the book by Mr. and Mrs. Panshin. Any such reading and correction, if necessary, might constitute acquiescence toward what the Pans[h]ins choose to print.
"We reserve all right for legal remedy."
Let me see if I have this straight: The Heinleins would not be able to help us correct any mistakes we might have made lest this compromise the Heinleins' right to sue us for having made a mistake....
In 1986, Jeremy Tarcher would simply laugh at this ploy and go on about its business. And Earl now says that if he'd had the benefit of his later experience in 1965, he'd have recognized that Heinlein was just making noise and didn't have a legal leg to stand on.
At the time it happened, however, I could understand how a small fan publisher like Advent might find the apparent double-bind King Bob's letter placed them in too much for them, and back down.
It hurt -- but I did understand.
In any event, having Advent bail out on me caused me to stop writing, take a deep thalamic pause, and think twice about what I was doing. If what I was writing was no longer a book to Advent's specifications to meet Advent's needs, but rather a book that I had to stand all alone behind, then I had to write the best book I was capable of just then.
So I began it over. And I wrote the book as it now stands during the course of March 1965.
The result was a deeper and more insightful book than it otherwise would have been. It's actually my suspicion that the final Heinlein in Dirnension was a lot closer to the book that Earl was hoping for in the first place than the manuscript that I'd been sending along to Advent in installments as I wrote them.
If that's so, then I think that both Earl and I could look on the delay in publication caused by Heinlein's letter as a boon to the book and not regret it.
In fact, the way things worked out, it's easy to see that Heinlein did himself no favors at all by trying to kill Heinlein in Dimension in the womb. Not only did his opposition make it a shrewder, more perceptive book on the second go-round, but he also quite inadvertently lined it up to win a Hugo Award that it wouldn't have won if it had been published as a book in 1965.
It happened this way:
Since I had no recourse other than public announcement, I wrote an account of what had taken place and published it in the April 1965 issue of Yandro under the title "Lese Majesty" -- "an offense against the King." This attracted the attention of fanzines which had an interest in publishing a book that Heinlein wouldn't read but wanted dead. I serialized it in two of them, Riverside Quarterly in Canada and Zenith Speculation in Britain, mostly in 1966.
That would be significant because in 1967 the World Science Fiction Convention instituted two new Hugo Awards for Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist. And I was eligible for the Best Fan Writer award -- and then won it -- solely on the basis of my bookless book, Heinlein in Dimension.
On the strength of this award George Price of Advent -- Earl by then having moved west -- figured that Heinlein in Dimension was now beyond the reach of frivolous lawsuits, and asked if Advent could have a second try at publishing it.
This time around, we wouldn't bother to tell Heinlein in advance about what we were doing. And, three years after I wrote it, in April 1968, the book was finally published.
Strangely enough, too, when it was, Heinlein didn't follow through on his threat to have Advent and me shot at sunrise. In fact, as much as five years later, in 1973, he would say that while he'd acquired a copy of the book, he had yet to read it.
Events would so arrange themselves that Heinlein in Dimension was followed two months later by Rite of Passage, which would receive the Nebula Award as Best Novel the next spring, and then by the first two of my Anthony Villiers novels, Star Well and The Thurb Revolution.
My first four books -- all published in the course of 1968! I know it's a conceit, but after the fact, I couldn't help feeling that I'd owned the year.
Once again, then, I can hardly blame Earl for the part that he played in making this happen.
But if I understood and accepted in 1965 that Advent felt outgunned, and if the book was actually improved by being delayed, and if I won a Hugo Award only because it had been delayed, so that I've been given one reason after another not to harbor bad feelings toward Earl, the matter of Earl forgiving Earl may be another and tougher question to resolve.