The Anthony Villiers Novels Essay - Critical Essays

Alexei Panshin


The books were originally published as “Anthony Villiers Adventures,” but there is relatively little adventure or action in them, and less as the series proceeds. Much of the appeal of the series comes from the voice of its narrator, an omniscient figure (not Claude) who sometimes speaks in the first person but never takes part in the action. The voice is witty and cynical; this omniscient narrator sounds like someone who has seen it all.

The books are rich in references. In the first, Alice and Louise, trying to find out about the duel, “remained in an uncertain world where Villiers might be alive or dead” (a reference to the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment). In the second, an encounter between two minor characters is described in the exact words of the first meeting between Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, as described in Dangerous Visions (1967), edited by Ellison and pub-lished the year before The Thurb Revolution. In the third book, the Monist houses have the names of Brooklyn streets. The books have a strong philosophical element, including Torve’s view of an acausal world where all entities are monads, following independent “lines of occurrence” that may or may not meet, and a continuing discussion of the medieval doctrines of realism and nominalism.

Star Well appeared shortly after Alexei Panshin had published two highly praised books: Rite of Passage (1968), which won the 1968 Nebula Award for best novel of the year, and Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis (1968), a study of one of science fiction’s most popular figures. There were to be four more volumes in the Anthony Villiers series, and at the end of the first edition of Masque World was an announcement that the fourth volume, The Universal Pantograph, would be published soon.

Panshin instead began writing with his wife, Cory. They did a symbolic fantasy, Earth Magic (1978), and some short stories but have mainly written criticism. This work has received mixed reactions. The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989) was widely praised for its close readings of classic stories from Astounding Science-Fiction and won a Hugo Award for best nonfiction, but their continuing love-hate relationship with Robert A. Heinlein and their insistence on a quasireligious element of “transcendence” as the essence of science fiction have been condemned. Many readers wish that Panshin had finished the Villiers series instead.