Monday, July 1, 2024

Interview with Cory Panshin


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Cory Panshin (June 2024)


Alexei and Cory Panshin are science fiction writers, and critics. Alexei authored the 1968 Nebula Award-winning novel Rite of Passage.” He also authored three novels in his Anthony Villiers series and a short fiction collection Farewell to Yesterdays Tomorrow.” The Panshins cowrote a novel Earth Magic.” Alexei published a study of Robert A Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension”. Most of this work was originally published in fanzines, for which he won the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award in 1967. The Panshins coauthored critical works on science fiction SF in Dimension” (1976), and The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence” (1989), which won a Hugo in 1990. Alexei passed away in 2022.

John Grayshaw: How did you and Alexei become writers and critics of science fiction?

We both started off as SF and fantasy readers from an early age and then as  fans. Alexei has written detailed accounts of his pathway in a couple of places, but the short version is that as a teenager he began subscribing to fanzines. Then he received a typewriter as a high school graduation present and the idea struck him that he should be a writer. He started out by writing a novel which was very amateurish. (As I recall from the one time I read the manuscript, it was something like a spaceship full of librarians seeking refuge from an evil empire.) He made better progress doing book reviews for fanzines, as well as short stories, of which he wrote about twenty between 1960 and 1965.

As for me, its a little more complicated, since I didnt launch right into writing the way Alexei did. When I was twelve, I started trying to write a spy novel, and only got a few pages in. I recently found that old notebook and discovered to my surprise that I’d kept adding pages on and off for the next four years before giving up entirely and launching into a science fiction story about a spaceship crew that goes astray in hyperspace and finds itself battling a jabberwock that attacks them with its eyes of flame.

That might have been the beginning and end of my abortive science fiction writing career, but that fall I started my freshman year at Harvard College, where my roommate Leslie Turek and I discovered we had a lot in common; but also that Harvard was not particularly geek-friendly, being primarily dedicated to grooming the scions of the ruling class. So instead, we found our way to the MIT Science Fiction Society, where we were quickly drafted to co-edit the MITSFS fanzine and from there got drawn into science fiction fandom.

There weren’t a lot of women in fandom at that time, so it was easy for us to get noticed. Alexei spotted me in costume at the 1966 Worldcon and we were married in 1969. Around the same time, my fellow MITSFS member Fuzzy Pink married Larry Niven, while Leslie became actively involved in convention-running and eventually chaired the 1980 Worldcon.

Except for occasional con reports and other fanzine articles, I wasn’t doing much writing in the late 60s, but once I married Alexei we discovered a mutual interest in theorizing about the nature of science fiction and began to do critical writing in collaboration.

Connie Marshall Thompson: I found an article on Alexei and Cory's, old but existing website under the sections "My Den" then "Following My Nose." Here he described Science Fiction as extrapolative or as speculative; what an observation! My question: Did he ever come firmly on the side of Science Fiction best served by extrapolation or speculation or some amalgamation of the two?

Really its neither of those. Those words may have been useful to categorize early 1960s science fiction, most of which was either realistic near futures or else wildly speculative like Phil Dick, but they werent terms that we continued to rely on as time went on.

John Grayshaw: Who were some of the authors that had the biggest impact on you and Alexei when you were growing up?

For Alexei, his biggest early influence among science fiction writers was Robert Heinlein. As a child, he was also fond of both the Oz and Dr. Doolittle books. In his 20s, he became passionate about Georgette Heyer, which strongly influenced the Villiers books.

For me, I was a huge Tolkien fan. The SF I liked best was the stuff closest to the fantasy end of things and I spent a lot of time thinking about how to merge fantasy and science fiction—as in that story I tried to write about a spaceship crew battling a jabberwock. I was also fond of spy stories and novels of political intrigue, particularly Upton Sinclair’s series of Lanny Budd novels about a young man who gets involved in every significant political event of the early 20th century. I tried to merge that with fantasy as well in my private daydreams— think fae battling Nazis—but never managed to turn it into stories.

John Grayshaw: What current science fiction authors did you and Alexei enjoy reading?

We both drifted away from reading SF by the 1970s. We’d never latched onto the British New Wave, although we were both big fans of Roger Zelazny. But 1970s SF didn’t push our buttons at all, and our interest turned more toward speculative non-fiction.

John Grayshaw: Did you and Alexei have favorites of your own works?

