Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three 1950s "novels" by Damon Knight

Ah, Damon Knight, famed editor, critic, and short story writer, for whom the SFWA (which Knight founded in 1965) renamed their Grand Master Award some 25 years after its inauguration.  I've had mixed feelings about Knight's criticism and fiction, which means I have no idea how I am going to react when I set out to read something by him.  Today we'll be taking just such a leap into the dark not once, not twice, but three times!  Before me I hold a Berkley Medallion 1969 paperback edition of Three Novels, a collection which first came out in hardcover in 1967.  I recently received this volume, with its quite effective Richard Powers cover, from internet science fiction gadfly extraordinaire Joachim Boaz, one of something like 100 SF books he sent me recently.  This copy, which a stamp on the inside cover is telling me somebody, maybe Mr. Boaz himself, maybe Chip or Joanna Gaines, maybe David Koresh--hey, you never know!-- purchased at "Book Rack" in a shopping mall in Waco, Texas for 97 cents, has only 184 pages of text, so maybe the three included works, all from the 1950s, should be classified as "novellas" or "novelettes" instead of novels, but, hey, who's counting?  I will be reading the "novels" in the order in which they appear in this book, which is not the order in which they were published.

Rule Golden (1954)

This is a gimmicky story that applies to the personal level the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence, something we talked about a lot in my history and poli sci classes at Rutgers in the late '80s and early '90s.  Rule Golden is set in the future of the early 1970s, when videophones are widely used, and is a first-person narrative; our narrator is Robert James Dahl, a Midwestern journalist who brags about how great his paper is and acts like a tough guy.  Knight practically tells us the story's gimmick on the first page of the story, and then he writes page after page (this thing is like 75 pages in this edition!) about Dahl investigating this strange phenomenon.  Rule Golden is like a boring detective story, with lots of mundane places and people for the detective to examine or outwit before resolving the mystery to his satisfaction.

In brief, Dahl discovers that the United States government has taken captive a lone space alien named Aza-Kra who has come to Earth to spread an airborne catalyst that changes your genetic code so that you suffer (psychosomatically) any damage you inflict on another creature.  For example, on the first page of Rule Golden an abusive husband kicks his wife in the ass, and suffers pain in his own ass! (Comedy!*)  Knight gives lots of examples of this, including prison staff and butchers feeling unhappy or ill as a result of their work--we eventually learn that the engineering works on animals higher than insects, so carnivores like lions and tigers are going to go extinct.  Dahl meets Aza-Kra in the army base, and the creature tells him he is from the Galactic Federation of peaceful civilizations and they want the Earth to join but right now we humans are too violent so he is here to genetically engineer us so we behave.  Dahl helps the E. T., which can read minds and instantly put people to sleep, to escape to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where he spreads the catalyst.  (The substance has to be spread wide quickly, or there will be a period, before the catalyst has made its way to Moscow and Peking, during which North America and Western Europe won't be able to defend themselves from an attack by the commies.) 

Knight tries to add tension to the tale by having Dahl wracked by doubts--is Aza-Kra telling the truth or is he just trying to soften us up so the aliens can conquer us--and by describing how Dahl and his alien buddy evade the authorities in country after country.  This stuff serves to make the story longer (have I told you this thing is like 75 pages?) but does little to make it more compelling.

Because there is no way to enforce the law, and no way for private individuals to protect their property, the world falls into anarchy, with people stealing, vandalizing, trespassing, and crossing borders as they see fit.  (Aza-Kra's genetic engineering doesn't make people feel bad about burning down the crops I spent a season growing or the business I spent a lifetime building.)  The cities are deserted and famine develops, but a fleet of spaceships arrives to hand out food and to revive Aza-Kra, who was near death from eating inadequate Earth food.  Aza-Kra is revealed to be not a professional explorer or diplomat, but a sort of artisan ("I am ordinarily a maker of--you have not the word, it is like porcelain....") who volunteered to risk his life amongst us humans.  (I guess carpenter would have been too obvious.)

