Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder





Following My Nose


1. The Land of Make Believe

When I was small, my imagination was formed by The Land of Make Believe, a 1930 poster by Jaro Hess of the world of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and original quirkiness with myriad wonders to look at, along with danger and mystery.

Here it was simultaneously night and day. The poster featured the house of the Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, a Magic Carpet, the Cow That Jumped Over the Moon, the Talking Bird and the remote House of Grandfather Know-All at the top of an impossible peak where my kids would say I lived. There were ships and mermaids, castles and mysterious places like the Enchanted Woods and the Bottomless Lake. At the end of a side road was a hole labled Do Not Go In Here. Best of all, the whole was united by The Path That Goes Nowhere Eventually which wound through and around the entire picture.

On impulse one day I went looking for it in a local map store, but when I asked if they had a map of fairyland, they showed me something obvious and crude. I described the map I remembered and they actually had it among their racks of maps on display, but they no longer had copies for sale. When I asked whether I could purchase the display copy since they were no longer selling it, they gave it to me outright. I had it framed in red, just like the one we had when I was young and I have it hanging on the wall of my workroom today.

In recent times, The Land of Make Believe has become available once more in many forms including a play rug for little children.

My favorite picture book in those days was The Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book, with pictures by Swedish-American artist Gustaf Tenggren and twenty-eight stories like "Hansel and Gretel", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Rapunzel"—including a number represented on The Land of Make Believe poster—retold by Katherine Gibson.

Whether we knew his name or not, and mostly we didn't, Gustaf Tenggren was every child's favorite artist. He did brilliant work in a variety of styles. He drew designs for Walt Disney movies, in particular for Snow White and Pinocchio. And he illustrated many Little Golden Books including the all-time best seller The Poky Little Puppy. But The Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book, published in 1942, was his masterpiece, with memorable otherworldly illustrations, a few of them like the ogre and his minions in "Puss in Boots" just scary enough to be challenging for a small child like me to peek at.

Another book that made a lifelong impression on me was Old Peter's Russian Tales, gathered by Arthur Ransome in 1915 and illustrated by Dmitri Mitrokhin. A copy of it was given by my father to my older brother Danny as a Christmas present in 1945 when he was seven and I was five. I was fascinated by these stories of firebirds, horses of power more clever than their masters, and malevolent witches with iron teeth.

I was particularly struck by the ur-witch Baba Yaga who "lives in a little hut which stands on hen's legs. Sometimes it faces the forest, sometimes it faces the path, and sometimes it walks solemnly about."

The little girl in the story is sent off to Baba Yaga by her cruel stepmother, who is another bad 'un armed with iron teeth. "'How shall I find her?'" asks the little girl, and the witch pinches her nose. "'Follow your nose and you will find her,'" she says.

I loved that line for its multiple meanings and have always done my best to heed it.

Then the book mysteriously disappeared and I never knew where it had gone.

However, years after its disappearance, in 1954 when I was in 8th grade, I followed my nose one day to a window box in my homeroom and there I spotted Old Peter's Russian Tales again, inscribed to my brother and stamped and dated by him. I proved ownership of the book to the teacher and regained possession of it.

Danny was 16 then and didn't care about having it back, but I did, and do, and I have it yet.

2. Life in an Imaginative Desert

As a youngster during the 1940s, I was a voracious reader with a hunger for the imaginative. But the imaginative was all but impossible for a child to find. From a distance, the 20th Century begins to appear flat, mundane and materialistic, short on spirit and the magical. But the Forties in particular were not a heady time to be young and in search of otherness.

This was an era when public libraries like mine abhored the fantastic except for the hints in the more outlandish Dr. Seuss books like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. They wouldn't even admit fairy tale books, let alone anything as strange as L. Frank Baum's Oz stories, which were looked down upon and excluded. I was lucky enough to read two Oz books passed along from my mother's childhood, Baum's favorite The Scarecrow of Oz and his final book The Magic of Oz. The Dr. Dolittle books from the Twenties, featuring a talking parrot as a figure of wisdom, intelligent animals, and a two headed beast called a pushme-pullyou were about as imaginative as anything I could find to read in those days.

I had to be taken to the State Library in Lansing to discover books of any kind which were other than mundane, and they were rare. There was Tolkien's The Hobbit or There and Back Again from the late Thirties. The one other truly different library book I can remember encountering was The Angry Planet by John Keir Cross, a story about a trip to a Mars populated by weird alien creatures, and then back to Earth again.

During the Forties there weren't many imaginative movies for children. The ones that existed were mostly from Disney, and they were either based on fairy tales or 19th Century sources like Pinocchio and the Uncle Remus stories in Song of the South. Then when I was 8, there was a revival of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, which enchanted and frightened me. But during the entire decade there were few films like that.

The one place that I might have found anything of what I was seeking was in pulp magazines in their years of decline, but the pulps were too racy, too adult and too declasse for my parents to accept.

It wasn't until I was ten when I read the serialized abridgement of Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky about a colony on Jupiter's moon Ganymede in my older brother's Boys' Life that I encountered anything at all like what I was looking for. The story wasn't exactly magical but it was as near to something of the right kind as I could find in those barren years.

In order to borrow more Heinlein juvenile SF in the early Fifties I would have to drive with my mother to the State Library. They had just three titles—Space Cadet, Farmer in the Sky and Red Planet. Whenever we went there, I was always hoping I'd find a new one waiting for me, and eventually I would.

I followed Heinlein from one book to the next through his Scribner's period, missing only one of them, Starman Jones. Eventually I'd catch up with that one in the Ingham County Library branch in Okemos.

Robert Heinlein was the standard by which I would come to measure science fiction. He may not have set my imagination alight, but he definitely broadened my imaginative horizons. I learned more from him than from anyone else, and I thought of myself as his greatest fan.

I wanted more stuff like that and looked for it everywhere in hopes of finding it somewhere. But Heinlein was the best there was. I read everything he wrote that I could find.

This was during the Fifties when I caused my parents to be afraid I might be reading too much science fiction and be too heavily invested in a single writer. They never dreamed there would come a day when Heinlein Idolators would take me for the Anti-Heinlein and Heinlein himself would be agitated by me like no one else. But those things would eventually come to pass.

3. Discovering Science Fiction

When I became a reader of science fiction at the age of 10, thanks to the Boys' Life serialization of Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky, there was precious little of it to be found. In those days, science fiction was rare, marginal and ill thought of. It was the product of low class pulp magazines which were dying then under the paper shortage of World War II and the postwar advent of television. And as yet there were almost no paperback books to take their place.

After the war, thanks to the dropping of the Atom Bomb, two large anthologies of pulp magazine SF stories had been published by Random House and Crown. But these books stood alone. Consequently, in the absence of interest in imaginative fiction by professional book publishers, science fiction fans with enough knowledge and experience to do the job began founding their own specialty publishing houses to issue book versions of favorite authors—most notably Fantasy Press, Gnome Press, and Shasta. These books would include titles by Robert Heinlein, E.E. Smith, A.E. van Vogt, Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp and L.Ron Hubbard. But libraries would never buy anything so questionable and obscure. These were strictly limited editions, well-done fan productions for a specialized fan audience.

In order to feed my hunger for the fantastic, I had to settle for the first four Heinlein juveniles which I would read over and over. There was no other SF available to a child like me.

But that would change radically in a number of different ways in the early Fifties. And when it did, by following my nose I was able to find science fiction in every place it was manifesting itself but one:

Three major science fiction magazines existed then, all of them digest sized, meaning the size of Readers' Digest. First amongst them was Astounding, founded in the early Thirties, which had survived the war and the death of the pulps by making itself small, plus two new titles, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, whose first issue was in the fall of 1949, followed by Galaxy one year later. At the time, however, because my parents denied me access to the few places they were available locally because of their sales of tobacco and alcohol, science fiction magazines like these were still off limits to me. At most, I might catch glimpses of their covers from a distance, so I kind of knew that forbidden fruit kind of existed but without any clear idea of what it might be.

Starting in 1952, however, because of the example set by Scribners with their yearly books by Heinlein, juvenile science fiction began being published. There was Andre Norton's Star Man's Son, which to my disappointment proved to be a post-nuclear war survival story and not the interstellar adventure suggested by the title. And there was a series of original novels from Winston.

My parents gave me a subscription to the Junior Literary Guild for my birthday that year and the first book I received was a Winston juvenile—Rocket Jockey, a planet-to-planet race through space story by Philip St. John, a pseudonym of Lester del Rey. "This is great," I thought, and hoped more such books would follow. But they didn't. This would prove to be the only science fiction book the Junior Literary Guild ever sent me during the year my subscription lasted.

However, other books from Winston's initial offering of ten titles identifiable by their brightly-colored jackets with a rocket symbol on the spine, would make it into the childrens' stacks of the State Library before I left the childrens' room behind me. But none of them were a match for the Heinlein books which had called them into being.

During the Forties, a handful of adult novels deriving from the SF pulp magazines—six books that I can think of—had been issued by established publishing houses. The East Lansing Public Library owned one of them—Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe from Dutton, a mind-bending trashing of pulp story conventions which had first been published in the pulps. Knowing no better I took the novel straight and it scared the bejesus out of me. It would be several years before I could summon the nerve to read it.

Then, in 1950, Doubleday began a continuing line of hardcover science fiction books which included Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov, and Waldo and Magic, Inc, two long stories by Robert Heinlein. Through somebody's misapprehension, the Heinlein book showed up in the State Library shelved with his Scribner's juveniles. That book was scary to me, too.

