Sympathy for the Devil
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Author:  BillPatterson [ Mon Apr 14, 2008 9:44 am ]
Post subject:  Sympathy for the Devil

April 14. Is anyone else reading Alexei Panshin's long critical essay on "Solution Satisfactory," which he has ironically titled "Sympathy for the Devil"? I think it would be a bonzer idea to discuss it here as it comes out, piece by piece. It's at ... athy1.html (for the first segment; he's just posted the second segment, for which links are at the bottom of the page of the first segment.

Author:  JamesGifford [ Mon Apr 14, 2008 10:18 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

<fx rubbing temples really hard> ...Okay...

Author:  JohnBlack [ Mon Apr 14, 2008 12:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

I have skimmed the article during the last few minutes. Perhaps because I skimmed I cannot clearly see yet where he will be going with his essay. I do see that he gets hung up on the details of the fictional story vs. actual events. As Heinlein was writing fiction this should trouble no one.

If anything, people should be more concerned with highlights of the story that were on the mark and how they may relate to the big picture. Its probably relevant to mention how the story differed with what occurred. Its not so relevant when doing the proposed analysis whether the city to be destroyed is Berlin or Hiroshima.

The author does not limit himself to explaining/analysing potential purposes/parallels of the story but does do some subtle detraction of Heinlein.

I may have err'ed in the above. Its a first glance reaction and I need to, once I'm home, sit and read the whole article word for word. Skimming has its dangers.

Author:  JackKelly [ Mon Apr 14, 2008 12:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

It's another "Heinlein was a fascist, oh and also a poor writer" piece. The "analysis" appears to run longer than the story.

Author:  JamesGifford [ Mon Apr 14, 2008 12:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

Jack Kelly wrote:
...appears to run longer than the story.


As Bill well knows, I've taken several swings at a thorough analysis of AP's writings on Heinlein. To my great dismay, it takes a ratio of around 3:1 or 4:1 to adequately untangle the layers of nonsense and be sure that nothing is left to simple unsupported declarations (which AP and his supporters will just dismiss). I haven't touched the project in years and I get weary just thinking of it.

The levels of self-deception, and the layers of misleading the reader (whether they are intentional or not), are so numerous and convoluted that each paragraph takes endless patience and vast attention to detail to sort out.

My position, which Bill also well knows, is that AP is no longer really worth the effort. He and his odd, extremely protracted monologue with Heinlein's work is a mere curiosity, and whatever stature he had as a Heinlein critic in the days when the field was empty is greatly diminished in the shadow of those who have come along in recent years.

But I suppose we all need a hobby.

Author:  BillPatterson [ Tue Apr 15, 2008 7:21 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

Jim's comments seem directly on point. The problems, as ever with Panshin, have to do with the enormous quantity of self-deception and Wormtonguing Panshin engages in. He seems to have gotten a lot worse in the last few years, but that may just be my impression. It usually only takes a page or so to realize he's talking about himself -- again! -- and not about the story.

In this case he seems to be talking about what it means to him to be "liberal." (So far, at any rate). He carries this off by a simple assertion that Manning is no liberal of any kind (because he's not a post-sixties, post SDS liberal) and then ignores the historical context and indeed the whole, manifest purpose of the piece, which was, so far as I can determine, to set out and explore a dilemma that conscientious people were trying to cope with in 1940. I mean, that quote from Harold Urey he sticks into the first part as much as says: this was a concern in general discussion at the time. But he wants to make it about Heinlein-as-authoritarian (which is going to be an interesting turn if he states it baldly, because at one point in HID he says -"I used to think Heinlein was an authoritarian, but I don't any more."-)

So far, the second part seems puffed up with airy speculation as to what (only worst-case scenarios allowed) Heinlein chose not to say or to skate over lightly, and it's frustrating because he omits any reference to the technical demands on the story required by collapsing a decades-long memoir into the span of a novelet. The speculation loses contact with the text.

One of the things I was thinking about for this particular thread was we could do the unpacking on a point-by-point basis in a leisurely fashion and I could pull it together at some point to publish, possibly for the Journal, possibly for someone else, as a demonstration of why Panshin has become a vacuous crank. I started using the term "crank" of him in the last time he popped up.

