Book Review: Far Out, Damon Knight (1961)

Today I’ve reviewed the twenty-second and twenty-third story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. In “Thing of Beauty” (1958) Damon Knight speculates on something very similar to AI art. And in “You’re Another” (1960) Knight conjures a delirious manifestation of reality TV unlike any other. I’ve gone ahead and included reviews of the rest of the stories in Knight’s collection Far Out (1961).

Previously: Ray Bradbury’s “Almost the End of the World” in The Reporter (December 26, 1957). It appeared in his short story collection The Day It Rained Forever (1959). If you have an Internet Archive account, you can read it online here.

Up Next: Richard Matheson’s “Through Channels” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (April 1951). You can read it online here.

Robert F. Young’s “Audience Reaction” in Science Fiction Quarterly, ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes (February 1954). You can read it online here.

3.5/5 (Collated rating: Good)

Damon Knight’s impact on the science fiction field can be felt to this day. He founded the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and co-founded two influential science fiction workshops (Milford and Clarion). Knight also edited the Orbit series of anthologies, notable for their larger-than-average number of female science fiction authors and overall quality–I’ve reviewed Orbit 1 (1966), Orbit 3 (1968), Orbit 4 (1968), and Orbit 8 (1970) so far. I can’t help but notice that his fiction, on the other hand, has faded a bit from popular knowledge. I struggle to identify a masterpiece Knight novel. Did he write one?

I’ve enjoyed his short fiction, notably “Down There” (1973) and “I See You” (1976), immensely. With that in mind, I consumed my first collection of his short stories. I can add “The Enemy” (1958), “You’re Another” (1955), and “Cabin Boy” (1951) to my list of favorite Knight visions.

Brief Plot Discussion and Analysis

“To Serve Man” (1950), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (November 1950). You can read it online here.

The Kanamit, pig-like humanoid aliens, arrive on Earth with a promise to assist humanity that appears to have zero caveats. Their similarity to a human food animal creates a disquieting horror: “when a think with the countenance of a fiend comes from the stars and offers a gift, you are disinclined to accept” (1). The Kanama proclaim that they want “to bring you the peace and plenty which we ourselves enjoy, and which we have in the past brought to other races throughout the galaxy” (3). They introduce fantastic power sources, anti-nuclear explosion shields, and technology to exponentially enhance agricultural productivity. Soon there are no “more standing armies, no more shortages, and no unemployment” (7). But no one can decode their language. And when someone finally figures it out, it will be too late.

I don’t completely understand why “To Serve Man” is one of Knight’s best-known short fictions. It won the 2001 Retro Hugo Award for Best Short Story. I would have voted for Fritz Leiber’s masterpiece “Coming Attraction” (1950) from the list of nominees! That said, “To Serve Man” is an effective twist-ending story that plays with our expectations but doesn’t have the reflective or incisive impact of “The Enemy” (1958), “You’re Another” (1955), or even “Time Enough” (1960) in this collection. I’m probably in the minority in this view.

Somewhat recommended.

“Idiot Stick” (1958), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 4, Frederik Pohl (1958). You can read it online here.

A spaceship lands in New Jersey. Soon it’s surrounded by the military. An alien exits the craft and proclaims “This is a ship of the Galactic Federation. We come in peace. Your guns will not fire; please take them away” (8). He tosses strange “glittery objects” toward the people (8). An officer picks one up and experiences a jolt… of happiness (9). Soon the aliens employ works, desperate to get a jolt of the sticks, to clear five hundred acres of ground to erect structures of unknown purpose (9). New York becomes a source of native labor for the project. As with “To Serve Man,” whose success Knight appears to be trying to replicate, the purpose of the aliens is not peaceful.

The reveal of “Idiot Stick” certainly puts the immensity of the universe and the unimportance of humanity (at least to the aliens) in relief. I can’t help but notice the similarities between “Idiot Stick” and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979). Earth is in the way of a much larger building project! There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this one.

“Thing of Beauty” (1958), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (September 1958). You can read it online here.

Mr. Gordon Fish, an aimless, often divorced, and generally unsuccessful person, receives a mysterious package that he did not order from “a slender man in purple” (22). Upon closer inspection Fish uncovers a strange machine that seems to create art at random from certain combinations of words. But Fish doesn’t understand the language the machine deploys. The first artistic creation seems a bit odd: “he didn’t know anything about art, of course, but he knew this was no good […]. But that bull-whoever saw a bull dancing like that? With flowers between its horns?” (26). Through trial and error Fish figures out the general basics of the contraption (or so he thinks) and comes up with yet another plan to make it big: he’ll create art in the name of his imaginary dying nephew (28).

