Knight, Damon

Tagged: Author | Editor | Critic

(1922-2002) US writer and editor; his third marriage was to Kate Wilhelm. Like many sf writers, Knight became involved in sf Fandom at an early age, and by 1941 was a member of the Futurians in New York, where he shared an apartment with Robert A W Lowndes and met James Blish, C M Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl and others. (In The Futurians: The Story of the Science Fiction "Family" of the 30's that Produced Today's Top SF Writers and Editors [1977] he published a candid history of the group and its era, full of sometimes scathing portraits but also arguing with conviction that these young men and women, from the first generation to have been brought up within the relatively new field, would shape sf for decades.) His first professional sale was a cartoon to Amazing. His first published story (for which he received no payment) was "Resilience" for Stirring Science Stories in February 1941, a journal edited by another Futurian, Donald A Wollheim; Knight's career as a short-story writer then lay fallow for several years. In 1943 he became an assistant editor with Popular Publications, a Pulp-magazine chain. Later he worked for a literary agency, then returned to Popular Publications as assistant editor of Super Science Stories. In 1950-1951 he was editor of Worlds Beyond, but the magazine ran for only three issues; later he edited If for three issues 1958-1959.

Knight made his initial strong impact on the field as a book reviewer, and is generally acknowledged to have been the first outstanding Genre-SF critic. His first piece – a fanzine review (in Larry Shaw's Destiny's Child, 1945) of the 1945 Astounding serial version of A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1948) – remains perhaps his best known; it is in any case one of the most famous works of critical demolition ever published in the field, inspiring considerable revisions in the published book, and often being credited (perhaps a touch implausibly) for van Vogt's eventual slide from pre-eminence. Knight later reviewed books for a number of amateur and professional magazines, notably Infinity and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, expressing throughout a sane and consistent insistence on the relevance of literary standards to sf. His early reviews were collected in In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (coll 1956; exp vt In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction: Revised and Enlarged 1967; further exp vt In Search of Wonder 1996) and won him a Hugo in 1956; the second edition adds a considerable amount of material published up to 1960; the third edition adds six further pieces. He ceased his regular magazine reviewing when The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction declined to print a negative response to Judith Merril – this review, of The Tomorrow People (1960), appears in the revised edition of In Search of Wonder. In 1975 he received a Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association.

Knight's 1940s stories – including occasional collaborations with Blish, once using the collaborative pseudonym Donald Laverty, and three times as Stuart Fleming – were of only mild interest until the release in 1949 of his ironic End of the World story "Not With a Bang" (Winter/Spring 1950 F&SF) in one of the first issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This magazine, and Galaxy Science Fiction even more so, now provided markets in which Knight could develop his urbane and darkly humorous short stories – including the famous "To Serve Man" (November 1950 Galaxy), "Four in One" (February 1953 Galaxy) (> Shapeshifters), "Babel II" (July 1953 Beyond), "The Country of the Kind" (February 1956 F&SF) and "Stranger Station" (December 1956 F&SF) – though as the decade advanced, and as his perspectives on the human enterprise darkened, even these markets proved too narrow, and he was forced to publish some of his finest work in lesser journals, where his scouring, revisionary, anatomical rewrites of the genre's already sclerotic conventions could appear in safe obscurity. Knight's reputation as a writer has primarily rested on the short stories published during the 1950s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s; they are adult and sane and have not dated. His best work has been assembled in various collections, including Far Out (coll 1961), In Deep (coll 1963; cut 1964), Off Center (coll 1965 dos; exp vt Off Centre 1969), Turning On: Thirteen Stories (coll 1966; exp vt Turning On: Fourteen Stories 1967) and Rule Golden (coll 1979); later collections like Late Knight Edition (coll 1985), One Side Laughing: Stories Unlike Other Stories (coll 1991) and God's Nose (coll 1991) tend to mix early and later work.

From the first, the novel form presented something of a difficulty for Knight. Most of his novels – like the first, Hell's Pavement (fixup 1955; vt Analogue Men 1962), a Dystopian story of a future society with humanity under psychological control, Masters of Evolution (January 1954 Galaxy as "Natural State"; exp 1959 chap dos) and The Sun Saboteurs (January 1955 If as "The Earth Quarter"; 1961 dos) – were expanded from stories, losing in the process the compressed drivenness of his short work. Of them all, only The People Maker (1959; rev vt A for Anything 1961), which thoughtfully examines Matter Duplication, and the late The World and Thorinn (fixup 1981), a scintillating picaresque derived from some 1960s tales, seem comfortably to fill the longer format; and by the mid-1960s he appeared to have turned his attention permanently elsewhere.