Rule Golden appeared first in Science Fiction Adventures, and in 1960 was included in Groff Conklin's Six Great Short Science Fiction Novels.  I'm afraid I cannot concur with Conklin's generous assessment!  This story is so long, and uses so many tired elements (like mind reading and a Galactic Federation pacifying us against our will) that the novelty of the newish idea can't carry it, especially since Knight reveals the gimmick on page one.  Knight also doesn't address the moral issues related to making people behave by crippling them, removing their ability to choose between good and evil, as Anthony Burgess does in A Clockwork Orange.

Weak!  Maybe this story should have been like 10 pages?

*This reminded me of the Corsican brothers from The Electric Company.  That was a good show, with Joan Rivers narrating Letterman and Morgan Freeman as Dracula and narrator of those Spiderman shorts that starred a version of Spidey who never talked!   

Natural State (1954)

I guess you could say that this one is about the urban-rural divide.  It is the year 2064, most cities have collapsed, with only a few of the biggest, like New York and Chicago still standing, totally shut off from the countryside.  The cities have what we would recognize as modern societies, with TV shows and hover cars and social hierarchies and people going off to work every day, but things are getting tough economically--most people work multiple jobs and the lack of contact with the world beyond the city limits means there is no supply of essential raw materials, like metal.  Soon even mighty New York may collapse!  Another problem: the urban population is waning, while the rural population, whom the urbanites think of as unsophisticated rubes, grows, and soon the people of the countryside will be able to militarily or culturally take over the world and urban culture will go extinct!

The rulers of New York propose a solution--trade with the rural population, who presumably will be eager to purchase motor vehicles and telephones and TVs and power tools.  This will provide a source of metal and other much-needed resources, and spread urban culture to the ignorant hicks, preserving the sophisticated way of life enjoyed by city people.  They send out into the countryside the most popular actor on NYC TV, Alvah Gustad, with a hovercar load of trade goods to open up trade with the country folk.

What Gustad discovers is that the 150 million people living in the rural landscape are not a bunch of ignorant rubes--they are living in utopia!  Most of their time is spent sitting around working on little hobbies like whittling and needlepoint or putting on theatricals and having dances!  The basis for this life of leisure is genetic engineering; they breed and grow everything they need, a gimmick we would see decades later in Harry Harrison's West of Eden and Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000.  The country people don't need cars and airplanes, because they ride beasts and giant birds around!  They don't need mines or factories or construction equipment because they have plants that grow knife blades, bulbs that grow into houses, and giant turtles whose shells grow in transparent layers that can be easily peeled off to act as a sheet of unbreakable glass!  They don't know how to read because they have bred talking birds that can recite entire books!  (This last is a little reminiscent of one of my favorite Gene Wolfe stories, "The Doctor of Death Island," in which people abandon reading because of the development of talking books.)

That's Gustad in his hover car,
trying to sell power tools to the
country folk
The country folk don't need or want what Gustad is selling, but their intellectual class is interested in examining him, and they employ a creature which cripples his hover car (by eating an element of its power pack) to strand the New Yorker 1,000 miles from Gotham.  The locals (including a pretty lady who can actually read!) want Gustad to join their happy society, and in the same way that Dahl in Rule Golden has to decide whether or not to cleave to the alien Aza-Kra, Gustad here in Natural State has to choose sides.  Fortunately for the reader, this story is better in every respect than Rule Golden--the characters and their relationships are more compelling, the technological stuff is more interesting, the jokes are more amusing.

When it looks like their idea of fostering trade has failed, the rulers of NYC try some serious skullduggery, what the kids call a false flag operation, in an effort to start a shooting war between the rural people and Chicago--the New Yorkers plan to steal all the metal from the Windy City after the country folk depopulate it!  This scheme fails, and instead of attacking Chi-town the country people turn on the city that never sleeps and liberate the citizens of the Big Apple from the tyranny of books, TV shows, and a steady work schedule.     


Natural State first appeared in Galaxy, in an issue you can read at the internet archive, in which Knight's story is adorned with some pretty good illustrations by Emsh.  Natural State was included in anthologies edited by Martin Greenberg, Frederick Pohl and Georgess McHargue, and was even expanded into a longer novel, Masters of Evolution, which appeared as half of an Ace Double. 