And his fame starts to grow. And students who want lessons start to appear at his mansion door. But there’s a slight problem: the machine doesn’t seems to be losing its source material every time he creates a new piece of art. Strange feet and other objects start to appear in his commissions generating attention and uncomfortable questions. Fish finally deciphers the machine’s operating language. And his house of cards comes crumbling down.

Considering the current topicality of AI-generated art, I found “Think of Beauty” somewhat worth the read despite the light humor of the telling. Fish’s machine–the origins of the machine and why it ended up at his door remain undetermined–operates by sifting through a database of art based on various features keyed by subject. Knight as the sad sack sort without any skill of his own who would resort to such a contraption. While I lack the know-how as to current AI-art generation, I’ve unfortunately been forced to figure out how to catch AI-created student papers! I suspect someone interested in the history of science fiction as it intersects with technology will find more in this piece.

“The Enemy” (1958), 4/5 (Good): First appeared in Venture Science Fiction Magazine, ed. Robert P. Mills (January 1958). You can read it online here.

According to Knight’s introduction in The Best of Damon Knight (1979), he wrote the bleak and uncompromising “The Enemy” in a bout of terror at the possibility of going blind due to “eye trouble.” The tale reads like a literary terror birthed in a moment of existential dread as it contains none of Knight’s moments of whimsy or comedy that populate most of the collection.

The fifteen-year-old Zael is left alone by her mother on a remote planetoid, replete with ruins of some earlier civilization, with a temporary inflatable home, escape pod, and all-terrain vehicle. Her task? Survey the surface and identify potential mineral deposits. Her mother and sisters continue in their spacecraft to further locales to make deliveries beyond Pluto. Zael traverses the surface in her six-wheeled crawler. After a crash that ruins the vehicle, she accidentally unleashes an alien force dormant for centuries in a stasis pod: “the thing must have been coiled in there, inert, for thousands of years” (51). She has to return to her inflatable home before her air runs out. Her salvation lies in the coiled entity with its “jointed members that sprouted from just behind its head” (52). They must work together to cross the chasms. But there’s a sense that only one will reach their destination.

There’s a lot to like in this story. Knight only hints at the nature of the “austere” space-faring society Zael and her family is part of (48). The implication is that war destroyed Mars creating another asteroid belt (53). The focus instead remains on the strange dance that the entity and Zael must play across the shattered landscape. Taut. Bleak.

“Not with a Bang” (1950), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (Winter-Spring 1950). You can read it online here.

Sometime after a nuclear disaster with its clouds of radioactive dust, Rolf Smith encounters Louise Oliver. The story follows his attempts to imply his sexual desire–and, of course, the necessity to perpetuate the human race. The problem is Louise is possessed by the stereotypical Puritan mentality. Her interior thoughts spin the following mantra: “No. No, Rolf, I will not live with you in sin” (63). Rolf wheedles and cajoles: “We’re like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” but unfortunately, Louise was thinking of “fig leaves” (65). Eventually, Rolf figures out that there is another path to the bedroom–matrimony. But there’s a final hitch.

Yes, there’s a sex pun in the title. “Not with a Bang” (1950) is a humorous satire of the Adam and Eve post-apocalyptic paradigm. Knight relies more on a fast laugh than the queasy horror that transpires in Thomas Disch’s The Genocides (1962). If you want a more straight early 50s take on the theme, check out Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952) and Arch Obler’s miserable movie Five (1951). Knight integrates moments of social commentary about the rigidity of religious mindset. Ultimately, this is a slight story that elicited a small chuckle.

This fits in my ongoing series on sex and sexuality in science fiction (1945-1985).

Previously: Ward Moore’s “Lot” (1953) and Langdon Jones’ “I Remember, Anita…” (1964)

Up next: Robert Silverberg’s “The Seed of Earth” (1958) and Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” (1974)

“Babel II” (1953), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Beyond Fantasy Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (July 1953). You can read it online here.

