Book Review: Three Novels (variant title: Natural State and Other Short Stories), Damon Knight (1967)

(Alan Peckolick’s cover for the 1967 edition)

3/5 (Collated Rating: Average)

Damon Knight’s Beyond the Barrier (1964) was so egregious that I have stayed away from his work until recently.  Around a year ago I acquired Three Novels (1969)—containing the two novellas “Rule Golden” (1954) and “Natural State” (1951) and one novelette “The Dying Man” (variant title: Dio”) (1951)—in order to start my reappraisal of the supposed Grand Master of the genre.  I have his collection Far Out (1961) and his novel A For Anything (variant title: The People Maker) (1959) on my shelf.

Although this selection of his 50s short fiction is far superior to Beyond the Barrier only one of the stories made any lasting impression: the philosophical and ruminative immortality themed tale, “The Dying Man.”  With that in mind it might be worth tracking it down in another place of publication, for example the thematic multi-author collection Immortals (1998) ed. Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.   There is a chance that the other two novellas in Three Novels will satisfy fans of Knight’s work or 50s SF in general.

Please point me in the direction of any short stories/novels of his that warrant the Grand Master designation.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Rule Golden” (1954) 75 pages, 2/5 (Bad):  I am perpetually annoyed by the following premise: enlightened alien comes to Earth and saves evil mankind from bashing each other to death.  Knight takes the situation an absurd step further: enlightened alien comes to Earth, releases a catalyst into the atmosphere that slowly spreads across the globe causing (illogically) that famous maxim of reciprocality,  The Golden Rule i. e. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”  Thus the epidemic takes this form, “a man in Des Moines kicked his wife when her back was turned.  She was taken to the hospital, suffering from a broken coccyx.  So was he” (5).

Now take it a step further.  If an alien was capable of developing such a sophisticated catalyst one would imagine it would target those primitive aliens worth reforming, i.e. only humans (you know, the only sentient inhabitants of the planet).  But, Knight in one of the more outlandish moments of the novella has the alien “savior” (Aza-Kra) elaborate on the nature of the magical chemical transformation: “Everything of sufficient brain.  Roughly, everything above the level of your insects” (50).  Of course Knight does not discuss how the entire ecosystem of the planet would be utterly and irrevocably destroyed.  The insects would take over the world and mankind, unable to exterminate them, would perish due to the lack of food!

And as entire armies are annihilated, nations implode, billions of animals who are unable to change the fact that they need to eat other animals slaughtered, our hero who helped rescue the alien “savior” from prison has the audacity to come to the conclusion that he is indeed the primitive one: “It was Aza-Kra who had come down alone to a planet so deadly that no one else would risk his life on it until he had softened it up.  It was Aza-Kra who had lived for nearly a month with a suspicious, irrational, combative, uncivilized flesh-eater” (77).

As a thought experiment or a work of comedic SF this had the potential to be worthwhile.  But, Knight does not seem to grasp the complete absurdity of his premise and the straight-laced delivery creates a veritable quagmire of inanity.

“Natural State” (1951) 69 pages, 3/5 (Average):  This is a slight improvement over “Rule Golden” in part because its told in a comedic vein.  Also, rather surprising considering the early 50s publication date, the main women character is a remarkably intelligent scientist—who educates over the course of the novella the remarkably unintelligent, brainwashed, “realie” (81) actor protagonist.

In the far future only twenty-two cities remain in the US.  These are isolated bastions of “civilized” culture (or so the occupants are brainwashed into believing).  The rest of the population is dismissed as primitive Muckfeet.  Beneath this veneer of enlightenment the cities themselves are experiencing serious problems: they are running out of metals.  A plan is hatched and Alvah Gustad, a rather dull and uninspired actor, is sent out into Muckfeet territory to market the “natives” trinkets they do not need in exchange for metals.  Little does Alvah know that the Muckfeet society, despite an external impression of rural provincialism, are adept at incredibly sophisticated biological engineering.  It’s up to Betty Jane Hofmeyer to show Alvah how Muckfeet society actually works.

