Alexei Panshin has not published many books. However, with the few he has published, he has been able to to win a Nebula (The Rite of Passage), two Hugos (The World Beyond the Hill and Heinlein in Dimension), created one of the great controversies in science fiction (Heinlein in Dimension), and, with the help of his wife Cory, created one of the most formidable analytical histories of the development of science fiction (The World Beyond the Hill).
Painstaking research, exact writing, and meticulous attention to detail combined with a prose that almost becomes lyrical at times make Panshin’s books both highly readable as well as thought provoking. Commenting on The World Beyond on the Hill, Isaac Asimov said that it is “an unbelievably wonderful book,” a sentiment shared by many–it won the Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book.
Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did Phoenix Pick end up publishing The World Beyond the Hill?
Alexei Panshin: Shahid Mahmud of Phoenix Pick offered to publish Farewell to Yesterday’s Tomorrow, Earth Magic and The World Beyond the Hill, and may yet do more of my books. I think he likes my writing.
CT: The World Beyond the Hill was first published in 1989. How do you think the book maintains its relevance, especially to today’s modern science fiction fan?
AP: The World Beyond the Hill tells the story of how science fiction came into being and what it means. And it quotes the original makers of science fiction from Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe to Isaac Asimov and A.E. van Vogt saying what they thought they’d been doing in writing their stories and how those stories were written.
As far as I know, there’s never been another book that addresses these matters. So if you’re interested in how the science fiction we’re familiar with came into being and what it’s really about, and are curious about what the inventors of science fiction thought they were up to, you’ll find The World Beyond the Hill relevant.
CT: What made you decide to write this book?
AP: In the early Fifties, when I started reading science fiction, it wasn’t easy for me to find and I had no one to tell me what it was and how I should understand it. I had to work that out for myself. I read all the SF I could find. I read every book there was on the subject of science fiction. I asked questions of the science fiction writers I met. I wrote SF myself and began to write about it. And I wrote Heinlein in Dimension, the first book about the stories of a writer of science fiction.
In 1967, I tried writing a book explaining science fiction — the first of a number of false starts. There would be four or five tries before The World Beyond the Hill, including a book published in Italy under the title Mondi Interiori. There was to be an American version of that — but when we started to work on it, the book took over and ran away with us. We then spent the decade of the Eighties working on The World Beyond the Hill.
CT: What is it about the science fiction genre that interests you?
AP: Let me throw that question back at you. What is it about science fiction that interests you, Charles? I think you can presume that whatever it is that makes SF different from other fiction, whatever it is that hooks twelve-year-olds and makes SF their reading of choice for years to come, and whatever it is that makes you write for this site and that attracts readers to it is the same quality that has made Cory and me write SF stories and write about SF.
The problem has been to put a name to it. The subtitle of The World Beyond the Hill suggests that it’s been the quest for transcendence, a state of mind and being beyond the conventional bounds of our culture, our families and our present selves.
Sam Moskowitz called this the sense of wonder. Cory and I think that the quest for transcendence has been the key to human development throughout history.
CT: What was the collaboration process like?
AP: When we first got married, Cory and I spent several years just kicking things back and forth until we had worked out a common vocabulary. Even today, nothing goes out for publication — whatever byline is on it — that both of us don’t agree on. Our work is common work.
To the extent that either of us might play the part of researcher, writer or editor, the collaborative process varies from one piece to another. Where The World Beyond the Hill is concerned, you might say that Cory was responsible for research and interpretive notes on what she was reading and I wrote first and final drafts — but while there’s a measure of truth in that, it’s not completely or solely true. All I can tell you for certain is that neither of us could have written the book alone.
CT: The book is exhaustive when it comes to detail and footnotes. What was the most challenging part when doing the research?
AP: Recognizing that what we had done didn’t go deeply enough, and doing it again.
Or — gathering the material, reading it and thinking about it.
Or — waiting for all the key figures of the Golden Age to write their memoirs.
Or — sticking with the questions that led to The World Beyond the Hill for forty years until the story finally got told.
CT: If you could modify the book, what part would you change or update or add?
AP: I don’t think there’s much to change. The World Beyond the Hill tells the story of science fiction from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to the dropping of the atomic bombs that ended World War II and brought the Golden Age of Astounding to an end. And the facts of that story haven’t changed.
There are other books that need to be written. A biography of Heinlein by Bill Patterson is due to be published shortly. And a well-edited book of the recently discovered correspondence between John Campbell and Robert Heinlein might explain a lot. There’s certainly more to be said both about individual science fiction writers and about what has happened in SF since the Golden Age. But at most, what books like that will reveal should only lead to small adjustments of fact in The World Beyond the Hill.
CT: In your opinion, how has science fiction changed, especially with the emergence of the Internet, eBooks, etc.?
AP: To the extent that science fiction today is imitative, repetitious and unoriginal, it’s no longer doing the work it once did for young readers, and young readers are no longer reading it the way they formerly did. Science fiction conventions these days seem to be mostly attended by older folks.
At the same time, science fiction magazines have all but disappeared and conventional consignment book publishing is failing along with newspapers and CD sales.
Science fiction as it used to be is dying. On the other hand, the function of SF in the larger sense to tell stories to young contrarians about events and conditions beyond our present limitations remains.
If The World Beyond the Hill has a message for a contemporary audience, it’s to say that this is the way things were done the last time. And — as the song has it — we need to do once again what has never been done before.
New forms of publication are in order. POD and ebooks may be intimations of that. But we also need new expressions of SF as different from science-fiction-as-it-has-been as science fiction was from the utopian SF that came before it.