Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
Earl felt wiped out after ChiCon III. He had worked so long and hard to win the worldcon and then to bring it off, that when it was over, he was mentally and physically spent.
It would take him awhile to find his bearings again and figure out what he ought to do next. And then, when he finally did, he got things wrong.
What Earl needed to do was take to heart the lesson he'd been trying to impart to himself and learn to distinguish between the antics of his Crazy Monkey and the proper business of his Higher Self. If he had, then at the least he'd have made a resolution that in the future he would keep a healthy distance from anyone who felt a need to be picked out by a spotlight as he went about in the world, or any person who insisted on wearing peejays and a bathrobe when playing host to lesser mortals, or anyone who not only expected a great deal from other people, but also wanted to be paid twice for whatever things he did for them in return.
Regrettably, however, power, fame and glamor could still turn Earl's head, even after his experience at ChiCon. So, when he took stock of his wiped condition, he didn't ascribe it to all the deep knee bends and the jumping through hoops he'd had to do while hustling after the likes of Heinlein, Hefner and Hunt, but rather to an overdose of science fiction fan activity.
Hey, he'd busted his balls to make his mark in SF fandom. He'd taken home his Hugo Award. He'd chaired his worldcon. And, for all that he could see, there wasn't a lot left for him to achieve in the fannish world.
But Earl was still ambitious. He wanted to excel and to be recognized for his excellence. He wanted to do all the things that he did best and some he'd never done before -- but in a larger arena. He wanted to be a honcho.
The reality of all this, of course, if not the appearance, was exactly what he had available to him with Advent. The work that he did there was imaginative, original and immensely valuable, if largely unrecognized by official culture. Unfortunately, however, I think that in Earl's mind, Advent was just another fan activity.
His Crazy Monkey had bought into the desirability of the glamor-power-and-fame trip which passes as our cultural ideal. And he didn't quite take in that every glamorous, powerful or famous person he'd ever encountered -- with the exception of Doc Smith -- had been seriously bent.
Neither had the thought yet dawned on Earl that he might be deficient in the stuff you have to have to be what he dreamed of being. He just wasn't needy, greedy, vain or ruthless enough to make a proper Big Cheese. But he didn't realize that.
This means that at the end of 1964, when Earl's employer, William Hamling, informed him that he intended to relocate his operation and wanted him to come along, and then took him on the mountain and showed him California, Earl was ready to move there, visions of being a King of Porn and living life in the fast lane dancing in his head. He failed to take as seriously as he should that Bill Hamling was another big H, and Earl knew it.
This was Earl's state in January 1965 when Robert Heinlein began to call him up and put pressure on him to pull the plug on the book that Earl had asked me to write for Advent about Heinlein's fiction.
Since these two men insisted on speaking of this book-in-the-making in completely different terms, communication between them was a problem. All the more so because Heinlein couldn't begin to let Earl know why he didn't want the book written lest the admission reveal his vulnerability. Nor could Earl bring himself to say plainly to Heinlein why he did want this book to exist lest he give away to Heinlein the mixture of love and antipathy with which he regarded him.
This left both of them making gestures and indications and talking past each other, but neither of them speaking frankly. To the best of my ability, then, let me try to set forth what couldn't be said by them.
Underneath the obvious visible subject matter of his stories, and the postures of objectivity and authority that he struck, Heinlein was a highly self-reflective writer, in particular in his pre-war stories. Embedded in his fiction from the time that he began to write was evidence of where he'd been, what he'd read, whom he'd respected and what he'd done.
Deeper stuff was present, too. Running through all of Heinlein's stories, there is a fossil record of his hangups, his unresolved questions, his psychic ups and downs, his convictions and his ideals, and how they changed over time.
Perhaps because he wrote himself into his stories so completely, Heinlein identified closely with them and regarded them as extensions of himself. At the same time, however, this would cause him problems, because in a later day Heinlein found some of the former associations and allegiances acknowledged in his fiction an embarrassment that he would just as soon not be reminded of.