Cavanaugh creates comic books. One morning, what he assumes is an apparition appears “seemingly, from behind the drawing table at the far end of the room” (69). Unable to communicate without the assistance of a magical disk, Cavanaugh soon learns that the creature is from another dimension that intersects with Earth. And the creature, who looks like a figure straight out of the comics, demonstrates a voracious appetite for art prints of his work–which he pays for in immense diamonds (71). Something inevitable goes wrong when Cavanaugh partakes of the creature’s “swizzle stick” which tickles, delights, and invigorates. When the sensation retreats can he heads to an appraiser with his stash of diamonds, and he realizes how irrevocably language has been obliterated (the Babel of the title).

Despite my lack of linguistics knowledge, I find SF tinged with linguistic theories and trappings alluring–Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (196) and even less satisfying works like Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (1958) come to mind. “Babel II” contains fascinating ideas but is characterized by a streak of inane whimsy–a magical little person that looks like the Happy Hooligan with a “Tweedledum tummy” (69)–that isn’t for me. Beware Greeks bearing gifts is the running theme of too many of the stories in this collection.

“Anachron” (1954), 2/5 (Bad): First appeared in If, ed. James L. Quinn (January 1954). You can read it online here. Two brothers live on the island of Ischia, off the Neapolitan coast in a beautiful palace, “with peeling cupids on the walls, a multitude of rats, no central heating and no neighbors” (93). Both fit the definition of armchair scholars. Peter collects art and fills the vaults and galleries with his finds. Harold, an “amateur scientist,” due to his patents collected incomes without following modern protocol (93). Both belong to some earlier century’s manifestation of the armchair scholar of wealth with roving fixations and obsessions based on whim and whimsy. Peter invents a time travel viewing device (of course) that “conserves” events in the past as “we cannot alter the past” (95). Harold disappears (apparently into the device). Peter starts to make experiments with the time-sphere.

Despite the unusual formulation of time travel, the story itself failed to grab me and I’m unsure if I even finished or not.

“Special Delivery” (1954), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (April 1954). You can read it online here. One of many stories in science fiction and horror that “alienify” the woman’s body, “Special Delivery” puts a spin on the urges of pregnancy by postulating the telepathic control of the fetus over the mother. But Len and Moira’s child, who names himself Leo after Leonardo da Vinci, doesn’t only compel his mother to track down ice cream and other snacks at weird times in the middle of the night… Leo wreaks havoc at work functions. Forces his mother to read every manner of book. Len soon loses his job. But Leo, still yet to be born, has other ideas of how they might make ends meet.

“Special Delivery” contains a few moments of humorous satirical jesting about high school teaching, school functions, and the endlessly uncomfortable social events that should be in the job description for their frequency! I guess someone interested in the history of the trope of alien human births and children could find something of value here.

“You’re Another” (1955), 4.5/5 (Very Good): First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (June 1955). You can read it online here.

The artist Johnny Bormish seems to have the worst luck. He crashes into things. He’s the proverbial fruit cart the car always runs into. A terror grows deep inside him as “he had never actually enjoyed being the kind of buffoon” who gets trapped in doors, shirt in zippers, and trips on pebbles (130). Something just seems off. The existential fear that someone was doing it to him lingers in his mind like a persistent sore. Was he the punchline to some script he cannot see?

So much of the story is mediated through photographs, film, TV show references, and archetypal narrative patterns. Johnny can only understand the worlds as if it is part of a film–“the airport waiting room was a little like a scene out of Things to Come” (135). Johnny’s terror grows as he realizes that “he had seen this same routine in at least half a dozen bad movies” (137). His life seems like the comic relief because it is! But those writing the scripts have entirely different morals and conceptions of humor. But then again, if you really think about what we find funny it is far more perverse than at first glance.

The best story of the collection wrangles all of Damon Knight’s pet gags that frustrate me–a tendency towards whimsy and pseudo-intellectual references to authors and art–into a brilliant and grotesque package on the theme of future media entertainment. Johnny’s life is supposed to be a hodgepodge of narrative gimmicks and references. It’s creepy. It’s vast and baroque.

Highly recommended.

“Time Enough” (1960), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith (July 1960). You can read it online here.

Like “Extempore” (1956) below, “Time Enough” takes a critical look at the possibility of remaking our world through time travel. While “Extempore” deals with the longue durée of the far future and grandiose visions remaking one’s self in a different era, “Time Enough” centers around a small yet traumatic childhood experience that a young paying customer wants to confront once and for all.

