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Panshin, Alexei

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Critic, Fan.

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Working name of US author Alexis Adams Panshin (1940-2022), married to Cory Panshin until his death; initially most active in sf Fandom, in this role doing considerable writing and editing, for which he won a Hugo for best fan writer in 1967. His first professional sale was the non-sf "A Piece of Pie" (November 1960 Seventeen); he began publishing fiction of genre interest with "Down to the Worlds of Men" in If for July 1963, and soon became an active author of both fiction and criticism. The story "Dark Conception" (November 1964 F&SF) as by Louis J A Adams, was written in collaboration with Joe L Hensley. His short work has been assembled as Farewell to Yesterday's Tomorrow (coll 1975; with "Lady Sunshine and the Magoon of Beatus" added, rev 1976) and Transmutations: A Book of Personal Alchemy (coll 1982).

Panshin's first novel, Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968), which won a 1968 Nebula, remains his only significant sf singleton. It is complex and expertly told, making adroit use of the basic rite-of-passage structure (see Pocket Universe) that underlies almost all tales set in Generation Starships; the fact that in this instance the Asteroid-based World Ship is capable of Faster-than-Light speeds may not have occasioned a narrowing of the consciousness of the protagonists – they have not been travelling long enough to forget their origins – but the venue remains constrictive. The heroine progresses from childhood into questioning adulthood via a dangerous trial conducted on the colony planet which her ship – one of eight containing the survivors of the destruction of Earth 150 years earlier – is currently monitoring. Surviving her ordeal, she not only comes into her own as a person, but validly (as in the classic model) comes to question the stratified "adult" quasidemocracy of the ship, which nevertheless decides to destroy the planet on which she had been tested, for no good reason.

Panshin then wrote the Anthony Villiers series of whimsical Space Operas about a lordly adventurer and remittance-man whose eccentric Alien travelling companion is Torve the Trog: Star Well (1968), The Thurb Revolution (1968) and Masque World (1969). The spoofing of Pulp-magazine conventions and other sf tropes – including Organlegging (for which Panshin coined the term "thumb-running") and Robot servitude – is amusing and without malice, and the echoes of Leslie Charteris's Saint (Villiers is also Viscount Charteris) are enjoyable, but despite epigrammatic verve and some neat philosophical asides the series lacks the energy of Rite of Passage. Nevertheless the three books have considerable charm, and the non-appearance of an adumbrated fourth volume, «The Universal Pantograph» continues to be a source of regret; seven volumes in all were reportedly intended. As a writer of sf, Panshin then fell quiet. Earth Magic (April-September 1973 Fantastic as "The Son of Black Morca"; 1978) with Cory Panshin is fantasy.

Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis (May/June 1965-March 1967 Riverside Quarterly; 1968), a comprehensive study of the works of Robert A Heinlein, was perhaps the most thorough and literate book on a US Genre SF writer written to that date. It breaks its subject's career into the three phases (1939-1942; 1947-1958; after 1958) that every subsequent critic has utilized, arguing the superior merit of the latter juveniles, and presenting a case for thinking of the later work as inferior. In the introduction to his first collection, Panshin credited his wife, Cory Panshin (married 1969), as his collaborator on some of his stories, and announced that from 1975 all future work would be jointly signed. Much of the Panshins' joint criticism first appeared in Fantastic, mostly between 1972 and 1974, and some of these pieces, along with others, appeared in SF in Dimension (coll 1976; exp 1980) as by both authors; Mondi interiori: Storia della Fantascienza ["Interior Worlds"] (coll trans Riccardo Valla 1978 Italy) assembles material, all from Fantastic during these years, with an introduction by Carlo Pagetti. Much of this material was later incorporated, much changed, into their magnum opus, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989), a massive and coherent history of sf whose sustaining argument – that sf answered the world's need for a transcendent domain through the creation of galactic venues and concerns beyond the "village" of Earth – made almost inevitable its narrative halt at the year 1945, just at the end of the Golden Age chaired by John W Campbell Jr. So clear a cognitive strategy may have engendered a too-ruthless clarity of view, an all too simple acceptance of the notion of Technological Progress, an acceptance that embedded a Whig presumption that the more that earlier writers resembled their descendants, the more relevant (indeed the more real) they were; and the tendency to treat authors in the Scientific Romance mode as lacking in vision seemed provincial. But the detailed exegeses of critically neglected figures like E E "Doc" Smith and A E van Vogt are very much worth examining. In its close modelling of Genre SF's view of its own development, the book was exemplary; by virtue of writing it the Panshins became American sf's house historians. It received both the Locus Award and the Hugo for best nonfiction in 1990. [JC]

see also: Children in SF; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Fabulation; Galactic Empires; Paranoia; Sense of Wonder; Sociology; Spaceships; Women in SF.

Alexis Adams Panshin

born Lansing, Michigan: 14 August 1940

died Pennsylvania: 21 August 2022



Anthony Villiers

individual titles

  • Rite of Passage (New York: Ace Books, 1968) [portion first appeared July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men": in the publisher's first Science Fiction Special series: pb/Diane and Leo Dillon]
  • Earth Magic (New York: Ace Books, 1978) with Cory Panshin [first appeared April-September 1973 Fantastic as "The Son of Black Morca": pb/Boris Vallejo]

collections and stories



previous versions of this entry

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