Grosset & Dunlap, known for their unconventionally marketed cheap hardcover editions, issued four reprint SF titles, two in 1950, one more in 1951, and finally Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon in 1952. This was Heinlein's first adult novel, originally issued by fan publisher Fantasy Press. I spotted it on the mezzanine of Knapp's Department Store in Lansing and bought it for a dollar.

New paperback lines sprang up at this time, too, and these would also begin to issue science fiction books mostly derived from the SF magazines. When I was in 7th Grade, two of them, both single-author story collections that had originated with the fan presses, would be offered to me at school through the Scholastic Book Service: Heinlein's The Green Hills of Earth and Fredric Brown's Space on My Hands. I snapped them up, of course, the only kid in my class who did. The principle publishers of these paperbacks would be Signet, Ballantine, and Ace, a company that offered two short books bound back-to-back.

Most importantly, however, I followed my nose downstairs at the State Library and checked the adult card catalog under the words "science fiction". The only titles listed under the heading had the number 808.3. And, feeling like a daring intruder as a kid barely turned twelve, I tracked them down back in the adult stacks.

808.3 proved to be the Dewey Decimal number for American story anthologies. And there amongst them I would discover a motherlode of significant science fiction—seven books in particular, three of them brand new.

Historically important were the two classic postwar anthologies from 1946: Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, and The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin. And there were three further fat Crown anthologies edited by Conklin—The Big Book of Science Fiction from 1948, The Treasury of Science Fiction in 1950 and The Omnibus of Science Fiction in 1952. There was also the recently published The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.. Finally there was The Galaxy Reader, edited H.L. Gold, which reprinted every single story from the first year of this new magazine without omitting a single one. That was a headbending collection.

When I found them, I checked these books out again and again, taking on the stories as I could, reading and rereading them because I only had a partial understanding of what I was reading, gradually working my way through the books. I had to learn a whole new conceptual language to cope with them at all, and I was challenged both intellectually and imaginatively by what I discovered.

These were stories which were an imaginal match for the Heinlein juveniles and more, discovered as they were reborn in book form.

4.What Is Science Fiction?

After being a kid of ten who liked the kind of thing he was discovering in the novels of Robert Heinlein, but couldn't find more of it, suddenly in the course of 1952 I found myself inundated by science fiction stories old and new, juvenile and adult, coming at me from every direction. I was swamped. I didn't know what to make of it all and I didn't know anyone else who read SF and understood it better than I did who could guide my comprehension of what I was encountering. I was all alone in the midst of strangeness—a lot of it much harder to get my head around than the Heinlein juveniles—challenged to work out for myself and by myself where I was and what it was all about.

Hugo Gernsback, the pioneer magazine publisher who named the genre in 1930 may have wanted it to be a literature of future invention educating and entertaining young technologists-in-the-making. But by my day in the early Fifties science fiction had long since escaped his hands. And no one was ready to tell me what it really was.

Clearly it wasn't merely stories about imaginary science. As an example, just a decade after Gernsback, Heinlein was able to publish a story like "Waldo" in Astounding in which the reality of our world isn't stable, but is subject to change by the power of thought. And during the course of the Forties, Fredric Brown could write one story in which someone falls in love with the thought projection of a cockroach from another planet, and a second in which a writer is faced with an alien spaceship temporarily stranded in the sandwich he's eating, and these would be considered science fiction, too.

By the Fifties, a number of publishing houses—albeit few of the most distinguished—might begin to issue SF because money was to be made from it, but academics and established cultural commentators still had no use whatever for this new popular imaginative literature. The only people who had any interest in the subject were writers and fans of science fiction, so if I wanted to understand what SF was really about, it was to them I'd have to turn.

The initial book on the subject was Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing, edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, the person behind the first serious fan publishing house, Fantasy Press. This 1947 symposium consisted of seven brief essays by writers like Heinlein, Jack Williamson and A.E. van Vogt who were authors of Fantasy Press's first titles. But the book was more a collection of individual accounts of personal writing choices and methods than a coherent discussion. Even if I had been able to find a copy of this little book—an impossibility for me at the time I was most in need of guidance—it wouldn't have been much help in the task of comprehending science fiction.

More useful would be two books published in 1953 for people in the same position I was—new to SF and in need of orientation—but who were some years older than me: Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, edited by Reginald Bretnor, and Science-Fiction Handbook by L. Sprague de Camp.

(Those were the days when even whether or not there was to be a hyphen between the word "science" and the word "fiction" was in question.)

Modern Science Fiction was a book of essays intended to legitimize SF culturally which I tracked down in the Michigan State College library. It contained eleven essays divided into three parts. The first group was about SF publishing and the appearance of science fiction in media like the movies and radio. The second section considered science fiction's strengths and weaknesses and the ways in which it differed from conventional mundane fiction. And the final part of the book was about science fiction's relevance to the world around us—society and science, morals and religion—and what was to be expected of the genre in the future.

L. Sprague de Camp, the author of Science-Fiction Handbook, had a long essay entitled "Science Fiction and Creative Imagination" in Bretnor's book on the way in which science fiction stories were conceived. He said they were a product of the creative imagination, but didn't believe science fiction was inspired literature. It merely recombined sensory data in new and provocative ways.

I didn't find this argument compelling. It was true I'd learned a great deal from the factual knowledge I picked up from science fiction, probably more of it than from any other source. That was one of the things I valued most about the Heinlein stories I'd read over and over which had provided me with a wider window on the world around me.

But what I personally liked best about the imaginative material I was finding was the headbending stuff—the simultaneous night and day of the Jaro Hess poster, Gustaf Tenggren's fairy tale pictures, the reality creation in Heinlein's "Waldo," even Fredric Brown's thought projections of an alien cockroach. And it was the absence of this mindmoving quality that I would come to feel was the major weakness in de Camp's own stories.

His Science-Fiction Handbook was a more instructive book than the Bretnor symposium. It told about science fiction's antecedents and history, what its present markets and who its editors were, who read it and who'd been writing it, and how a good science fiction story was crafted.

This was a book I loved when I first read it. It filled me in on a great deal I needed to know, and did the same for others. Many years later at a science fiction convention room party, Roger Zelazny told me he wished he owned a copy. I answered that he was in luck because I had seen one just the day before in a glass-fronted bookcase near the checkout counter in the Strand Bookstore in lower Manhattan. It was, in fact, the only time I would ever see a copy for sale in a bookstore.

But Science-Fiction Handbook was an artifact of its time. Many years later, a second edition of the book would be published without all the elements in it that screamed "1953". However, without them the book now seemed limp and lifeless.

These two books, and a little book by Basil Davenport, Inquiry into Science Fiction, several years later would be the beginning and the end of serious public discussion of science fiction. There would be no others. Thereafter for many years, SF would be left to its fans and writers to scrutinize.

In 1956 eight Chicago fans—one of whom, Sidney Coleman, would later become a prominent theoretical physicist noted for his humor—banded together as Advent:Publishers to produce serious books on science-fictional subjects. The motive figures of the group were Earl Kemp who had the ideas and George Price who executed them.

Advent's first book, In Search of Wonder, was a collection of reviews and essays by Damon Knight, an SF writer and anthologist who would become the founder of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, and the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshops. Knight cared deeply about the craft and meaning of science fiction and probed the question unmercifully in his analyses.

Since the search for wonder was what I cared about most this was a book I'd been waiting for. As soon as I learned of its existence, I sent off for a copy from the boarding school I'd been imprisoned in in Massachusetts, putting a little space monster doodle I'd worked up the year before under the return address on the envelope.

5. In Search of Wonder

When Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder—the first critical book I ever owned—arrived in my hands at Mt. Hermon School, it proved to be a joy to read, the only source I'd seen specifically concerned with the quality and meaning of individual science fiction stories. The book was informative, snarky, and acute in its perceptions. But it didn't resolve the fundamental question of what kind of thing SF really is.

The title of Knight's book was a reference to the phrase "sense of wonder" coined by fan historian, Sam Moskowitz. SaM was the editor of Science-Fiction Plus, Hugo Gernsback's shortlived final attempt at publishing an SF magazine, as well as a scholar devoted to documenting the history of science fiction fandom, uncovering SF's forgotten antecedents, and writing brief biographies of its major writers.

Moskowitz felt that in the course of development of modern science fiction something vital had been lost—the quality of wonder. Knight's book was a promise to seek wonder again.

However, what Knight actually cared about wasn't wonder, but rather what he and his friend James Blish thought of as "technical criticism." Blish said that the technical critic "should be able to say with some precision not only that something went wrong—if it did—but just how it went wrong," while Knight declared that his concerns were originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity, and garden-variety grammar. Wonder wasn't on their list, or anyone else's during the 1950s.

By that time, it was generally if not universally agreed that the true nature of science fiction was neither scientific nor prophetic—the original defining characteristics laid down by Gernsback. The vital question now for most commenters was whether SF was extrapolative or speculative in nature.

I first ran into the term extrapolation in a 1952 article by Robert Heinlein in Galaxy entitled "Where To?," and later called "Pandora's Box". Here Heinlein said, "'Extrapolation' means much the same in fiction writing as it does in mathematics: exploring a trend. It means continuing a curve, a path, a trend into the future, by extending its present direction and continuing the shape it has displayed in its past performance...." A story title expressing the essence of extrapolation is Heinlein's first short novel in Astounding, "If This Goes On—".

