Book Review: Orbit 1 (James Blish, Sonya Dorman, Kate Wilhelm, Thomas M. Disch, Richard McKenna, Poul Anderson, Allison Rice, Keith Roberts, Virginia Kidd), ed. Damon Knight (1966)


(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)

3.25/5 (collated rating: Good)

Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology series ran from 1966-1976.  A while back I reviewed Orbit 8 (1970)–which contained the brilliant Gardner Dozois “Horse of Air” (1970 and a selection of intriguing Wolfe and Lafferty short stories—and was impressed enough to snatch up a copy of Orbit 1 (1966).  And it is graced with a Richard Powers cover I had not seen…

Orbit 1 contains nine short works (with four by women authors) and maintains solid quality throughout.  None of the stories—other than Sonya Dorman’s dark and terrifying “Slice of Life”—are masterpieces but Keith Roberts, Kate Wilhelm, Richard McKenna, James Blish, and Thomas M. Disch put in solid shifts.

A solid start to the Orbit anthology series.

Somewhat recommended for fans of 60s SF but the best short stories can probably be found in other collections.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Staras Flonderans” (1966) short story by Kate Wilhelm, 3/5 (Average):  Early in Wilhelm’s career she wrote unremarkable pulp—for example, the collection The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)—with some underlying psychological concerns.  As with many authors whose work matured in the late 60s (Silverberg comes to mind), Wilhelm’s career followed a similar trajectory.  “Staras Flonderans” illustrates this juncture.  The pulp/space opera plot about humans and aliens investigating the wrecked remains of human spaceship floating in space combines with a ruminative (from the perspective of the alien main character) lament about humankind’s inability to confront the truly alien.  The end product is not altogether successful although there are nice touches throughout.  The group of stories that form the best of her 60s production would start the following year with “Baby, You Were Great!” (1967).

“The Secret Place” (1966), short story by Richard McKenna, 3.5/5 (Good) won the second ever Nebula Award for Best Short Story.  I was not familiar with McKenna’s SF—he made it big with the mainstream novel The Sand Pebbles (1962) which was turned into a famous movie by the same name.  “The Secret Place” is an understated story about an unusual wartime (WWII) military expedition—searching for the origin of one “thumb-sized crystal of uranium oxide” (31) in a desert near Barker, Oregon.  The narrator soon realizes that a young woman’s imaginative world in which she interacts with her dead brother might hold the key to the origin of the substance.  And the narrator will go to rather sinister lengths perpetuating and interacting with her imaginative world in order to acquire it.   This might be one of the least-known Nebula award winners.

“How Beautiful With Banners” (1966), short story by James Blish, 3.5/5 (Good):  Dr. Ulla Hillstrøm explores the surface of Titan in a nearly transparent living “virus space-bubble” suit that maintains pressure and monitors radiation.  Unnecessary sexualization of Ulla and her suit aside, the story follows her strange experience as a native creature merges with the “living” suit.  Blish is adept at painting the environment of Titan’s surface: “the cause of the thermal, when she finally reached it, was almost bathetic—a pool of liquid.  Placid and deep blue, it lay inside a fissure in a low, heart-shaped hummock, rimmed with feathery snow” (59).  Solid.

“The Disinherited” (variant title “Home”) (1966), shortstory by Poul Anderson, 3.5/5 (Good):  Mithrans and a handful of human colonists live in relative harmony on an alien planet.  Unfortunately, Earth is cutting their space program and sends out a final mission to retrieve the colonists.  A moral dilemma unfolds—do the colonists stay on the planet with no future backup and a lack of professionals needed for a healthy populace? Or, do they risk the hard life on an alien planet.  Likewise, what will happen to the natives when the humans left on the planet feel the pressures to survive?  Anderson’s story is solid throughout and I thought the dilemma was convincing.

Initially I did not care for the story due to shallow utopian presentation of the relationship between the colonists and the Mithrans.  However, this “utopianism” is presented as life at that particular moment which is bound to change as the humans left on the planet experience how difficult it is to survive.  And, how they might turn on their onetime allies….

