Friday, September 7, 2018

FFB: FAR OUT by Damon Knight (Simon & Schuster 1961)

First edition cover by Tony Palladino
There are writers who have been more influential in sf and fantasy than Damon Knight, though at least secondarily not so vary many (through the sheer number of writers instructed or influenced by the Clarion Writers Workshops, initially primarily his work, and that of his widow Kate Wilhelm, his partner in this as well as other things, and cofounder Robin Scott Wilson and all the administrators and instructors who worked with them and have carried on the tradition), along with such other work as his critical writing, his co-founding the SF Writers of America, his editorial projects, and the excellence of so much of his fiction. My favorite writer who wrote a considerable amount of sf probably remains Avram Davidson. But my default choice for the best sf (and sometimes fantasy) writer we've had tends to be Damon Knight, most days. Far Out was his first collection of short fiction, published a decade after he began writing fiction he felt good about, his first story to get much attention being the bitter little joke story "Not With a Bang"...but it, like his other joke-stories in this collection, the Twilight Zone-famous "To Serve Man"  and "Cabin Boy", is not solely a joke story, but a reasonably complete statement about human society (and others) and a fully-realized narrative, in this case about the small things that will have finally utterly doomed humanity after atomic war...and the not so small reasons why that, it can be argued, wouldn't be as unjust a result as it should be. (It's a rare Knight story that is populated by a cast of mostly noble characters, though there are always a few good people among those less concerned with anyone but themselves. He's not quite Ambrose Bierce, but his vision can be as dark, certainly, as most hardboiled crime-fiction writers. And not always was he so relentlessly downbeat, as such other stories here as "Special Delivery" and "You're Another" demonstrate brilliantly, in their wit and subversion of some of their own darker implications. Some later stories might swing from the charmed contemplation of "God's Nose" to the utter cold rage of "Masks"...)

What tends to set a Knight story apart is the lived-in feeling of his settings, the relative believability of his variously flawed characters, the unflashy deftness of his prose. He was not one to introduce too many startlingly new concepts into the fantastic fiction vernacular, but he would think about them intelligently and ground them in credible human terms better than nearly anyone else of his time, or before or since. He mostly avoided the hobby-horses that could derail even the best of writers drawn to fantastic fiction, "inside" the self-conscious community or "out", and he was, like most of the best of his colleagues, a very conscious artist indeed.  

The descriptions of bohemian life in the 1950s in "You're Another", one of his most underappreciated stories, are far from the caricature of most of the Beats, much less of less-engaged writers about such milieux, while getting across the draw and compulsion of an artist's calling, and doing so through the employment of a few telling details, the kinds of supplies a painter might be very happy to finally find in stock in a supply store, for example (Knight's first professionally-published work was a panel cartoon, and he was an occasional illustrator early on), while also dealing with human drama engagingly, with graceful offhandedness at times, the tragic and delightful senses of life engaged and only infrequently underlined or italicized. His short fiction was a model most of us should aspire to emulate...he didn't write a fully-realized novel till the last several years of his career, but some of the chapters in those severely flawed early novels are similarly impressive as the shorter works up to and including the novellas. And what is of the fantastic in his fiction, as suggested above, is not slighted, rarely if ever a thin vehicle for metaphor, believable within its context even when dealing with, say, the demands of the fetus being carried to this case, the stern and slightly sadistic, telepathically communicated demands of the very special creature in "Special Delivery"...again, wit and intelligent thought, and the sense of life lived are all present and awaiting the reader.  If John Cheever were perhaps a bit less visibly anguished, John Collier a bit less irascible, they'd read even more like Knight than they do. Muriel Spark is a bit less spare, but not too distant. 

I continue to wonder why such incisive work as "The Country of the Kind" and the then-new "The Handler" were left out of this volume, but the inclusion of "Babel II" (in which a visiting alien's kind offer of a recreational intoxicant from his culture leads to the impossibility of communication through written or spoken language between humans) or the small bouquet of time-travel stories help make up for this. 

