Friday, February 3, 2017

FFB: BETTER THAN ONE by Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight (MCFI/NESFA Press 1980); BLACK COCKTAIL by Jonathan Carroll (Legend/Century 1990)

"...And you know two heads are better than one..." 
--Annie Ross
Better Than One was the only officially collaborative book that Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm published during his life and their long marriage; she was one of the most frequent as well as most important of the contributors to Knight's anthology series Orbit, and they are presences in each other's anthologies and nonfiction books, but they never formally collaborated on fiction; Knight refers to one abortive attempt early on, in the prefatory matter in this collection, which was published as a convention commemorative volume for the WorldCon, NorEasCon II in 1980 in Boston, where the couple were the Guests of Honor. (As with the books from Advent: Publishers, only with an even more obvious throughline, the book is now available from the subsequent publishing project NESFA Press.) ISFDB credits D. Christine Benders as editor, though the credit she takes is designer in the volume itself; it does seem likely that Knight and Wilhelm decided what went into the book. There are two introductions, one from each, which serve as brief memoirs of their lives together as partners and artists, followed by three poems by Knight, a prefatory note and the short story "Semper Fi" by Knight, a prefatory note and the short story "Baby, You Were Great" by Wilhelm, and four poems by Wilhelm. The stories deserve to be collected together inasmuch as Knight's story, originally published with some editorial fiddles as "Satisfaction" in Analog for August 1964, inspired Wilhelm to write hers, originally in the second Orbit anthology of original fiction in 1967. Both stories deal with virtual reality in a sense, with Knight's about the opportunities for people to create their own masturbatory playgrounds via a sort of interactive VR drawing on one's own imagination; Wilhelm, rather convinced that the technology that Knight described would probably be put to more social-controlling ends, posits instead a sort of remote experience of the lives of eventually unwilling stars of "reality" VR. Turns out they were both right, to the extent we've achieved a limited form of virtual reality and interactive programming. 

The two stories are not nearly the best single works by either writer, but are both good examples of what they can do, and the introductory matter is insightful and informative, and telling...particularly to the degree to which Knight's comments are more reserved, if clear in his gratitude for the life he has had with Wilhelm and illuminative of his artistic process (as Algis Budrys has noted about other Knight nonfiction, few could tell you more clearly how they go about the actual craft of writing than Knight), while Wilhelm's is more emotionally naked, providing a bit more of the sense of how their partnership worked and how it felt to live together and work separately; they are pretty obviously each other's biggest fans, though no more uncritically than you would expect two artists of their caliber to be.  Wilhelm's poetry gains a bit in comparison by her relative lack of reserve, feeling a bit less like exercises in the form (apparently, one of hers had been published elsewhere previously, though where is not cited; the balance of hers and all of his were apparently first published in the book), though both display their wit and grace.  Wilhelm continues to contribute notably to both fantastic and crime fiction; Knight is not as well-remembered as he should be but even last night, as I write, he was referenced blind on the topical comedy series @Midnight, in a game called "It's a Cookbook" where comedians were encouraged to mock silly or awful  examples of actual cookbooks...a reference to Knight's story "To Serve Man," also not his best but easily his most famous, and a fine more-than-a-joke story, slipped into the cultural surround in part by the adaptation on The Twilight Zone and reference to that episode by The Simpsons, those staples of proto-VR pop culture. 

US edition of the first collection with BC
While it's been collected twice since with short fiction by Jonathan Carroll, Black Cocktail was first published in both the UK and (in 1991) the US on its own, and is (surprisingly to me, considering how long I've had his books in my virtual TBR piles) the first longer fiction I've read by him.  I've had my copy of the St. Martin's Press hardcover of this one for a quarter-century, in fact, almost all of that time in a storage box, and that was my's a good read, and I'm even more likely to pick up one of his novels soon. This one begins feeling a bit like Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five"...only with a more sinister, not at all nostalgic mood...and ends with a sense of the same sort of Gestalt personality exploration that fascinated Theodore Sturgeon so fruitfully, and while the story, even given its excellent detail and grace and wit (and good choices of models to draw on...along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fritz Leiber, Shirley Jackson and a few other writers working similar territory over the the years) doesn't quite convince, finally, it's a more than game try, and you won't be likely to want to read something else while you're reading this one. The protagonist, mourning the loss of his life-partner, meets up with an enigmatic new man who turns out to have even more enigmatic friends...and an odd connection to people from the protagonist's past as well... Even more than the short stories I've read by Carroll over the years, this reminds me also of William Kotzwinkle's work, and that, too, is high praise. The jacket by Dave McKean is pretty brilliant; the interior illustrations, in black and white, are less effective, if appropriately moody.

The utterly spartan jacket for the first edition.
Peripheral facts: both these books have "officially" 76pp. of formal text (though as the index above notes that leaves out the overall introductions by Wilhelm and Knight); Knight's story appeared in the Analog for my birth-month; Wilhelm had essentially two "first" stories for professional publication--John W. Campbell had purchased Wilhelm's sf story "The Mile Long Spaceship" for Astounding Science Fiction (later known, as of 1960,  as Analog) before assistant editor Cele Goldsmith picked out KW's fantasy "The Pint-Sized Genie" for publication in Fantastic...but Fantastic published its story first...and Wilhelm was also soon selling crime fiction short stories and her first novel, More Bitter than Death, was cf...Knight's first professional publication had been a decade and half earlier, in Fantastic's elder stablemate Amazing, a cartoon (as Knight was initially as much visual as literary artist, but soon determined he was better at the latter...actually, he was better at the former than he gave himself credit for, if still a better writer) of the few reasons I was a bit sad to leave New Hampshire behind in 1979 for Hawaii, not quite as acute as leaving my few good friends and some other good people (though also not a few jerks) was that I really wouldn't've minded attending the 1980 WorldCon in Boston. As it was, I didn't get to one till 2001, the one just before 9/11. 

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

Lucky Cluadia got hers signed...but had to or chose to sell it, or someone did for her...


George said...

You have an eye for the obscure! I confess I've never seen a copy of BETTER THAN ONE before other than the British reprint. I've never seen a copy of BLACK COCKTAIL, either. I have a handful of books by Jonathan Carroll that I need to read.

Todd Mason said...

Well, as I unbox these gems from decades past, it's either time to finally read them (as with the Carroll) or time to write them up...I'd thought I'd done Knight's critical anthology TURNING POINTS for FFB, but perhaps someone else (you, George?) did so...the undeservedly obscure is what FFB's ideally all about, no? And the energy expenditures vs. reserves have been cut close of late...I think I might've bought my copy of the NorEasCon edition of BETTER THAN ONE at a NESFA table at one or another might've been at Hole in the Wall Books in Falls Church, or even less likely Moonstone Bookcellars in DC, but I don't think so...I'm surprised you'd seen the cover of the UK edition of the Wilhelm/Knight before. Carroll I knew to be good from those massive BOTY fantasy and horror volumes over the years, but I know I'll uncover my copy of his THE LAND OF LAUGHS at least, soon...but what on the re-expanded TBR piles, literal and figurative, will nudge it out of the way first?

ISFDB notes that dealers have been known to strip the generic jacket off BETTER, so that the boards with the embossed signatures of Knight and Wilhlem are apparently sells, or sold, rather better that way (as in the first photo of that book above).

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I too have at least one book by Carroll in my loft,m unread since purchase a good 25 years ago at least ... no, not proud of this at all!