“The Loolies Are Here” (1966), short story by Ruth Allison and Jane Rice (as Allison Rice), 2/5 (Bad):  As with many of Pamela Zoline’s (for example her 1967 masterpiece “The Heat Death of the Universe”) or Kate Wilhelm’s SF short stories, “The Loolies Are Here” is a satirical look at the life of a housewife swamped with the mundane tasks of taking care of children, laundry, etc.  Instead of blaming the Brownies of folklore, she blames the Loolies…  Our main character, in the numbing repetitiveness of her daily tasks, starts to speculate wildly about their existence.  Unremarkable.

“Kangaroo Court” (1966), novelette by Virginia Kidd, 2.5/5 (Bad):  The longest story in the collection is also one of the least engaging.  “Kangaroo Court” places strange kangaroo-like aliens who communicate in part via excreted smells.  Wystan Godwin, who works for the Communications Complex, is recalled from his sojourn in Tibet to further communications with the aliens.  Of course, his efforts come up against the “KILL THE ALIENS” mentality of the military.  There is little here that elevates this tale above the horde of similar narratives.

“Splice of Life” (1966), short story by Sonya Dorman, 4.75/5 (Very Good) is easily the best story in the collection.  Over the course of her SF career Dorman published only a handful of short stories between 1961 and 1980.  The one the most SF readers may have encountered is “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” (1967) which appeared in Dangerous Visions (1967).  “Splice of Life” is an intense and terrifying experience.  Imagine a hospital ward where accident victims without money or relatives are kept with wounds untreated and re-inflicted…  Read and find out the reason!  The pain and terror fills the pages as the mind seeks footing in a drugged state, amongst memory fragments, propped up by small desires and minor consoling thoughts….  And in a cycle that will not cease.

“5 Eggs” (1966), short story by Thomas M. Disch, 3/5 (Average):  A whimsical and witty work by Disch with an unsatisfying and entirely predictable “twist” ending.  A month or so ago I read and adored Camp Concentration (serialized: 1967)—so I suspect his other short works are altogether more engaging.  A human and a female egg-laying alien break off their relationship—and she has an exquisite revenge.  Peppered with allusions from the classics, “5 Eggs” does not elevate itself above “silly fun.”

“The Deeps” (1966), short story by Keith Roberts, 4/5 (Good):  In a world swamped by “the great universal cry” of “give us room” the suburbs have spread into the oceans (173).  Roberts’ moody story tracks a single family in an underwater community.  The wife worries about the changes occurring among the children raised under the surface…  The husband, obsessed with his work, proclaims the freedom from the oppressive hordes on the new frontier.  And the children are intrigued by the next frontier, the dark maw of the deeps past the continental shelf.  I found the rather triumphalist ending at odds with the mood and tone of the story.  But on the whole it is an evocative work.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX


(Uncredited cover for the 1967 edition)

40 thoughts on “Book Review: Orbit 1 (James Blish, Sonya Dorman, Kate Wilhelm, Thomas M. Disch, Richard McKenna, Poul Anderson, Allison Rice, Keith Roberts, Virginia Kidd), ed. Damon Knight (1966)

  1. Yes I remember the title of Sonya Dorman’s piece in the anthology now,but don’t remember much about it,even though I think I thought it was quite good at the time.I suppose she must be quite a good authoress,but whose stuff is rarely seen on the shelves.

    I still think that Philip K.Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” stood head and shoulders over the others in DV though,and that is being unbiased.That includes even the one by the excellent Harlan Ellison whose anthology it was,and was far from his best anyway.

    • Yes, PKD…. I know your views on that story my friend! Haha.

      As for Sonya Dorman, she one of many solid women authors who featured in Dangerous Visions—I’m glad Ellison included so many lesser known authors. She seems to have published SF up till around 1980 but this the first time I’ve encountered her work. I want more!

      • Dorman turned to poetry after 1980 (actually was already a significant poet — I saw one of her poems in a high school anthology (I graduated in 1977).) I really liked her SF, such as “When I Was Miss Dow”, “Go, Go, Go, said the Bird”, and the Roxy Rimidon stories. “Splice of Life” is good, and terrifying, maybe just a bit slight?

  2. Yes,it’s a fact though,not favouritism,despite respecting other’s choices.Still,Ellison edited and published “Dangerous Visions” with a broad based vision I think,to include authors within and outside sf,as well as a display of gender diversity.I thought Damon Knight’s story was a maverick and amusing piece.

    I’ll have to read Ms Dorman’s one again though one day.

