The Atomic Age Narrative: In Search of Wonder

Sunday , 26, February 2017 32 Comments

Damon Knight (1922-2002) was a major editor/anthologist and somewhat mid-ranking writer of science fiction from the 1950s to the 1980s. He edited the hybrid science fiction-fantasy digest magazine Worlds Beyond. He is also often viewed as the first real professional critic within science fiction.

From 1950 to 1960, Damon Knight seemed to be everywhere reviewing books for various science fiction magazines. Some of those were collected into the book In Search of Wonder. There has been some mention of Knight in some Castalia House blog posts recently. I happen to have In Search of Wonder and pulled it out and went through it.

I first heard of the book at Pulp-Con. My friend Rick McCollum either bought it or his wife, Paula Robinson. Knight had been a teacher for Paula I think at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. She did sell nine stories to Analog. Rick ran a Knight review of a Gnome Press Robert E. Howard book in the Robert E. Howard United Press Association mailing that irked me. I later got a copy for myself I think at Pulp-Con (for $3.00). About 11 years ago, I was picking up science fiction magazines with reviews of Robert E. Howard from 1950 up to the 1970s.

“Anthony Boucher” penned the introduction:

                “The reviewer’s objective is to express his reactions to a work in such a way that the readers of a given periodical will know whether or not they want to read it. The critic attempts to measure the work by more lasting and more nearly absolute standards, to determine its place, not for the reader of the moment, but for the cultivated mind viewing the entire art of which this works forms a segment.”

The pre-Campbellian era is covered in a chapter entitled “The Classics.”

“With understandable bitterness, some have been driven to the extreme position that no science fiction published later than 1935 is worth reading–while among their younger colleagues it isn’t hard to find those who will put the date still later, and argue that everything placed before it was trash.”

The review that irritated me some time back was for The Coming of Conan that originally ran in Future, October 1954. To wit:

“Howard’s tales lack the de Camp verisimilitude–Howard never tried, or never tried intelligently, to give his preposterous saga the ring of truth…even when they’re most insulting to the rational mind.  Howard had the maniac’s advantage of believing whatever he wrote; de Camp is too wise to believe wholeheartedly in anything. All the great fantasies, I suppose, have been written by emotionally crippled men. Howard was a recluse and a man so morbidly attached to his mother that when she died he committed suicide; Lovecraft had enough phobias and eccentricities for nine; Merritt was chinless, bald and shaped like a shmoo. The trouble with Conan is that he human race never had produced and never could produce such a man, and sane writers know it; therefore the sick writers have a monopoly of him.”

How is this passage criticism? It is more ad hominem attack on three dead writers who are no longer around to defend themselves. The praised L. Sprague de Camp was alive and part of the club. I guess Damon Knight never heard of historical personages such as Harald Hardrede or Bohemond.

In a review of Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star, Knight had this to say:

“I’m no great fantasy-lover; most of Merritt bores me to tears; so do Howard and Lovecraft.”

How can you be bored by Robert E. Howard?

Knight wrote two book reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1960 (“Ia! Yog-Sothoth! Yah, Yah, Yah!”) and August 1960 (“The Tedious Mr. Lovecraft”). One of these was reprinted in In Search of Wonder. I don’t know which one was reprinted but his in his review of The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces, he does make some points that I agree with. He first ran some repetitive sentences where the narrator cannot describe things he has seen.

                “No, this is my real objection to Lovecraft and his imitators (aside from their arthritic styles): the monster does appear, sometimes, but only as a sort of peepshow. It is never brought onstage, as Leiber’s and Sturgeons’s monsters are, to act and react against the other characters. Thus the story remains in embryo, is never developed; one of the primary requirements of fiction is not fulfilled. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end: Lovecraft’s pieces are only endlessly retraced beginnings.”

Knight likes Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife much more than I did.

Damon Knight made his name as a critic for taking a sledgehammer to A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Null A. I really like some of van Vogt’s shorter pieces but admit to getting lost attempting to read a couple of his novels. Knight showed how van Vogt’s novel fell apart.

“Yet in van Vogt’s world the advancement over 1945, either stated or implied, amounts to no more than (a) a world government; (b) a handful of gadgets; (c) limited development of space travel; and (d) a scientific system of education–the latter developed by a superman.”

Knight went on to point out van Vogt’s sloppiness in using the word “robot” when he means “android” and lifting Robert Graves’ I, Claudius for Empire of the Atom with minimal changes. Knight present valid points.

Most of the smacking around is of 1950s science fiction. Knight points out problems in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, goes after Philip K. Dick, and had this to say about Ray Bradbury:

“Childhood is after all Bradbury’s one subject.”

Knight went after bad writing, bad execution of ideas, lack of characterization, and lapses of logic. In going through his reviews and essays, he does not like writers entering into science fiction with bad or faulty science. He also wanted science present, not emotion or nostalgia ala Ray Bradbury.