The official biography Heinlein offered the world was similarly selective in what it said and didn't say. And he didn't want any details of his life revealed beyond those that he chose to share. He preferred that the meaning of his fiction and the relationship of his stories to his life not be discussed, and on more than one occasion he would act to ensure that these preferences were respected.
However, if, generally speaking, Heinlein didn't want to see any book which examined his work closely, he particularly disliked the prospect of such an analysis by me.
Heinlein never took challenges to his authority well, and, as a teenager back in 1959, I'd rubbed him the wrong way when I asked him to resolve the apparent conflict between his promotion of more atmospheric H-bomb tests in his "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry" ad and the warnings in his stories about the dangers of radiation, and then hadn't been content with an answer that pointed to the dangers of Russian Communism.
But I'd done far worse in my first fanzine article in Shangri-L'Affaires. There I'd questioned his authority in sexual matters.
That was a hot-button issue. For Heinlein sexual command was an area of personal pride and also of special sensitivity. He'd read my piece and he hadn't liked it one little bit. As he'd say in a letter that he wrote in 1973, and then asked the recipient to pass along to me:
"But my dislike for Mr. Panshin goes back to an item he wrote for an amateur fan magazine.... The amateur article ... was titled HEINLEIN: BY HIS JOCKSTRAP. Mr. Panshin told me in a letter dated 15 Dec 1964 that the title was placed on his article by the editor, but he did not assert that the title was used for his article without his permission. I think that the title was exceptionally apt, as it fits perfectly the content and tone of his article."
The series of phone calls Heinlein placed to Earl began in reaction to a letter I'd sent him in which I informed Heinlein that I'd agreed to do a book for Advent about his work, and asked him some questions about the circumstances under which his stories had been written.
In the course of my letter, I said that I thought what had prompted Advent to choose me to write this book, was my Shaggy article. I believe now that this suggestion of mine had to be like waving a red flag in front of Heinlein's eyes.
He perceived that article as impertinent and intrusive. So, for me to tie the origins of my prospective book to this piece and also describe it slightingly as a "short article on a limited subject" and then swear to do better, to Heinlein was a clear promise that not only did I intend to connect the man and his work in my book, I aimed to do a more complete job of it.
The questions that I asked him in all innocence in my letter only increased his suspicion of me. To Heinlein, Alexei Panshin was stubborn, contrary, nosy and offensive -- and, for all those reasons, nobody he wanted talking about him.
Earl, on the other hand, saw me, the Shaggy article and the book in very different terms.
Robert Heinlein was an enigma for Earl. He adored the man's stories, but he had no use at all for the way that Heinlein behaved in person. He really didn't understand this discrepancy, and he wanted to bridge the gap.
One of the things that Earl liked least about Heinlein as he'd seen him in action over the years was the way he conducted himself around women. Within his pose of urbanity, Heinlein seemed unctuous, insinuating, ungenuine and deeply uncomfortable. (Earl's word is "terrified.")
My guess is that my essay pointing to the conventional, clichéd, self-indulgent, and less-than-fully-mature aspects of Heinlein's handling of sexual relations in his stories resonated meaningfully with Earl's observations of Heinlein the man. So that even while Heinlein was viewing my Shaggy piece as an attempt to link his person and his fiction that was illegitimate, dead wrong and completely unacceptable, Earl was perceiving the same article as a connection of Heinlein to his stories that was appropriate, perceptive and gutsy. I think it gave him reason for hope that if I were to look at Heinlein's body of fiction as a whole, I would have insightful things to say about it.
You might say that which disqualified me in Heinlein's eyes from writing about him was for Earl what identified me as exactly the right person to undertake the task of examining Heinlein's stories. But precisely because "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap" was the heart of the matter, when they talked, neither man would be able to mention it directly. Heinlein couldn't ask. Earl couldn't tell.
Instead, Heinlein began his campaign to end this project by nudging Earl to reconsider publishing a book about him. He suggested modestly that a book of any kind just now would be premature. He thought the proper timing ought to be about fifty years after his death.