I dont know if Alexei did; but when the first Villiers novel came out I enjoyed it so much I wrote him a fan letter about it, even though we were already friends at that time. It was the quirky sense of humor he displayed in that book that ultimately brought us together and led to us getting married.

John Grayshaw: What are some of Alexeis and your works that you feel should be better known than they are?

I guess The World Beyond the Hill. It won the Hugo, but it seemed to intimidate people and even a lot of our friends confessed they’d found it too serious and dense to actually read. We’d anticipated it would lay the groundwork for later studies of the foundations of SF, and although certain people have told us they love it a lot, it was never influential in the way we hoped.

John Grayshaw: Can you tell us about how you and Alexei worked on your collaborations? Did you have a fixed process or did this change from one work to another? Did it get better over time? Did you both have particular writing routines, and did you have to adjust these for a collaboration? How did you research your critical works?

Alexei was always the word person because he had a more developed sense of style. The general way we worked on all of our collaborations is that he would do a draft, and I would critique it, making notes and giving it back to him to rework. The fiction was always largely his, but when it came to our non-fiction, I was the primary historical researcher. I read and analyzed everything we owned from Verne and Wells to H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, as well as working my way through a set of bound volumes of Astounding Stories that I had access to one summer. At the same time, Alexei was focusing on the autobiographical materials from people like Williamson, Asimov, and van Vogt that were being published around that time. I recall doing initial drafts of some of the chapters in The World Beyond the Hill, but Alexei would pick things up at that point and we would go back and forth as usual.

John Grayshaw: What was the driving impetus that led you and Alexei to spend more than a decade researching and writing such an ambitious work as The World Beyond the Hill?”

The origins of what became The World Beyond the Hill go back to soon after we were married in 1969. Alexei had recently been working on a volume to be titled Science Fiction: A Critical Introduction that it had become clear would never be published. Meanwhile, we had purchased a set of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God as a wedding gift to ourselves and had become convinced that science fiction was best understood as modern myth. That conviction led to us writing a series of columns for Ted White’s Fantastic Stories which traced the history of science fiction from the nineteenth century to the present day.

As I recall, at that point, an Italian publisher asked permission to publish a translation of the columns in a single volume as a history of science fiction. That inspired us to try to do the same here, so we approached Dave Hartwell, who was agreeable but suggested we needed to take into account newer information that had been coming out on the early roots of SF. So we plunged into doing that but quickly realized we couldn’t just add a couple of new introductory chapters but would have to rewrite the manuscript from the start to incorporate our own evolving understanding of the nature and meaning of SF.

Here the story gets tangled because we struggled badly for several years. We’d gotten bogged down in our rewriting because we couldn’t figure out how to integrate the historical and theoretical aspects of our work. Despite recurring attempts, Alexei wasnt getting any new fiction written. We now had two little kids and money was tight. And when Jean Marie Stine got us a new contract with Jeremy Tarcher, the best we could think of to do was to put one foot in front of the other and beaver away at The World Beyond the Hill until we had a completed work. Even then, we had no idea how long it would take.

Richard Whyte: Regarding 'The World Beyond the Hill', how did its central idea of transcendence as a key theme in SF develop - was there a moment of epiphany or did it crystallise gradually? I loved it, by the way.

The term itself came from Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, who defined myth as a metaphor transparent to transcendence.” When we were first married and were looking for a definition of SF that went beyond the unsatisfactory dichotomy of extrapolation versus speculative, we realized that what distinguishes all SF from “realistic” fiction is that it presents objects or beings that (1) don’t exist in the everyday world and (2) demonstrate the existence of a greater reality.

That understanding also led us to identify SF as modern myth, doing exactly what myth has always done throughout history, and there we departed from Campbell, who thought myth had died out after the Middle Ages, when the traditional tropes lost currency.

John Grayshaw: You and Alexeis historical analysis of the field essentially ends with the pinnacle of the Golden age of SF from 1939-1945. Did the two of you ever consider continuing your critical analysis of the field into a second or third volume? What are your thoughts of the subsequent evolution of science fiction in the 50s, 60s and beyond?

We did intend to go on, and had notes for further installments. There was going to be another volume called A Multiplicity of Worlds that would focus on 50s and 60s SF and how it moved beyond a fixation on the near future and space travel to pursue more varied and imaginative directions. We also toyed with the idea of a volume that would explore all the weird stuff from Lewis Carroll to H.P. Lovecraft that The World Beyond the Hill had ignored or touched on only lightly.