Northrup Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) said something simple but profound: the first duty of a critic is to see what is there, and it is a failure of this first step that causes so much of Panshin to become unanchored. So much of what he claims is there is not actually there, and that is a legitimate point of attack.

Author:  JamesGifford [ Tue Apr 15, 2008 8:02 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

It seems to me that a hallmark of AP's writings is that they are first and foremost about AP. I profess no great grasp of the technical tool set of criticism (at a professional level, at least) but what jumps out at me from each and every essay or critique of his is the me, me, me, me factor. This has remained remarkably consistent across some 45 years of writings, and even when he gets hold of a valid point, his conclusions become more about his reaction to the point than any less-involved conclusion.

One factor to keep in mind is that AP is 68 this year. For that and other reasons, I am long past expecting him to change his approach - since he never has. So despite his disingenuous deflections about how we can't interpret his earlier work without grasping the whole of every subsequent word he wrote (which was a frequent parry in my abortive correspondence with him, and I've seen it in the excerpts of other discussions), I think we can take any component of his writing and consider it representative of the whole. Certainly, something just written and published cannot be subject to deflection because we have not considered any subsequent rethoughts.

I guess I have to go read the damned thing now. Joy.

Author:  JamesGifford [ Tue Apr 15, 2008 8:18 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

Oh, my aching ribs.

I literally did not have to read one word of AP's essay before my first thunderous belly-laugh. This post was delayed slightly as I had to go reassure some frightened dogs first.

Among the fonts I selected as part of the Centennial's design, indeed, what was probably the signature font for most things, was one called Bedrock. It's not commonly seen.

The title of this essay... is in that font.

There's a conclusion to be drawn here, but I pass on the effort.

Now I have to catch my breath and go read the piece.

Author:  JamesGifford [ Tue Apr 15, 2008 10:07 am ]
Post subject:  Sympathy for the Devil: Historical Basis

All right, it only took me a minute to find my first major point of contention in SFTD. Put briefly, AP begins his critique with a distorted version of 1941-46 history. His version of course paints Heinlein as ignorant, or at least grossly wrong, and misstates several important (and, these days, quite well-known) facts in support of this portrayal.

AP sez: [...]Heinlein hadn’t envisioned that the cities attacked to bring the war to an end would be Japanese. Instead, the metropolis atomically sterilized in his story was Berlin, the capital city of Germany.

This completely dismisses the fact that the European phase of WWII was indeed brought to an end, in large part, by the utter destruction by bombing of Berlin and other German cities, most notably Dresden. These cities were attacked by air with a bombing technique so lethally effective that photos of the remains can hardly be distinguished from those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands were killed in each German city by roaring firestorms that in places burned through concrete and iron and caused bodies to explode from the intense heat. These attacks, and their results (both in destruction and in influencing the end of the war) are different from the two Japanese attacks only in that a flotilla of bombers destroyed Berlin, Dresden - and Tokyo! - in a single night, while a single bomber did the damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This difference is, in the end, almost entirely theoretical.

During the extreme peacenik era of the late 1950s through the 1970s or so, it was a cliche to speak of the horrific damage inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while ignoring or dismissing the equivalent destruction of other cities by "conventional" bombing. Killing 100,000 people with one bomb was the mad act of a barbarous imperial nation; killing 100,000 people with a technically equivalent technique using 5,000 bombs was... What? *fppppt* What were you sayin', dude?

Now, AP could quibble that I'm overlooking "atomically sterilized" as a qualifier, but his overall point in the entire passage containing the above quote is summarized in the first sentence, not the second. If it's not clear, I dismiss the notion - as do many present-day observers, many with great stature - that there is any great difference between the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and the conventional destruction of Tokyo or Berlin. For one thing, carpet bombing and incendiary bombing of cities were considered, before 1942, to be a barbarous and uncivilized war crime... until the RAF, perhaps with some justification as far as such things go, started using the techniques to level German cities with ease and essentially in a single attack.

In short, it is in the present time of wider understanding a distorted view to consider Hiroshima and Nagasaki special cases in this regard, and taking this viewpoint in this essay serves only to indicate AP's historical ignorance, or intent to prove Heinlein wrong at any cost, or both.