Earl countered by pointing out that Heinlein was generally acknowledged to be the most important contemporary writer of science fiction. In view of this prominence, a book discussing his stories had to be in order. And it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Even at the outset, however, when they were still talking genially and generally this way, Earl couldn't help but notice that there was a fundamental discrepancy in what they were saying to each other.
He says: "I was talking only about a book evaluating the public record of Heinlein's creative output. He insisted only in talking about a book being written detailing dreaded secrets of Heinlein the man. Apples. Oranges."
All of the phone calls that followed would similarly be about oranges and apples and nothing that Earl said could alter that. Either Heinlein was suffering from a fixed idea or he identified himself with his stories to such a degree that for anyone to talk about their meaning at all was to talk about him too personally.
Earl, for his part, felt on solid ground. As he would explain over and over to Heinlein, the book that was being written for Advent was a critique of his stories:
Heinlein was recognized as the leading writer of science fiction. Advent specialized in books about science fiction, so it was only natural for them to do a book about his work.
That's what Earl had asked Alexei Panshin to write in August. And then, several weeks later, when all the fan-partners of Advent had met with Panshin in a hotel room at the Worldcon in Oakland, it was what they'd made clear they expected from him. It was the mandate he'd been given.
If Heinlein had a more personal investment in his fiction than he usually cared to acknowledge -- and was tender about it -- that was a shame, but it was really beside the point. By publishing his stories at all, Heinlein, just like every other writer, had placed them in the public sphere where they were subject to discussion. They couldn't be public one moment and private the next.
This was the subtext of the interchanges between Heinlein and Earl -- with one of these men determined to label the book I was writing an orange and to see that it wasn't published, and the other doggedly maintaining that it was an apple and that of course it would be published. And since neither of them was prepared to budge, all that would happen -- all that could happen -- is that as one call from Heinlein led to the next, their conversations grew less genial and more strained.
The resistance that Heinlein was receiving had to baffle him. Up 'til now, his wish had been Kemp's command.
Kemp knew his place and had always done as he was told. He'd arranged parties for him. He'd given him a personal spotlight at ChiCon III. And he'd even -- Heinlein couldn't think otherwise -- put the fix in on a Hugo when he'd been told to do it.
So why had he taken to acting in this stubborn and contrary fashion? Why wouldn't he get the message?
And then Heinlein received word that only served to confirm his worst suspicions. Sometime science fiction writer Betsy Curtis let him know that she'd been told by her daughter that Alex Panshin had mentioned -- or bragged -- that he was being sent a file of letters Heinlein had written to his friend "Sarge" Smith, who'd died the previous September.
Well, there! You see! Just as he'd been saying to Kemp -- Panshin's book was a personal intrusion, and this proved it. And by what devious means had Panshin managed to lay hands on these private letters?
Heinlein called Earl Kemp once more, this time with right and truth on his side, a sense of demonstrable personal injury, and all the regal majesty and power he could muster. He informed him that Panshin had now clearly crossed the line between literary criticism and personal prying.
He didn't beat around the bush. He wanted an end to it. In his best command voice, and in so many words, Heinlein gave Kemp a direct order to terminate the book.
But instead of saying "yes" as he expected him to, Earl defied him. He told Heinlein that what Advent chose to publish was their own business and none of his.
Heinlein could only slam the phone down in anger.
This was more than obtuseness. This was more than just resistance to his wishes. This was deliberate opposition by Kemp.
It wasn't Panshin alone who was responsible for the present outrage. He and Kemp were in this together!
Heinlein wouldn't have had his expectations dashed so severely or felt quite so betrayed, no doubt, if Earl had ever managed to say "no" to him previously.
I can think of a couple of occasions when he might have done it. For instance, the first time Earl decided that he really didn't like the tone of Heinlein's pajama parties and would prefer not to set up another. Or again when Heinlein informed him that his price for coming to ChiCon III was a Hugo for Stranger in a Strange Land.
But since Earl hadn't told Heinlein to take a hike when it was possible and appropriate for him to do it, when he spoke up now, he'd established no precedent for his defiance.
It was late in the day for Earl to try to assert his autonomy. And Heinlein wasn't prepared to accept it.