Like Frederik Pohl, Knight had soon become adept at many aspects of the writing business, having worked as magazine editor, short-story writer, novelist and critic. This mastery soon widened, and he began to work to formalize the professional collegiality so important to the sf field. He co-founded, with Blish and Merril, the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference in 1956, which he ran (soon with Wilhelm) for over 20 years, later participating in its spiritual offspring, the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop writing seminar, for which he edited The Clarion Writers' Handbook (anth 1978; rev vt Creating Short Fiction 1981; rev under that title 1985). He was responsible for arguing the need of and for founding the Science Fiction Writers of America, serving as its first president 1965-1967. At about the same time he began to issue well-conceived reprint Anthologies like A Century of Science Fiction (anth 1962), First Flight (anth 1963; vt Now Begins Tomorrow 1969; exp vt First Voyages 1981 with Martin H Greenberg and Joseph D Olander), Tomorrow x 4 (anth 1964), A Century of Great Short Science Fiction Novels (anth 1964) and many others. He also translated a number of French sf stories, some for publication in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and collected them as 13 French Science-Fiction Stories (anth 1965). But his greatest editorial achievement during these years was the Orbit series of Original Anthologies that he began in 1966 – beginning with Orbit 1: A Science Fiction Anthology (anth 1966) and closing with Orbit 21 (anth 1980) [see Checklist for full list and varying subtitles] – and which would become the longest-running and most influential series of that sort yet seen in the field; among writers strongly identified with Orbit were Gardner Dozois, R A Lafferty, Kate Wilhelm and Gene Wolfe, the latter publishing in the series eighteen of his most powerful early stories and novellas, one in almost every volume.

In the 1980s, after the end of Orbit, Knight became more active as a writer again, though without making a huge impression on a new generation of readers. But if The Man in the Tree (1984) may seem unduly slack and irony-poor in its presentation of a contemporary Messiah figure, Knight returned to something like form, though without quite the energy of earlier efforts, in the wickedly Utopian sequence comprising CV (January-March 1985 F&SF; 1985), The Observers (1988) and A Reasonable World (1991), about Alien parasites (> Parasitism and Symbiosis) who turn out not to be the Paranoia-justifying Invasion of 1950s sf but moralistic symbionts who enforce something like rational behaviour upon humanity's leaders – echoing the central gimmick of Knight's much earlier story "Rule Golden" (May 1954 Science Fiction Adventures), assembled in Three Novels: Rule Golden, Natural State, The Dying Man (coll 1967) – where artificially boosted empathy (> ESP) makes it impossible to be cruel without experiencing the victim's pain. In the third volume, a plethora of sf devices and Utopian appeals somewhat weakens the pleasurable sting, but the series as a whole seems young at heart, and Knight's cognitive energy remains clearly evident – as also demonstrated by the autumnal ironies of Why Do Birds (1992), in which the world is brought to an end (> End of the World) and humanity's scant hope of salvation has the aura of a gigantic con-trick. Humpty Dumpty: An Oval (1996) is a surreal tragi-farce which may be read as Posthumous Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]: the protagonist has been shot in the head, fractures and upheavals in Earth's crust may echo the state of his skull, bizarre conspiracy theories abound, and the lyric stillness of the final scene gently suggests the peace of death.

To the very end of his life there remained a sense that Knight might have a mind to continue to shock the sf world. In 1995, he was granted the SFWA Grand Master Award – which from 2002 became formally known, in his honour, as the Damon Knight Grand Master Award. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2003. [MJE/JC/DRL]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arts; Cosmology; Crime and Punishment; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Definitions of SF; Ecology; Economics; Evolution; First Contact; Genetic Engineering; Immortality; Invisibility; Invention; Matter Penetration; Monsters; SF Magazines; Sci Fi; Stardate; Stasis Field; Space Stations; Taboos; Time in Reverse; Time Viewer; Transportation.

Damon Francis Knight

born Baker, Oregon: 19 September 1922

died Eugene, Oregon: 15 April 2002

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CV

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Orbit

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Monad

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