I love the Emsh cover to All About the Future with its sexy spacesuits
and diagrams of a rocket ship and a heavy pistol --gorgeous!
The Dying Man (1957)

Dio is a planner living in a post-scarcity future in which people are immortal and invulnerable to wounds and disease--they also have the power to levitate, which is pretty good (I have long wanted to float everywhere like the fighters in DragonBall Z.)   Everybody has lived so long that most people have actually forgotten the concept of death!  To keep existence from getting boring, planners like Dio rebuild the cities in different styles every year.

Planners are members of the student class, the intellectuals and scientists who read and keep records and figure things out.  Most people, it appears, are "players," members of a frivolous unproductive leisure class.  Claire is just such a player, and she and Dio are having a love affair when it becomes apparent that Dio's body has somehow lost its invulnerability and immortality.  He falls ill, recovers with the help of an army of students who study him to figure out how to create and administer medicines that have not been needed for centuries.  He begins to grow old, his body changing in ways that the rest of humanity finds alarming.

The story, which at like 40 pages is considerably shorter than Rule Golden and Natural State, largely concerns Dio and Claire's reactions to Dio's body experiencing natural human aging and death.  Dio's creative work evolves, becoming more mature and sophisticated--in fact, too sophisticated for his contemporaries, with the result that the city he is responsible for designing is abandoned.  He also embraces ancient ways of doing things, working with his own hands instead of through machines--he carves a reproduction of Michelangelo's Dusk* from stone with a chisel, for example, and grows his own crops with which to bake his own bread.  (I know this guy's feels--I ground the beans for my wife's coffee yesterday.  Sure, sure, I used the Mr. Coffee 12-cup Electric Coffee Grinder with Multi-Settings--I didn't say I was a luddite!) 

The Dying Man is also considerably better than the "novels" with which it shares this collection.  I'm biased because I like stories about immortality and its effect on individuals and societies (the aforementioned Gene Wolfe story, "The Doctor of Death Island," is about immortality as much as it is about reading), but beyond that, The Dying Man has real human feeling, real human characters, engaging settings, and no goofy jokes.  The science behind immortality was also well done.  This is a piece I can really recommend.

The Dying Man first appeared under the title Dio in Infinity Science Fiction, where it is billed as "Damon Knight's Best Short Novel."  This issue of Infinity is available to read for free at the internet archive, and features not only numerous fetching illustrations by Emsh (these include a generous helping of Claire's chest!) but a story co-written by Harlan Ellison and Algis Budrys and, in the book review section, discussions by Knight of novels by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.  This issue of Infinity is full to bursting with stuff by and about some of classic SF's biggest names!

Dio would go on to be reprinted numerous times, including in Groff Cronklin's 5 Unearthly Visions and Robert Silverberg's Alpha 4.  I actually own both 5 Unearthly Visions and Alpha 4 which means I own three copies of this story.

*Knight has Dio call it Evening, but my art books and Wikipedia are calling it Dusk.


Back in 2014 Joachim Boaz read and wrote about this collection, presumably this very same copy.  (His post and the comments, in which people recommend their favorite Knight stories, are worth your time.)  I know it would be more fun to disagree with Joachim or to have my own off-the-wall idiosyncratic take on these stories, but I'm afraid Mr. Boaz and I are in basic agreement about the contents of Three Novels.  Maybe I am a little more forgiving about the two weak pieces?  I was definitely more forgiving than Joachim when I read Beyond the Barrier, a book Joachim thought so poor he dared me to read it! 

(I'm not always so kind to Knight!  I read a collection of five of his short stories entitled Off Center and declared most of them "Bad!," "Weak!" "Lame" or even worse!)

More 1950s SF from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library in our next episode!


  1. I'm pretty much in agreement with your opinions of the stories in THREE NOVELS. Maybe the lack of quality of the stories led Damon Knight to become an editor.

  2. Personally, I cannot STAND this kind of social commentary zero-science "sci-fi". Even trying to read it makes me want to assault the author. Whether it's Bradbury or that hippy crap from the 70s, I'd rather read a damn VCR manual than that trash. Pretentious New York Review of Books crap.

    1. What SF writers and stories do you enjoy the most?