Book Review: Orbit 8, ed. Damon Knight (1970)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1971 edition)

3.25/5 (collated rating: Good)

The avant-garde leaning Orbit anthology series, edited by Damon Knight, had an illustrious run from 1966-1976.  Recently I have become more and more intrigued by the anthology as a way to access a wider range of authors and radical visions.  Despite my rather lowish collated rating of Best SF Stories from New Worlds 2, ed. Michael Moorcock, it was a satisfying collection which exposed me to the SF of Langdon Jones and Pamela Zoline.  Likewise, it somewhat rehabilitated my view of Charles Platt whose Planet of the Voles (1971) has long been one of my least favorite SF novels.

Anthologies are fascinating cross sections of the genre reflecting what was perceived as worthwhile SF by editors.  They will almost always be more uneven than single author collections.  But the exposure to forgotten authors and authors who never received a single author collection makes them almost always worthwhile.

Orbit 8 (1970) is no exception.  The anthology swings wildly from Gardner Dozois’ masterpiece “Horse of Air” (1970) to the cannibalistic caveman nonsense of Robert E. Margroff and Andrew J. Offutt’s “The Book” (1970).  Make no mistake, there are worthwhile short stories in Orbit 8 (2xs Lafferty, 2xs Wolfe, Dozois, Ellison, Hufford, Wilhelm etc).  Make no mistake, there are terrible stories in Orbit 8.

Recommended for fans of 60s/70s SF with New Wave leanings.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Horse of Air” (1970), shortstory by Gardner Dozois, 5/5 (Very Good) is easily the best and most unsettling story in the collection.  It picked up a Nebula nomination but lost out to Silverberg’s “Good News from the Vatican” which I have not read.  Dozois’ ingenious narrative structure adds great depth.  The first layer is the delusion, what the narrator desperately wants to believe.  The second layer is what he admits he really believes.  And the third layer shifts to third person, observing his actions, interpreting his thoughts.

The narrator relates how he became walled into to the new urban landscape of the Towers due to some conflict of the races.  Dozois uses the n-word frequently in the story for a simple reason, the narrator is an unabashed racist.  The narrator is possessed by delusions of persecution: he laments that he might be the “only survivor of a noble breed” (16).  How the so-called nobility of the world allowed themselves to be conned out of everything by barbarians of the new order.  He claims he is the last civilized man, he cannot give up, “it gives me a reason for living, a goal outside myself” (21).

—of course, it is all an apocalyptical delusion.  The irrational, unfounded, and utterly delusion fear of what might be—  Of course, the narrator is the real barbarian who gives in to violence, terrified of losing his entitlement, his power. Dozois’ vision is as powerful as Ellison’s denunciation of racism in “Knox” (1974).

“One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” (1970), shortstory by Harlan Ellison 4/5 (Good):  A profoundly moving story of Gus Rosenthal—a foil for Ellison—who travels back in time and befriends his younger self.  His younger self was ridiculed for being a Jew and ran away from home at a young age.  Filled with autobiographical tidbits from Ellison’s own life, the work is filled with interwoven strands of nostalgia and longing to improve one’s own past.

“Rite of Spring” (1970) shortstory by Avram Davidson, 1/5 (Bad):  My first exposure to Avram Davidson’s oeuvre is a profoundly disappointing tale of rural-folk with deep magical secrets.  A fertility ritual, a rutting of sorts involving the arcane properties of robin’s blood.  I cannot conjure a fantasy trope I dislike more than farm folk with disturbing/magical/hidden secrets.

“The Bystander” (1970) shortstory by Thom Lee Wharton, 1/5 (Bad):  A laboriously long-winded and dull mafia story about Harry Van Outten, a onetime doctor, and his mafia supported bar Decline And Fall.  The story takes the form of a lengthy dialogue between Van Outten and a federal agent sent to investigate. I suspect there are speculative elements somewhere in this morass but I could not finish it.