Speculation was another term owed to Heinlein. His 1947 essay in Of Worlds Beyond had been entitled "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction," a sly way of proposing an alternative to the name "science fiction" which he failed to develop further in his essay. Five years later, however, in the "Where To?" article in Galaxy, Heinlein said that speculation took the basic facts admitted by extrapolation and then threw in some additional wonky element like little green men from Mars. A title that could be considered speculative might be my story collection Farewell to Yesterday's Tomorrow.

"Speculative fiction" would become an occasionally used alternative to the name "science fiction" which had the virtue of retaining the "SF" abbreviation familiarly understood to indicate both science fiction and fantasy. At the outset of In Search of Wonder, Damon Knight declared that "science fiction" was a misnomer we were unfortunately stuck with, but he personally thought "speculative fiction", which he credited to Heinlein, was a better name for the genre.

What the terms extrapolation and speculation have in common is that both of them are based on the assumed primacy of the so-called real world. As L. Sprague de Camp said in his essay "Imaginative Fiction and Creative Imagination " in Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future: "Please let us assume that the world of the senses is the real world. If you believe that in addition to sensory data the mind also draws upon divine inspiration, universal consciousness, racial memory, or some other suppositous non-sensory factor, we shall have to agree to disagree."

The one notable exception to this standard set of assumptions would come from A.E. van Vogt. He wrote in his essay in Of Worlds Beyond in 1947, "Ever since I began writing for the science fiction field, it has been my habit to put every current thought into the story I happened to be working on. Frequently, an idea would seem to have no relevance, but by mulling it over a little, I would usually find an approach that would make it usable."

That is, van Vogt held that the thoughts which popped into his head, rather than de Camp's "real world" plus extensions and variations upon it, were paramount in his creation of science fiction.

In later self-accounts van Vogt would amplify this by saying that while he was writing a story, he would program his dreams to feed him ideas as he needed them, waking himself every two hours during the night to harvest the results. He said, "Generally, either in a dream or about ten o'clock the next morning—bang!—an idea comes and it will be something in a sense non-sequitur, yet a growth from the story. I've gotten my most original stories that way...."

He declared, "I have tried to plot stories consciously, from beginning to end, and I never sell them. I know better, now, than to even attempt to write them that way."

6. Theft and Discovery

My access to science fiction increased radically starting in the fall of 1954. Instead of me continuing at Okemos School, where I'd gone from second grade through eighth, my parents sent me to high school in East Lansing as they had done with my brother before me.

And every day I got fifty cents lunch money. But instead of wasting it on a school lunch, as I was expected to do, I walked up to Grand River Avenue, the boulevard separating the main shopping in East Lansing on one side of the street from Michigan State College on the other. And there, with fifty cents in my pocket every day, I ran wild.

Science fiction paperbacks priced at twenty-five or thirty-five cents had begun to proliferate as never before, and I obtained a new one every day. One day I would buy a book and spend the rest of my money on a bag of half-a-dozen day-old Spudnuts or a quarter pound of Spanish peanuts and an A&W fountain root beer at Kresge's. The next day, I would steal a book and spend the full fifty cents on a more substantial lunch.

I was very good at swiping books, slipping them under my arm inside my jacket and holding them in place with my elbow while I eased out the door. I didn't steal too much or too often in any one place. And I made sure to buy books in the stores where I stole so my honesty never came into question. I was never caught.

My days as a thief lasted for my freshman and sophomore years of high school until I was sent off to boarding school as a junior. I never stole again after that except for the occasional olive. But between misappropriation of lunch money and outright theft, I obtained a lot of science fiction books during those two years, some of them new titles, some of them reprints. And I read them in class, too.

I also expanded my sources of reading from paperbacks to magazines. The first SF magazine I ever bought was the December 1954 issue of Astounding with a giant picture of Mars on the cover by Chesley Bonestell. I sat at the lunch counter in the five and dime store and thumbed through it. The issue had an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr., illustrated stories with a cryptic little Campbell comment before each one, a speculative science article, book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller and a letter column called Brass Tacks. All of this was new to me and had to be assimilated.

But what struck me the hardest was the unique odor of the paper the magazine was printed on. That odor, that tan paper, was typical of Astounding in the middle Fifties and I imprinted on it strongly. If I smelled it again today more than sixty years later, it would affect me deeply.

I bought Astounding regularly from that day on and would read it for the next dozen years. Even when I stopped reading the stories I would still read Campbell's editorials at the newsstand. They were intentionally provocative and taught me even when I disagreed with them.

About six months after I started reading Astounding, my mother informed me that the son of her friend Mrs. Schultz was going off to grad school and was getting rid of his science fiction magazine collection. I could have them if I wanted, and of course I said yes. I wasn't anticipating much, but when my mother brought the box of magazines home, it was a very large box.

I laid the magazines out on the floor of my bedroom and sorted them by title and date. What I'd been given proved to be a run of Astounding from 1947 until a few months before I started buying the magazine, a complete run of Galaxy from the first issue, and a complete run of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Wow!

A year later, I took a further step. I wrote a fan letter to Robert Heinlein tapped out on my mother's portable typewriter. I told him that he was my favorite writer and that while other science fiction stories might be nourishing his stories were steak to their hamburger. That would be the one and only time I ever tried to catch the sound of Heinlein's prose.

A month after that, when I was newly arrived in boarding school in Massachusetts, I received a blue postcard from Heinlein forwarded by my mother. Heinlein took note that I'd said in my letter that he didn't need to answer, but said my letter was a pleasure to answer. Wow again!

At the beginning of summer in 1958, when I was still seventeen, I wrote Heinlein a second time on my own brand new typewriter. I said I was heading west on a summer job and wondered if I could pay him a visit on my way. This time he didn't answer me.

7. "So You Want to Be a Writer"

After receiving a typewriter as a high school graduation present in 1958 along with a backyard revelation that I should use it to write science fiction stories, I began teaching myself how to do it. By that time, I'd read all the science fiction and the science fiction criticism I could lay my hands on, so I figured I had a basis to work from. From that time on, I thought of myself as a writer and not just another science fiction reader.

I didn't think of myself as an SF fan since I had no contact with science fiction fandom and had no idea what fans did except for the ones who had published In Search of Wonder. The one exception to this is that somehow I obtained an Australian fan parody of an issue of Astounding which I was prepared to find funny. In those days, each issue of Astounding had a symbol in the upper lefthand corner of the cover with the revelation of what it represented on the contents page. The parody had a rubber band as the cover symbol. The explanation was "Propulsion."

In the fall of 1958 I began college at the University of Michigan. I didn't take an English writing course because I didn't want my writing messed with. I concluded I was right about this when a friend told me that in his English writing course science fiction was not acceptable.

My first contact with another SF writer came that fall when I met Dean McLaughlin in a college bookstore down the street from my dorm. Dean, nine years older than I, was the go-to guy in the store who knew where everything was, and was called upon constantly to aid less savvy employees. Ten years after we met Dean's Analog novella "Hawk Among the Sparrows" would be nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula.

I was familiar with Dean's name from L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook where his second published story back in 1952 had been used as an example of the inner inconsistency that de Camp advised was to be avoided in constructing an SF story. I overlooked this minor flaw in Dean's perfection and instead picked his brains relentlessly for whatever he could tell me about the science fiction writing world. Dean was incredibly patient with my daily drop-by visits at the store to learn more from him.

My first writing assignment at the University of Michigan came in my introductory psychology class where we were told to take some bit of psychological research and compare the reality with a popular representation of it. I chose the work of Samuel Renshaw as portrayed in the stories of Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein had treated Renshaw as a super-scientist in the novella "Gulf", and then in the juvenile novel Citizen of the Galaxy, and would again for a third time a few years later in Stranger in a Strange Land. Like Alfred Korzybski before him, Renshaw was presented by Heinlein as someone who could take smart people, eliminate impediments and imperfections, and make them much smarter—swifter readers, infallible witnesses, trained geniuses.

To check Heinlein out, I interviewed a couple of University of Michigan psychologists and read a 1948 three-part profile of Renshaw and his work in the Saturday Evening Post entitled "You're Not as Smart as You Could Be" which would prove to be Heinlein's primary source of information on Renshaw and his research. My conclusion was that Heinlein had inflated Renshaw's work for fictional effect. What I would say now is that Heinlein portrayed Renshaw as a maker of more competent people—Homo Novis—whereas a more accurate characterization would be that Renshaw was a student of thresholds of perception.

I got an A for the paper and sent a copy of it to Heinlein who responded with a three-page letter. The one thing I recall from it now is that Heinlein said that while he was writing a story he knew it so well that he could correct punctuation in it mentally after he went to bed, but once it had been published, he remembered so little of it that he could read it for pleasure.

Later that fall, I rode with Dean and graduate student X J Kennedy to a meeting of the convention committee of the following year's SF Worldcon in Detroit. Kennedy, who would become well-known as a poet, had had a former life in the Forties as science fiction fan Joe Kennedy. I think he and I represented the past and future of science fiction fandom to Dean. In the event, I kicked my heels in a basement family room during the confab of the con committtee, and was introduced to the con chairmen Roger Sims and Fred Prophet, and that was about all. I never laid eyes on Kennedy again after that day.

