Thursday, September 19, 2019

Birthday Review: Why Do Birds, and some short fiction, by Damon Knight

Damon Knight was born 97 years ago today. He died in 2002. In this space I've previously reviewed all his Ace Double, and his excellent final novel, Humpty Dumpty. Here then is something brief I wrote about his second-to-last novel, Why Do Birds, as well as a few more short stories.

Why Do Birds, by Damon Knight

Why Do Birds is Damon Knight's second-last novel, from 1992. It is described on the cover, fairly accurately, as "A Comic Novel of the Destruction of the Human Race". (Actually, it's not clear that the Human Race is actually destroyed.) The main character is Ed Stone, who shows up in 2002 claiming to be from 1931, despite being about 30 years old. He says aliens kidnapped him and kept him on their spaceship for 70 years, and now they have released him and given him a job. He is supposed to convince everyone on Earth to voluntarily enter a huge cube, and go into suspended animation. Then the aliens will take everyone somewhere, while the Earth will be destroyed.

Naturally people think he's crazy -- indeed, he thinks he might be crazy. But he has a ring that compels anyone he shakes hands with to believe him. Before long he is meeting the President and other political leaders, and the Cube Project is well under way. He also acquires a girlfriend and a number of additional allies. But there are a few people who oppose his plans, in some cases for sinister reasons.

The narrative is deadpan, simple on the surface, often quite funny. Ed is a curious character -- not quite likeable, a bit sinister himself, but in the end someone we sort of root for. His girlfriend Linda Lavalle is rather more likeable. The story plays out over a dozen years or so, as the Cube is built, while the forces arrayed against Ed raise doubts about his story, and Linda has her own loyalties tested. The ending is pretty much as we are compelled to expect, and mostly satisfying. That said, I couldn't love the book -- parts of it made me impatient, and I must confess I am not sure what Knight was really up to. Certainly the aliens and their plans are never explained. There are hints that the world of the book is not quite our world (besides the obvious differences between the 2002 Knight imagined as of 1992 and the real 2002). There are strange occurrences that might imply something really odd is going on, but I never figured out just what. But Knight is never less than interesting, and while it don't think truly understood this book, it lives in my memory -- it is a very original work.

Galaxy, June 1951

Damon Knight is one of those SF writers who I've always thought was best at the novella length (loosely defined). (Those his late novels are pretty good.) Stories like "The Earth Quarter", "Rule Golden", "Double Meaning", "Four in One", "Natural State", "Dio", and "Mary", all long novelettes or novellas, really stand out in his oeuvre. That said, Knight also wrote a passel of equally brilliant short stories: "The Country of the Kind", "Masks", "I See You", and "Fortyday" are four that come immediately to mind, from four different decades. Perhaps then it is fairer to say that Knight was a great writer of short fiction, though I'd say he didn't come into his own as a novelist until late in his career. (On balance, despite Knight's lasting fame in the field, I think he was underrated as a writer of fiction, perhaps because of the prominence of his contributions as editor, critic, and founder of SFWA.)

Anyway in this issue I was a bit surprised to find a longish novelette I didn't recognize in "Don't Live in the Past". Bernard Vargas is a functionary in the far future who is forced to travel back in the past after the "pipelines" in his world have malfunctioned, sending a bunch of dangerous stuff (mostly food) to the past. Vargas ends up in the very period in which the Sacred Ancestor who founded their society lived. He ends up imprisoned, and escapes with some revolutionaries. It seems that "Blodgett", the Sacred Ancestor, is a thug. But how can that be? The future is a utopia? Knight's story, of course, suggests in part that perhaps that future is not such a utopia after all. But also ... well, there's a twist to the story, a fairly guessable one. It's an OK story, but it's easy to see why this isn't one of Knight's best remembered pieces.

Space Science Fiction, March 1953

"The Worshippers" is rather less serious. A prissy philosophy professor and author finds himself quite by accident alone on an alien spaceship, which he flies by sheer luck to an unknown planet, where he ends up stranded among the natives (different aliens than the makers of the spaceship). He is surprised and pleased to find that they immediately worship him as a god, this despite the fact they seem fairly sophisticated and advanced. The man proceeds to remake the aliens in his idea of humanity as quickly as possible -- eliminating their immoral habits and introducing them to the idea of weapons, etc. Things are going quite swimmingly until yet another group of aliens shows up ... It's fairly minor work for Damon Knight, getting off a number of somewhat obvious satirical jokes, pretty silly stuff in many ways. Not without value but not terribly important in the Knight oeuvre.

