|An Interview with Alexei Panshin|
|conducted by D. Douglas Fratz|
Alexei Panshin is the co-author with his wife Cory Panshin of The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the
Quest for Transcendence, widely considered one of the most important non-fiction books on the history of science
fiction literature. The massive volume was built upon some of the ideas explored in Panshin's earlier books,
Heinlein in Dimension (1968) and SF in Dimension (1976), and won the Hugo Award in 1990 as the best
non-fiction book of 1989. It traces in exhaustive detail the development of science fiction from its beginnings
in the 18th and 19th centuries through its Golden Age in 1939-1945. The book provides a compelling argument
that science fiction literature created myths relevant to our scientific worldview that have replaced the
previous myths of the supernatural and thereby become the most relevant literature of our modern era.
The book has been widely heralded by those within the science fiction field as perhaps the best history to date of the development of science fiction. When I first read The World Beyond the Hill, I was blown away by the Panshins' exhaustive knowledge of both early science fiction and the historical background against which it was written. In my review of the book in 1990, I concluded: "This is one of the most important works of SF scholarship to date, and should earn the Panshins a Hugo Award this year." I was pleased to be proven correct just a few months later.
Alexei Panshin also authored a significant body of science fiction stories and novels, primarily in the 60s and 70s, some co-authored with Cory. I began reading science fiction in 1965 -- at the age of 12 during my own proverbial "Golden Age" of science fiction -- and his first novel, Rite of Passage, which won the Nebula Award for best novel of 1968, was one of the touchstone books of my youth.
The following interview with Alexei Panshin was conducted in July, 2010, subsequent to the reissue of The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence this year by Phoenix Pick.
When I started tracking down science fiction to read in the early 50s, I didn't know anyone else who read it. Where it came from, what it meant and how to read it was a real puzzle to me. I read all the books available that might tell me, but even people who wrote SF didn't seem to be able to say what science fiction was. The best definition I was able to find was Damon Knight's "Science fiction means what we point to when we say it."
I took up writing about the nature of science fiction myself in 1963 in the wake of the publication of my first SF story. And I had my first try at writing a book about science fiction in 1967. The World Beyond the Hill did take us ten years to write, but there were at least half-a-dozen tries at a book on science fiction that we threw out or abandoned before that.
The question of the nature and meaning of science fiction had a grip on me for a very long time, and it was largely satisfied by writing The World Beyond the Hill.
I think the changeover point came in the middle 40s. By 1947, Robert A. Heinlein was suggesting "speculative fiction" as an alternate name for SF. And by 1954, Forrest J Ackerman was calling SF "sci-fi," the popular name it's currently best known by.
It was because imaginary science was no longer at the core of SF by the time that SF writers first began to write about it critically in the 50s that someone like Damon Knight could find the kind of fiction he wrote and edited so elusive to define.
Where Clute went astray, I think, was in saying, "We will put to one side their version of the nature of myth" and "this is not the place or time to make any sustained argument for any alternative version of the nature of myth" -- apparently not understanding that the essence of The World Beyond the Hill was that it treats stories invoking super-science as a phase of myth which had a beginning and an end. If at the outset you put to one side what a book says it's about, that seems like a good basis for misunderstanding it.
Our thinking here follows the mythic scholar Joseph Campbell. His definition of myth was a metaphor that's transparent to transcendence. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, science-beyond-science was able to serve as that kind of metaphor. For a time, it seemed that you could look through "science" and catch a glimpse of infinite possibility on the other side.
But when rockets and atomic bombs came along in World War II, suddenly "science" no longer looked quite so exalted. More like a present actuality with the same compromised nature as everything else around us. There had to be something more than science that would provide us with a route to the transcendent.
It was at that point that SF in the larger sense began to look past the metaphor of unknown science to a new metaphor -- higher states of human consciousness -- as our route to the transcendent. That's when you started to get stories of mutant human beings armed with psi powers standing in the ruins left by atomic war and wondering which way to go.
But, of course, higher consciousness is only one more metaphor that will take us a certain distance and then lose its power. SF -- mythic stories -- will continue. Science fiction -- or "scientifiction" as Gernsback first called it -- is a phase of SF that's been left behind.
I think this is where John Clute failed to follow us. Golden Age science fiction wasn't the end. It was simultaneously a final flowering and a new beginning.
To say that Isaac Asimov, for example, was able to answer certain questions first posed by H.G. Wells doesn't mean that Asimov was a better writer than Wells. It merely identifies the roles each of them played in a fictional discussion about the vastness of time and space and the prospect of human devolution.
Back in 1941, say, SF was in the midst of a Golden Age. But the only people who read it then were a special audience of engineers, teenage boys and weirdos. It wasn't published in book form then. It wasn't reviewed. It wasn't taught in colleges. It was essentially invisible. No one who wanted to be taken as a serious person regarded science fiction seriously. That would take quite a few years to begin to happen.
The World Beyond the Hill offers a view of science fiction stories which is itself SFnal. I think it was because of this that Northrup Frye, who wrote in his Anatomy of Criticism that "the axioms and postulates of criticism… have to grow out of the art it deals with," welcomed The World Beyond the Hill and said he'd learned a lot from it.
But as far as most critics and academics today are concerned, our book is as invisible as science fiction was to serious people back in the Golden Age. It's not consistent with what they're already sure they know. Right now, what we have to say is still too far out for them. Give them another twenty or thirty years and then we'll see how they've adjusted to our SF criticism.
D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.
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