But I did attend Detention, the Seventeenth Worldcon in Detroit, the following Labor Day weekend. There were 381 people in attendance. As I was checking into the hotel, the older man in front of me in line turned around, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hello, I'm Doc Smith. Don't I know you?" I was completely bowled over by his generosity and tact, which were not at all what I expected to encounter from a science fiction icon like Smith.

The first con members I met were Earl Kemp and George Price of Advent. They remembered me from the space monster doodle on my order for In Search of Wonder. Very soon after that, I spotted Damon Knight and began reciting bits of his book to him. I attached myself to him and followed him around all weekend pestering him with questions as I had with Dean McLaughlin before him.

I even bought an hour of the time of the convention's Guest of Honor Poul Anderson at auction for $25, and talked to him of my writing ambition.

Later that fall, I rode to Chicago with Dean to attend a science fiction pro party. I hadn't sold a story at that point, but because of knowing Dean I was treated with a degree of respect that I hadn't yet earned. I was told we would be staying overnight with Earl Kemp.

On our way to Chicago, Dean informed me that I had a good science fiction writer name, like van Vogt, Heinlein, Sturgeon or Asimov. I appreciated that.

I met a few writers at the party—Harlan Ellison, Theodore Cogswell whose first story had made the cover of Astounding, and Indiana lawyer (later judge) Joe L. Hensley, with whom I would collaborate on a couple of stories, including my first anthologization, "Dark Conception." When Harlan and I were introduced, he fingered my blazer on which I had spent no less than $20, and said: "So you want to be a writer. The first check you get, ditch this and buy yourself a continental cut suit." He didn't know me very well. I haven't owned a suit to this day, continental cut or otherwise.

During the course of the evening, mention was made of a broadsheet that Heinlein had circulated the previous year. I said I hadn't heard of it, and what was it? Earl Kemp poked his head up across the room and said he would show it to me when we got to his place.

In fact, Earl would show me three things: He showed me the manuscript for "Who Killed Science Fiction?", a question and answer super-fanzine which would win him a Hugo and provide the basis for him chairing a Chicago Worldcon. He showed me Boris Artzybasheff's artbook As I See which I would eventually be fortunate enough to own a copy of. And he showed me Heinlein's "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?"

This newspaper ad was an answer to a series of ads by SANE—The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy—opposing atmospheric bomb testing. I wasn't any too keen on those tests myself because I didn't fancy nuclear fallout in the milk I drank.

Heinlein not only supported atmospheric testing as a matter of patriotism, but beat the drum for a new organization, The Patrick Henry League, and asked for people to sign up. He would then reprint the ad as a broadsheet and circulate it in Navy circles and in the science fiction community. But to his bitter disappointment, he would get little positive response from either quarter. Heinlein didn't let go of the piece, either, but would reprint it again more than twenty years later in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe.

I finished reading the broadsheet Earl had taken from a drawer, and said, "Wow. This is a little over the top, isn't it?"

I was bothered by the ad as well as by the passage in Heinlein's new novel, Starship Troopers, in which he said that radiation was necessary for evolution to take place, which I took as a covert reiteration of his support for the atmospheric tests. So I wrote to Heinlein expressing my concerns about fallout and pointing out that in stories like "Solution Unsatisfactory" and "Blowups Happen" he himself had stressed the dangers of atomic weapons.

He answered me by saying, "The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming." And recommended that I read three books.

I found all three in the University of Michigan library and read them. The books were from vehemently anti-Communist rightwing publishers. I remember the point of one of them was that we had supported the Russians during World War II with money and machines and they hadn't paid us back, the dirty swine. So I wrote Heinlein again saying as nicely as I could manage that I had read the books but didn't think they answered the question I was asking about Strontium 90 in the atmosphere.

As I would find out however—and William Patterson would later confirm in his official biography—Heinlein couldn't abide disagreement, and not at all on this particular subject. He didn't answer me this time. Instead I got a note from Virginia Heinlein saying that her husband was now occupied in writing a new book, presumably Stranger in a Strange Land, and had no time for correspondence.

But Heinlein didn't forget or forgive my having disputed him and would bring it up when he was trying to prevent the writing of Heinlein in Dimension, the first book on his work. In fact, however, this exchange of letters would be the point at which I ceased to be Heinlein's unquestioning Number One Fan and began to apply all I had learned from the critical opinions he presented in his stories to the man himself and his own work. I think it's fair to say that this aborted correspondence marks our parting of the ways.

8. Learning to Write

When I began trying to write stories in the summer of 1958, I was completely ignorant and totally inept. I proved as much that fall by writing an unpublishable SF novel, but I learned a lot in doing it. Mainly what I learned was to get my think-think out of the way and listen to the words I was being given to set down on paper.

For a year and a half I did nothing but collect rejection slips. But about six months after Harlan Ellison fingered my inadequate jacket and told me to buy a continental cut suit with my first writing check, I sold a story to Seventeen magazine for $300 called "A Piece of Pie" based upon the annual intramural cross country race at Mt. Hermon School.

After another year and a half with more rejections, while stationed at the headquarters of a US Army preventive medicine company in a compound outside Seoul, Korea, I got an idea for a science fiction story. I was still bothered by the chauvinism and belligerence Heinlein had shown in Starship Troopers and I wanted to write a story with a devastating conclusion that I imagined Heinlein would endorse, but I would not.

My approach to constructing the story was to accumulate a number of key factors I wanted to work with and then allow them to reveal themselves as a single narrative.

I had just read Harper Lee's new novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and as much as I liked it, I hadn't been completely convinced by her portrayal of the mentation of a six-year-old girl. Neither had I been convinced by Heinlein's little girl character Peewee in another book I'd loved, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel. As of that time, Heinlein had yet to include a young female protagonist in any of his juvenile novels.

I'd never attempted such a character in any story I'd written myself. And I was always trying to do something I hadn't done before in every story. So a young female lead became my second factor.

Next, I'd just read an article in Astounding by G. Harry Stine called "Science Fiction Is Too Conservative." In it, he proposed the idea—not actually new—of giant spaceships carrying colonies to the stars. That was my third factor.

The final piece of my story fell into place when I picked up a new novel called Walkabout in the camp library. The blurb spoke of a rite of passage in which Australian aborigine boys were sent off to survive for a month in the wild by themselves.

So there was my story: a young girl from a starship would be dropped on a human colony planet to survive for a month in order to become an adult and earn citizenship on her ship. But the starship would be offended by the colony and vote to destroy it.

Almost as soon as I thought of the story, I found myself transferred to the company detachment at Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu. There I was drafted by the second lieutenant in charge to do his typing. This was the only opportunity to write that I would have during my two years of Army service and I made the most of it. Over the next several months, I wrote my story. At 20,000 words, it was the second longest story I had yet attempted.

I sent the manuscript off to John W. Campbell at Astounding, by that time renamed Analog. But while it was gone and then being returned to me I came to the conclusion that to bring off the devastating ending I aimed for, the story needed to be longer. I submitted it again to Fred Pohl, editor of Galaxy and If, and then set to work on the longer version.

Pohl offered to buy my story, but only if I cut it in half. I did the job in one night while on charge of quarters duty back at company headquarters. I typed furiously through the night rewriting the story and eliminating the overwhelming ending for which it existed while I listened on the radio as John Glenn orbited the planet three times.

And Pohl did buy the shortened story which he retitled "Down to the Worlds of Men" and published a year and a half later in the July 1963 issue of If following the serialization of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, which had a young female protagonist, though not one whose voice I believed in.

That was my second story sale, this time for $100. For a time there, my story checks kept getting smaller and smaller—$50 from Datebook for "A Tale of a Trunk", then half of $50 from F&SF for "Dark Conception," a collaboration with Joe Hensley, and then finally, before the bounceback happened, $20 for a story called "The Death of Orville Murchison" from a magazine called motive. After that, the checks started getting larger again.

I wrote new stories and criticism, as well as a whole other nonfiction book, while continuing to work on my novel for four more years. My aim was to write a story of the future more plausibly textured than SF was accustomed to being, which told about someone growing up in a society with a substantial power advantage over others, at first accepting its values as natural, and then coming to reject them. Just like me and America.

While I was still at work on the book, I submitted another portion of it to Fred Pohl as a stand alone story. But he turned it down—not unreasonably—telling my agent, "I used to think that Panshin wrote this way because he was stubborn. Now I think he just doesn't have a very interesting imagination."

When Rite of Passage was done in February 1966, I attempted to sell the novel, but it was rejected again and again, thirteen times in all. Once the reason given was that it was about a young girl, and girls didn't read science fiction, or so I was told. Another time the reason was my funny name, which casual readers would take as the product of a foreign writer and pass by in a bookstore. When publishers don't want to accept a submission, any excuse will do.

This was a very frustrating time for me. In the summer of 1967 I even wrote a cri de coeur called "How to Get Kicked in the Head and Learn to Love It." I showed it to one friend, who gave me the sympathy I was seeking, and then I deposited it in a wastebasket.

By that time, I was living in a fifth floor walkup in Brooklyn Heights and sharing a half-sized football with Terry Carr, who lived a few blocks away, which we would toss around in the street after his work hours. Terry was an assistant editor at Ace Books and had proposed a new line of more ambitious science fiction books to A.A. Wyn, the owner of the company. Wyn was then in his final months of life and apparently desirous of making a mark to leave behind him, because he said yes to Terry.

