Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Earth Quarter by Damon Knight

Joachim Boaz's recent review of a Damon Knight collection known as Three Novels or Natural State and Other Short Stories, as well as his twitter conversation about Knight with other members of the SF community, brought the famous science fiction editor to the forefront of my mind.  So I took down from the shelf my 1970 Lancer copy of World Without Children and The Earth Quarter: Two Science Fiction Novels of Tomorrow.  In October of last year I read the 65 page "novel" "World Without Children" and wasn't impressed with it.  (Back in September of 2011 I read Knight's novel, Hell's Pavement, and wasn't crazy about it either.)  But hope springs eternal, so I took a chance on the 120 page The Earth Quarter.

Earth Quarter first appeared in 1955 in a shortened form in If. In 1961 an expanded version was printed under the title The Sun Saboteurs in an Ace Double with G. McDonald Wallis's The Light of Lilith.  I think the text I read was the same as that which appeared as The Sun Saboteurs, but who knows?

The novel starts in the human ghetto in a city on the planet Palu, home of the alien Niori, who have far better technology than ever was developed on Earth.  The galaxy is full of intelligent civilizations, and the people of Earth are on the absolute bottom of the totem pole.  Earth is a total wreck after "the Famines and the Collapse," which the ghetto dwellers see as "the judgement of God" and/or the result of "humanity's folly, cruelty and blindness."  In the most memorable passage in the story, a prominent citizen of the human ghetto describes how Chicago, his home town, is now "a stone jungle," where diseases, bandits, wolves or bears will kill you before your fortieth birthday. And if you make it to 40, you'll wish you were dead!

Rack does in fact wear his jacket as a cape in the story
With the inhabitants of Earth living in barbarism, or, if they are lucky, feudalism, and a hundred small emigre communities living on alien planets, the human race is in trouble. Unless something is done, the human race will die out.

But what to do?  One group of activists, the Minority People's League, wants to ask the aliens for help rebuilding a modern society on the Earth.  Their representatives travel from one planet to another, trying to build support among the inhabitants of the human ghettos.  Opposed to the League are radical terrorists, lead by the charismatic Rack.  They want to secretly build an invincible space navy and exterminate all the alien civilizations.  (It is plausible for less than a million humans based on one hidden planet to overthrow untold billions of aliens on hundreds of planets because all the alien races are exactingly honest and thoroughly pacific--they are absolutely unprepared to deal with human mendacity and aggression.)

Six of the novel's seven chapters are set in the human ghetto on Palu, and chronicle the rise of the radicals and the eclipse of the Minority People's League.  There are many different characters, I guess representing different elements of society and political and philosophical attitudes.  Part of Knight's project seems to be to debunk traditional virtues like loyalty, bravery, and so forth.  Our viewpoint character, Lazlo Cudyk, is an equivocating intellectual who isn't sure what to do, and mostly acts as a spectator while the radicals, the Minority People's League, and some conservative types all conspire and fight against each other (the human ghetto is basically lawless, and neither the human nor Niori authorities investigate or punish the murders and attempted murders Cudyk witnesses), and the bourgeoisie try to make money and avoid risk (as you might expect from a member of the leftist Futurians, Knight's most hostile portrayal is of a selfish cigar-smoking capitalist--as befits an intellectual, Cudyk smokes a pipe!)

We get one chapter on Rack's spaceship, where his cunning and leadership ability, and the sincere bond between him and his men, is demonstrated.

Rack and his small force of ships manage to wipe out dozens of alien systems, murdering billions and billions of aliens, by using a bomb that causes a star to explode (or something.)  Eventually the aliens get their act together and capture the radicals; Rack's men sacrifice themselves so Rack can escape.  Rack sneaks back to the ghetto on Palu, where a mob, of which Cudyk is a member, tears him to pieces.  The Niori then expel the humans, sending them to Earth; from now on the aliens will make sure humans don't get their hands on any space ships, presumably consigning humanity to an eternity of poverty among ruins.

I think this is Rack giving his fallen comrades an honorable "burial at sea"
Knight isn't writing an adventure story here (though the single chapter on Rack's terror bombing ship is actually pretty exciting); he means to tell us something about the human condition, I suppose that our ambition, lust for glory, pursuit of wealth, et al, are nothing more than destructive insanity.  His style is bland, but liberally sprinkled with literary references and philosophic passages.  Cudyk quotes Olaf Stalpedon, T. S. Eliot and Ambrose Bierce, and voices such cryptic bon mots as "the universe always smooths out anomalies" and "the way forward was the way back; the way back was the way forward." There are psychological subplots, like that about a young woman with a strict father; she is afraid to be happy, falls in love with a Niori, and goes insane.  Her insanity manifests itself in the habit of walking through the ghetto stark naked.  (The aliens, we learn, not only never lie or fight--they never suffer mental illness, either.)

The novel is vulnerable to the criticisms that it includes no alien characters to speak of, we learn very little about alien life, and that it is a little silly to think that there are scores of alien races and none of them fight wars or commit crimes or suffer mental illness.  And some may not like the fact that 90% of The Earth Quarter consists of people sitting around jawing, the plot is driven by the villain while the hero does nothing, and the villain is more interesting than the hero. 

There are a lot of science fiction stories that use alien paragons to show how us humans are a bunch of jerks, and I guess The Earth Quarter isn't the worst in the pile.  For one thing, by including in the story sympathetic Christians and a condemnation of the NKVD, Knight broadens the novel's appeal a bit, and inoculates himself from the charge that he is just another commie whining about capitalism and conventional religion.  I'm giving this one a grade of "OK;" The Earth Quarter is acceptable, if not memorable or groundbreaking.  

IN MEMORIAM:  In the course of reading The Earth Quarter, the dry-as-a-bone glue on my copy of Lancer 74-601 gave up the ghost, with the result that the book fell to pieces.  Luckily the front cover, which I adore, is still in good condition, and I didn't lose any of the pages.  I have a collection of those clear plastic bags from half-Price Books, and into one I will inter this relic, where it will rest in peace until unearthed by some future generation SF fan, eager to learn the wisdom and enjoy the artistry of Damon Knight (such as it is.)


1 comment:

  1. If it was such a good book, it's soul surely went to heaven, there to cavort with the lion and the lamb, Hemingway's great lost manuscript, original versions of The Iliad, recycled pulp magazines, inadvertently discarded copies of Alfred Bester when he was thought just a hack, the stories C.M Kornbluth never got a chance to write, and so on...