Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday's "Forgotten" Books: WELCOME, CHAOS by Kate Wilhelm and A FOR ANYTHING by Damon Knight (and...)




Of all the impressive literary couples we've seen (not all happy but nontheless all impressive), ranging from Margaret Millar and "Ross Macdonald" to Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson to Marijane Meeker and Patricia Highsmith to Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton to C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, few hav been more variously influential as well as literarily impressive as Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. The late Knight, my default choice for the best sf writer we've had in terms of his strengths measured all around, had one glaring omission in his c.v.: until CV (1986), the first in a trilogy that continues with The Observers and A Reasonable World, Knight had never written a fully successful novel, after brilliant work at all the shorter lengths, from vignette to novella. A for Anything is one of those not completely satisfying earlier novels, but it remains a valuable, even necessary, read for the short story which serves as preface to the main body of the novel. If a duplicator is created that essentially allows an end to all shortages and material want, what will this mean for human society? Knight's supposition, which sets the groundwork for the retro-feudal society of the somewhat satrical adventure novel that follows, is depressingly believable. The adventure story, drawing on the same traditions that Robert Heinlein and Jack Vance did in their turns (harkening back to Dumas and his peers), is considerably less compelling, but still fun.

While Kate Wilhelm's novel, an expansion of "The Winter Beach" (a novella first published in Redbook in 1981 and collected in KW's Listen, Listen the same year), is also satirical in part and typically for Wilhelm combining aspects from various forms of fiction (this utterly sfnal quasi-apocalyptic novel also incorporates a scathing parody of a typical romance-novel hero of the dashing, preremptory sort). Society is threatened, to say the least, by a new (fairly AIDS-like) disease that kills most of those who contract it...but after it passes for a small minority, it leaves them apparently immortal.

As too often with my FFB entries, this is just a rough sketch of what I'd hoped to get in (and I'll hope to expand it over the weekend), but I'll note in the wake of the recent Washington Post quizzing of writers as to what their favorite horror fiction is, or at least what scared them the most, one of the now-obscure favorites of my youth is David Campton's "At the Bottom of the Garden."

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more "forgotten" books for this week...

9 comments:

Bill Crider said...

Not to mention Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hyman.

Todd Mason said...

The short dating between Danielle Steel and Harlan Ellison might not make the cut, however.

Todd Mason said...

Short period of dating, that was.

K. A. Laity said...

Hee -- and I thought you were making a comment about his stature...

I don't think I've read anything by Knight. Is that weird or just an indication that I don't really read any SF?

Todd Mason said...

It's more weird. He did excellent work in related fields, too. You've read Wilhelm, I gather?

Todd Mason said...

Enough people have waxed hoorarious about Ellison's height (perhaps Steel's, as well, for all I know)...a good introduction to Knight would be any of his better collections, IN DEEP or FAR OUT or even, oddly enough, THE BEST OF DAMON KNIGHT are all paths in. For Wilhelm, she's an even more protean talent...the voice is similar between, say, CITY OF CAIN and THE GOOD CHILDREN and DEATH QUALIFIED and THE CLONE, but how it's applied...her shorter fiction is devastating, as well...most people will remember "The Funeral"...and one of the legacies of their cosponsorship of the Clarion Workshops, after Knight and increasingly Wilhelm's hosting participation in the Milford Writers' Conferences is the two fine nonfiction books, Knight's CREATING SHORT FICTION and Wilhelm's STORYTELLER. And, of course, there's Knight's IN SEARCH OF WONDER, the pioneering collection of sf critiques.

K. A. Laity said...

Having a head like a sieve, I suspect I have read some Knight and merely misattributed it. I can only think about things that really pierced the skin or whatever I'm obsessed with right now.

George said...

K. A. Laity should try Damon Knight's classic, "To Serve Man." Or watch the TWILIGHT ZONE version.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, she has, George. Though the TZ version isn't a patch on the story, itself not his best but certainly his most famous, and quite good. One of the few good credits for Richard Kiel, though, the TZ adaptation.