Tuesday, October 13, 2020

FFB/S: The short stories by Damon Knight he saw published in 1956, and IN SEARCH OF WONDER (Advent: Publishers 1956): Short Story Wednesdays; #1956Club

1956 publications by 
Damon Knight:

In Search of Wonder (First Edition) by Damon Knight; introduction by "Anthony Boucher" (William White)

"The Country of the Kind" (ss) The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Feb 1956 edited by "Anthony Boucher" 

"A Likely Story" (ss) Infinity Science Fiction Feb 1956, edited by Larry Shaw

"Extempore", aka (editor Larry Shaw's title, presumably) "The Beach Where Time Began" (ss) Infinity Science Fiction Aug 1956 edited by Shaw

"Backward, O Time" aka "This Way to the Regress" (the latter certainly the editor's title) (ss) Galaxy Science Fiction Aug 1956 edited by H. L. Gold

"The Indigestible Invaders" (ss) Infinity Science Fiction Oct 1956 edited by Larry Shaw can be read here (never reprinted, as far as I know)

"Readin’ and Writhin'" [with Murray King] (book review column) Future Science Fiction #31 1956 edited by Robert W. Lowndes; can be read here

"Stranger Station" (nv) The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Dec 1956 edited by "Anthony Boucher"

"The Last Word" (ss) Satellite Science Fiction Feb 1957 (on newsstands in December 1956) edited by Leo Margulies; Sam Merwin, Jr. had just left editorship with the previous issue

1956 might not have been the single most impressive in Damon Knight's literary career, but the work he saw published includes a number of key stories for his career (and to some extent for the sf field) and also the first collection of critiques of fantastic fiction taken from the pages of fantastic fiction magazines and fanzines to be published in book form, In Search of Wonder, which also won him the first Hugo Award given for nonfictional writing, in 1957, and which reinforced his reputation for an incisive, witty and unsparing critical approach. As the first product of Advent: Publishers, it boded well for both author and his press. Knight would continue to write voluminous criticism for several more years, coming to a sudden stop in 1960 when Robert Mills refused to publish one of Knight's columns for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which mocked a novel by Judith Merril, a regular contributor to F&SF much as Knight was (in the early-mid-'60s, Merril would succeed Knight, Alfred Bester and Avram Davidson as the primary book reviewer for the magazine). Knight let his analytical statements mostly be heard from then on out in the Milford Writers' Conferences he and Merril and James Blish had begun organizing together in the latter '50s, shared in his instructional work at the Clarion Writers' Workshops he helped launch and in texts in print, and read in the introductions to his anthologies, of which there were no few, including such volumes as A Century of Science Fiction (1962) and A Science Fiction Argosy, along with Knight's launch of what would be one of the longest-running original anthology series in fantastic-fiction's history, with Orbit 1 in 1966 (a late volume would feature his only review column there).  He had also cofounded the SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America (as it was originally known), with Knight as its first president.

A few years later, when the SFWA membership was polled about the best sf short stories as yet written, Knight's brilliant "The Country of the Kind" made the list and was thus included in--and for me, highlighted--the organization's tribute anthology, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (1970). Even as a 9 or 10-year-old reader, Knight's dispassionate look at what amounted to a utopian society, doing as best it could to cope with a psychopath among its citizens, chooses to ameliorate his potential for mayhem not by literally imprisoning him nor applying mind-altering techniques, so much as to permanently alter him in such a way that he will black out whenever he's moved to violence toward his fellow citizens, and he's been given a certain unmistakeable and permanent unpleasant scent, to mark him to at very least nearly all those he might come in contact with, so that they might escape him or leave him alone for everyone's protection. The protagonist's ability to act out maliciously is thus limited only by the unconsciousness he falls into before he can actually harm someone else...he runs rampant, and the rest of society does what it can to accommodate him while not encouraging him nor engaging with him, as he ruins houses and indulges in similar soon-corrected vandalism. Knight ups the ante by having the vicious misfit consider himself an artist, who seeks not only companionship (albeit in frustration usually acts out in spiteful, sometimes brutal manner) but also hopes to inspire others to create odd little tokens of (grotesque) visual art and to act out against society much as he does. It certainly made an enormous impression on young me, for what it said about the limits of human and societal perfectibility and how the alienation that artists can (must? only frequently do?) feel in relation to society can express itself--and how even the viciously maladapted and thus alienated can have some small case for their resentment if not for their behavior--heady stuff for a young, bookish, socially awkward kid at the earliest stirrings of young adulthood....

Nearly all the other stories he published in 1956 were nearly as polished and lapidary as "The Country of he Kind" (its title a sly pun on H. G. Wells's story "The Country of the Blind", for its part spurred by realization the one-eyed man might well not be king there). The only story offered in that year that hasn't been reprinted, as far as I can tell, is "The Indigestible Enemy" (another title I suspect to be Larry Shaw's). And I can see why, while not quite agreeing with the decision, given its fine portrait of power structures and the blithe acceptance of the insanely intolerable aspects of society, by so many in all societies, is well grounded in the events of the story...but the overriding cannibalism metaphor is not as elegantly applied as Knight usually manages, and it feels a bit too goofily grim, a bit too much a part of the "comic inferno" approach that was common particularly in the 1950s in sf. Still, like all good Knight stories, it's a model of how to balance sensibility with resonance, verisimilitude with desired seriocomic effect...just not as good a model as "Extempore" or the others. I'm glad I've finally read it.