This was when Heinlein wrote his letter of February 17, 1965 placing Earl, Advent and me on notice that if a book on him was published it would be at our peril.
There's one small glitch in the story here. Earl's last memory prior to The Letter is of him refusing to kill the book and Heinlein hanging up on him. But it seems likely that there was one more move on his part that he's forgotten.
That is, Heinlein starts by saying that he's received a letter from Earl. He also specifically turns down the opportunity to review my manuscript. And I do remember being told at the time that Heinlein had been offered a look at the book and the chance to raise objections to it.
However, if Earl did try to go this one last step in order to mollify Heinlein, and is too proud to remember having done it now, it never came to anything. Heinlein had the bit in his teeth and he wasn't about to let any small detail -- like what the book actually said -- turn him aside. It was a matter of principle.
Since Heinlein's letter points a finger of accusation at me, I've always taken it personally and defensively. But this is a mistake. It wasn't actually addressed to me. I was only an interested onlooker.
The Letter was sent by registered mail to Earl Kemp. Another copy went to George Price of Advent.
Heinlein began with false civility: "My dear Kemp:" He would end with total repudiation: "It was a sorry day for me when I met you." In between, he accused, he forbade, and he threatened.
If I found The Letter a strong dose to swallow -- and I did -- Earl must have experienced it as completely overwhelming. It tied the tail of his Crazy Monkey in a knot and then gave it a yank.
To tell the truth, I think the noise of Heinlein firing off his big guns scared the bejesus out of Earl. In military terms, The Letter was "a show of force," and it totally unnerved him when the US Navy came sailing by, flags flying and guns going boom.
When The Letter arrived, Earl and George Price consulted with each other to figure out how they should react to it.
George Price is careful, earnest and thorough, and not one to go looking for trouble. So when The Letter showed up, his immediate gut reaction was not to buy a court fight that Advent didn't have the resources to take on, but just to walk away.
On the other hand, George is also loyal, long-suffering and tenacious. He and Earl had had a chance to read the two large portions of the book that I'd sent along to them, and they were agreed that Heinlein's fears that it was an inquiry into his private life were completely without basis. It's my belief that if Earl had suggested that they show Heinlein's letter and my manuscript to a lawyer and ask his opinion, or if he'd simply said that time would tell and they ought to let things sit for a week or even a month before they took any action, George would have been persuaded.
Practically speaking, then, whichever way Earl chose to go, George would have been ready to support him.
If I had had any say in the matter, I would have preferred Earl to stand fast by his conviction that the book was a perfectly legitimate one and Heinlein had no business trying to quash it. Had Earl been able to say "no" to power and hold by it, then the truth of Heinlein's accusations, his actual rights under the law, his sincerity and his resolve would all have been put to the test.
And if Earl could do things over again today, he believes he would do them differently. He says: "What I should have done was take Heinlein on; told him to get fucked, and brought on the lawyers."
Unfortunately, however, Earl's Crazy Monkey had the better of him and he was in a panic. In his mind, he was already on his way to California. He had neither the time nor the stomach for a fight just then.
Because of this, he was ready to throw up his hands and go along with George's inclination to be cautious. The two of them came to agreement that Advent ought to retreat.
But Earl knows who was actually responsible for the decision that was made that day.
He says: "I did something I've always regretted then; I backed off. I gave in. I canceled the project out completely, even though doing so was a direct insult to Alexei Panshin, whom I had already adopted and claimed as one of my own."
I take Earl's regard for me as a compliment. And I also accept the regret he expresses as sufficient apology for his failure to hold his ground when Heinlein rattled his saber.
However, it appears to me that what was actually at stake on February 19, 1965 was something more fundamental than whether Earl showed me less respect than he should have. And it is this that Earl has to come to terms with Earl about.
You see, I think that once again, just as he'd arranged to do at ChiCon, Earl set up a choice for himself between the dictates of his Crazy Monkey and everything he loved most. Except this time, when he made his decision, he came down on the side of his Crazy Monkey.
It's written large in the letter Earl wrote that day cancelling the book.