Damon Knight was wrong on some things. He thought H. Beam Piper’s Uller Uprising to be the best novel within the omnibus The Petrified Planet but did not like the military aspect of it. My guess is Knight was averse to action-oriented fiction. He was also right part of the time, especially on plotting and characterization. Modern day writers might want to go through some of his critiques of science fiction. Some of his ideas on horror are not bad either.

  • JonM says:

    Damon Knight was a terrible critic. He was a bully who intimidated writers into kowtowing to his whims rather than risk drawing his ire. His reviews were biased and shoddy, and hid all of his failings behind overly verbose writing and intellectual sleight of hand.

    On horror, he was just as bad. He summarizes the plot of H.P. Lovecraft’s, The Shuttered Room, gleefully dismissing the story’s slow burn and build-up of suspense by characterizing the final confrontation as, “the protagonist pots it with a kerosene lamp.” Two sentences later he complains that the monster, “is never brought onstage, to act and react against other characters.” On the one hand, he dismisses a suspense story for focusing on suspense, then he complains about no direct confrontation in a story where he just called out the direct confrontation.

    Later, Knight declares unilaterally that, “It’s an exploded myth that dreadful things cannot be brought into the light without destroying their awe.” That’s an example of his intellectual sleight of hand. The question at hand is not whether dread is possible with the lights on, but whether Lovecraft (and by extension the rest of the pulp-era masters of the macabre) successfully managed to instill dread with the lights off. Even Knight’s preference for suspense presented within well-lit conditions is beside the point.

    His criticism of the writing of Lovecraft, though delivered with his normal acerbic wit and assumed superiority, amounts to little more than, “I don’t like it, and I know better than you therefore these works are objectively mediocre.”

    Granted, the man wasn’t always wrong – some of the people he took behind the woodshed needed to be taken there. But given how many things he reviewed, that’s some stopped clock level of faint praise.

  • Rigel Kent says:

    It’s funny that Knight used De Camp as a contrast to Howard, when De Camp was one of the most dedicated Howard fans in the world at that time!

    • john silence says:

      From what I understand, De Camp’s pastiches and his biography of Howard are… erm… less than appreciated by fans.

      • Rigel Kent says:

        That’s news to me. But regardless of that, it doesn’t change the fact that he was a dedicated and public fan of Howard and his work.

        I’m a fan of Heinlein, but I’m aware of other fans of his who’s thoughts on his work I rabidly disagree with (Spider Robinson for example) but I don’t doubt they’re enthusiasm for his writings.

      • deuce says:

        Spraguey never showed the slightest interest in anything from REH other than Conan. He was certainly interested in monetizing Conan, however.

        Morgan wrote a multi-part series on LSdC’s shenanigans several years ago.

  • B&N says:

    “Conan wasn’t believable. Fantasies are supposed to have characters I can relate to who do everyday things–that’s why they’re called fantasies!”?
    I’ve heard the same complaint about Calvin and Hobbes, and yet i’ve never found any these supposed real people who don’t enjoy it.

    • Brian Renninger says:

      Every girlfriend I’ve ever had hated Calvin and Hobbes. They all just thought he was a brat. That’s one warning sign, if they don’t like Calvin and Hobbes run far away.

      • B&N says:

        Are you sure those were people and not SJWs?
        You may be inside of a simulation INSIDE of a simulation, like Rick and Morty?

    • Anthony says:

      I do not want to speak with a person who doesn’t like Calvin and Hobbes. What a cold, dead life they must lead.

  • Nathan says:

    “In going through his reviews and essays, he does not like writers entering into science fiction with bad or faulty science. He also wanted science present, not emotion or nostalgia ala Ray Bradbury.”

    This makes Knight’s later days hanging out with Moorcock and Ellison during the New Wave even more interesting.

  • The author of “To Serve Man” dared to criticize others for lapses of logic and plausible science?

  • VD says:

    Damon Knight is what was wrong with science fiction before Patrick Nielsen Hayden came along.

  • I’m no fan of Knight and the comment on Uller Uprising confirms why. It’s a great examination of how military operations interact with diplomacy, politics, and culture. If you don’t like the military part you’re missing out on the whole book.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    For me, it’s a never ending source of amusement (and disdain) when I hear some thin wristed pedant dismiss Howard’s characters as unrealistic. Howard ran with a different crowd than Damon Knight. Maybe it’s just me, but I think someone who climbs Parnassus and throws down at the ice house with roughnecks will have a different view of human potential compared to someone who doesn’t. This ice house crowd gave Howard a different perspective on human capabilities. Anyone here know someone who could/did punch a mans arm out of its shoulder joint? How about someone who could slap another man across the face knocking him out cold, then shoving said man down a stormsewer? How about a man so big he couldn’t get his hands into the largest size canvas work gloves, so he cut the seams to get his hands in? Or a man so strong he could make another man dance on a desk by just shaking his hand? I do. How about a man so physically capable he could pick up and fold in half another man and shove him in a trash can? Sonny Liston did that to a Philadelphia cop. I was never really impressed with Damon Knight, either as a critic, or, a writer.