      • We all have favourites,but I feel the’re born out of discerning attention to literary taste and detail,not loyality or discrimination,or at least I hope not.”Faith of Our Fathers” and all the others in DV,wouldn’t have been written,let alone published if it hadn’t of been for Harlan Ellison’s
        endeavour and tenacity.It allowed them to do exactly what they wanted to do with perfect expression,without worrying about pleasing or upsetting prissy editors and publishers.Such treatment would draw critical admiration.

        It’s a pity that the Orbit series wasn’t reprinted,at least in Britain,unlike DV.

  3. Re: “How Beautiful With Banners.” In his collection “Anywhen” (1970 / highly recommended), Blish tells how Knight had found a certain kind of symbolism in two of his early stories. Symbolism Blish himself was unaware of. So Blish decided the story he would write for “Orbit 1” would be deliberately full of such symbolism – Freudian symbolism. The story is something of a friendly joke on Knight, and the “sexualization of Ulla and her suit” is VERY necessary to it. Indeed, everything in this story is sexualized – beginning with Titan itself, which is Ulla’s frozen (frigid) reality (existence). Re-read the 19th paragraph of section 3, which begins with “And suppose that all these impressions …”

    • I don’t doubt that it has ulterior purposes. But, it also fits very neatly into the standard tropes of male authors writing stories with female characters in the 60s… She is obviously young, beautiful, Swedish, in a “nude” spacesuit…. That said, he does go in some interesting directions with the story’s premise.

      • Yet Blish doesn’t portray Ulla as some sort of fantasy entertainment for teenage boy readers, but rather as a brave and determined woman, confused and damaged by past experience (sexual), and undergoing a radically new experience that mirrors her unhappy past. Right now, I can’t find a reference to Ulla actually being nude, but only “lightly clothed” (which of course is not the same as being sparsely clothed) and FEELING naked within the thin, transparent exploration suit. A feeling necessary to the story.

        • Tom, I read the VERY first line of the story as more direct I guess: “Feeling as naked as a peppermint soldier in her transparent film wrap […].”

          It also should be noted that I did enjoy the story and do understand the thinness of the suit vs. how isolated she feels not only in the crazy environment of Titan but also the pain of her previous experiences.

          It’s certainly more depth than Blish is generally capable of 😉 (Other than A Case of Conscience)

      • The virus-spacesuit is a really interesting gimmick and I’m disappointed not to see it ripped off^W^W used as a premise by other authors. On the other hand, the setup was so carefully designed to be primed to this exact story that maybe it can’t be put in another story without losing its appeal.

  4. I haven’t read “A Case of Conscience”.The only novels I’ve read of his,are the two volume “Black Easter” and “The Day after Judgement”.I wasn’t so impressed,despite the maverick and penetrating quality of the themes.

    I wonder if it’s any better than than those two.

  5. Oh, now here we really disagree. I think Blish generally exhibits a good deal of depth in his stories. He didn’t, for example, fill the magazines of the ’50s and ’60s with the kind of fluff that Asimov and some of the other greats churned out. It’s my opinion 🙂 that Blish may be the “forgotten” SF author most deserving of rediscovery, and most rewarding of serious study. Hopefully without feminist lenses. Not that feminism is the problem, but only the all-too-often distorting (and thus to-one-degree-or-another unfair) use of feminist lenses when looking backward. (I’d recommend looking up volume 2 of the 4-volume set of Algis Budrys’ “Benchmark-Bookshelf” columns. Budrys was one of the best, if not the all-time best, reviewers of SF. His comments on Pamela Sargent’s first “Women of Wonder” anthology are rightly corrective. The review can be found online in a Google Book preview of “Benchmarks Continued: 1975-1982.” Click on “November 1975” and scroll down. I especially like one of his concluding statements, “No artist should be held to ideological account for creative work sincerely done.”

    • I’m not sure how you can disagree without actually knowing which Blish I have read 😉

      I’ve read A Case of Conscience. Two of the Cities in Flight novels (which are profoundly overrated). A Life for the Stars (1962) is indeed pulp fluff as is The Star Dwellers (1961) which is little better than one of Heinlein’s worst juveniles. As well as his short stories in Galactic Cluster (1959). So yes, this story and A Case are by far better than the ones I listed. I seem to remember enjoying at least one or two of the stories in The Seedling Stars.

      So, perhaps I need to read more of his work. Which ones were particularly intriguing to you?