“All Pieces of a River Shore” (1970) shortstory by R. A. Lafferty, 4/5 (Good):  At the very least R. A. Lafferty’s visions are always original and evocative… “All Pieces of a River Shore” contains Lafferty’s favorite tropes and narrative styles: Americana drenched Native American mythos, rural settings, unusual images… Leo Nation, a “rich Indian” (70) is obsessed with the Long Picture.  Imagine a camera taking a panorama of the entire shoreline of a river.  Unfortunately, fragments of this mysterious image printed on mysterious material taken (apparently) before humans had even evolved are scattered across the United States.  Leo has a section that belonged to the “Arkansas Traveler Carnival” and was advertised as the “Longest Picture in the World” (72).  Poor imitations of the panorama abound while some people used fragments of the real thing for ornaments and Indian medicine.

Slowly Leo realizes, as he acquires more and more pieces of this fantastic image, that it could not have been created by human hands.  I found that the metaphysical and metaphorical dimensions of such a discovery are not explored enough by Lafferty.

“Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee” (1970) shortstory by Gene Wolfe, 4.25/5 (Good):  Although far from the heights (such as “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”) Gene Wolfe is capable of, this story is an odd, vaguely discursive (there are references to Harlan Ellison), tale of two bridge partners who accidentally met (Sonya, the poor woman and Crane, the wealthy man).  Later in life, Sonya thinks about “Crane Wessleman among The Things That Might Have Been” (90).  And then he asks her to have dinner at his residence….  And Sonya meets Kittee: “We would have said that the door was opened by a tall, naked girl who looked a good deal like Julie Newmar; a deep-chested, broad-shouldered girl with high cheekbones and an unexpressive face” (91).  Kittee is a non-sentient servant and pet in human shape: “I call her Kittee, but the germ plasm may have come from a gibbon or a dog” (92).

The disturbing ramifications of a non-sentient life in human form hits home when Crane Wessleman tells Sonya, who does not seem to be horrified, that he wants a man-shaped pet/servant made for Kittee when he dies.  And die he does, and without any care Kittee eats her master’s leg….  The image of Crane Wessleman alone in his house with his strange humanoid pet evokes the extreme loneliness of old age.  The fact that Kittee looks like a naked woman is all the more unsettling.

Relayed in detached fashion, the true alienness of the future is adeptly hinted—the fact that Kittee exists, widespread surveillance, guaranteed income.  “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee” is a disturbing, well-crafted, and fulfill’s Knight’s promise of fiction calculated “to blow the mind.”

“Tablets of Stone” (1970) shortstory by Liz Hufford, 3.5/5 (Good):  Liz Hufford is not a name I was familiar with until picking up this anthology.  Her story is calculated to “blow the mind.”  But in a post-Alien (1979) and all its sequels world it will be less effective.  A spaceman lusts after a naive alien (humanoid) woman on some backwater planet.  Almost everyone else on the spaceship has a partner and the captain reluctantly marries them.  To the detriment of all her fears about sex and reproduction, which the spaceman interpreted as prudish behavior, turn out to be true with cataclysmic ramifications: “The oxygen will not hold out.  By the time we realized what must be done some of them could craw […]  Some of them have found their way into the nutrient chambers” (98).

“Starscape with Frieze of Dreams” (1970) shortstory by Robert F. Young, 2.5/5 (Bad):  Grand ambitions of metaphor imbued, elegiac, allusion laden literature abound in “Starscape with Frieze of Dreams”—and Robert F. Young is completely out of his depth.  The result is a superficial experience that commits too many sins to be worthwhile.  But the premise is noteworthy: humankind travels the stars in the “bodies” of once sentient astroids nicknamed spacewhales.  Starfinder works at the Spacewhale Graveyard (the shipyard): “Spacewhales do not come here of their own free will or because they wish to die” rather Jonahs (metaphor!) enter their bodies and blast out their rose-like ganglion(s) (100).  In the shipyard new power sources are connected, regular floor plans are created from their labyrinthine passages, and machinery installed to make them habitable for their crews.

Women on the planet of Altair IV (around which the shipyards orbit) have transformed themselves into powerful business leaders who double as sex goddesses: “she is like a table spread before him, and he is a traveler from a far land, eager to taste the viands upon which he gorged himself the night before” (106).  Their lusts and desires are so much that they carry around handy injections to jab any and all men whom they repeatedly want to have sex with.

Starfinder realizes that the spacewhales he is transforming into a spaceship still contains an intact ganglion not blasted by a Jonah.  The telepathic connection (indicated with little symbols and squiggles in the text) results in a bargain: if Starfinder refrains from destroying the ganglion then the whale will forever be his.  But his personal sex goddess/insatiable lover/domineering Altarian woman stands in the way!