Terry was seeking books to be published as Ace Specials. And one afternoon while we were chucking the football back and forth he asked to have a look at the manuscript of the novel I couldn't sell.

And he accepted Rite of Passage! It would be published in June of 1968 between novels by R.A. Lafferty and Joanna Russ, a perfect place to attract notice.

The following spring, Rite of Passage received a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America as Best Novel of the Year. It won 21 to 17 over Joanna's Ace Special Picnic on Paradise.

I knew it was going to win but was forced to pretend otherwise. Barry Malzberg informed me in advance. He said he was sure I'd want to know, although I really didn't. That's the writing life for you.

9. Writing Science Fiction Criticism

Shortly after "Down to the Worlds of Men" was finally published in 1963, I began writing science fiction criticism. I'd returned from the Army and then spent the next eight months working on turning the story into Rite of Passage before taking up college again at Michigan State. One evening while I was sitting in the grill in the basement corridor connecting the men's dorm Snyder where I lived and the twin women's dorm Abbot, it struck me that there was a weakness in Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

Heinlein had stated that his book took on the assumed truths of the modern Western world and cast doubt upon them. But it came to me that his handling of the subject of sex in Stranger, with water brotherhoods where everyone screwed everyone and no one was jealous or unhappy because of their clear new Martian-style thinking, wasn't actually as radical or enlightened as Heinlein presented it, but rather was something of an adolescent fantasy.

That was presumptuous of me. I was completely sexually inexperienced myself at the time and more than a bit of an idealist where sex was concerned. When my soldier friends went off to fuck in a Korean whorehouse, I remained downstairs with a girl on my knee until they were done. By contrast, Heinlein was someone who considered himself a sexual sophisticate.

However, my insight wasn't totally mistaken. In his Naval Academy days, Heinlein was known as a guy who was led around by his dick. Sex was the root cause of many of his troubles in life. And when he proposed to his third wife, he admitted to her that he could lose his head where sex was concerned at any time and might well do it again. Sex was definitely a weakness in his self-presentation to the world as a mature master of knowledge and behavior.

So I got up from the table I was sitting at, returned to my room and wrote my first critical piece. It might be fair to say that it was half naive, but also half intolerably perceptive.

When it was finished, I had nowhere to send it. The obvious place of publication for it was a science fiction fanzine, but I had no contact with anyone who was in the business of putting out a fanzine. But then, by happy chance, I spotted a classified ad in F&SF which said that someone named Bill Blackbeard was looking for fanzine material, so I mailed the piece off to him in California.

Almost immediately, I got an answer back, not from Blackbeard, but from a person who signed himself Al haLevy. He asked if I was a known fan writing under a pseudonym. I assured him that I was me, and pointed to the story I had just had in the July issue of If.

I got no reply to the note I wrote him. However, about three weeks later (!), I opened my dorm mailbox to find a manila envelope. Inside was an issue of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society's clubzine Shangri L'Affaires, familiarly known as Shaggy. And there in the Table of Contents on the front cover was my name given as the author of a piece called "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap."

That was dismaying. I thought the title was half-clever as a play on Heinlein's story title "By His Bootstraps", but it was also rude and crude. And I was none too thrilled to be identified as Heinlein's jockstrap. That wasn't at all the way I wanted to introduce myself as a critical voice. Not surprisingly, the piece also offended Heinlein mightily because of the vast gap between how he saw himself and how the piece represented him.

Poul Anderson wrote a letter to Shaggy saying that he knew me and I was a good kid—which was generous of him—and pointed out that not everything a writer wrote was what he believed personally, but rather what markets would accept. So I wrote another article for the zine saying that you could begin to believe a writer meant what he said if he said the same thing multiple times, and I cited one of Anderson's own tropes as my example.

At that point, however, I really didn't want to write anything further for Shangri L'Affaires, feeling I'd been taken advantage of by Blackbeard, haLevy and Shaggy editor Redd Boggs, who apparently had their own fish to fry. When I told Dean McLaughlin about this, he suggested that I might write for Buck and Juanita Coulson's fanzine Yandro and gave me their address.

During the next year I would produce a number of serious constructive articles for Yandro on the subject of science fiction. The true nature of SF was still my question and I tested it from one angle after another.

My primary models were Damon Knight and James Blish. I didn't consider myself a technical critic in the same way they did since I thought I was still in the process of learning how to write, but I definitely thought of myself as the youngest member of the group of SF writers who were concerned with the true nature of science fiction and how SF might be made better.

Yandro was a marvelous place to publish. It was around thirty yellow mimeographed pages in length with a new issue every month, never missing an issue for years on end, with an editorial, essays of various kinds, book reviews by Buck who was a prodigious reader, and letters of comment.

You may think of this amateur publication as fannish activity at its best with no pretensions and no agenda, a more personal and haimish version of the creative expression exemplified by the Chicago fans who had created Advent:Publishers in order to issue books by people like Knight and Blish. Roger Ebert would write testimonials to the formative power that involvement with Yandro had on him when he was a young fan. My contributions to the Coulsons' magazine were so frequent during 1964 that when Yandro won a Hugo as Best Fanzine the following year, I was pleased to think that my sercon essays were part of the reason why.

I must have made an impression with what I was writing, too, because that summer at Midwestcon, my first regional science fiction convention, Earl Kemp called to me at a crowded room party, "Hey, Alex, want to write a book about Heinlein?" I hadn't seen Earl since he'd showed me the "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" broadsheet back in 1959, and I thought he was kidding me about "Heinlein: By His Jockstrap." But he wasn't because he said it again at a party at the Coulsons' in rural Indiana a month later. And I agreed to do it, returning to Michigan with a singing heart and a buzzing head.

That winter, before my final term as an undergraduate at Michigan State, I told my advisor that I was presently at work on two books, Rite of Passage and another on Robert Heinlein, and I wondered if I could get credit for either one. He answered, "Well, we can't give you credit for a novel, but we can call your book on Heinlein your senior thesis and give you credit for that."

Robert Heinlein was the first person I wrote to when I was researching the book, but he failed to answer my letter. However, in February, when I was two-thirds done with what proved to be the initial draft of the book, Heinlein wrote to Earl Kemp. He said that if Advent was serious about a book on his work, they would have engaged a more established critic. He accused me of having conned his best friend's widow out of a file of personal letters. He refused to read the book in progress and threatened to sue me and Advent if it were published.

Advent was intimidated by this, exactly as intended, and immediately withdrew from publication, sending me a check for $50 and no fewer than three letters—one official, one from Earl, and one from George Price—saying how sorry they were. I wasn't intimidated, however. The book was to be my senior thesis. It was the next step in my development as a critic. And no one, Heinlein's list of established critics nor anyone else, had yet written a book about the work of any science fiction writer and I wanted to do it.

During the following month, I wrote the text of Heinlein in Dimension as the book now stands. I didn't think of it as anti-Heinlein in any way, but rather as a fair-minded first look at all his stories and a raising of issues like sex and solipsism that merited further consideration.

After it was done, I had the problem of finding alternate publication for it. So I wrote a piece for Yandro entitled "Lese Majesty"—"an offense against the King"—setting forth the situation. And it was effective. Over the next year, Heinlein in Dimension would appear in pieces in four different fanzines. So word of it got around.

Heinlein's attempt to kill the book outright before it was written turned out to be counter-productive. Specifically because of the fanzine appearances of Heinlein in Dimension, the only fan writing I published in 1966, I would win the initial fan writing Hugo presented at the World Science Fiction Convention held in New York the following year.

Advent got its nerve back and decided they would publish the book and be damned. And Heinlein in Dimension appeared as a hardcover book in the spring of 1968 with an introduction by James Blish two months before the publication of Rite of Passage.

After it was published, Damon Knight took me aside at a Milford Writers Conference to tell me that he didn't like the book. But I couldn't tell you now what it was that he didn't like about it.

10. The Villiers Books

After my period of getting kicked in the head and learning to love it finally came to an end in the fall of 1967 when I signed a contract with Advent for Heinlein in Dimension and another with Ace Books for Rite of Passage, Terry Carr of Ace suggested that I write a series of science fiction novels for him. I said yes, but working up a proposal for the first one didn't come easily to me since my approach was not to plot out a book in detail beforehand but rather to accumulate crucial factors I wanted to include until they reached what I thought of as "critical mass," and then just start writing.

In this case, marijuana was getting around in my circle of acquaintance just then. Our expectation of it at that early date was to get stoned and then scarf down a Sara Lee cake. But what I valued in the experience was that it triggered a series of strange insights, weird cross-connections, and funny perspectives in me. I jotted down any number of them on notecards some of which I retain to this day. I wish I had more of them, particularly the half-dozen I posted on the wall in front of my typewriter as a reminding factor, and perhaps I still do somewhere if I dig hard enough. Here are a few examples:

"a sentient rock: 'I'm not stupid. I'm dull normal.'"

"A person does nothing all his life but sit and think. Ask him why? He has observed that actions can have untoward consequences. He's still thinking about things. At last he leaps up, does something enigmatic or decisive or .... And bops off down the road."

"rational people are always bumping into rocks. I used to be a rational person. I could show you scars."

"'I don't understand you, sir.' 'I don't propose that you should.' 'But you don't understand me, either.' 'And you don't propose that I should.' 'Exactly.' 'Understood.'"