The way it had been decided, Earl, as the front man for Advent and the person who had initiated the project, would write me a formal letter of severance. George, who'd been working with me on the book as my editor, would write a more personal letter expressing Advent's helplessness and frustration, and apologizing to me for what was happening.
But when George read the letter that Earl wrote, he could see that it wouldn't do. It didn't take care of business. Instead, it was vague, self-justifying and insincere, and couldn't look me in the eye.
It seemed necessary to George to write a new covering letter saying what Earl was supposed to say but hadn't. And that's the way the package would come to me, with George's business letter on top, then Earl's less-than-adequate letter, followed by George's personal letter, and finally Heinlein's bombshell.
For a sense of what Earl
should have written, here's
what George said to me in that first letter:
The attached letter from Earl Kemp, and the copy of Mr. Heinlein's letter to us, will make it clear that ADVENT cannot continue with your book. It pains us to have to do this, especially after you have already done so much work on the book.
To make up in some small part for the trouble you have been put to, we are enclosing a check for $50.00 in discharge of all obligations on our part. We would also like to assure you that we will be happy to consider any future work, not dealing with Heinlein, that you might care to submit to us, and we will give it special attention.
Our regret is intensified by the fact that the part of your manuscript which we have seen impressed us most favorably; we are sure that it would have made a book that both you and ADVENT would have been proud of.
The part of the
manuscript which we now have is
being returned to you under separate cover.
Overall, however, as a
business letter it was a thousand
times better than Earl's. There you had Earl's Crazy Monkey
to the sky, covering his ass, and even making believe that I hadn't yet
begun writing when he knew better than that:
Circumstances far beyond our control make it totally impossible for us to continue with the projected book of criticism of the public writings of Robert Heinlein. Consequently, this letter will have to serve as our resignation from the project. It is far better to stop now, before the manuscript is written, than to face the possibility of producing a book of blank pages.
Putting aesthetics totally aside, I cannot possibly convey to you how very sorry I am that this simple little attempt at valid criticism has gone so far astray. The misunderstandings have evolved way out of hand, even for something as inconsequential as our amateur strugglings through Advent.
am extremely sorry for all the efforts
you have expended thus far, again more than I can say.
As I see it, by writing this squidgy and inflated letter -- and thereby forcing George Price to step up and produce a better one -- Earl did half-a-dozen things at once. And it's this whole that Earl needs to speak to Earl about.
What did Earl do? Well, he surrendered his idea of publishing a book critically examining the stories of Robert Heinlein. He left me in the lurch with a partly-written manuscript and an outraged Heinlein to deal with. And, by fading into the woodwork and making George take over responsibility, he effectively passed along oversight of Advent:Publishers to him. Beyond this, I think you could say that with this letter, Earl was bidding farewell to Chicago, abandoning the leading role he'd enjoyed in the Chicago Faction of SF fandom, and giving up fandom as his primary field of ambition and creative activity.
That's a lot to renounce all at once, but that's what Earl did with this letter.
The part of this I think I regret most is Earl's withdrawal from active participation in the activities of Advent. It's true that later Advent books have been good and useful -- not least The Encyclopedia of ScienceFiction and Fantasy, Donald H. Tuck's three-volume bibliographic masterpiece. But with this change, I think a certain dynamic, imaginative and yeasty Kempian element was lost to Advent.
But the world moves on.
Within two months after this, I'd redrafted Heinlein in Dimension and completed it, and then advertised its availability for publication with my essay "Lese Majesty" in Yandro, which told what I knew of what had just happened.
In that same month of April 1965, Earl Kemp left Chicago to begin his new life in the Golden West.
California during the
Sixties would be a heady, stimulating
and educational place for a one-time country boy from Arkansas to find
himself. It would serve as the setting for more ploys and
for doing his best to cope with William Hamling and his big head, for
gone awry, and for a healthy helping of
It's all these adventures that Earl is seeking to sort out for himself in the memoirs he's writing now.
But it seems to me that if Earl is going to get things straight, and not throw himself for a loop one more time, he's going to have to make use of this narrative he's had me produce for him.
