Book Review: Orbit 3, ed. Damon Knight (1968)


(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1968 edition)

3.5/5 (collated rating: Good)

Orbit 3 contains both masterpieces (by Gene Wolfe and Kate Wilhelm) and complete duds (by Doris Pitkin Buck and Philip José Farmer).  Damon Knight’s willingness to select a range of known and lesser known authors creates an enjoyable and unpredictable reading experience—but, most of the greats are on their game in this collection, other than Farmer who puts in a lazy shift…  Contains two Nebula award winners: Wilson’s problematic “Mother to the World” (novelette) and Kate Wilhem’s “The Planners” (short story).  The former was also nominated for a Hugo.

Recommended for fans of 60s SF of the experimental bent.  Do not let the collated rating sway you—there are some great stories behind the Paul Lehr cover.

The third in my Orbit anthology series read through–Orbit 1 (1966) + Orbit 8 (1970).

Brief Plot Analysis/Summary 

“Mother to the World,” novelette by Richard Wilson (1968), 2.5/5 (Bad):  Won the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and was nominated for the Hugo.  I always assumed that Wilson, the author of the infamous The Girls from Planet 5 (1955), was on the more comedic side of SF.  “Mother to the World” is not comedy.  This story is about intellectual disability.  This story is a misguided, in the name of provocation, SF “social experiment” that seemed to miss the obvious flaw that Joanna Russ eviscerated so adeptly in We Who Are About To… (1976): in last humans on Earth scenarios, women are viewed by male authors/characters as walking wombs.

“She [Siss] was a retarded person with the mentality of an eight-year-old” (9).   Rolfe, suffering from the death of his son and “three billion other people” (9) in a Cold War apocalyptical event, and Siss (28-years old) are the last humans on earth.  You know, Adam and Eve…  Despite his endless brooding, Rolfe’s perceived cosmic duty to repopulate Earth is never in doubt.  But, having sex with a woman, even if you “marry” her, with the intellectual capacity of an eight-year old is rape.  End of story.

The notion of consent concerning intellectual disability is profoundly fuzzy—just look at the state-by-state legal tests used today in the US: “nature of the conduct,” “nature and consequences,” “morality,” “totality of circumstances,” “evidence of mental disability,” and “judgement”.  Issues of consent aside, queue the perpetual SF theme of women are viewed by men as walking wombs regardless of extenuating circumstances (i.e. we could be the last ones and we must repopulate the world!).  It is clear where Wilson wants to go with the story—but it comes off, despite his desperation to show Siss’ consent, as a justification of rape.  Worthwhile for scholars interested in intellectual disability in science fiction.  But, “Mother to the World” remains a profoundly problematic and uncomfortable story.

“Bramble Bush,” novelette by Richard McKenna (1968), 3/5 (Average):  A puzzle (and slightly puzzling) story, with metaphysical implications and some spectacular Jack Gaughan interior art… McKenna’s intriguing “The Secret Place” (1966) appeared in the Orbit 1 (1966) collection and John Clute’s characterization of his SF: “the central theme of these tales is the power of mind over environment—either to adapt the existing one or, ultimately, to create something new” (SF Encyclopedia).  “Bramble Bush” fits into this description.  Explorer Vessel M-24 and its crew encounter an Earth-type planet named Proteus with man-like creatures.  However, despite the apparent simplicity of the Proteans they have the ability to manipulated the past with their minds.  And the crew must find a way to extricate themselves from the planet….

“The Barbarian,” novelette by Joanna Russ (1968), 4.5/5 (Very Good):  A while back I read and reviewed Russ’ Alyx sequence novel, Picnic on Paradise (1968) and enjoyed how the protagonist deconstructed many of the common tropes of pulp SF in regards to gender roles.  “The Barbarian” covers similar ground but in (Alyx herself is the eponymous “barbarian”) a more evocative world—an almost M. John Harrison-esque far future world of mire and decay.  The wonderful protagonist Alyx, brought forward and backward in time across Russ’ stories, must confront a powerful man in a strange tower at the edge of a vast swamp… Recommended.

“The Changeling.” short story by Gene Wolfe (1968), 5/5 (Masterpiece):  Gene Wolfe spins a transfixing story that slowly, upon reflection, reveals somewhat obtuse (but penetrable) layers…  After service in the Korean War, exile in China, and a court-martial, the narrator Pete Palmer returns to his hometown to find a child Peter Palmieri who never seems to grow up has replaced him.  The names are purposefully similar.