The first factor was to write a book that was full of stuff like that. Editor Fred Pohl had said to my agent that he used to think I wrote the way I did because I was stubborn, but now he thought I just didn't have a very interesting imagination. I wanted to show him that he was right the first time and that my stubbornness was that I was working on Rite of Passage at the time and following the voice of that book—but I was also quite capable of writing in totally different ways. The voice of this book wouldn't be at all the same.

A second factor was that I thought science fiction was too committed to a sober meta-narrative constructed over the years by the writers of Astounding and Analog. I wanted to fight against the Empire of science fictional convention by presenting a quirkier and more amusing state of existence in which fanciful and unanticipated things might take place: peels could grunt at midnight, large furry alien toads could ride red tricycles if the opportunity arose and they were of a mind to, and little pink clouds could claim to be God.

And yet a third factor was that while I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I'd found stacks of Canadian paperback copies of the books of Georgette Heyer in a local bookstore and read my way through them all. One book of hers which didn't knock me out in general was The Grand Sophy. But the last several chapters of it were a hoot with different characters wandering on and off stage, interweaving in an almost dance-like way. I wanted to do something like that myself—write prose performance pieces depending on timing and tempo—but at book length.

I once had someone suggest to me that P.G. Wodehouse was my model for doing this, but that's not so—even if it should prove to be so. I've never been a reader of P.G. Wodehouse. My inspiration was the last two chapters of The Grand Sophy, which I've never reread.

I didn't want to imitate anyone. I wanted to catch a dynamic and let it determine what things happened and how.

But how do you write a plausible book proposal which says that you aim to write a science fiction novel, or a series of them, which don't have ordinary plots but instead are pure improvised interactive quirkiness and fun? Somehow I managed to cobble together something about a young lord who's a remittance man in a dinky future "Galactic Empire" encompassing a few hundred stars within a galaxy of stars by the hundreds of billions, together with his amiable but inscrutable traveling companion, an illegal alien being with the power to cloud men's minds. This was plausible enough to satisfy Terry, and he gave me a contract for it.

I quit my job at the Brooklyn Public Library figuring that I could finally make a living by writing. I turned out to be wrong, but I did it anyway.

I dashed off the first book, Star Well, in two months. The second book in the series, The Thurb Revolution, took me three. But the third book, Masque World, came harder. It would take a full year to write. I've never written The Universal Pantograph, which was to be the fourth book, although I've carried materials for it around in my head for nearly fifty years.

The reasons for never writing it were manifold. First of all, I didn't want to repeat myself. I could get away with three Villiers books, but I wasn't sure about doing yet another one only to find myself writing a template series like John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books in which the elements were all familiar and cut to a pattern. Secondly the Sixties, which provided the cultural context and social climate in which books like mine could be written, were now over, and the Seventies wouldn't offer as friendly an atmosphere for writing tightly phrased but intuitively imagined Sixties-style whoop-te-do. Not least, however, was that A.A. Wyn, the not-completely-honest one-man owner of Ace Books, had finished dying near the beginning of the period of small publisher acquisition that was starting to happen then. The company was sold to Charter Communications, a many-headed monster oriented toward possession and profit rather than authenticity. In this new corporate climate, Ace's resourceful editor-in-chief, old-time fan Donald A. Wollheim, left the company after twenty years on the job to start his own line of books. My editor, Terry Carr, would depart for the West Coast, as well, and once again I was stranded without a publisher.

However, the result of the whole cosmic arrangement of events in 1968 was that I, who a year or so earlier had been getting nowhere at all with my writing, had no fewer than four books published in the course of one volatile, heady year. So when I made my appearance in public awareness within the science fiction microcosm, I made a splash.

That gave me all the cultural capital I would live on for the next twenty years.

11. Down on the Farm

Star Well was published in October 1968. A few weeks later, I received a fan letter—my first fan letter ever—from Cory Seidman telling me how much she liked the book, and setting forth her take on what it was I'd done.

I first laid eyes on Cory at Tricon, the 24th World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland, in 1966. She was the girl in the leafy brown dryad costume. Cory was a Radcliffe student in linguistics at the time and hung out with the MIT Science Fiction Society. She even took a course at MIT with Noam Chomsky. Over the next several years she and I would see each other from time to time at gatherings at Charlie and Marsha Browns' apartment in the Bronx.

If Cory related to Star Well, I won her heart with The Thurb Revolution. We were married the following June. It may tell you something about us that our initial wedding present to ourselves was the acquisition of the four-volume boxed set of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God.

Three months later, in the spirit of many others who were leaving the city at the end of the Sixties and moving to the country, we found ourselves living in a converted carriage house on a farm in upper Bucks County and acquiring a pushy tuxedo kitten named Fang who demanded to live with us and wouldn't be denied.

One consequence of our move to Open Gate Farm was losing direct contact with the science fiction professional and fan world within which we had previously functioned.

It may have been no accident that we would be confronted by a mass invasion of crickets that fall, something I'd never seen before and haven't witnessed since.

But being isolated on a farm which had no gate of any kind but a very long driveway while listening to a symphony of crickets bespeak our situation had its advantage inasmuch as it threw us back on our own company. Cory and I spent the next several years working on reconciling our respective concepts and vocabularies. In the process, I discovered just how bright Cory is, something that took me time to properly appreciate.

Her particular skill was research and organization of data. In 1971 while I was teaching a course in science fiction at Cornell inherited from Joanna Russ, Cory spent the summer in the university library going through the Golden Age of the Campbell Astounding one issue at a time making intensive notes on every one which she kept in a black binder I still have on my shelf of science fiction indexes today. In times to come it would prove a unique and invaluable resource.

In the meantime, in spite of my newly-established success as a writer of novels, I'd never let go of my basic inquiry into the true nature of science fiction and I pursued it in a bi-monthly column for Fantastic called "Science Fiction in Dimension."

In October 1966, during my period of intense frustration over Heinlein in Dimension and Rite of Passage, I received a commission from Twayne Publishers to contribute a general book on SF to their United States Authors series, and between May and July of the following year I wrote one for them called Science Fiction: A Critical Introduction. But by the time I submitted the manuscript, the editor who'd asked for the book had departed from the company and I got no response whatever from them for month after month until I'd finally had enough and took the manuscript back. I tried submitting it elsewhere a couple of times without success but it was so tailored to the specifications of Twayne that I was never really happy with it and soon killed it altogether.

However, even as the Sixties were on their way out the door, my friend Ted White inherited the editorship of Amazing and Fantastic, two SF magazines of minimal circulation, and asked me to write a column for him. With the turmoil then going on at Ace my fiction-writing career was in limbo, so I accepted.

At first I thought of the column as an extension of the essays on the nature of science fiction I'd written for Yandro in 1964, only paid for this time. And I would manage to keep writing them for eighteen issues over the next three years—making a grand total of $630 for doing it—while I was simultaneously at work on a novel called The Son of Black Morca, a fantasy set against a science fictional background.

The final seven installments of "Science Fiction in Dimension" were devoted to an alternate history of science fiction that Cory and I were evolving based around the idea that science fiction wasn't really about future science and outer space as it was ordinarily considered to be, but rather was about inner space—the head states of the people who wrote the stories and of the audience that received them. These columns would be the first work to be signed by both of us.

Our contrary thinking in "Science Fiction in Dimension" had two direct results. The first of these was that I made myself persona non grata, apparently for life, with the academic community then beginning to teach science fiction at the university level.

First I wrote a column entitled "Science Fiction and Academe" questioning whether academics were qualified to teach science fiction at all. If that weren't bad enough, a month after it was published, Cory and I attended a Secondary Universe Conference, an academic gathering held in Toronto that year, where I delivered a talk, later another column, entitled "Metaphor, Analogy, Symbol and Myth." My fatal sin then occurred when I told the whole gathered conference that science fiction couldn't be addressed effectively using the same analytical conventions they were accustomed to applying to mundane fiction, but had to be addressed on its own terms. Science fiction criticism needed to be science fictional in nature.

Maverick professor Leslie Fiedler, who I think was positively disposed toward us, rose at that point to ask whether I really meant what I was saying. I said I did mean it. And ever since then, science fictional academia has treated me as a non-person—and who could blame them? It has to be affronting to be told that the peripheral territory you think unoccupied and unexploited and ripe for possession is in fact not a secondary universe at all, and is not your property, and what's more you haven't got the key to it.

The second result was that three years after we finished our column, we would be contacted by Ricardo Valla, editor for Italian publisher, Editrice Nord. He proposed to publish those final seven columns as a book, and we agreed to it. It was duly issued in the spring of 1978 under the title Mondi Interiori, which is to say, Interior Worlds.

In February 1973, having learned of the forthcoming publication of Time Enough for Love, a new novel featuring Lazarus Long, the central character of Heinlein's 1941 Astounding serial Methuselah's Children, I wrote a long essay of the same title in a single week discussing what the book would need to be in order to satisfactorily attend to the unfinished business of the earlier story. When I was done, I sent a copy of the manuscript to Heinlein. He read it and made copious notes in the margins addressed to me. But then he didn't share them with me.

I've only managed to catch up with Heinlein's marked copy in recent times in the Heinlein Archives. He protested that it was a book review of a book I hadn't read. He didn't understand that the essay was speculative criticism—along the lines of his "speculative fiction"—a science fictional reading of a forthcoming science fiction book, exactly the kind of reading I didn't think the academicians were capable of doing.