Vogel guides Jimmy to place where the hazing ritual of his youth transpired: “we were all standing around in front of the drugstore in the village, and one of the kids said let’s go swimming,” Jimmy reminisces (156). Vogel automatically, without conviction of purpose, goes through the motions of turning the dials as “he was not a young man any more and he no longer believed his work” (157). The machine supposedly gives the participant the chance, when they are ready, to confront the past. But Vogel increasingly believes that he might not actually be helping as “things did not turn out as you expected” (157). Jimmy gathers the strength and gives the go to proceed.

No wonder Cele Goldsmith picked this one as it does a lot with very little space. It’s effectively told and generates some real emotional heft. I imagine most of us think back on that seemingly fulcral moment where everything could have been different–for better or worse. And Knight wants us to move on… we can’t dwell on the past.

“Extempore” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good): An original story for this collection. You can read it online here.

An odd time travel story about Rossi, who wants to live in anytime but his own. He desired a “villa in Athens; or an island where the natives were childlike and friendly [..] or a vast hygienic apartment in some future underground Utopia” (161). Inspired by the science fiction magazines of his youth, marked up with “large exclamatory blue and red and green pencil” (161), he builds a time machine. Of course, the “reality” of the time-travel experience (he gets stuck flicking in and out of time) and how he will be perceived by the people he interacts with is not what he expects — with disquieting effects. He begins to resent his choice: “this was worse than dishwashing–his nightmare, the worst job he knew. Standing here, like a second hand ticking around the face of Time, while men who flickered and vanished threaded him with questions: a thing, a tool, a gyrating information booth!” (167).

As a historian and teacher, my students often pepper me with the question “do you wish you could live in the past?” “Absolutely not,” I holler, much to their surprise. The past was an alien place. I am interested in studying the past from the vantage point of now. With this in mind, I am naturally drawn to contrary perspectives on interacting with the past (or future). Knight effectively disembowels the wish fulfillment made implicit in the premise.

“Cabin Boy” (1951), 4/5 (Good): First appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (September 1951). You can read it online here.

Two parallel narratives follow an unusual alien entity “named” Tommy–the titular cabin boy–in a bizarre “huge dark ovoid” (174) spacecraft and two humans–Roget and Frances–who get trapped within it. Tommy, a “six-foot egg made of greenish gelatin” with his “dark or radiant” organs in full view (171), comes from a race a space travelers cast into the outer reaches “for all the billions of years of their flight” who adhere to the impossible mystical completion when all would gather back again (186). Unfortunately, Roget and Frances, on a final trip to test the possibility of a life together, travel within a metal spaceship–and metal is fuel absorbed by the alien vessel. Tommy is also a cabin boy, the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of the his society, more likely to be hazed and abused than believed when he attempts to convey the discovery of a strange form of life.

This is a fascinating, and strange, first contact story with truly alien aliens with a more than competent female main character. Recommended for classic examples of this basic SF premise.

“The Last Word” (1957), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Satellite Science Fiction, ed. Leo Margulies (February 1957). You can read it online here.

I must confess, science fictional stories with characters from the Christian cosmology seldom interest me. However, the core of Knight’s “The Last Word” involves a concept I return to on my site again and again. It’s best promulgated by Martha A. Bartter in “Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal” (1986) in which she argues that “atomic war has traditionally been presented both as obvious disaster and as secret salvation” (148). Knight’s story fits this pattern.

Told from the perspective of Satan, “The Last Word” chronicles his attempt to lead humanity astray over the generations and the ways he’s been outwitted. He attempts to prevent the development of the first written symbols among the Egyptians: “the Sumerians, up north, had recently discovered the art of writing, and I was still suffering from the shock” (196). Over time he learns its more destructive to encourage rather than suppress “the inventive habit” (196). He guides humanity to use gunpowder in weapons instead of only fireworks. Satan’s final triumph? The looming horror of nuclear war. But the two survivors–wince, another Adam and Eve scenario–might be able to finally defeat him once and for all.

Somewhat recommended.

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50 thoughts on “Book Review: Far Out, Damon Knight (1961)

  1. I recently read “You’re Another” for the first time. I completely agree with your review. It’s an amazing story, truly wonderful. Deserves to be much better known. It will definitely be in my planned “Alternate SF Hall of Fame Anthology” — which, I should note, will almost certainly remain virtual!