      As for “corrective feminism” I disagree completely with your assessment. First, there were numerous profoundly radical + progressive voices in Blish’s day. Read Miriam Allen deFord stories from the late 40s, Judith Merril, etc etc. As a historian I am profoundly aware of the importance of the historical context of a particular period. I can still point out a issues about gender portrayal in a novel/work from this period.

      As for your claim of Budrys being “Rightly corrective” — what an offensive idea/term… As, the stories in Women of Wonder are again, a product of their day which DID seek to critique what came before and their contemporaries. A critique which needed (and still needs) to be made. Which is not something which needs to be retracted in any way.

      • I had planned to comment on the book review, but the discussion feels somehow more interesting… 🙂

        Hopefully without feminist lenses.
        I’m sort of confused by this. Analysis through a feminist/socialist/post-colonial/etc. lens is pretty much a cornerstone of modern literary criticism. It offers a way to connect with the text’s historical context, and interpreting a text through different lenses gives the critic/reader/writer a deeper understanding from multiple viewpoints. Since Sargent was part of first-wave feminism critiquing the past, and Budrys was part of that past critiquing her back, they seem like an ideal case study for literary analysis.

        No one is forcing readers to view texts through a certain lens, so you’re still free to read Budrys from a lens of 1950s escapist literature… but given how sensibilities have changed since then, asking critics and reviewers not to look at how gender roles or views of women have changed in 50+ years is a tall order. Today’s bog-standard-average mainstream reader will have incorporated part of the different lenses into their own view due to changes in culture—there won’t be as much acceptance of racism or misogyny, for example.

        As for the feminist lens being “distorting … when looking backward,” well that’s kind of the point — they show the perceived systemic bias from the viewpoint of another lens. A Capitalist reading of Oliver Twist is going to be different from a Marxist one, and which one is distorting is based on the reader’s beliefs. (I’d argue that they work looking forward as well, but that’s something else entirely.) Saying that feminist critique needs “rightly corrective” action on behalf of those like Budrys just confirms to me how necessary the feminist lens was and continues to be.

        “No artist should be held to ideological account for creative work sincerely done.”
        Not only would I disagree here, I find this especially hypocritical, as he makes this comment in the middle of an attack against Judith Merril for her “steaming-wet-diaper stories.” Merril and others provided a valuable pre-feminist viewpoint, writing subversive women-authored, women-starring SF that male critics like Knight and Budrys marginalized as “housewife heroine SF.” So by implication, she was not writing “creative work sincerely done,” otherwise her rise to prominence would not have rested on “shibboleth and sexism.” This overlooks her strengths as an editor and the quality of her often brilliant and radical fiction… because of ideological account. It’s a very quotable phrase, but a fluff piece designed to distract readers so they’ll overlook the fact that Budrys is doing that very thing he said not to.

      • Offensive? Why? Budrys was correcting Sargent’s view of SF’s past by citing facts which showed how the field had NOT been unwelcoming of women authors. Exactly the opposite. SF may, indeed, have been more welcoming of women as equals than the culture at large.

        I don’t doubt for a moment that there were male authors and editors in the ’50s and ’60s who were dismissive of women. Or that there are plenty of anecdotes about these men out there. But we’re talking about the field as a whole. And we’re talking about fairness to the men who were the leading editors-gatekeepers of the time. It doesn’t have to be shown that these men were the most ideologically feminist men of their time, but only that they didn’t hold a lower opinion of certain writers just because those writers were women.

        Take the oft-heard phrase “male dominated.” If what’s meant by that phrase is simply that the majority of SF authors in the ’50s and ’60s were men, who could argue? But if what’s meant is that the field deliberately kept women authors down and out, then evidence for such a policy at Astounding-Analog or Galaxy or F&SF or the SF book publishing houses MUST be presented. Otherwise, the phrase (as too often used) is just slander in service of a (righteous) cause. I think this is what Budrys was reacting to.

        • Tom, I think I’m going to need to reread the intro to Women of Wonder to see what Sargent was doing more clearly — and thus Budrys’ criticism (which I still find profoundly problematic) will make more sense.

      • Blish, for me, is one of those writers (Moorcock is another) who could veer from absolutely terrible to strikingly good in stories written back to back. The Star Dwellers (and its companion Mission to the Heart Stars) are just dreadful. The Night Shapes (apparently co-written with Virginia Kidd) even worse. A Case of Conscience is strong. I agree that Cities in Flight is overrated, and A Life for the Stars is its worst part. But some of the short fiction is brilliant. The Seedling Stars is exceptional.