Ah, but then I did it again. On the heels of the last seven columns for Fantastic, I tested out our new alternate interpretation of science fiction on Robert Heinlein in an essay called "Reading Heinlein Subjectively."

Heinlein didn't appreciate it. When asked by young fan Gary Farber, he wouldn't admit to having read it, but he didn't like it. He thought I was reading his mind when I was only reading his stories and what they really said about him.

12. Creative Imagination and Transcendence

If the Sixties were a period of difficulty and frustration for me during the years in the wilderness before my annus mirabilis of 1968, the Seventies would prove to be an even more trying time for me and my writing.

Throughout the decade it seemed that nothing could go right. New material failed to sell. Anthology proposals went nowhere. I couldn't crack non-SF markets. There were stories I tried to write but couldn't finish. I had work commissioned that was never used. I even had a signed contract for a hardcover version of Rite of Passage torn up because "Ace stole our accounting department. We don't do business with Ace."

I tried selling The Son of Black Morca, now called Earth Magic, without success. Rite of Passage was turned down a mere thirteen times. Earth Magic was turned down twenty-eight times before it was finally mis-published.

Larry Niven may have come the closest to telling me why. He said the story was about surrender. And I told him that he was right about that.

Larry said, "I could never surrender."

I said, "That's because you've already surrendered. Moslems say there are a hundred names of God. I don't know what they are, but one of them might be 'science,' and 'science' is the name to which you've made your surrender."

But the biggest hangup during that difficult time was writing a definitive book on the nature of science fiction with which I could live. Starting with Science Fiction: A Critical Introduction for Twayne in the Sixties, we made six different attempts at it.

Perhaps the most interesting of these failures was The F&SF History of Modern Science Fiction, a compilation of book reviews from the magazine together with extensive commentaries.

The book that went the farthest was called Masters of Space and Time. David Hartwell at Pocket Books liked it enough to give us a contract for it, but thought we should start it at an earlier point than we had. However, before we had completed the necessary research and writing, David lost his job and once again we were left without an editor, writing on pure speculation.

Money was always a problem for us. We lived month to month and hand to mouth, getting by on occasional sales and erratic payment, temporary jobs, credit card advances, help from both sets of parents, and finally welfare and food stamps.

I might have regularized my income by taking a day job like a normal person, but I never did that. Instead, I adopted Bob Dylan's attitude that I was doin' God's work and just kept grinding away at it.

I lost a year altogether in 1975-76. In what was a bad time for the industry, it had become clear to me that the royalty statements I was receiving from Ace were completely unreliable. There was one printing of Rite of Passage I wasn't even notified of let alone paid for.

Ace had long had a reputation for shorting their authors including one notorious case when a writer had both sides of an Ace Double and then received wildly different sales figures for each of them. When I had had enough of being jobbed I circulated a questionnaire to the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America asking about their experiences with Ace.

Writers are vulnerable and are used to being cheated, but the results of my survey were so unmistakable that the SFWA was compelled to act. The organization audited Ace's financial books and as a result the company had to pay its authors no less than half a million dollars they had wrongfully withheld.

I personally was told I was owed $4000. But I had all my statements and that was clearly much less than I was due. So I rejected the settlement, and took Ace to arbitration as called for in my contract. Ace was overwhelmed by my stack of paper and offered me $10,000, and even though I knew the true figure was higher than that, at that point I was thoroughly exhausted and took what I was offered.

But the result of instigating the audit and then following it up with successful arbitration was that I made myself anathema in the SF publishing world. This meant that I'd now managed to alienate three different powerful parties—Heinlein and his Idolaters, science fiction academics, and science fiction publishers. And once again I wouldn't be forgiven for my transgressions.

The weird thing was that Cory and I continued to survive. When the money had to be there, somehow it always was. That wasn't an easy way to live and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a mandate and know it, and a nose to follow.

Even so, in the midst of all this failure and frustration, the work we were doing went on. The most important result of this was that Cory and I had the time and solitude to develop two new key concepts.

The first of these was that the essential quality that made science fiction and fantasy different from ordinary "realistic" fiction was what we termed transcendence.

In any SF story—in order for it to be SFnal—there is always some non-existent element. And that quality was what all the future science and unknown realms of being of science fiction have been about.

The other idea we developed was that the interior element expressed by SF writers wasn't merely a matter of personal psychology as we'd suggested at first but rather was creative imagination.

This phrase had first been used by L. Sprague de Camp in his essay for Reginald Bretnor's Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future back in 1953. But deCamp hadn't made the most of its implications because he immediately denied that creative imagination derived from "divine inspiration, universal consciousness, racial memory, or some other suppositous non-sensory factor." Instead de Camp insisted that it meant moving around known pieces of knowledge and information and arranging them in novel ways.

The two of us picked up on the phrase in Henry Corbin's 1969 book Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, which these days passes by the alternate title Alone with the Alone.

Muhyiddin ibn al-'Arabi (1165-1235) was a Sufi master, a prolific writer and poet who was born in Spain and died in Damascus, known to this day by those who follow him as the Highest Teacher. There's even a current American group founded in 1977 called The Ibn 'Arabi Society.

In Corbin's book a distinction is made between the imaginary—which was what L. Sprague de Camp was actually invoking when he spoke of recombining elements received through the senses in new and meaningful or useful ways—and the imaginal, which is the expression of things not previously existent.

Cory and I came to a recognition that the creative imagination is the means by which transcendence is perceived and then expressed. And the World Beyond the Hill—the realm of that which lies beyond ordinary knowledge—is the place where transcendence dwells.

What's more, that country of non-existent things is the very same place that's represented in the Jaro Hess poster The Land of Make Believe which first captured my imagination when I was a small child and that I was seeking thereafter by reading fairy tales and then science fiction.

With these concepts in place, it was finally possible for us to write the book on science fiction we'd been struggling with for so long, but it would take us a further ten years to do it.

13. Encountering the Sufis

It was no accident that we found the concept of the creative imagination in a book about the Sufis' greatest teacher.

I first encountered the Sufis as a freshman at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1958. In my first semester I had four required courses—or perhaps it was three—and one free elective. So I went through the catalog of courses available, most of which weren't open to freshmen, and for whatever reason picked out one titled Great Books of the Near East, at that point having no idea of what college courses were like or what the great books of the Near East might be.

The teacher was George Makdisi. There were only four students in the class, three upperclassmen and me, and we all sat around a rectangular table in a small room with me on the right side and Mr. Makdisi at the far end.

The one book we were to read that I can recall nearly sixty years later was The Confessions of Al Ghazali. But the books in the course weren't available at the college bookstore. We had to order them from Blackwell's in England. And the books didn't arrive and didn't arrive. At least half the term went by before they came.

So there we were, the four of us, in a reading course with nothing to read. It became a matter of Mr. Makdisi talking and us asking questions. But the three upperclassmen—one at the end nearest the door and two across the table from me—didn't have much to say, so it largely became Mr. Makdisi talking and me, the new kid in school, asking questions of him.

It was a strange and intriguing experience because I soon came to the conclusion that while we were using the same words, they didn't mean the same thing to the two of us, and I had to figure out what he was getting at by guess and by gosh. It was far and away the most stimulating course I ever had in college and I was spoiled by it because I thought all college would be that way and it never was again until an open discussion course with Margaret Useem in my last two terms at Michigan State six years later.

I'm not sure that we ever talked about the Sufis as such—even though the books, when they did come, all proved to be Sufi classics. It was only years later that I came to the conclusion that Mr. Makdisi himself was a Sufi and this was what Sufis were like. However, the course had a great impact on my way of thinking which remained with me after that.

Finally, let me say that once late in the year and a half that I spent at the University of Michigan, I passed Mr. Makdisi in a busy hallway between classes. But I didn't speak to him and he didn't speak to me.

In the years following my University of Michigan experience with Mr. Makdisi, I checked out what various reference books of the time could tell me about the Sufis. But I found what they had to say superficial, contradictory and unhelpful. Here's a typical entry from The Reader's Encyclopedia:

"Sufi. Member of a Mohammedan sect of mystics, mentioned, for instance in Omar Khayyam. The literal meaning of the word is 'clad in wool.'"

In 1967, while I was working as a librarian for the Brookyn Public Library, I found Idries Shah's The Sufis, a very strange book which began with a fable, followed it with a series of jokes about a wise fool named Nasrudin, and eventually pointed to connections between the Sufis and a variety of Western manifestations like alchemy, the Knights Templar and Francis of Assisi.

However, I got hung up in the passages on the abjad system of numerical word equivalence, which seemed dubious to me at best. Then I left the book on the subway by accident from where, fortunately, it was returned to the library. But I didn't go back to it and pick up where I'd left off.

What finally caught my attention was an essay by Doris Lessing entitled "What Looks Like an Egg and Is an Egg" in the May 7, 1972 New York Times Book Review which cited no fewer than nine of Shah's books.

I found one of these books, a collection of Nasrudin stories—The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin—in the Bucks County Free Library. It was illustrated by Richard Williams, the man who would do the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Here's a Nasrudin story for you:

The Mulla bought a donkey. Someone told him that he would have to give it a certain amount of food every day. This he considered to be too much. He would experiment, he decided, to get it used to less food. Each day, therefore, he reduced its rations. Eventually, when the donkey was reduced to almost no food at all, it fell over and died. "Pity," said the Mulla. "If I had a little more time before it died, I could have gotten it accustomed to eating nothing at all."