Doubt is cast on Pete’s telling from the outset: “I was also one of the ones who had to stand trial; let’s say that some of the men who had been in the prison camp with me remembered things differently” (110).  As with so many of Wolfe’s stories, stories are woven within stories—there’s the narrator’s implied crime (did he kill one of his fellow soldiers?), there’s never a clear indication that the strange happenings in his hometown, and the boy who never seems to grow up, are not various ways of retelling his life through different eyes… Haunting lines permeate the pages: “He stays with us, and he’s a boy—better than Paul of Maria.  But he never grows up.  First he’s Maria’s big brother.  Then he’s her twin brother.  Then little brother.  Now he’s Paul’s little brother.  Pretty soon-he’ll be too young to belong to Mama and me and he’ll leave, I think.  You’re the only one besides me who ever noticed” (119).

Highly recommended.

“Why They Mobbed the White House,” short story by Doris Pitkin Buck (1968), 2.5/5 (Vaguely Average): Buck wrote nineteen stories over the course of the 50s-70s.  Perhaps she would be better known if Ellison’s infamous third Dangerous Visions was ever published as it would have contained “Cacophony in Pink and Ochre” which remains unpublished.  Alas, “Why They Mobbed the White House” is a somewhat forgettable comedic romp…  A tall tale type story about Humbert, the only man never to have entered a “hot spot” in Singapore during the East Asia War, who returns to the labyrinthine nightmare of the IRS and its endless forms….  And he’s elected president on the platform that a machine can do man’s taxes!  And then machines act up, and all hell breaks loose.  There’s some wit and wordplay but never reaches the heights of Tenn or Sheckely who tread similar humorous, yet serious, ground.

“The Planners,” short story by Kate Wilhelm (1968), 5/5 (Masterpiece): review reproduced from [here].

“The Planners” deservedly won the 1969 Nebula award for best short story.  A surreal multi-strand allegory….  The plot: a man, Dr. Darin, performs experiments on monkeys (who cannot see their captors) to increase their intelligence.  Likewise, he subjects an intellectually disabled boy and convicts to similar experiments.  The monkeys show strange signs related to the treatment, including a monkey version of a the Biblical story of Adam….  Interspersed with the experiments are sequences where Darin’s conscience questions his actions and flashbacks to the breakdown of his relationship and including how he cheated on his spouse.  Are their two layers of experimentation?  Just as man experiments on the monkeys unseen, modifying their social order, meddling with their minds, is their some other force at play?  Hallucinatory.  Surreal.

“Don’t Wash the Carats,” short story by Philip José Farmer (1968), 2/5 (Bad):  I am a proponent of Philip José Farmer’s 50s and 60s short SF (–“Don’t Wash the Carats” is not illustrative of his best work from the period.  According to the editor, Damon Knight, “this story is a ‘polytropic paramyth’—a sort of literary Rorschach test.”  This concept is an excuse of Farmer to spew out a series of crazy extrapolations and reactions to the discovery, during brain surgery, of a diamond in a man’s dead.  Take it as you wish.

“Letter to a Young Poet,” short story by James Sallis (1968), 3.5/5 (Good):  Sallis, famous for the novel Drive (2005) and its 2011 movie version with Ryan Gosling, wrote ultra-short SF stories inspired by various European avant-garde movements…  “Letter to a Young Poet” is more straightforward than “Kazoo” (Best SF Stories from New Worlds 3, 1968), the only story of his I’ve previously read.  An old author on a distant reminisces about his past and writes a letter in response to a previous letter received from younger writer…  The macrocosm of the galactic expanse is paired with the microcosm of human struggle to create.  “The day is wearing down, burning near its end.  Lights have gone on, then off again, in the houses around me.  Everyone is feeling alone.   Solid.

“Here Is Thy Sting,” novelette by John Jakes (1968), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good):  A philosophically intentioned story, about death and dying, with a slight comedic touch… Cassius goes to retrieve the casket of his brother brought in from the moon and discovers a plot, and laboriously tangential fashion, involving the dead.  Haunted by dreams, and unable to finish his biography of Colonel Robin Delyvev who repelled the invasion of the Chinese, he sets out to find the body of his brother. “Here Is Thy Sting” attempts to get at the philosophy of death.  The best elements involve the general world filled journalistic details that swirls around the action, and Jakes’ integration of invented historical moments flesh out story.  Acceptable.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.


(Lawrence Edwards’ cover for the 1969 edition)


(Paul Brierley’s cover for the 1971 edition)

32 thoughts on “Book Review: Orbit 3, ed. Damon Knight (1968)

  1. It’s always interesting to see how men take the last people on Earth trope – it almost always seems like a “oh there’s no way she can say ‘no’ to me in this situation” type of situation. Do you know of any from female writers, or any writers where the protagonists completely reject the idea of repopulation?

    • Yes, the Russ novel I mentioned, I linked the review (there are handful of people, not two… but close enough!)– We Who Are About To… (1976). HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! The narrator, a woman, knows that any children will probably die due to the horrific environment, and that the genetic viability of the population is too small… Most of the women in the story buy into the narrative of repopulation — and they drug her so she can be impregnated….

