Heinlein in Dimension by Panshin, Alexi, 1969

Heinlein in Dimension by Panshin, Alexi

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Heinlein in Dimension is a very well written critique of Heinlein’s body of work up to 1969, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The author, Alexi Panshin, is one of my favorite SF critics because he manages always to stay as neutral as possible when he criticizes SF works, but he always takes time afterwards to give a more personal and subjective opinion. I find that subjective opinion to be easy to understand because Panshin takes the time to explain himself fully enough that those opinions are useful. For example:

I have an affection for unified plots, stories in which everything ties together at the end. I don't mind an intriguing question or two left for the reader to answer, but I do mind questions that arise only because the writer is a sloppy craftsman. Certainly too many science fiction stories written these days take one single mangy idea and stretch it and stretch it, remaining unified out of ennui. On the other hand, I have almost as much dislike for old A. E. Van Vogt stories that were so full of ideas that they leaked out of the sides. Van Vogt used to have a conscious policy of introducing at least one new idea every 800 words. This gave his stories movement but it never gave them unity, and it was always possible to fill a wheelbarrow with ideas proposed and then half-used and forgotten.

My idea of what makes science fiction worth reading is that it prepares people to accept change, to think in terms of change being both natural and inevitable, and that it allows us to look at familiar things from new angles. My choice of a science fiction story to hand to a non-reader would be one that combines the unique virtues of science fiction with a comprehensible, attractive, entertaining plot. I give them Robert Heinlein's last novel for Scribner's: Have Spacesuit - Will Travel.

Science fiction's unlimited canvas offers any number of possibilities for the testing of human beings. The trouble has been that much of modern science fiction has been written by men who freeze in the face of unlimited possibility. The result has been a reliance on trivial situations.

His criticism of Heinlein in this book opened up many new windows for me into this master's body of work. If you pay much attention to the things that I say here, you may be aware that I am somewhat ambivalent about Heinlein. I understand that much of his work is seminal, especially in regards to the use of certain themes in SF, but I consider his style to be very choppy, and a lot of his prose difficult to read. But after reading this book, I think I might go back and revisit some of his older works.

Panshin breaks Heinlein’s body of work during his first thirty years of production into three eras: The period of influence, 1939 to 1942, during which Heinlein made his first bold marks on SF. Then the period of success, from 1946 to 1958, during which Heinlein wrote much of his best work, and finally the period of alienation, from 1959 to 1969 when Heinlein wrote many controversial works (though not as controversial as what would follow in the 1970's). Panshin's evaluation of all of Heinlein's works during those periods, both short and long format, is objective, open and brilliant. Nothing from the book is short or concise enough for me to quote here, save for the above general comments, but if you have any interest in SF criticism beyond plot summaries or influence spotting, this is one of the important early criticism books. It can be found after long searches, but if Heinlein interests you, the search is worth the effort. Four out of five stars.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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