    The popularity of “To Serve Man” rests on two things — one, the easy to understand concluding joke, and, two, the Twilight Zone adaptation. As I bitterly complained when it won the Retro Hugo instead of a host of far superior stories, it won for “Best Twilight Zone Adaptation Source”, not for Best Short Story.

    Knight wrote so much brilliant stuff that this collection inevitably seems oddly weak. Much of his best work was novella length (“The Earth Quarter”, “Rule Golden”, “Double Meaning”, etc.) and some was later (“I See You”, a favorite of mine as well as of yours.)

    • “You’re Another” is really really good. As I point out, it manages to harness all the elements of a Knight story that I find off-putting into a cohesive and mind-blowing package. The narrative ticks that often make me cringe become the actual story.

      As for “To Serve Man,” I’d place Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” (1950) and Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman” (1950) above it on the finalist list for the Retro Hugo that year.

      If I could expand the Hugo list, I’d consider Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm” (1950), Tommasso Landolfi’s “Cancerqueen” (1950), and MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950) over the Knight story. I still think I’d pick the Leiber (with maybe the Landolfi second).

      The collection felt afflicted with some idea-doubling disease. Some of the stories felt like copies of others with small revisions. It was repetitive as a result. But the good stories, despite the similarity of theme and delivery, rise above the rest.

      The only story that felt completely different than the others was “The Enemy.” In the intro to the story in his Best Of collection, Knight mentions that he wrote one other story while terrified that he was losing his sight. I want to track it down if I haven’t read it already. Do you know which one it is?

      • The Leiber story is my choice as well from 1950, but there are also at least five brilliant Bradbury pieces, including “The Veldt”, “Ylla”, and “The Fox and the Forest”, plus as you note MacDonald’s too little known “Spectator Sport”, a couple more very good Leiber stories, and good work by Bester, Asimov, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. “To Serve Man” is just so MINOR compared to all that.

        • Yup, my various choices only delved into what I had read in the lifetime of the site. I was an avid consumer of Bradbury primarily as a kid. I have firm memories of “The Veldt.” I have the Bradbury volume in the Illinois U. Modern Masters series waiting to be devoured! I should get to that sooner than later.

  2. FAR OUT, Knight’s first collection, was definitely a weak one, dominated by relatively short and jokey stories. (And beware THE BEST OF DAMON KNIGHT, which consists of the contents of FAR OUT, with a few additions.) I agree with your characterizations of its contents pretty much down the line.

    His stronger stories–to my taste at least–include “What Rough Beast?”, “The Country of the Kind,” and “The Handler,” “Four in One,” and “Stranger Station,” all of which except “What Rough Beast?” can be found in his second collection “In Deep.” (US edition–UK edition is missing “The Handler.”) Also, as Rich says, some of his best work is at novella length. For that you want his collection RULE GOLDEN AND OTHER STORIES. Oh, and “What Rough Beast” is in Knight’s otherwise mediocre collection OFF CENTER, also anthologized in THE BEST OF F&SF 9TH SERIES. These stories are about as good as ’50s SF got.

    The other story Knight wrote during his “eye trouble” is “Mary” a/k/a “An Ancient Madness,” which didn’t see print until 1964 in GALAXY; it’s is in his later, lesser but still worthwhile TURNING ON.

    Speaking of jokey, “Cabin Boy” is a joke about a joke, the main joke being on editor Gold of GALAXY who bought the story. The last line alludes to a famous (in certain uncouth quarters) bit of doggerel:

    Tommy Loy, the cabin boy, the dirty little nipper:
    He filled his ass with broken glass
    And circumcised the skipper.

    • At least “Cabin Boy” despite the joke that might be referencing functions separated from the joke that I did not get at the time (thank you for explaining it!). Some of the others here are the joke — entirely.

      I’ll look for “An Ancient Madness.”

    • John Boston: His stronger stories–to my taste at least–include “What Rough Beast?”, “The Country of the Kind,” and “The Handler,” “Four in One,” and “Stranger Station,” all of which except “What Rough Beast?” can be found in his second collection “In Deep.” (US edition–UK edition is missing “The Handler.”) …. These stories are about as good as ’50s SF got.

      Agreed, and also with your assessment of the place of Knight’s novella-length works in his overall bibliography (forex, ‘The Visitor at the Zoo’ from1963).

      IMO, there are later Knight stories that rate up there with these 1950s-era ones. I’d point to ‘Semper Fi’ (1964, first published in Campbell’s ANALOG of all places), obviously ‘I See You’ (1976), and ‘Down There’ (1973).