I ordered more of the books named in Lessing's essay in paperback form from Kenny's bookstore in Doylestown. And the book order lady Mrs. White put me in touch with Gus Linton, somebody who was ordering the same books that I was.

Over the more than forty years of our friendship, Gus has proven to be the only person I've ever come in contact with who was also reading Shah's Sufi books. What is particularly interesting is that Gus and I have rarely if ever discussed the substance of those books.

All of Shah's books are subtly different in arrangement and outward appearance from each other, and each of them is the same in terms of having an unpredictable, enigmatic and provocative nature. In addition to jokes, the materials they present include dervish teaching stories, anecdotes, original stories, translations from classical Persian poets like Rumi, lectures, and conversations.

Three of my particular favorites are Thinkers of the East, The Way of the Sufi, and Learning How to Learn. The first of these offers lessons in conduct and conception from various Sufi teachers. The second is translations and statements from different Sufi manifestations over a thousand year period. And the third consists of lengthy responses to various questions received by Shah.

Someone else, like Gus, could as legitimately choose three other books.

I was amused and entertained by what I was reading, and I also learned from it. I certainly didn't understand everything that I read. Just as when I first encountered science fiction, I had to hold opinion in abeyance, accumulate and integrate information, and work out for myself what was really going on.

What was really going on was not indoctrination in a belief system. Rather it was learning the nuances of an operating system.

In recent times, I've encountered a Sufistic (because anyone can claim to be a Sufi) guru figure saying that people have read Shah's books for ten, twenty, thirty or forty years and gotten nowhere with them. Which is quite true, I'm sure. What you get out of these books is what you are prepared to get out of these books, and the very fact of his own stuckness is evidence that he never did the necessary work.

It turns out that none of the material made available by Shah is actually Sufic in nature. Rather it's the byproduct of past Sufic activity.

My takeaway is that even the name Sufi and the presence of Sufis in the shelter of Islam for a matter of centuries is only partial and temporary. What Sufis do and how they do it antedates Islam and can and does go on outside its parameters.

What Shah was teaching in his forty books was not Sufism, but rather learning what is necessary in order to be capable of operating in a Sufic manner.

Me, I haven't gotten to the bottom of those books yet. There's much in them that I still don't fathom after all these years, but I'm working on it.

14. The Business of the Sufis

One night in the privacy of a hotel bedroom turned coatroom at a convention party for science fiction professionals, I said to Roger Zelazny that he was the last SF writer to have had an influence on me like writers such as A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, and Fredric Brown.

It was Robert Heinlein who'd been my first and primary science fictional mentor. I found him immensely broad, and learned from that breadth. There's no question in my mind that after he entered the field, Heinlein widened the parameters of science fiction again and again.

Eventually, however, I found I had a talent for identifying Heinlein's limits. The primary one was that while he was very good at unifying information outside himself and presenting it in unusual and cleverly-phrased ways, when he and his identifications were questioned, he would short out.

Roger—like Sturgeon—had demonstrated to me how well science fiction could be written. But I told him that influence had ceased after his novel Lord of Light, and I asked him what had changed. He indicated his baby asleep on the adjacent bed and said, "I had a living to make."

From the point I discovered science fiction by way of Heinlein until then, SF had given me information, broadened my horizons and fed my imagination, but after this it no longer taught me in the same way. I was still curious to know its essential nature, but it was no longer my primary teaching source.

This is when my attention shifted to learning from the Sufis.

What I particularly liked about the Sufi material Idries Shah provided was that it could be understood in multiple ways, each with its own validity. It could be both ha-ha and a-ha at the same time. Heinlein might have breadth, but the Sufis had depth.

I learned that one statement or joke might have as many as seven different levels of meaning. And the Sufis were also masters of "scatter"—providing bits of knowledge that readers had to accumulate and integrate for themselves. Shah provided the material, but you had to permit it to make its significance known to you and in the process raise your level of perception.

The difficulty was that Sufis were nowhere to be found. The Sufis weren't a public presence. You might show every sign of interest in them, but never be recruited or enlisted by them. Shah always said that in order to make Sufic progress, a teacher was necessary, but where were those teachers?

I only had a few glancing encounters with Shah. Gus Linton, Cory and I traveled to New York City to view a screening of "One Pair of Eyes," a BBC program by Shah shown by Tony Hiss, the son of Alger Hiss, which is now available on YouTube.

The three of us traveled again to New York to the New School for Social Research to listen to a well-attended lecture by Shah arranged by psychologist Robert Ornstein. Ornstein was the author of The Psychology of Consciousness, a book which introduced many people to the concept of the functional specialization of the two halves of the brain, and he would later write The Mind Field which discusses the Sufis in contemporary Western psychological terms.

A few years later the lecture we heard that day would form the first half of a book called Neglected Aspects of Sufi Study. I remember two things in particular from the event itself. One was that Shah held up his right hand in front of the microphone and demonstrated—quite plausibly—the sound of one hand clapping. The other is that during a break in the session, I heard one person complaining loudly that Shah was only saying things that were already to be found in his books.

Lastly, I sent Shah a newspaper clipping about a campus goose which had been killed by a student who said the goose had startled him while he was meditating. I received a note back signed by O.M Burke, whom I knew as the author of a book called Among the Dervishes, saying that Idries Shah hoped to meet me some day.

It's only been recently that I read A Noose of Light, the memoirs of Alan Tunbridge, who designed book jackets for Shah for twenty years. He said that Burke was a pseudonym of Shah's.

Shah never used the clipping as far as I know, and we never did meet—unless, of course, the statement meant that Shah hoped that I might learn something from his books.

During our period of failure and frustration in the Seventies when Cory and I were attempting without success to write one book after another on the true nature of SF, I wrote to Leonard Lewin, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado and holder of many patents, who had edited a book called The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West, saying that we had run into an impasse on the subject of science fiction and wondering how we might connect ourselves to the Sufi work. He answered by giving a page reference in The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. When I looked it up, the story was this:

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. "What have you lost, Mulla?" he asked. "My key," said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees to look for it. After a time, the other man asked: "Where exactly did you drop it?" "In my own house." "Then why are you looking here?" "There's more light here than in my own house."

I took that as a clue that I should look for my key in the dark where I'd dropped it. So we persevered at the work we had been doing and eventually produced The World Beyond the Hill.

What made The World Beyond the Hill different from what we had written previously and from other books on the subject of science fiction was that our central concern was not who had written science fiction or where it had been published, but rather the cumulative development of its images of transcendence—its imaginal vehicles, the non-existent places they went to, and the beings that were encountered there—and how these affected the familiar world of ordinary assumption and experience, the so-called "real world".

The World Beyond the Hill received praise from people outside science fiction like Northrop Frye and Charles Tart as well as from SF giants like Isaac Asimov. It also won a Hugo Award in 1990 for Best Related Non-Fiction Book.

I drew two conclusions from writing the book. The first was that it wasn't an accident that I'd been told by Leonard Lewin to keep working on the subject of science fiction.

What I would say now is that connections exist between the Sufis and science fiction. I don't know exactly what active hand the Sufis may have taken in seeding and feeding the development of SF, but I can tell you that at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century when the Western world, mesmerized by its newfound rationalism, had largely lost touch with the creative imagination, the two means of its preservation and re-introduction in Europe were collections of fairy tales like those by Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy and the publication of The Arabian Nights, and that among the stories contained in that book were Sufi teaching stories.

The other conclusion that I came to is that the work of the Sufis has always been to help humanity grow up and complete its unfinished business of becoming fully human. The essence of Idries Shah's work was to break the grip of conventional Western habit and assumption in order to admit a more comprehensive form of knowledge access to our minds.

Before he died, Shah told his son Tahir two vital things. One was that his books constituted a complete Sufic teaching program. The other was that if Sufism came to the West, it wouldn't be called Sufism.

The purpose of what Shah had to offer would seem to have been to produce a new order of Sufically-developed people who aren't known as Sufis.

After Cory and I finally completed The World Beyond the Hill, as a writer who's not-a-Sufi I was faced with the question of what I should write next. I'm gathering the result in a book which like this essay is called Following My Nose.

Part One of the book is my imaginal autobiography—how I got where I am today by means of science fiction and the Sufis, and what the puzzling turns my writing has taken through the years have been about.

The second part is the irrational adventures of a rational man—how my father made the transition from his boyhood as the youngest of thirteen children in a family of provincial aristocrats in southern Russia to a radically different adulthood in America as a professor of wood technology who built and lived in a house of the future, all thanks to a marvelous series of unacknowledged miracles. I once made a count of them all and came up with a dozen.

The third part is about Lewis Carroll and the happy afternoon on which he improvised the beginning of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—the falling-down-a-rabbit-hole story—and how the story came into being.

The fourth part is an account of the early stories of A.E. van Vogt—the once well-known but presently under-appreciated science fiction writer whose prose was lumpy and full of holes but whose concepts and images underlie Star Trek, and Alien, and Dr. Who, as well as any number of Philip K. Dick movies, plus Marvel Comics super-heroes, not to mention Japanese anime, manga and video games—documenting his fictional exploration of the idea of an emergent higher order of man.

The final part consists of three different views of the crucial wrong move made by Robert Heinlein, the dominant science fiction writer of his era, when he turned his back on the personal mandate he'd been given to take giant mutant blue chipmunks dwelling in an interstellar ship that's lost its way, lead them out of the basement in which they presently reside, and show them the stars.


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