AP sez: There’d be another major difference between what had been written by Heinlein and what actually did take place. The weapon he imagined was radioactive dust – what today would be called a radiological weapon or “dirty bomb.” It wouldn’t be the brilliant humungous explosion capped by a roiling mushroom cloud that we’ve all become familiar with.

(ASIDE: Would that be the roiling mushroom cloud that appears over large conventional detonations, or the giant mushroom cloud over a city-wide firestorm, Alexei? Or do you comprehend "atomic blast" and "mushroom cloud" to be an exclusive pairing?)

To restate AP's contention, Heinlein was wrong because, ca. December 1940, he envisioned an "atomic weapon" to be a powerful radioactive toxin rather than a superexplosive.

Let's do some fact-checking.

  • The MAUD report which led FDR to authorizing the project for development of an atomic bomb was not submitted to the president until July, 1941.
  • As late as 1943, a significant percentage of those involved with the Manhattan Project and its predecessors, including Fermi, Szilard and other leaders, were unconvinced that an atomic explosion was feasible. I don't have passages at hand to establish their exact thoughts ca. 1941 but recall that Fermi's reactor, establishing only that chain reactions could be sustained and controlled (with loss of control equaling meltdown, not explosion) was not even begun until September 1941, with first criticality in December 1942.
  • The Compton report, suggesting that radioactive material from a reactor could be used as a weapon of war, was not presented to the NAS until May 1941.
  • Among others, Fermi proposed - in 1943 - to project leader Oppenheimer that development of radioactive material to poison German food supplies might be a valid option.

I could easily add 20 more points, but that's enough, I think.

If the brilliant physicists, military leaders and analysts who were "in the know" did not believe that an atomic explosion was possible (or even could be possible) as late as 1943 (or in some cases, up until the Trinity shot), and did not conceive of artificial radioactives as a toxic weapon of war until at least mid-1941... how wrong was Robert Heinlein, who was anything but "in the know" except for what he gleaned from publicly available writings and physics papers, to envision a powerful radiological weapon as the war-ending and world-changing outcome of atomic research... in late 1940!

Yes, in the absolute most kindergarten-level analysis of right v. wrong, Heinlein was wrong - the (Pacific) war-ending atomic weapon was a bomb, not a toxin. But Heinlein's misguess as to the exact technical nature of the weapon matters very little in the exposition of the story or of the terrifying political aftermath. In the story, and in subsequent real life, one nation (more or less) was handed tremendous and nearly absolute destructive power... and in the story, and in real life, the political balance had to be worked out. Whatever minor flaws the gadget side of the story might have - and I find the correspondences with reality, significantly in advance of even secret developments therein, to be more interesting than the misguesses - the political/military/social aspects were, and remain, terrifyingly well exposited.

At this moment, I have yet to read SFTD past this introductory material. However, having pretty thoroughly demolished any basis for calling Heinlein ignorant or wrong in any meaningful sense (which appears to be AP's basis for all subsequent commentary), and in fact having given Heinlein's reputation for insight and foresight a nice buffing, I have trouble imagining how further deconstruction of Heinlein's "wrongness" will produce many valid insights or conclusions.

But let's play on.

Author:  PeterScott [ Tue Apr 15, 2008 3:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Sympathy for the Devil

Okay, I donated an hour of my life to re-reading "Solution Unsatisfactory" (pleasant) and SFTD (not so). And here's the problem I have:

  • If I respond to the hundred-odd fallacies, errors, and wild-assed axe grindings in the two currently published episodes of SFTD, my fingers will fall off.
  • If I respond to the approximately four good points made in SFTD, I grossly distort its apparent value.
  • If I do either, I fear I am just encouraging the man.

So what to do? I have no problem with finding fault with Heinlein here and there, and Panshin actually hit the target a few times in my estimation. I wouldn't mind discussing that in the context of how the heck Heinlein wrote in such a way that I neither noticed his shell game nor cared about it. Not to further the aims of a troll hell bent on encasing our hero's feet with clay.

So yes, there were a few problems with SU. Which, ultimately, I have never cared about just as I have never cared that the spaceships in Star Wars made whizzing sounds or for that matter traveled faster than light. They had to, the story was better for it, so the pedants can STFU.

If someone has a satisfactory solution (heh) for discussing the warts of SU (or anything else) without pandering to Panshin, let's hear it.

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