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An Interview with Alexei Panshin
conducted by D. Douglas Fratz

© Thomas Edge
Alexei Panshin
Alexei Panshin
Alexis Adams Panshin was born in 1940. He has written several critical works and several novels, including the 1968 Nebula Award-winning novel Rite of Passage and the 1990 Hugo Award winning study of science fiction The World Beyond the Hill written with his wife, Cory Panshin.

ISFDB Bibliography

The World Beyond the Hill
Rite of Passage
The Thurb Revolution
Masque World
Star Well
Heinlein in Dimension
SF in Dimension
The World Beyond the Hill
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.

What was the driving impetus that led you to spend more than a decade researching and writing such an ambitious work as The World Beyond the Hill?
Actually, I was at it quite a bit longer than that.

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.

Your historical analysis of the field essentially ends with the pinnacle of the Golden Age of SF created primarily by Astounding Stories editor John W. Campbell and his brilliant stable of writers in 1939-1945. What are your thoughts of the subsequent further evolution of science fiction in the 50s and 60s?
SF may have been called "science fiction" in the 50s and 60s, but by then science-beyond-science was no longer being invoked in stories as the name of the transcendent wonders and marvels which distinguish SF from mundane fiction. At least, that's what Hugo Gernsback -- the inventor of the name "science fiction" -- declared in 1963.

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.

In one of the few strong critiques of The World Beyond the Hill from within the field, John Clute accused it of being a Whig History, a view of history that reinterprets past events solely as their role in building a foundation for later events. Do you think Clute's views in this regard have any legitimacy?
I think Clute's characterization is a result of misunderstanding. He treats The World Beyond the Hill as though it were saying that Golden Age science fiction was the be-all and end-all of SFness to which all earlier science fiction was an imperfect predecessor. But that's not what the book says. The book says that science fiction had a course of conceptual development from "science" imagined as bringing dead body parts back to life in Frankenstein to human beings in Asimov's Foundation stories operating the imaginary science of "psychohistory" and controlling the course of galactic history. And the book documents this conceptual development writer by writer, story by story and crucial image by crucial image.

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.

I must admit that I may have failed to fully understand at least one aspect of your thesis as well. In what way did the super-science myth end? Modern SF has diverged in many directions, with biotechnology, nanotechnology, quantum physics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and many related tropes providing the basis for super-scientific and even post-human futures. Are there no more recent authors or tropes that you believe have continued science fiction's Quest for Transcendence?
The quest for transcendence isn't something special to science fiction. Rather, it's the other way around. Transcendence -- that which lies beyond current human knowledge -- is primary. Science fiction -- stories which looked for transcendence in science beyond the science that we currently know -- was only one phase of this quest.

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.

When I read Clute's review, it occurred to me that the disparate response of Clute as compared to most other science fiction insiders to your book possibly could be attributed to the divide between the views of two academic cultures, hard science versus social science. As a hard scientist myself, your manner of viewing history seems quite intuitively obvious. The history of science and technology is almost always viewed as a series of theories that prove valuable to later generations of scientists in producing new theories. But historians and social scientists sometimes appear to think differently. On the other hand, it could have been your focus on American rather than British work…
I'm not at all sure what Clute's personal background and allegiances are. But he appears to be coming from a traditional literary perspective in which every work of art has to be taken on its own terms, whereas we see SF as an evolving conversation among writers and readers in which problems get argued back and forth until some sort of resolution is reached and new problems are raised.

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.

How have mainstream literary academics responded to The World Beyond the Hill? Do you think it has received the attention it deserves outside of the science fiction field?
Except for people like Northrup Frye and Charles Tart, who commented on the book before it was originally published, and a review that appeared in a Jungian journal, I'm not aware of any response to The World Beyond the Hill from outside the SF field.

Considering the continued growth in academic interest in science fiction over the past 20-30 years, I find this lack of attention somewhat surprising. Any theories regarding this lack of response -- pro or con -- to your thesis on the importance of science fiction?
A theory? Okay -- let me try out a theory on you:

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.

One of the few histories of science fiction of similar stature to The World Beyond the Hill is Brian Aldiss' Billion Year Spree (1973), later updated as Trillion Year Spree (1986). Have you considered an update or sequel to The World Beyond the Hill?
Since the facts haven't altered or been disputed, and the stories the book refers to haven't changed, I'm not sure that an update to The World Beyond the Hill is necessary. Cory and I have thought about a sequel, but it would be a very different book with a different story to tell. However, a book like that would take twenty more years to research and another ten years to write, and it's not what we've been working on.

Some modern readers might be unfamiliar with the seminal works of science fiction's Golden Age. What novels or story collections do you think would provide the best introduction to that period for modern readers?
I hate to say "read our book," but I think the story discussions in The World Beyond the Hill are the best guide we can offer to contemporary readers as to what classic science fiction stories they might care to check out.

Thanks are due to both you and Cory for producing one of the most insightful and thought-provoking works on science fiction, and for the many hours of reading you have fostered for many thousands of SF fans.

Copyright © 2010 D. Douglas Fratz

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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