    • Andy says:

      Ha, the Sonny Liston story reminds me of a story about Meng, the professional wrestler, reputed to be one of the most legit tough guys in the business. He was drinking at a bar in, I think Baltimore, when some drunken idiot decided to challenge the “fake fighter”. Apparently when the cops showed up to deal with a huge brawl at the bar, they found Meng sitting alone quietly drinking his beer with about 25 wrecked guys draped all over the place. Meng just quietly surrendered and spent the night in jail and then went on his way.

    • caleb says:

      Methinks that, if someone slipped piece of fiction based on Howard’s life and character on Knight’s desk, he would lament that main character was utterly unrealistic.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Sounds like something Meng would do. Ken Patera and Mr Saito likewise almost leveled a McDonald’s. Anyone who writes Fantasy, and thinks along the same lines as Damon Knight, would do well to track down a copy of The Super Athletes by, David Willoughby; maybe then the people who struggle to get the trash to the kurb would not speaking so confidently about what is and is not realistic human performance.

    • Scott Sheaffer says:

      As far as power (strength X speed when it comes to athletics), Ken Patera was the real deal. He was a high level college track and field athlete who took up Olympic lifting. Back in those days, Olympic competition featured three lifts, the Snatch, Clean and Jerk, and the Press. The press was removed as a competition lift in 1972. Thus, Patera remains the only American to ever press 500 pounds overhead in Olympic lifting competition. (Although today,I think there are strongman competitors who can press 500 pounds.) The thing is, this was a clean and press. Not only does it take a tremendous amount of strength to clean 500 pounds, it also takes tremendous explosiveness to accelerate the bar and quick reflexes and coordination to get under the bar to rack it on your shoulders. Vastly Aleexev, the great Soviet lifter actually admitted that Patera was stronger, but Patera managed to psyche himself out during competition, failing to get weights Alexeev had seen Patera handle during warm ups. (Thus, Alexeev would prevail during the actual competitions.) I’m not commenting on Ken Patera’s real life fighting skills. I don’t know anything about those. However in the areas of strength, coordination, and reflexes – he was pretty impressive during his prime.
      Anyway, straying pretty far from the subject of Damon Knight, but when I see or hear Patera’s name come up, I’m often prompted to comment. There are a lot of people who know about his pro wrestling career who don’t realize that at one time, he REALLY was one of the strongest men in the world.

    • Scott Sheaffer says:

      While this is more of a complaint about current day American Olympic lifting compared to Patera’s day, there is some interesting stuff about Patera.

  • caleb says:

    Lovecraft provided defense of his approach, one delivered as a short story, in “The Unnamable”.
    I think that it tells more of Mr. Knight that he required direct, vivid description of a “monster” in order for it to have any effect on him, or for horror story that contains it to be functional and complete. Basically, he wanted old monster flick in written form and that ain’t what Lovecraft was providing or wanted to provide, even in those stories that seemingly fit some of that mold, like “Dunwitch Horror” or “The Lurking Fear” (I can imagine Knight being rather frustrated by the former).

    Oh, and appears that he was peddling his own version of ye olde “Lovecraft was a poor wordsmith” BS.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Regarding, Horror Fiction the best single treatment/examination I’ve read of the genre is, Monsters From the Id by, E. Michael Jones. Jones contends The Monster (be it Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, or Alien) is the return of the suppressed moral order as an avenging monster. Gave me a different perspective on Lovecraft and all other Horror/Fantasy/SciFi writing.

    • icewater says:

      Interesting. I’m having hard time seeing how two of three iconic monsters you just mentioned would fit into that theory. Xenomoerph is complete otherness, whereas Frankenstein’s monster is a case of new science arrogantly playing with human nature.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Frankenstein (according to Jones) is the outgrowth, a manifestation, of the disordered lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Gilbert Imlay, Fanny Imlay, William Godwin, Mary Godwin, Shelly, and Polidori. Mix in incest, occultism and other perversions and it makes for powerful reading. The Monster is the return of the moral order at Lake Geneva in the middle of the orgy there when Mary Shelly suddenly realizes things have gone very bad. Again, according to Jones the Alien is return of the moral order, in that case it’s the realization sex can be dangerous. The face hugger being a pretty obvious reference to oral sex. It takesJones a book to develop the themes, assume shortcomings regarding my explanation.

  • deuce says:

    Well, at least Damon’s oft-cited kinsman, George Knight, redeemed the family’s litcrit reputation to a large degree.

  • Rod Walker says:

    One of the good things about the ongoing democratization of publishing is that it is now much harder for a gatekeeper to be heavy-handed.

    • B&N says:

      The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and to dwell in the light. The multiplicity of ownership is crucial. It’s only when there are a few owners, or, as in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails. For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters—the truth.

  • Durandel Almiras says:

    Damon Knight sounds like a Gamma. Actually, everyone from the Silver Age sounds like a Gamma. Maybe we should rename it?

  • B&N says:

    So where do I get my official red [pulp] “Make A.Merritt(a) Great Again” Hat?

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