“The Book” (1970) shortstory by Robert E. Margroff and Andrew J. Offutt, 2/5 (Bad):  In a valley there lives a caveman giant named Brandon.  Brandon lives wife Jilly, who has a “broad face and pendulous udders” and horrible yellow teeth (119).  Brandon would have killed her a long time before, eaten all her children, and run off with some other more attractive cavewoman giant if it were not for The Book.  Brandon cannot read The Book but staring at its pages mysteriously influences him.  And then Brandon gets old and a mean old giant caveman wants to kill Brandon—but the Book and its teachings might be the way out.  Or at least, the way to prevent your brains from being a feast.

“Inside” (1970) shortstory by Carol Carr, 3/5 (Average):  Carol Carr was the wife of the famous SF editor (and to a lesser degree, author) Terry Carr.  This is a middling but psychologically taught story about a young woman, for unknown reasons, who retreats into her mind, “a house [that] was a jigsaw puzzle of many dreams” (127).  At first the rooms proliferate.  Soon she can find no new rooms.  And eventually people visitors to her mental house infringe on her realm.  The slow move towards recovery?  It is not altogether clear.

“Right Off the Map” (1970) shortstory by Pip Winn, 2.5/5 (Bad):  I can find no information about Pip Winn online.  This appears to be her (I think) only published SF story.  In an overpopulated future where living space is at a premium, the narrator and his bunkmate Mayson discover discrepancies between the official map of the world and an old antique map Mayson purchased in the region of India.  The building manager, desperate to cram more people into their room, gives them permission and the correct “traveling orange disks” to go investigate.  In India they encounter what might be the last tiger.  And Mayson, as man is wont to do, desires its skin.  And the narrator is a crossroads, kill Mayson and save the world’s last (and pregnant) tiger or kill the tiger and save his friend.

The story does not “blow the mind” and the premise is too silly to be effective (oh look, we just happened to discover pristine valley filled with nearly extinct animals in India).  In this case humankind’s desire to possess and conquer for vague material reasons tires rather than intrigues.

“The Weather on the Sun”  (1970) novelette by Theodore L. Thomas, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average):  In the future—due to the ability to manipulate weather by controlling the sun (one of the many places where the basic premise falls apart)—the Weather Bureau takes on both political, scientific, and operational roles.  After a series of miscalculations that result in minor catastrophes, a politician who dials in a light rain receives a massive thunderstorm that washes away his house, the Bureau comes to the realization that they no longer can control the weather.  The reason is nebulous: “the trouble might be in the Sun itself.  The sun is changing […]” (150).

The social ramifications of a world losing the ability to control its weather, reverting to earlier horrors of droughts, natural disaster etc is quickly forgotten.  Rather, “The Weather on the Sun” devolves into a scientific mystery with perhaps the hokiest solution I have ever encountered in science fiction.  I had no idea it was so easy to descend to the Sun’s core…. Sunshine (2007) this is not.

“The Chinese Boxes” (1970) shortstory by Graham Charnock, 3.5/5 (Good):  Carpenter has a new job at Chemitect.  He sits in a room watching a white cube for hours on end.  If something goes wrong he is to press the warning button.  The problem is he has no idea what is inside the cube or what could go wrong.  What Chemitect is exactly, other then some sort of research facility, is not entirely clear.

Social experiments, layered “tests,” deprivation, psychological decay, schizophrenia.  “The Chinese Boxes” take all of its implications as far as they could go—another layered psychological test would have made the story more effective—but relishes in its material.  It is unfortunate that Graham Charnock only wrote a handful of SF stories.

“A Method Bit in ‘B'” (1970) shortstory by Gene Wolfe, 4.25/5 (Good):  Wolfe short stories require at least one reread to really appreciate his craft.  This incredibly slight story, under five full pages, manages to be the most complex and intriguing story in the collection.  Although not as searing as “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee,” “A Method Bit in ‘B'” is an odd pastiche of B-films.  All the tropes are here, detective in small town investigates an unusual manor occupied with archetypal characters (a professor of the occult, etc), indications that there might be some supernatural occurrences (a werewolf).  But, the detective character reflects on the power of B films and the techniques of method acting leading us all to believe that he might indeed be some B actor practicing for a role.  Delightful.

