Friday, December 28, 2012

FFB: MONAD: Essays on Science Fiction [except when they are about fantasy or are poems about a writer's life, and such], Number One (September 1990), edited by Damon Knight (Pulphouse)

the paperback edition
Monad, Damon Knight's last editorial project, produced three issues or volumes (1990-1993), depending how you looked at the hardcover and paperback editions published by the busy, and soon overextended, small house (Pulphouse Publishing briefly attempted, amid all their other projects, to publish their eponymous fiction magazine weekly). But it was a good and useful series of books (or issues)...from perhaps the last great decade for publishing  non-academic critical magazines in a non-virtual format, on paper rather than on the web. And Monad was as spare and lean (with no illustration and a single column of easy-to-read typography on the pages) as most of the other major magazine productions of that era were busy, whether we looked to The Armchair Detective or Science Fiction Eye (soon SF Eye, to be less exclusive) or The Scream Factory...even the similarly no-nonsense Necrofile, like TSF about horror fiction and related matter, didn't have the bare bones elegance of Monad...nor would bare*bones, the more crime-fiction-oriented successor to TSF, and the direct ancestor of the blog of that title.

Knight had begun writing criticism along with his earliest published fiction (and cartoons and illustration), in the 1940s, the critical writing sparked by the example of Frederik Pohl's reviews, and Knight's mostly published in the better examples of the more "sercon" (serious and constructive, which could be taken at face value or imply an earnest dullness) fanzines of the day, as well as in Knight's own fanzine, Snide. In the 1950s, Knight and Lester del Rey co-edited and published two issues of Science Fiction Forum, as a more purely critical little magazine/fanzine, but apparently did no more till Knight revived the title Forum as that of the house organ of the Science Fiction Writers of America, of which he was a primary founder and its first president. While some projects like this one ran indefinitely (Inside Science Fiction became Riverside Quarterly, and lasted forty years in all), many more have been mayflies (Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss's SF Horizons managed two similarly impressive issues in the mid-'60s). Others, such as the titles mentioned above, had intermediate-length runs, and made names for themselves at least in certain circles...anyone who suffered through my squibs on this blog knows that I'm tempted to try to trace as many of those as possible, but I will desist for a moment (noting only, for example, that SF Eye had roots in Bruce Sterling's one-sheet zine Cheap Truth as well as editor/publisher Stephen Brown's work on such earlier, more conventional critical magazines as Douglas Fratz's Thrust). 

Index of the contents courtesy ISFDb:

The contributions to the first Monad are suitably impressive, and, as often the case with Knight's works, begin with a matter of some controversy, as Knight notes that his original announcement of the series called for essays from writers of fantasticated fiction, rather than from fans or academic students of any tenure or "anecdotalists" (such as, one suspects, Sam Moskowitz); Knight prints Tom Whitmore's letter objecting to this policy, and in his editorial Knight notes that it's not so much a ukase as a flexible statement of intent. But, he continues, only the writers of speculative fiction are working from the inside of the art.  The balance of the book is laden with anecdote, but not solely the anecdotal.

Ursula Le Guin's essay is driven in large part by her recent completion of a fourth volume, Tehanu, in what had been for some years the Earthsea trilogy, and how over the course of writing the component novels, each in its turn, the very fact that she was a woman writing about outsiders in the heroic tradition (a dark-complected man, a woman, children) hit home, and slowly a critique of hierarchy and authority developed as her feminism and anarchism coalesced through her resolution and exploration of these tensions. Even as she credits particularly T. H. White and Tolkien for expanding the idiom before her, it's difficult to see how most of the more ambitious epic fantasy since her contribution would've been written without the example of her work (and that of Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, among a small number of other most influential folks--I shall have to return to Le Guin's other critical writing to see how much her predecessors such as C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett and Sylvia Townsend Warner, to say nothing of Woolf and her Orlando, nudged and influenced her).

The Aldiss is an excerpt from his then-just-published book-length memoir, Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith's (the British bookstore); Aldiss had served as literary editor for the Oxford Mail newspaper from early on in his career, and had had some commercial and artistic success with his contemporary-mimetic fiction along with his fantaticated thoughout his career. The Disch is a poem, apparently originally in his1972 limited-edition chapbook The Right Way to Figure Plumbing; "An All-Day Poem" is, in part, how art helps the artist cope with the great ugliness, and small reverses, life hands us (Disch's mother is losing her fight with cancer as he writes). Bruce Sterling takes a somewhat bemused pass through the realms of modern literary theory, the post-Structuralist, post-Derrida and Bakhtin era (and this inspired an answer essay for the second Monad by John Barnes). And Knight rounds us out with a fine short essay that limns his early childhood first  experiences with injustice (and the other Large Things mentioned in the title) and how he found them recapitulated in the crotchets of fellow editors and similar folk in his professional career as an artist.

Knight was one of the pioneering critics of note in fantastic-fiction circles, and remains controversial to this day (he would not stay his hand when he felt an affront to the art was being perpetrated, and Ed Gorman hasn't forgiven him for that yet). And yet Monad's three issues/volumes are a nice core-sampling of the most influential and serious critical writers active in its years (with some exceptions, such as Knight's great students Algis Budrys and Barry Malzberg, and Joanna Russ, who was already scaling back her critical writing in the face of health matters).  Knight, like most of the more ambitious writer/editor/publishers in the field of the popular critical magazine, would tend to move online for much of what he wrote in this wise after much as he continued with this kind of activity, as opposed to his writing instruction activities, as reflected by his Creating Short Fiction.

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog. I will be gathering the links next week. ("Be there. Aloha.")


Jerry House said...

Take any banquet dinner where they served peas, one Damon Knight, and one spoon...voila! flying legumes!

Just one of the many reasons, along with his sharp critical skills, why Knight is one of my favs.

Todd Mason said...

I only corresponded electronically with the man, in his last years, but even when he was feeling those years there remained an impishness about him at times. He's still my default choice for the best sf writer we've produced (though Avram Davidson and a few others might nudge him from the position of best writer to have written a fair amount of sf).

George said...

I'm with Jerry on Damon Knight. A brilliant editor and critic. I consider Jack Vance the greatest SF writer, but Knight and Avram Davidson are close seconds.

Todd Mason said...

Jack Vance is always to be reckoned with. And certainly be was a much more consistently good novelist than either Knight or Davidson...Joanna Russ and Le Guin are in the running, as well...with Carol Emshwiller at least on the short list...

Todd Mason said...

Or, He, Jack Vance, was...and was only because he's apparently retired from writing, and few have earned their retirement with such a copious and rich legacy already in print.