by Rich Horton
Today would have been Damon Knight's 96th birthday. He was born in Oregon in 1922, and died in 2002. He was one of the most important figures in SF history, in many areas, and in fact I think his importance in other areas than writing has contributed to a certain neglect or diminishment of his accomplishments as purely a writer of science fiction. To wit -- he was one of the first significant critics of science fiction, famous in particular for his book In Search of Wonder. He was a major editor in the field, first of 1950's magazines such as Worlds Beyond (where he published Harry Harrison's first story, and the first Dying Earth tale from Jack Vance) and If, later of the absolutely seminal original anthology series Orbit, and also of numerous significant reprint anthologies. He was the founding President of Science Fiction Writers of America. He was one of the founders of the Milford Writer's Conference. He was married to the great Kate Wilhelm. (He was even, early in his career, briefly an artist.) He won a Hugo in 1956 as Best Book Reviewer. and a Retro-Hugo in 2001 for "To Serve Man". Some people have assumed that these accomplishments are the reason he was named a Grand Master by SFWA in 1995.
But that does his fiction a disservice. He wrote a great quantity of magnificent short fiction, notably at the novella length, with stories like "The Earth Quarter", "Double Meaning", "Rule Golden", "Natural State", "Mary", and "Dio"; but also at shorter lengths, with the SF Hall of Fame story "The Country of the Kind", and "The Handler", "Four in One", "Masks", "Stranger Station", "A for Anything", "I See You", "Fortyday", and many more. His earlier novels were less successful, but towards the end of his life he did some exceptional work at that length, with CV, Why Do Birds?, and Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.
In remembrance of his birthday, I am reposting one of my earliest Ace Double reviews (so it's briefer than usual), of one of the novellas mentioned above ("Double Meaning") backed with a short story collection.
|(Covers by Jack Gaughan)|
The Rithian Terror is a short novel (or novella), of about 36,000 words. It was originally published in Startling Stories for January 1953 -- I'm not sure if it was expanded or revised for later publication, but I will note that 36,000 words was by no means an unusual length for a story in Startling. The Rithian Terror has also been published under the title "Double Meaning" -- indeed, I believe the only time it appeared as "The Rithian Terror" was in this Ace Double.* It was later published as half of a Tor Double (under the title "Double Meaning") and backed with another Knight short novel, "Rule Golden"). As far as I can tell, the only other stories to be both Ace Double halves and Tor Double halves are two by Jack Vance: "The Last Castle" and "The Dragon Masters"; and two by Leigh Brackett: "The Sword of Rhiannon" and "The Nemesis from Terra". (Spinrad's "Riding the Torch" was both a Tor Double and a Dell Binary Star half.) Off Center is a story collection, with 5 stories, totalling about 44,000 words. It should not be confused with the UK collection Off Centre, which consists of the contents of Off Center plus "Masks", "Dulcie and Decorum", and "To Be Continued". Knight published two other Ace Double halves, Masters of Evolution and The Sun Saboteurs -- I have reviewed both of these (links below). The Sun Saboteurs is an expansion of "The Earth Quarter", and Masters of Evolution is an expansion of "Natural State".
As it happens, both The Rithian Terror and its erstwhile Tor Double companion, "Rule Golden", featured superior (both morally and physically) aliens coming to Earth. I liked The Rithian Terror a fair bit. It features a far future (said to be 2521, felt like 2050 at most) Earth-based Empire, which has a policy of crushing alien races which it encounters. The latest are the Rithians, and after some years of covert harassment by Earth, the Rithians have snuck a spy team onto Earth itself. The story is told from the point of view of the Security man who leads the effort to find the last remaining Rithian, and the points of interest are his relationship with an "uncivilized" member of a breakaway human planet which has good dealings with Rithians, and his courtship of an upper-class woman. Again, the story is fast-moving and enjoyable, with a sound moral point, and the resolution of the main action is nicely calculated, though there is an unconvincing character change pasted on.
The stories in Off Center are:
"What Rough Beast" (10,800 words, from the February 1959 F&SF) -- a man has the power to change the past (involving reaching into parallel universes), thus preventing bad things from happening. Is this a good thing?
"The Second-Class Citizen" (2800 words, from If, November 1963) -- a man who teaches dolphins tricks escapes underwater when the holocaust comes.
"By My Guest" (24,500 words, from Fantastic Universe, September 1958) -- a man drinks a mysterious vitamin and suddenly he can "hear" the ghosts that possess him. This story read to me as if it were Knight trying to do Sturgeon. I liked it, though the ending wasn't quite up to the buildup.
"God's Nose" (800 words, from the men's magazine Rogue in 1964) -- not really SF, a meditation on what God's nose would be like, with, perhaps, a cute but naughty punchline.
"Catch That Martian" (5000 words, from the March 1952 Galaxy) -- there is an epidemic of people being shifted to another dimension, and a policeman theorizes that the cause is a visiting Martian who punishes rude or annoying people in this fashion.
All in all, a very solid brief story collection. "What Rough Beast" is particularly strong, and moving.
Here is my review of The Sun Saboteurs.
And here is my review of Masters of Evolution.