        As for “How Beautiful With Banners”, the scientific speculation is lovely. But the portrayal of Ulla — cliched sexually repressed female scientist — is pretty sexist. As SF, though, it’s quite good.

        • Rich, Please please please tell me what good Moorcock short fictions exist. I have struggled mightily with his SF (long and short forms). The only ones that come to mind that I’ve truly enjoyed are The Black Corridor (written with Hilary Bailey) and the “Behold the Man” novella.

          The Ice Schooner, Warlord of the Air, and even An Alien Heat don’t resonate with my SF tastes.

          As for Blish, it’s been too long since I read more than a short story here and there. He’s someone I need to return to.

          I’ve reviewed The Seedling Stars on the site — but back when I stared ~2010.

          • I thought The Ice Schooner lots of fun when I read it age 14 or so. Likewise An Alien Heat and its sequels. Haven’t read them since. Keith Roberts wrote a couple of very neat stories in the world of The Ice Schooner: “Coranda” and “the Wreck of the Kissing Bitch.”

            As for good short Moorcock … hmmm … “Behold the Man”, of course. A more recent story called “London Bone” is pretty good. “the Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius” … and a few random stories in more “fun” mode. Not all tha much, actually!

            • I’ve read “Coranda” and Moorcock’s “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius.” Both are reviewed on the site. Enjoyed the latter, the former, not so much.

            • One note — the David Masson story you MUST read is “Traveller’s Rest”. I enjoy his others more than you enjoyed the two you reviewed, but “Traveller’s Rest” is special, a truly remarkable story.

    • … without feminist lenses? Because a feminist perspective might find something unnecessarily unsettling in a misogynist author who gave us pieces like the short story where a woman screws up the space program because she doesn’t know how matches work, or the novel where [i]of course[/i] once the real crisis comes the matriarchy that’s been puttering along fine for centuries gives way to the natural state of letting men like the schlubby protagonist take over?

      • One doesn’t need feminist lenses to find either of those plotlines an offense to women – or just plain unsatisfactory, because the characters don’t feel real.

  6. I rarely come across any copies from the Orbit series, you’re lucky to have found #1!
    I’ll take Knight as an editor over Ellison, just my preference.

    • A have eight words: The Dawn Treader book store in Ann Arbor.

      (They have a massive higher than a person shelf of only anthologies). Nabbed a few others as my acquisition posts will reveal in the coming weeks.

      • The best local place for older Sci-fi was a shop that sold old paperbacks for 25 cents each – even stuff from the 50’s was priced at a quarter. Alas the owner retired this year and the store closed, I’ll have to find a new place to go.

  7. I read this not too long ago. The Blish story really stood out for me. Yes, definitely, to the slight stereotyping of the woman scientist, but so nicely written, and an interesting angle on the first-contact story.

    The Dorman story was scary as hell, very good. Too bad the Kidd story took up so much of the collection…she was much more influential as a literary agent in SFF, so maybe of some interest from that perspective.

    As far as reading with a feminist lens…well, at this point in my life I don’t think I can read without it. I don’t just apply it as literary analysis, it’s a part of my initial gut reaction. We all bring our own perspective.

    • So you don’t remember much about the Kidd story either? I sat down to write the review and all I could remember was what the aliens looked like…. haha.

      But yes, I enjoyed the Blish story as well. Hence my 3.5/5. But no, it did not blow me away. And no, I was no suddenly desperate to acquire a Blish collection (although, I really should read another one).

      • Well, I remember getting a little bit into the story and thinking “Really? That’s very…on the nose.” Otherwise — not much.

  8. The Demons of Transcription crept into your post and misattributed “The Heat Death of the Universe” as a Sonya Dorman and not Pamela Zoline story.

    No criticism intended. The Demons haunt my blog too.

  9. As I said elsewhere, I largely agree with your take. I liked “How Beautiful With Banners” and “The Disinherited” (aka “Home” in later reprints) a bit more than you did. “The Deeps” is also good. “Staras Flonderans” is a sometimes interesting miss. “Loolies” is minor but fun enough. “The Deeps” is solid throughout. “Kangaroo Court” had good ideas but seriously needed LOTS of editing. … and … Orbit got better!

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