“Interurban Queen” (1970) shortstory by R. A. Lafferty, 4/5 (Good):  A satirical alternate history where interurban trollies won out over cars as the transportation of the future.  A utopian landscape of “quasiurbia” sprawls out in all directions (192).  Charles Archer lost his entire fortune supporting cars.  In this timeline cars are symbols of evil, shot on sight by the passengers of the interurban trollies.  There drivers are raving madmen, “foaming with hatred and arrogance” (197) who scream at those who hunt them, “I’d rather go to hell in an automobile than to heaven in a trolley car!” (198).  Of course, shooting these monoxide producing machines is all in the name of preserving the “uniqueness” of the endless quasiurbia landscape with its cookie-cutter hamlets.  A satire of the new suburban developments and the homogenization of the landscape?  Does Lafferty’s political conservatism helps decode the parable?  Is it a critique of the critics of individualism?  Or a strange happy-go-lucky reframing of perceived emptiness of the rhetoric of socialism?  The latter seems to make the most sense.

“The Encounter” (1970) novelette by Kate Wilhelm, 4.75/5 (Very Good):  In 1972 Kate Wilhelm had a Nebula nomination for Best Novel (Margaret and I), two for Best Novella (Infinity Box and The Plastic Abyss), and Best Novelette (“The Encounter”).  And, she did not win in a single category…   There is a quietly powerful element to Kate Wilhelm’s work.  The scenarios are often mundane—“The Encounter” takes place inside a bus station as two passengers are stranded until the snow plows can arrive—yet the implications are immense.  Crane is a profoundly troubled man.  Beneath his veneer of professionalism (he sells insurance) is a deep distrust and hatred for women.  We flashback periodically to his interactions with his wife whom he is convinced tried to kill him.

In the station with him is unnamed woman, an illustrator for the Slocum House Catalogue Company (207).  Together they try to fic the heater and keep out the cold.  Crane envies her because she is so sure of herself (208).  He drifts back to his wife and ponders, “were wise women always so evil?” (209).  While on the bus Crane dismissed another woman as out to seduce men.  His companion at the inside the station sees a woman who was afraid, afraid of the men around her, the situation stranded in the snow…  This bifurcation of personalities comes to head.

As with her Nebula-nominated novel from the same year Margaret and I (1971), “The Encounter” is a psychologically tense experience in which the speculative/SF are secondary elements rather than the main impetus.  Worthwhile for fans of Wilhelm and New Wave SF.

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30 thoughts on “Book Review: Orbit 8, ed. Damon Knight (1970)

    • Forbidden planet? I don’t think it’s forbidden in anyway in the story. But yes, that’s the name of the planet in the Young story.

      EDIT: Ah, you’re talking about the film Forbidden Planet (1956). Yes, it is Altair IV. My favorite 50s SF film by far. Good catch!

      • You should! It feels like an extended episode of Star Trek: The Original Series before it existed. It must have been a major influence for the show.

        Despite the premise, it does try to take itself seriously and present its (occasionally silly) material in a serious manner.

        Watch it!

    • Thanks. It’s a good article. I have only read a handful of his stories so far. As for his novels, Annals of Klepsis, Past Master, and Fourth Mansions are on my shelf waiting to be read. But yes, I would offer a similar sentiment about the 60s/70s fiction of Barry N. Malzberg (even more forgotten but more 70s), Geo. Alec Effinger, Kate Wilhelm, Kit Reed, etc. etc.

    • I can’t wait to have all of them in a nice line on my shelf. When I have more shelves… When the books move from piles on the ground… And then there are the board games which also need shelves. I need more shelves.

      • Heh I’m in the same boat. I have books stacked three deep on the shelves and still have four big boxes of books on the floor. Plus all the ebooks on my tablet, which has failed to slake my lust for paperbacks. I can’t stop buying the things.

  1. My local library has almost all of the Orbit books and your review inspired me to check out #8 and compare my opinions of the stories. Or at least the ones written by the authors I’m familiar with. (I could be wrong but I suspect most of the obscure authors in the collection are there because of Knight’s involvement with the Milford and Clarion writing workshops.)

