Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
During the course of this incident, Heinlein had behaved like Heinlein -- and gotten his way to his own satisfaction. And Advent had acted as you might expect a school of small fry to act. They had given way before Heinlein's show of strength.
Now I, too, had to decide who and what I was and act accordingly.
To this point, all the writing for publication I'd done about Heinlein had been by request -- first from Bill Blackbeard, and more recently from Earl Kemp and Advent. Henceforth, however, everything that I would write about Heinlein -- with the exceptions of one story introduction and one book review -- would be by my own choice and completely my own responsibility.
But standing all by myself under the muzzle of Heinlein's gun was a difficult place to be. Once again, I had no precedents to follow and nothing to guide me but my own sense of appropriate behavior. So what was I to do?
The first thing I did was to try to discover for myself whether Heinlein's ire was sincere but mistaken, or if it was just being assumed for effect.
In his articles, " 'Pravda' Means 'Truth' " and "Inside Intourist," Heinlein had portrayed himself as capable of using apparent anger for tactical purposes, and also recommended the practice to others. He'd declared, "It is better to pretend to lose your temper before things have grown so unbearable that you actually do blow your top; it saves wear and tear on your ulcers and enables you to conduct your tactics more efficiently."
When Heinlein didn't accept the repeated opportunity to check for himself whether the accusations he was making were so, I had to conclude that it didn't much matter to him whether they were or not. They were a means to an end. This meant that the true bone of contention between us wasn't how I had behaved or what I had written. It was whether or not there was going to be a book by me on Heinlein.
Well, I had something to say about that. I'd done nothing that I felt any need to be ashamed of. And I wasn't about to be scared off simply because somebody was yelling, turning red and pointing a finger at me.
I'd set out to write a book about Heinlein's stories, and put a lot of effort into it. It was a legitimate thing to do, and I intended to complete it. If nothing else, it was still my senior thesis.
But on what basis was I to proceed? The double-bind that had so flummoxed Advent applied to me too. Heinlein wasn't willing to read my manuscript -- but if there was anything he didn't like about the book when it was published, he was ready to hit me with an injunction, or to sue me, or even to bring criminal charges against me.
If I were going to keep working on this book, I had to unpick this knot.
There were only two possible answers that I could see:
One was to write a book that Heinlein approved of when he finally did read it. But, in all truth, I couldn't imagine how this was to be done. Not if Heinlein was prone to seeing personal intrusion where there was none, and was ready to instantly end friendships and terminate correspondence when his authority was questioned. I couldn't guarantee that I wasn't going to disagree with him or make some remark that he could take offense at.
The other approach was not to attempt to please Heinlein, but rather to address legitimate questions by legitimate means, to apply my knowledge and understanding as appropriately and completely as I could, and then to jump up and down on every word I wrote to see if it would bear weight. If I proceeded in that way -- if I were a more scrupulous and exacting critic of what I was doing than Heinlein was -- then I could feel secure in the face of any law suit that he might bring.
On a more practical level, the problem I faced was the overwhelming scope of what Heinlein was prepared to take as personal. Amazingly, this man, who in his fiction presented himself as a standard of objectivity, inscribed a huge circle of privacy and special privilege around himself.
If anything in Heinlein's letter to Advent was beyond doubt, it was that he felt there were truthful things that might be revealed about him that he didn't wish to have made public knowledge. It seemed to be his assertion that he could choose what was to be known about him. He distinguished between official facts and information that he had a right to keep private. But even though I was ready to observe propriety as I understood it, I wasn't ready to accept this rule.
On the other hand, I wasn't going to go out of my way to make trouble for myself, either. Even though writing about Robert Heinlein's stories was what I was doing at the moment, I was more interested in working out the nature of science fiction as a whole and in my own creative writing. There were limits to how much chasing after Heinlein I was prepared to do.
So I struck a bargain with myself. And because precedents have a way of remaining in place once established, this would be the rule that I followed thereafter in dealing with Heinlein.
I knew that Heinlein's charges against me were without basis. So far, in the course of researching my book, I'd made no attempt at all to discover the hidden details of his private life. As long as this continued to be the case, I couldn't see that I had anything to fear from him. Heinlein might have personal secrets, but I wouldn't be the one who brought them to light. My interest would continue to be his stories.
I think that even Heinlein eventually came to recognize that this was so. In that 1973 letter in which he addressed me indirectly, Heinlein wrote: "I will say this for Mr. Panshin. He has not to my knowledge ever published any personal facts about me that were not already public knowledge. So I trust him on this point."
But even though this might very well be the most positive thing that Heinlein would ever have to say about me, he was, at best, only half-right in giving me his tentative trust.
Heinlein had no wish to be looked at closely. And he apparently believed that the standard which ought to be observed was that anything he chose to regard as private -- even if it had once been a matter of public record -- should not be exposed.
But my aim was to understand what Heinlein had written. And to this end, I was prepared to seize upon any information that came my way either about Heinlein or any of the obscure worldly references he made, and to make this part of my account. I would always be ready to speak truth to the extent that I understood it and it was relevant to the matter I was discussing.
This difference in the rules we were playing by left an area of potential conflict between Heinlein and me. And that was any fact that Heinlein didn't want revealed (which had to be a guessing game for everyone but Heinlein himself) but which seemed to me to be relevant. This meant that if Robert Heinlein didn't want it remembered that he'd been married more often than he usually admitted, or that he'd once been a political radical and now regretted it, or that when the new mental science of Dianetics had been hatched at John Campbell's kitchen table, he'd been there and taken part, he wouldn't be able to rely on me never to speak of it.
In his 1941 Worldcon Guest of Honor speech, my teacher, Robert Heinlein, had recommended strongly that his listeners "look at what goes on around you... listen to what you hear... observe... note facts... delay your judgment... and make your own prediction." He summed this as the ability "to distinguish fact from non-fact" and he declared that it was essential to make this distinction if we were to protect our sanity.
To me, this didn't allow for exceptions. It was as important to be able to tell the difference between fact and non-fact where Heinlein was concerned as anywhere else. And if the present Robert Heinlein wished to maintain an appearance of always having been right by erasing the existence of any past occasion when he might have been wrong, he wouldn't have my cooperation in turning fact into un-fact. That wasn't what I'd learned from my teacher.
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