      • Oh cool! I did check that out just before I commented and was going to comment that I wanted to read that book. It wasn’t quite what I was thinking. It sounds like the choice is more a long the lines of the environment being the decider. I just think it’d be interesting to have a story where nothing is stopping them except for the protagonists themselves just saying “nup – not gonna happen!” haha.

    • I’ll have to do some research to find some more… It would be intriguing to make a list — although, I must admit, it is NOT my favorite theme (other than when Russ takes a stab at it).

  2. So far my readings of Russ and Wilhelm have not been that inspiring – except the very cool When It Changed. But then I haven’t read much of their work. We Who Are About To… which i didn’t like at the time (but i could be wrong…). And one short of Wilhelm’s: The Infinity Box, which i found tiresome. I am keen to read more though.

    • I love both. But yes, some Wilhelm short stories are not amazing — but, her more SF ones usually transfix me! Find “Baby, You Were Great” (1967) — my single favorite story of hers (review link: with “The Planners” (reviewed above) close behind and “Windsong” (1968).

      I also like Wilhelm’s most famous novel: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (not reviewed on my site as I read it before I started). And a few other novels have been solid.

      Russ novel ranking so far for me…

      1. We Who Are About To…[reviewed on site]
      2. The Female Man [not reviewed]
      3. Picnic on Paradise [reviewed]
      4. And Chaos Died [reviewed]

      • i will persist. thanks for the encouragement. you’ve pointed me in very interesting directions over the last few years. 🙂

      • Have you read Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)? You might as well, it won a Hugo and Nebula — she is definitely a SF novella author, hence why it’s comprised of three novellas… I find her best stuff is definitely from the late 60s and 70s. Her 50s stories are standard and not that inspiring.

        • it’s been on the to read pile for way too long. i’m only reading short sf at the moment but am planning an sf novel blow out once i’ve submitted my thesis (soon!).

        • Monster is the word. It has devoured my life… I am pretty keen to read The Female Man. Just checked my shelf and I have Orbit 2. It has Wilhelm’s Baby, You Were Great and the first two Alyx stories of Russ. Woo hoo!

            • I tracked down the Wolfe collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and other stories after I originally read that review. I loved the title story particularly the Wellsian story within the story. Sadly one of Wolfe’s other stories in the collection put me off continuing. Generally I like the various author collections over the single author ones, with a few notable exceptions.

            • One of the few books I’ve ever ordered that was lost in the mail…. I read only the title story in that Nebula collection. I’ve liked every story of his I’ve read so far. 5 or so…

            • I read the The Fifth Head of Cerberus ten or 15 years ago and liked it at the time (though probably the first section the most). I’ve read the first of his The Book of the New Sun sequence. The first chapter I found absolutely amazing, and the first half generally excellent. However I was not as impressed by the second half – though it was not bad. Enough to discourage me from continuing at the time. I will return to it at some point.

  3. Hardly ever come across the Orbit series in used bookstores anymore. I should have bought them when they were more common. I suppose it’s easy enough to search for them online, but I’m cheap and prefer to find them at the used book stores that price them at $1 each!

  4. Wow, amazing Lehr cover Joachim! So this volume contains the Wilson novelette you mentioned in an earlier comment. This is definitely going on my list of must haves. All the best.

  5. Doesn’t every SFF author at one point write a story called “The Changeling”? E.g., Robert Silverberg, A. E. van Vogt, and dozens of other fantasy/dark fairy tale authors. Liked the Silverberg one; thought the Van Vogt one was crap. The Wolfe one sounds great; I’ll have to hunt around to see if I have that D. Knight collection (I’ve got a few of those Orbit editions, I think!).

  6. LOL. I had trouble remembering that I left that comment – aha, from last year… Just looked through my shelves (now that everything’s out of storage!) and only found Orbit 16 and 20. 😦 I’ll look around for it or try to find a copy online – then get back to you!

  7. Finally tracked down “The Changeling” in a Kindle version of “Castle of Days” (stories and essays). Thought it was excellent – though lots of ambiguity!

    Wolfe’s definitely drawing on the classic “changeling” tale of folk legend: the strange child who’s a sort of interloper but is taken in; never grows up, remains small in stature; *holy water used as a method against evil; etc. A later story by Ellison – “Jeffty is Five” (1977) – bears some similarities, though Ellison’s story details (and goals) go in a different direction.

    • And I’m finally remembering this comment! (yikes)

      I really need to read his novels… I’ve dallied around about with his short fiction. I own Shadow of the Torturer, Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerebrus, and now The Devil in a Forest. I’m not sure what’s holding me back!

      • I feel the exact same way: I’ve heard numerous recommendations about Wolfe’s work, and – yep – I own several of his stories/novels, but just haven’t got around to them. However, what’s holding me back is just other non-SF reading (DeLilillo, C. McCarthy, Waugh). Ehh, I’ll come crawling back to the SFF bookshelves soon enough.

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