Galaxy, January 1954

The lead novella is "Natural State", by Damon Knight, at about 25,000 words a true novella. (And Galaxy was, I believe, the only magazine at the time to use the term novella.) "Natural State" was later expanded into the Ace Double Masters of Evolution (1959). The expansion is fairly slight, to about 30,000 words. Here's my Ace Double review:

The future world is divided into city dwellers and "muckfeet". The city dwellers rely on high technology. They are conditioned to fear and feel sick at the thought of country life, and of muckfeet food and hygiene. They have previously fought wars, which both sides claim to have won: but as there are only 22 remaining cities in the whole world, and the muckfeet control the rest of the area, and have a much higher population, the real winners seem obvious.

As the book opens, the Mayor of New York has a desperate idea. He assigns a leading actor, Alvah Gustad, to fly out to the muckfeet and offer to trade with them: the high tech city products in exchange for much needed metals -- and also in the hopes of converting the muckfeet to city ways. Alvah somewhat reluctantly and fearfully makes his way to the country. At first he is confronted with suspicion and threats, or is just ignored. But finally he is given a chance to sell his wares at a fair somewhere in the Midwest. Much to his surprise, nobody is remotely interested in his products -- and worse, after he gets into a scuffle, he finds that the muckfeet have managed to completely disable his energy sources. He is stranded.

A pretty young woman named B. J. and a wise mentor type named Doc Bither take Alvah under their arms, and over some weeks they manage to overcome his conditioning against muckfeet food and smells. We get a look at the muckfeet way of life, which is based on using spectacular products of genetic engineering in place of machines. For example, for airplanes they use "rocs" -- huge flying lizards. Plants are used to extract metals from the ground. Other animals are used as truck or as message devices or as "libraries". Alvah is still reluctant to become a muckfoot, though -- he is still loyal to New York. But he is also in love with B. J. And when the cities launch an attack on the muckfeet, Alvah realizes that many things he has long believed are false. The novel is resolved in a predictable confrontation between Alvah's new friends and his old city.

This is a decent piece of work, enjoyable enough, but lesser work than Knight's best. I would rank it third of his three Ace Doubles (not counting the story collection). Some of the plot contrivances just don't convince -- such as Alvah and the very first muckfoot girl he meets falling in love. And Knight's case for the "natural state" versus "technology" is grossly loaded -- the cities' high tech is burdened by having to comply with the laws of physics, basically, which don't really seem to affect the muckfeet genetic creations. Or put another way -- Knight imagines a utopian perfection of genetic engineering, with limited costs; but the opposing high technology is auctorially declared to be inferior -- but not proven so.

(I also looked at the differences between the original novella and the expanded Ace Double. They consist of a brief passage, about a page, in the middle of the book which explains some of the genetic engineering; and a long additional sequence right at the end, extending the final conflict and giving Alvah a chance to be an action hero of sorts. On the whole, the additions are padding, though I think the explanatory passage fits fine.)

Amazing, July 1960

And, finally, Damon Knight’s “Time Enough” (incorrectly given as “Enough Time” in the TOC) is a pretty good story of a man reenacting a moment of humiliation during his boyhood, hoping to overcome, in reenactment, the fear that had paralyzed him (and, he thinks, ruined his life) back then. But, of course, he cannot escape his nature. Solid work, if to my mind not in the first rank of his stories.

F&SF, October-November 2002 (Locus, November 2002)

October/November is also F&SF's special double issue. ... There is a story from the late, great, Damon Knight: "Watching Matthew", a very well-done novelette about four episodes in the life of a man, ranging from age 10 through old age, seen from the POV of his dead twin. A nice story, but it didn't knock me out.


  1. GALAXY, being published by the US arm of an Italian house, was more inclined to know of such things as novellas...Knight still my default citation as the best all-around sf writer we've had. When he pulled it all together...sanded and solid.

  2. Though a pity about the novels till his last decade. I think CV was the first fully successful one, though I know others go even later.