Any collection of Knight's worth reading, even given how diffidently he would title also the subsequent early collections, such as In Deep, Off Center and Turning On.
First paperback edition cover by Richard Powers
    Far Out Damon Knight (Simon & Schuster, 1961, $3.95, 199pp, hc)
    • Introduction · Anthony Boucher · in
    • To Serve Man · ss Galaxy Nov 1950
    • Idiot Stick · ss Star Science Fiction Stories #4, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine 1958
    • Thing of Beauty · nv Galaxy Sep 1958
    • The Enemy · ss Venture Jan 1958
    • Not with a Bang · ss F&SF (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) Win/Spr 1950
    • Babel II · nv Beyond Fantasy Fiction Jul 1953
    • Anachron · ss If Jan 1954
    • Special Delivery · nv Galaxy Apr 1954
    • You’re Another · nv F&SF Jun 1955
    • Time Enough · ss Amazing Jul 1960, as “Enough Time”
    • Extempore · ss Infinity Science Fiction Aug 1956, as “The Beach Where Time Began”
    • Cabin Boy · nv Galaxy Sep 1951
    • The Last Word · ss Satellite Science Fiction Feb 1957

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

UK first paperback cover by Josh Kirby


George said...

I read the paperback edition of FAR OUT with the Powers cover. Damon Knight was an underrated anthologist!

Todd Mason said...

And these days, perhaps an even more underrated writer...

Rick Robinson said...

I wish I had your critical eye; I might enjoy Knight more than I do. I have liked a few of his short pieces, but none of his novels.

Todd Mason said...

The CV trilogy is about where he started writing novels well.

Rich Horton said...

The omission of "The Country of the Kind", at least, is particularly strange.

I think CV was excellent, but the other two books in the trilogy fall apart completely.

Rick Robinson said...

I certainly haven't read CV, nor the following two novels. However, I think I should try a story collection. Should I just go with whatever I can find, or is there a better choice?

Todd Mason said...

Rich--I disagree about CV's sequels, but I will admit I don't remember except in the vaguest terms what events occur in each novel. Apparently, Knight thought less of "The Country of the Kind" than you, I and the 1969 SFWA did, since he left it out of THE BEST OF DAMON KNIGHT as well...unless he felt it was sufficient it was in THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, V. 1.

Rick--the obvious suggestion might well be THE BEST OF DAMON KNIGHT, but for best average quality I might opt for the AUTHOR'S CHOICE MONTHLY Pulphouse did with Knight...and among those that aren't quite career retrospectives, you can't go too far wrong, but either FAR OUT or IN DEEP is the best by the slightest margin. And RULE GOLDEN AND OTHER STORIES is probably the best assembly of the novellas, usually offered by twos and threes in other volumes and segregated from the other, shorter stories.

Rich Horton said...

Indeed the novellas are excellent. It's curious that he could do such excellent work between 15,000 and 30,000 words (and shorter!) but didn't figure out novels until so late in his career.

But ... "The Earth Quarter" (this above all!) ... "Rule Golden" ... "Double Meaning" ... "Dio" ... "Mary" ... "Natural State". That's a list for any writer to be proud of.

Gene Wolfe is I think the greatest writer of novellas in SF history, and Ursula Le Guin plus, more recently, Kim Stanley Robinson are brilliant at that length. But Knight is in that conversation too.

Mathew Paust said...

Great name, Damon Knight, and, altho I hadn't known of him, your excellent review has enticed me to give him a try.

Todd Mason said...

I think, RIch, it's simply the matter that even novellas can be written as of a piece, and had to be back when to sell opposed to the novels awaiting contract to go forward...Knight and Davidson found it easier to write while enthusiastic than when the damned thing finally sold...

Matt, you can do worse than any of his collections and anthologies...his novels, as you might've gathered, are a mixed bag, but almost everyone likes the late ones better...CV and HUMPTY DUMPTY, at very least. But the short fiction is the go-to form.