He has to look closely at the two pivotal events in his life that he and I have told you about -- the arrival of Hugh Hefner during Theodore Sturgeon's Guest of Honor speech at ChiCon III and Earl's spur-of-the-moment decision to ignore him, and the letter Earl wrote me on February 19, 1965 with all the renouncements that it represented -- and know in his heart which of these choices was right and which wasn't and why.
By my reckoning, Earl has fucked up royally when he's allowed his Crazy Monkey to take over the show. And the best things that he's done, like organizing the publication of In Search of Wonder or his service as editor of his prison newspaper, have happened when he's been able to forget all about glamor, fame and power, aim to do useful and creative things for their own sake -- and for the fun of it -- and enlist others to join him in the place where work becomes play. When he's been able to do that, good things have always come of it.
However, to this day, Earl hasn't gotten his Crazy Monkey securely under control. He still has dreams of a big score. So when he talks about his hopes for his memoirs, he's likely to mutter -- half-humorously, but also half-seriously -- of Pulitzer Prizes and who's going to play him in the movie. (My vote is Johnny Depp. If he can play gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and also schlock auteur Edward Wood, then I think he may be up to the challenge of the role.)
If Earl needs help in telling the difference between the dictates of his Crazy Monkey and the whispers of his heart, I think I can give him a few clues that may help him sort them out.
First, he should give up his fascination with big H's. He's always going to get into trouble with them until he finally realizes that what they want isn't good for him, and leaves them alone.
Second, there's an inner and an outer difference between the glee of the Crazy Monkey when it thinks it's really put one over, and the sense of pleasure that comes from doing useful and creative things for their own sake. That kind of fun -- like kids playing hide-and-seek at twilight and revelling in the pure momentness of the moment -- is a sure sign of being tuned in.
As for outward signs -- there are all the grotesque actions and attitudes that Earl has witnessed and disliked from the big H's he's known. If he can "learn manners from the ignorant," as the Sufis say, and not tolerate behavior like that from himself, he'll have gone a long way toward putting his Crazy Monkey on a leash.
Finally, Earl could work to cultivate certain qualities in himself that he's recognized and responded to in the people he's been associated with, but only been able to manifest at times himself.
For one example, there's George Price's willingness to take on thankless jobs and carry them through to completion without ever receiving any recognition for them.
He could also use a bit more of my obliviousness to what's usually done, and my readiness to take a lickin' and keep on tickin' in pursuit of goals that only I can see.
Not least, he could stand to actualize more of the qualities of character that made him love Doc Smith. And which made Doc Smith love him.
It was in that same year of 1965 that Doc Smith died. And expressing the feelings of many people, Dick Lupoff wrote:
"In all the years that he attended science fiction conventions, invariably in the company of his wife (and great fan Jean), Doc would never take any of the privileges of his standing. He did not limit his association to his fellow authors, editors, artists or publishers. Nor, for all that he was a great favorite among the older fans who best appreciated his contribution to science fiction, did Doc restrict himself to the Big Name Fan or even the mature one.
"He was available any time, to anyone who approached him in a corridor, lobby or meeting room. He would talk science fiction to the youngest fuzzy-cheeked adolescents as readily as he would to the leading fan or pro. He had a willing opinion on any matter, strongly held and argued when he felt strongly, yet he was fair in his willingness to listen to opposing views.
"He was a generous, gentle man. He was a man whose like has not graced our community before, and I doubt that the like of Doc Smith will come our way again. His was too rare a combination of talent, vigor, buoyant youthfulness of spirit, kindly and outgoing nature, good will and sheer humanity of the highest type, to occur more than very, very rarely."
Noble people like Doc Smith aren't born that way. They're self-made.
If they happen to be rare, it's only because most of us haven't done the work of disciplining our Crazy Monkey that this man did. But it's a job that each of us -- and not just Earl Kemp -- could stand to do.
So here's to all of us managing to get in touch with our own inner Doc Smith.
Note: Earl's own electronic fan publications (along with
much else of
interest) can be found at eFanzines.