The book-review column from Future Science Fiction, one of the Columbia Publications sf magazines which all shared the somewhat overstated column-title for their reviews, whether written by Knight or others (one wonders for several reasons if Murray King, making his sole appearance as a columnist in the second half, was actually editor Robert Lowndes under a pen-name; he deals with the short-lived Avalon Books adult sf line). This is one of Knight's most thoroughly worked-out assessments, even before slight editing to include it in the book, of why The Power by Frank M. Robinson and Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man quickly fail to be rational novels, and retain what power they have through their flawed explorations of the ur-monster, or the ur-fate full of monsters, just outside the campfire-light, lurking under the bed, faceless and as yet unknown. Included as a sample of what more one can find in Wonder...which has seen several editions at this point, each expanding the previous one. 

The rest of the stories published in 1956 were all gathered into one or another of Knight's first four collections, Far Out, In Deep, Off Center, and Turning On, which in turn were reissued as an omnibus by UK publisher Gollancz, the recommended way to find the volumes these days. 

I see now that I'd misread the window for the #1956Club, initially, and never took the opportunity to correct my impression...thus was two days as well as 64 years late!


George said...

Todd, a lot of SF readers forget that Damon Knight was an excellent writer as well as a gifted critic and editor. I'm a fan of those Gollancz omnibus editions, too!

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, I can't say I have heard of Damon Knight, leave alone read his work. Your overview of the author and his stories provide more than a peek into his science fiction.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

The Country of the Kind is one ofmy all time favorite stories.

Todd Mason said...

Steve, Knight's "Country" is a story, as I've noted in my blog before, and vaguely in the rough draft blurt I accidentally posted last night (as opposed to the zircon in the rough I've finally got up now! And hope to revise when I make time to do so) that helped shape my thinking...and all but literally blew my mind upon first reading. And I might just have to do something about the too-explicit laying out of the story above, if I'm able to lure people into reading it, and his other work, at very least in short forms (up to novella)...he only late in life got around to mastering the novel.

Prashant, you are hardly alone in not having heard Knight's name previously; even most Americans wouldn't recognize it, even though a Whole Big Bunch would recognize the title and plot of one of his better joke-stories, "To Serve Man", which was adapted a bit clumsily by THE TWILIGHT ZONE (the original series) and has been run variations upon by THE SIMPSONS and others. As nted, "Man" is a joke story, a good one but hardly his best work, but even with that relatively few know the author of the adaptation source...much as relatively few know Jerome Bixby wrote "It's a Good Life--" (which was also included in the The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume) or that Ms. Lyn Venable wrote "Time Enough at Last" as fiction before Rod Serling could find them.

George--my minor kicks are that the Gollancz books could be bound just a bit more sturdily in the paper and ink editions, and some less generic design for the packages could help, but they are a valuable resource and I'm glad they're easily available worldwide. I think most readers who remember Knight these days remember at least some of his various abilities and achievements--helping found Clarion, the writers' workshop for beginning writers, and writing texts for writers, as well as his fiction, historical writing/memoir criticism such as The Futurians, SFWA and Milford foundation, and editing--but those readers are generally thinning out...I wonder how obscure his relatively recently late widow, Kate Wilhelm, is becoming, as well...

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a lot of work went into this post. And thanks for all the links.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Patti! And for starting the short story highlighting weekly mix (in addition to starting and being the prime mover of FFB). Finally, having replaced a first draft with the second I'd meant to post, I've finally managed to fix a few of the typos and break up a mega-sentence or two...though I'd still like to add some discussion of each of the 1956 stories. Most of the links come from several regular sources for me...the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB), he FictionMags Index, and the more occasionally tapped Internet Archive and Luminist League archives.

TracyK said...

That is an impressive post. I don't have many science fiction anthologies but I will see if any of them have stories by Knight. I am not familiar with Knight either, but he was married to Kate Wilhelm, and I do know of her. Haven't read anything by her yet. I see that you have covered some of their works in earlier posts.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Tracy...as mentioned above, even with curtailed tv watching, you're probably aware of a least one adaptation of Knight's work, his joke story "To Serve Man" (professional editor and fannish writer George Scithers (under the name "Karl Wurff") actually produced his version of the cookbook in the '70s--the joke was the cookbook's jumping off point--Margaret St. Clair wrote the introduction.

I imagine you're more likely than not to enjoy Knight's and Wilhelm's fiction, and you can find some online if you can't find any in the books you have at hand.

kaggsysbookishramblings said...

Thanks so much for bringing an author new to me to the 1956 Club - that's what we love about it! And no worries about being late - so many bookish pressures and deadlines right now! :D

Todd Mason said...

To be sure, to say nothing of the extra-literary...I suspect few readers who like wit and prose will be too upset by their acquaintance with Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm...thanks, Karen, and for letting us know about the M. John Harrison retrospective.