    Of the stories i did read, I pretty much agree with your assessment. I read Horse of Air many years ago and it was just as strong as I remember it. It is certainly more powerful than Good News From the Vatican. That story probably won the Nebula because Silverberg was a bigger name at the time, but it is an enjoyable story. It is regrettable that this Davidson was the first one you’ve read. He was a much better writer than this story would suggest. I was a major Ellison fan once upon a time and then I got completely burned out and couldn’t stand to read any more of him. I enjoyed “Early Poverty” more than I thought I would. Maybe it’s time to re-read some more of his. My only quibble with your other reviews is your comment about Lafferty not going into the metaphysics enough in “All Pieces of a River Shore.” For me, there was just the right amount. Believe me, he will give you all the metaphysics you want (and then some) in his novels.

    Thanks for posting such an interesting review and spurring me on to reading the book.

    • You’re welcome! I really felt that the Lafferty story had the most fantastical premise that just needed some more oomph — whatever for that might take.

      But yes, that Dozois story was fantastic!

  2. Odd to be reviewed 45 years later. Appreciate your interest in classic science fiction. Largely agree with your story assessments.

    • I enjoyed your story!

      Thanks, I am definitely enamored with 60s and 70s SF.

      I’m also tempted to track down a copy of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fifth Annual Collection (1976) which has another one of your three published SF stories 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I read the first eight Orbits during the late seventies and early eighties and was less than impressed. I would read them again twenty years later, and while I liked them a smidgen better, I still thought that they were overrated, more hype than substance. Silverberg and Carr were much better with their New Dimensions and Universe. I do remember that I too liked the Dozois and Hufford pieces. It’s kinda sad that she only wrote three pieces. Her second story was in F&SF with fellow Orbitite Harlan Ellison, while her last was also in F&SF with another Orbitite Robert F. Young. I should say that I did like the Young piece in this anthology way back when as it was the first in the Godwhale series. Don’t know how it would hold up now though. Times change, people change, recorded pop culture does, just our reactions to it.

  4. “Grand ambitions of metaphor imbued, elegiac, allusion laden literature abound …—and Robert F. Young is completely out of his depth.”

    I think that explains Young very well. He wanted to be a good writer, he tried hard, but he just wasn’t that good.

    • Also, I agree completely about the best stories in the collection — Gardner Dozois’ great story, the two Wolfe stories, the two Lafferty stories, the Wilhelm. Those four (especially Wolfe, Lafferty, and Wilhelm) were regulars in Orbit. You can see Knight trying to find new writers, with Pip Winn and Thom Lee Wharton — and failing, in those cases. (He kept trying, though, and sometimes he hit, as with Wolfe early, and someone like Kim Stanley Robinson late.)

      I actually don’t remember that Avram Davidson story, which may mean something, as he is one of my favorites. I suspect I may still like it more than you do, because Davidson’s voice is enough for me in many cases.

      Here’s my look at some of Gardner’s short fiction, published after his death.

    • Yeah, I do not have fond memories of Young’s story.

      SF Encyclopedia claims that his early short fiction is by far the best.

      The entry describes some of his fiction as superficial — which is another way of saying what we did!

      I might track down his two automobile-related short fictions: “Chrome Pastures” (April 1956 If), “Thirty Days Had September” (October 1957 F&SF) and “Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used-Car Lot” (November 1960 F&SF)

      • There is another automobile related story, which I cannot recommend. “Quest of the Holy Grille”, (December 1954 Amazing). I wrote: “Young’s “Quest of the Holy Grille” is about sentient cars. And I found it extremely stupid. Housing is an innocent — or one might say moronic — car that believes in the legend of the Holy Grille, a component of the original Deerborn* manmobile that has been lost, and that if restored will make manmobiles better. Housing is a prig, and thus is offended at his palhicle Axle’s interest in girlhicles … But then they arrange to run off the the rumored home of the Holy Grille … All this is presented as arguably them rationalizing their part in a couple of kids joyriding or running away … Anyway, it all ends tragically — but I couldn’t take it seriously.” (*The misspelling of Dearborn is Young’s.)

  5. Reading the SFE entry, the line “Young’s sentimentality, at rare intervals mawkish” makes me think there’s a typo — surely they meant “often mawkish”, not “at rare intervals”.

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