But then, in the winter of 1993, we were returning home in a snowstorm from a convention in Massachusetts when Alexei was hit by a car and suffered a shattered leg and a serious concussion. His recovery was long and slow, both physically and mentally, and he never again had the energy to launch into another project of the same magnitude, which required him to work 12 hours a day, day after day.

Lenny Bailes: I was wondering whether Cory might still feel the statement in THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL that John W. Campbell, Jr's most enduring contribution to the evolution of science fiction was/is a requirement to spell out "Operating Principles for Spaceship Earth" in the stories he published. There has been some recent discussion in this group about whether what Campbell did with this in ASTOUNDING is no longer significant enough to warrant academic discussion. (Or that perhaps his most memorable contribution to the field was the editorial relationships that he established with his writers, encouraging them and working with them to redraft and polish their submissions to create more interesting stories.

The Operating Principles” thing is a phrase from Buckminster Fuller, and it’s not anything I’d focus on at present when discussing Campbell’s influence. I’d point instead to something I wrote at my blog in 2010:

In the 1940s and 50s, science fiction had developed a sophisticated, results-oriented philosophy of knowledge, largely through the influence of one man — John W. Campbell. Campbell, who served as editor of Astounding/Analog from 1937 until his death in 1971, shaped the philosophy of several generations of science fiction readers through his monthly editorials, and though Ive never been able to pin down the connections, Im convinced that he exerted a formative influence on both computer hackers and neo-pagans. …

Campbell saw the universe from the perspective of an engineer, and he was always more interested in whether something worked than in whether or not it had a plausible scientific explanation. He might even express skepticism about the laws of science, suggesting at one point that they were, at best, approximations to a noisy” reality. …

Alexei and I both learned a lot from Campbell as we were growing up, and though we came to reject his mechanistic worldview, we continued to find value in his mixture of skepticism and pragmatic acceptance — especially when approaching paranormal and occult materials.

Connie Marshall Thompson: What was it about Robert Heinlein, a man very different from Alexei, that he found germinal and inspirational?

I think it was the sense that you could take any imagined world and treat it seriously and tell stories about people who felt like real human beings, reacting the way real human beings would, inside this seemingly strange reality. It was that lived texture” that Alexei saw in Heinlein, and which made it into Rite of Passage.

John Grayshaw: Did Alexei ever figure out what made Heinlein so angry about him reading the Heinlein correspondence he researched in crafting Heinlein in Dimensions.” Or was it really just the idea of the examination of his work in general that Heinlein resented?

Part of it was the early piece where Alexei questioned Heinleins sexual attitudes in Stranger in a Strange Land and suggested they were boy scout level.” That pissed off Heinlein, who saw himself as a 1920s-style sophisticate. The other thing was that Heinlein avoided people examining his work. It wasnt exactly resentment, but he was a man with a lot of secrets, and it has never been clear what they all were. Whether it was wife swapping, socialism, occultism, or the fact that he looked down on his readers and saw them as rubes that didnt know how the world really works—and were therefore incapable of reading his books with an understanding of what was really going on in them—he would tuck heresies into his books that he wouldnt admit to and didnt want anyone else to find out.

John Grayshaw: Was Rite of Passage” influenced by Heinleins juvenile novels? Did he want to emulate Heinlein and, if so, did he feel he did so successfully? Or did he feel it became something different, something better?

It was strongly influenced by Heinlein’s juveniles, but it was also a reaction against them, especially Podkayne of Mars, which Alexei despised heartily. Heinlein tended to portray women as cutsie-poo” and Alexei set himself a goal of doing what Heinlein had not, which was to write a Heinlein juvenile with a realistic female protagonist.

John Grayshaw: Rite of Passage” features intellectuals who live on a spaceship and think of colonists as mudeaters” but yet have a coming-of-age trial in the wilderness of a planet. What do you think Alexei was trying to say with this? How did he conceive of the ordinologists and synthesists as described in the novel and why did he set them up as being so influential in the ships society?

I think ordinologists and synthesists came directly out of Heinlein. The earliest drafts of Rite of Passage were written while Alexei was in the army, stationed in Korea, before we got together. So I dont know what his exact thinking was, but we did agree early on that I was the ordinologist in our relationship and he was the synthesist.