      That latter story, ‘Down There,’ perhaps indicates part of the problem as regards why Knight’s stories aren’t as well-remembered and rated as they should be. This is that they’re sometimes so damned indirect and subtle — unlike ‘To Serve Man’ and ‘Not With a Bang’ — that they go completely over over a whole lot of people’s heads. ‘Down There’ will seem like a whole lot of nothing, till the reader gets that what it’s really about is what — or more precisely, who — is not in the story, because they’ve been written out of it.

      Algis Budrys once commented that the story Knight had in his head sometimes didn’t make it onto the page for readers, and I guess he meant it mostly as a criticism — if you were to articulate it a little more prosaically, I guess Budrys was claiming that Knight was sometimes so subtle as to be in danger of disappearing up his fundament.

      But Knight had to have been doing it as a conscious strategy and when it works, it’s great. Still, even ‘The Country of the Kind,’ which is one of the truly classic SF stories — and which addresses maybe the central human social problem: what should we do about the psychopaths? — goes over quite a few people’s heads. Ah, well.

      Finally, I’m gratified to see the general agreement here on ‘You’re Another.’

      • Thank you Mark,

        I look forward to reading more of his later stuff too. I found “I See You” solid and remember a powerful emotional effect on me after reading “Down There.”

      • I agree with you agreeing with me, and pretty much everything else. I wonder if we can agree on the merits of “The Big Pat Boom.” That’s the acid test.

  3. I neglected to add that “The Handler” is one for your future media series–concerning an entirely different sort of medium.

  4. I think you are all a bit too dismissive of the majority of these stories, although I concur that IN DEEP is on balance a better collection (yet). “You’re Another” struck me as a brilliant story when I read it as a 13yo, in the first solo Boucher BEST FROM F&SF, and I’ve beaten drums for it consistently since.

    I suspect that “To Serve Man” has stuck in the fannish memory as Knight’s second “Big” joke story, and, sadly, the relatively ham-handed TWILIGHT ZONE adaptation of it has cemented that. When one’s reasonably good if too-long joke inspires a fanciful non-cookbook from a small fannish press in the ’70s, something is resonating with the easy laugh reflex in certain circles.

    • Hello Todd,

      I think we all agree that “You’re Another” is brilliant. Which ones am I being too dismissive of? I struggle, mightily, with most joke stories. I think I am very generous to “Not With a Bang” and “To Serve Man” in my review. I’m surprised I liked them as much as I did considering the centrality of the joke.

      But yes, I wouldn’t doubt that part of the love of “To Serve Man” is due to the adaptation. I see it as almost indistinguishable from the “Idiot Stick” joke story in all but date.

      • I think your sense of humor doesn’t quite jibe with Knight’s, and thus you grow irritated by small details in the likes of “Babel II” and “Special Delivery” to what strikes me as too great an extent. I also rate the likes of “Extempore” a bit higher than you do. I hope I didn’t leave you thinking I didn’t think we (including John Boston and others here) agreed about “You’re Another”, where the capture of the bleakness of the situation caused by, and the general caddishness of, the protagonist’s Old Friend are balanced rather well against the reveal of the nature of everyone’s predicament in the story, even given some comedy-of-humors business in the bar.

        I’m fond of such relatively subtle later stories as “God’s Nose,” as well.

        • Yes, you are correct. His humor (most of the time) is not for me. Lame joke stories, magical little people that look like comic book characters handing over diamonds, and magical babies should be doled out in small doses… That said, please don’t expect me to be some polyp of you — muaha. I suspect there are plenty of authors whom I am relentlessly fascinated by that rub you the wrong way. And to be clear, plenty of Knight doesn’t rub me the wrong way! As I hope my reviews show.

          • I certainly am not in search of anyone who echoes me, but I continue to think you are making too much of, for example, the resemblance of the “Babel II” alien to something like the long-gone (even at that time) Happy Hooligan cartoon character–as I recall it, not much is made of it beyond the initial citation. I shall have to reread “Special Delivery”, but I don’t think it casts women’s bodies as alien terrain so much uses the rigors of pregnancy for a jumping-off point for a grimly comic take on what might come of a telepathic fetus…in a sense, a next step beyond the likes “It’s a _Good_Life–” as well as other mutant trans-genius stories. Small matters, to be sure. (As I recall it, in a story note in, I suspect, the BEST OF, Knight recalls as partial inspiration that one woman of his acquaintance suggested to her delivering doctor, after they slapped the newly-delivered on the rump to force breathing/crying response, “Give him one for me.”)