A somewhat funny reversal of the standard European colonization paradigm where beads and guns were exchanged for swathes of land.  The city dwellers, who resort to brainwash to convince their children that they are the enlightened ones, are the but of many a funny joke.  A minor work of minor interest…

“The Dying Man” (variant title: Dio) (1957) 38 pages 4.25/5 (Good) is  head over shoulders the best story in the collection.  It is this story alone that gives me some hope for Knight’s other SF.  A highly evocative allegory about a technologically advanced Earth filled with immortals who desire new and fresh things and slowly forget about the past and concepts of death and decay.  One of the better 50s stories on the subject.  Recommended.

The central figure is Dio the Planner, an immortal architect, who builds and rebuilds the city “to make their world over every year—keep it bright and fresh, cover up the past—but they dislike us because they know that whatever they forget, we keep and remember” (154).  Claire, who becomes Dio’s student, begins to realize that the architect is slowly dying.  Dio himself plunges into his work as the end is neigh.

The story reeks of malaise and detachment.  Claire, initially overwhelmed and confused about the very word “death,” slowly realizes the immensity of the notion.  And the malaise parts ever so slowly.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX 

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1969 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)

24 thoughts on “Book Review: Three Novels (variant title: Natural State and Other Short Stories), Damon Knight (1967)

  1. The first book I read by him was ‘Humpty Dumpty: An Oval’, which i believe is his last novel, published in ’96. It’s a philosophical story on the nature of consciousness and life. One of my all time favorite books.

    However, I’ve been disappointed by everything else I’ve read by him since. His work may have been better suited as screenplays, such as for The Twilight Zone. Though I have liked his work as an editor of anthologies.

  2. “I am perpetually annoyed by the following premise: enlightened alien comes to Earth and saves evil mankind from bashing each other to death.”

    So I’m guessing you hated Simak’s Way Station? Alien interference in the Cold War?

  3. I always assumed that Damon Knight was important as a critic and as an editor rather than as a writer; I even remember being surprised on finding out that he had actually written any fiction himself (none of which I ever read, to the best of my remembrance).

  4. I enjoyed most of Damon Knight’s short stories from his early period. ‘Pieces like ‘Idiot Stick’ had some bitingly sacastic responses to the plot idea. That’s kind of what he did best: turn his own ideas into a cynical or sarcastic remark by one of the characters. He kind of had that view that humans were a bunch of idiots and wrote stories to show it. My favourite has always been ‘The Beachcomber’. ‘To Serve Man’ is the most famous of course.

  5. Great site, I’m also a fan of 60s and 70s sf. Knight’s novelette Stranger Station and the aforementioned In The Country of the Kind (a subversive commentary on the sci-fi hero figure) and Masks are all excellent. He was never as satisfied with his novels as he was with his short stories. He also did some excellent translations of French sf short stories that is well worth seeking out.

  6. You should persist with Damon Knight. Like others I agree that the often anthologized The Country of the Kind is a stand out short from the 50s. Other personal faves: Ticket to Anywhere, Extempore, Strangers on Paradise and the truly wonderful What Rough Beast. A good place to start is The Best of Damon Knight (with glowing intro by Barry Malzberg). Also his short collections from the 60s, Far Out, In Deep and Off Center. I agree that Knight can be a hit and miss, but when he shines its well worth the trip.

    • Agree with everything you say. Best of Knight is a good introduction. It was a part of a series that highlighted other authors including Poul Anderson,Robert Silverberg,and A.E. Van Vogt. Oddly enough Country of the Kind is not in the Best of collection. Neither is Stranger Station come to think of it. Yes some of his short stories are not as good as others.

      His review collection called In Search of Wonder is also very good. It has famous scathing review of Van Vogt’s World of Null-A. But in fairness he seems to be one of the first people who recognized Philip K. Dick’s genius. The last chapter praises some of Dick’s early 50s novels up to Eye in the Sky but before Time out of Joint.

Comment! Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.