John Grayshaw: There is a lot of debate and analysis over the ending of Rite of Passage”, where the planet Tintera is destroyed. What do you think Alexei meant with this ending, was it purely a comment on the society of the ship or is he saying something wider about humanity?

Its not a comment on either the society of the ship specifically or humanity generally. Its about the self-righteousness of western civilization: people who think they have a right to go in and smash other people flat because theyre culturally superior. It was most directly a reaction to the Vietnam War; but you can look at whats happening in Gaza right now if you want a present-day equivalent.

John Grayshaw: From a writing perspective, what interested Alexei about the Anthony Villiers series? Was it influenced by Leslie CharterisSaint series?

From a writing perspective, it was the chance to do something a little strange and different. There was originally a scene written from the perspective of the spaceship walls, which Terry Carr made him take out (Alexei never forgave him for that). It was an excuse to get out all of the strange stuff hed had rattling around in his head for years.

John Grayshaw: How much of the fourth novel The Universal Pantograph” was written? Fans are still hoping it will be published.

No pages were ever written. There were notes for things that would go into it, some characters and events, but nothing ever put down on paper.

John Grayshaw: Did you and Alexei have much correspondence or meetings with the wider SF community? Did you go to science fiction conventions? Do you have any particular memories of these youd like to share? Where you close to any other science fiction writers?

Alexei and I met at the 1966 Worldcon, and we went to many conventions together over the years. We often had a dealers table where we sold books; both our own and other things that Alexei found appealing, like the first two Elfquest books. In the 1970s we went to a series of academic conventions until we alienated the professors by saying we didnt think SF should be taught in college classrooms and be straightjacked by conventional literary models.

Alexei corresponded with a number of other authors, particularly those who took science fiction seriously, such as Rudy Rucker, Michael Bishop, and Ian Watson. He was also good friends with Chip Delaney when they both lived in NYC in the late 60s. They would often listen to music together and Chip wrote an introduction to the first Villiers novel.

We kept in close touch with the SF community until Alexei was hit by the car, after which we didnt make it to any more conventions. But one memory that stands out is a time when our older son Adam was a year old. He managed to crawl up onto the stage where the Flying Karamazov Brothers were performing, and they threatened to juggle him if he wasnt retrieved.

David Brand: What did you and Alexei do other than write? Your output seemed to stop in later years. What did you both do for a living?

We did keep writing. After we finished The World Beyond the Hill, Alexei wrote a series of short essays for The New York Review of Science Fiction and also began a major piece on Lewis Carroll. That was interrupted by the accident, but he returned to it as his stamina recovered and also wrote several other lengthy articles that were posted on our website and will appear in a collection titled Following My Nose to be published this fall.

During the same period, I worked as an accountant for a small non-profit organization, and after I was no longer employed there I started a blog, which I maintained from 2009 to 2017. Before Alexei died, we had started putting together a volume to be called The Book of Higher Knowledge that was intended to combine some of his essays and a selection of my blog entries along with new material. I’m still working on my side of that and plan on putting it out eventually.

John Grayshaw: Did you and Alexei have particular hobbies you pursued when you werent writing?

Alexei was a big fan of music, particularly Bob Dylan. He enjoyed seeing live music played, and would often have friends over to listen to obscure musicians he collected. He also collaborated in creating music, writing song lyrics for many years with a young musician friend whom he mentored. I’ve never been much for formal hobbies, so I spent most of my free time raising our two sons, taking them to events like renaissance faires and doing casual mommy things like cooking and gardening.

John Grayshaw: What do you see as the legacy you and Alexei have in the SF field? Why was your work significant at the time and why is it still important today?

Our work was significant because we were doing stuff and saying things that no one else was or is. Our working principle was that SF was modern myth, while ancient myth was archaic science fiction, based on what people 10,000 years ago knew about the world and the stars: putting their best hard knowledge about how the universe was constructed into stories about characters going to other realms.


When heroes went into the underworld or traveled to the ends of the earth, that wasnt frivolous fairy tales. It was the hard science of its time. Its always been that way. Its been science fiction all the way down, and the ultimate goal was always to create a perception of transcendence—a sense of a larger and more meaningful reality than the mundane world.

We hoped The World Beyond the Hill would be a foundation that other people would build on, but for the most part nobody has. We felt very invisible during Alexeis final years. But there are a lot of loose ends in our writing that could be picked up and developed by others in a way they never have been.

In closing, Id like to thank you for this chance to be reminded of where I came from and reflect on things I havent thought about in years.