            • Maybe I’m misinterpreting your vibe but your comments read like you interpret a criticism of a story as an attack on an author you hold as important to you — and thus an attack on you (If I’m wrong, completely my fault). I’m all about moving beyond that. If you disagree, that’s perfectly okay. I have long contemplated getting rid of my ratings altogether. So many get wrapped up in the rating. I want to talk SF. I am interested in historical patterns, mapping moments, etc. (you’ve heard the spiel before). I won’t like everything but I’m glad I read it. And many of the stories in the collection could feature in future projects of mine. For example “Special Delivery”!

              Yes, it casts the woman’s body as another mysterious frontier to be transformed by nuclear fears. There are a few references to nuclear tests and their effects: “Len that there were great opportunities in radio and television, and firmly believed that atom-bomb tests were causing all the bad weather” (151). That is not a bad thing! That is fascinating! It fits into a lineage of similar stories — Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman” (1950), Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (1948), etc. If anything, Knight reads as quite sympathetic. His father figure tries his best to support his wife. But the story itself did not resonate with me. But a longer-term project about pregnancy in under the shadow of nuclear gloom is gestating in my mind. I’m glad I read it.

            • Yes, that would be a misinterpretation of what I’m suggesting, fwiw…my point was that it seems to me that you’re letting a very minor detail in “Babel II” excessively color your assessment of the story as a whole. I will reread “Special Deliviery”, as I have no memory of it being tied in to radiation-driven mutation fears, so, thanks for that.

            • Yeah, there only a few references — maybe just the single one I cited in my comment — to the nuclear shadow. And Len is presented a bit like someone caught up in the moment and unaware of the larger world around him so I think that reference is an important one.

              I know Gold at one point complained about the quantity of mutant/nuclear gloom stories submitted to Galaxy so maybe that’s why Knight only has a small reference.

  5. I’ve read a bit of both his short fiction and novels and, while I do like several of his novels, none of them really stand out as the best. Several are also based on earlier short stories; God’s Nose is based on the earlier short with the same title, What Rough Beast is at the core of The Man in the Tree… And at least one more which I can’t bring to mind. Maybe The Analogues & Hell’s Pavement, and I have a feeling The Rithian Terror was an also an expansion of a short.
    Anyway, I agree that he’s best at shorter lengths.

    • Yes, “The Analogues” is part of HELL’S PAVEMENT; and THE RITHIAN TERROR is an expansion of “Double Meaning”. Also, THE SUN SABOTEURS is an expansion of “The Earth Quarter”, though I prefer the shorter version. The longer versions of both “Double Meaning” and “The Earth Quarter” have been reprinted with Knight’s titles replacing Wollheim’s abominations. (The same is true, I believe, of “Natural State”/MASTERS OF EVOLUTION.)

      As for Knight’s best novels (I originally typed “knovels”), I believe they are his last two: WHY DO BIRDS, and HUMPTY DUMPTY: AN OVAL. Both are excellent. All his previous novels are to some extent flawed, though often interesting.

      • Thanks, that’s more than I was aware of. I always meant to get round to Humpty Dumpty, An Oval but it was o/p when I last remembered about it! Still quite like at least the beginnings of both The World and Thorinn & The Man in the Tree although both fade by the end (or sooner!) in my opinion.

          • I recall I quite liked it in a lukewarm sort of way. back when it came out, so that’s quite an old recollection. Never read the sequels. Todd’s reading of it may well be much more recent!

          • I liked the first 90% or so of CV a great deal, after which I felt it fell utterly to pieces. (Which is a problem Knight had with his knovels.) I also haven’t yet read the sequels, though I do plan to get to them eventually. (I am rather a Knight completist.)

  6. “God’s Nose” was always a vignette, and there was a collection titled for it…no novel of that title. Yes, none of his earlier novels were up to his best work in novella and shorter forms. The prefatory story in A FOR ANYTHING is also gtimly brilliant, while the balance of the novel is Robert Heinlein and Alexander Pope conflated, and thus not up to what Knight could do. (I am fonder than some are of the CV trilogy.)

    • Ah, I see now that it was only ever a short. Fantastic Fiction have it as a novel and I must have read that years ago without checking. I have a few of those Pulphouse author collections (where the error crept in), but not the Knight one.

    • Weird, I don’t have any of your comments caught by the filter. Is the novel more successful than some of his 50s/60s novels? I’ve only read–more than a decade ago–the truly atrocious Beyond the Barrier (1964). It has cast a bad shadow… and I need to move beyond it.

      • Several attempts on one computer failed to reach the blog, apparently.

        I would say that Knight’s earlier novels, such as A FOR ANYTHING which begins with a short-story preface which is rather brilliant, and then jumps into the novel proper which is weak tea Heinlein and Anthony Hope melded, are usually disappointing, and I’ve not gotten too far with most of the others–usually, it’s first 10%, I’d suggest, that already present a problem. I don’t recall the falloff at the end of CV that Rich does, but I do seem to like all three novels more than many do, along with WHY DO BIRDS and HUMPTY DUMPTY, which seem more widely-praised.

        Given how good his novellas tend to be, it’s an odd (and perhaps contract-driven–sample chapters and outline to sell a book, the whole work finished for submission in the shorter forms) consistent lack of best work in the longer form yet, till the end of his career.

        GOD’S NOSE the book wasn’t ever a novel, fwiw…but a collection in the AUTHOR’S CHOICE MONTHLY series taking its title from that vignette.

        • CV and its sequels collectively have the problem (characteristic of Knight’s early novels) of shapelessness. He did not get the hang of pacing and structuring at novel length until the end of his career; earlier, it was often just one damn thing after another, not adding up effectively. CV avoids this problem in part simply because the premise and the events are so interesting. The rest of the series just sort of trails off.

  7. In hindsight it’s weird to think two of Knight’s most famous short stories, “To Serve Man” and “Not with a Bang,” are two of his simplest and most old-fashioned. Old-fashioned in that they clearly belong to the O. Henry school of short story writing (i.e., make it short with a punchy twist ending), and usually that sort just doesn’t appeal to me. There’s so much you can do with the short story form, and indeed Knight would do that… later. I’m thinking especially of “The Country of the Kind” and “I See You,” stories that don’t have in-your-face twists. “To Serve Man” winning the Retro Hugo is still befuddling and shows how biased Hugo voters can be. THE TWILIGHT ZONE EPISODE AIN’T EVEN THAT GOOD.

    • What would you pick from the shortlist? And, if you could, what would you add to the shortlist for that year?

      I enjoyed “I See You” as well. And yes, I too struggle with the simplistic twist story. Although in the case of “You’re Another” (the best in this collection by a longshot) it completely works.

      • Hard to say. I’d have to flip a coin between “Born of Man and Woman” and “A Subway Named Mobius.” The latter is way more obscure and I suspect it would read as dated to a lot of people now, but I found it simultaneously cool and eerie—a super-science story with a rather dark cloud of mystery surrounding it. I would also add Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm” to the shortlist, and also van Vogt’s “The Enchanted Village.” That last one is superb, to the point where I think even van Vogt naysayers would likely enjoy it.

        • Count me intrigued by “A Subway.” I’ve had it on the radar to review since the conversation with Rich caused me to look at the list. Has some great interior art!

          I added “The Mindworm” as well.

          What’s the van Vogt about? (not on the list of Joachim Boaz favorites but I’m always willing to read interesting short fiction)

  8. If Damon Knight has a standout novel, it would be A For Anything, which I remember as being excellent and somewhat grim.
    (Scientist invents a way to essentially replicate anything. No more scarcity. Of anything. So what do people use in place of money or resources to leverage power? Other people.)
    As a child it struck me very powerfully.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one to see To Serve Man as being somewhat poor. Its such a long set up for such a simple (and fairly illogical when you think about it) joke.
    Robert Sheckley or Vonnegut (as Kilgore Trout) would have done it better by doing it much, much shorter.

      • Oh yeah. I’ve got this collection, as well as Turning On, In Deep and one or two others. They were some of the first science fiction collections I read so my memories are vague (though I remember liking Idiot Stick a bit more than you, even if the ending was a little trite.)
        (A warning if, like me, you decide that, after reading A For Anything, which was his second novel, to read his first novel, Hell’s Pavement. Its a classic case of “take a successful short story (The Analogues) and add on enough material afterwards to get a bad yourself a novella.)

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