In Search of Wonder by Knight, Damon, 1996

In Search of Wonder by Knight, Damon

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In the last few years I have once or twice considered that somewhere along the way I made a serious vocational error. For those of you who are new to this site, I'm an attorney, and it's not that I don't like what I do. In fact, I love my job. It's that I sometimes lament that I did not study literature as an undergrad, or go on to get a graduate degree in a related subject. I sit here now, several nights per week after my kids are asleep, wondering how much a degree in literature would have helped me with these reviews as I try to peck out my thoughts onto a laptop. I also wonder how much frustration I could have avoided if I had a clue about what the hell I was doing. Believe me, I feel that more often then not. At first this was a passion for me. About a year into it doing the reviews became a major pain in the ass. I thought I had worked through that, but lately its been getting hard again. I motivate myself by reading volumes of SF criticism from the established critics, such as William Atheling, Darko Suvin, Cory Panshin and others, including Damon Knight. Knight is one of my favorite critics. He was one of the first to develop a critical method, though sometimes it's difficult to discern exactly what that method was. I think that's because he was brilliant and astute, and said what he thought, not because he made it up as he went along.

The critical articles that are gathered in In Search of Wonder came from a large variety of sources, including zine and pulp columns, introductions for books, and a few other sources, possibly even articles for slicks. Most of it was written between the early 1950's and late 1960's, but the book has been updated twice since it was originally published and contains some articles from as late as the 1970's. The third edition was published in 1996, so there may be some items in there from later then the 70's, but few of them stood out to me. What did stand out to me was the clarity of thought Knight exhibited in writing about hundreds of SF stories and novels; some of them pretty tricky and difficult to understand,such as Bernark K. Wolfe's Limbo. Knight's pen was not a scalpel, or even a rapier. But it was not as crude as a skewer either; he could unsheathe a sharp edge when needed. Knight was one of the first though, and I can tell you from personal experience that knowledge of how to do criticism builds slowly with time (and even across generations), just like knowledge of how to write SF.

What I usually do upon the first reading of a critical volume is go through the book and try to figure out as many of the critic's rules as possible, then write them down. The list from this book is pretty long, and since I've only read it once its probably incomplete. I think I'm going to read this one again right away. Even though I am not confident that I have all of Knight's rules down yet, I am pretty sure that I know the kind of stories that he likes. Knight seems to be one of those types of persons who gets bored easily. If I had to guess why, I'd say that it's because he had read everything out there and has seen it all before. Those authors who dare to tread across worn ground get called on it, and the more archaic the writing style, the worse the review from Knight. Knight was a sticker for grammar. The way that authors use language must conform to accepted standards. The trickier they become in trying to turn a phrase, the harsher Knight was when they fail to do so effectively. Most important to Knight were two issues. First, was the question "why?" answered wherever appropriate? Second, Did the author at least try to make the science believable? If the author failed on either of these fronts, then the piece was not likely to pass muster.

Here is an example of an author who Knight was not too fond of. As it so happens, I share Knight's opinion, and it pleases me to remember that in the past I have said the exact same thing. About H. P. Lovecraft Knight had this to say:

Now 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 Sturgeon'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.

Here is a snippet from a review of a specific work; a collection called The Space Frontiers by Roger Lee Vernon, a high school teacher who probably produced nothing else. To Knight this collection read like the adolescent junk from the early years of SF. I chose to quote this passage because I've noticed this style of writing has again become popular in the first decade of the new millennium. It's a trend that disturbs me, and I think Knight would have hated it too.

What bothers me about this volume, in its occasional goodness as well as its overwhelming badness, is the feeling it gives me of having lost two decades somewhere. Granted, modern science fiction lacks some of the sincerity and inner meaning it once had; but to recapture that, is it really necessary to go back to kindergarten?

Again, this book is not so bad if you only take the space opera out of it; but Signet appears to think that the space opera is what makes it worth having: title, cover design and blurbs all support this idea.

What I am afraid of is that Signet might be right. This kind of ignorant nonsense ought to be well adapted to the existing mental set of a reader to whom "space," "planets," "galaxies," are all words without any specific meaning, conveying nothing but a vague feeling of "out there." If so - if there is a vast untapped audience of unsophisticated (and uneducated) science fiction readers just waiting to be fed - then we may expect to see an immediate mushroom-growth of Vernons . . . out of whom, in another twenty years, a little coterie of polished science fiction writers will evolve, to sit and wonder why their stuff doesn't sell.

I feel the truth of much of the preceding passage in my gut. One of my complaints about the genre over the past several years is that we no longer have any standard-bearers. Throughout the entire history of the modern era of SF we have always had a few authors who pushed the genre forward and stood out as examples to the rest. First it was the planet-busters and gadget-philes of Gernsback's day. Then it was the introspection of Campbellian Golden Age authors. Following that were the authors who published in Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then the New Wavers, then the Feminists, then the Heinlein imitators of the eighties, then the cyberpunks, the post-humans, and so on. Today however, there really is nothing out there to gel the industry. We have a bunch of talented writers, but all of them seem to be bumbling along on their own. Into this abyss I have noticed lately that pulp-like writers have been selling lots and lots of books. I've been concerned about this, because the fact is that this kind of writing put SF into the ghetto in the first place. I have worried that should this idiom and style of writing ascend again, we will be right back in our ghetto again. We have moved past the mess of inconsistency and prepubescent wish fulfillment that the pulp era was. But reading this Knight quote makes me question that this kind of thing is novel to our era. It seems that Knight worried about the exact same thing fifty years ago. It also makes me wonder if we could again be headed towards a complete failure of the genre in the United States. That happened once already, back at the end of the 1950's, and it took the New Wave of England to pull us out of our doldrums.

One thing that Knight was pleased by, but usually leaves me dry, is sarcasm and irony as used by Tenn and Sheckley, and to a lesser degree, PKD. I like all three of these authors, but only in moderation. Several years ago NESFA put out two or three volumes each of Tenn and Sheckley, collecting every word of short fiction that both authors ever wrote. I was happy at first, as I had not read much of either author before. I bought all five books as soon as they hit the shelves, but I have yet to finish any of them. Those writers tend to pile it on pretty thick, and after five or six stories I personally could not take any more. Knight seemed to have an never ending enthusiasm for these guys. He also really loved Blish, who is another author whose work I can only take in moderation. Blish was not the humorist that Sheckley and Tenn were. Instead the real value of Blish's work was in in its subtlety. All this goes to show that Knight really did love the out-of-the-ordinary. What made this book wonderful was that Knight was capable of saying what it was he really loved about these authors. About Blish's Earthmen, Come Home, collected today in Cities in Flight (these are stories about entire cities, formerly of Earth, that have broken free with "spindizzy" anti-gravity technology and wander the cosmos), Knight said this:

Both groups of stories have the same cosmic scale, the same plot-limitation to a series of planetary stopovers - all of which exhibit certain similarities - ; in both, the immortality of the voyagers contributes a curious dreamlike effect; and in both the dominant impression is that the chief characters are fine fellows off to have adventures, although Blish pretends that his space-going cities are hobos looking for work.

Add the recurrent conflict of Good-vs-Evil, as in the Lone Ranger, et al., and you have a formula that is probably as old as tale-telling, and I suppose as durable.

The difference, aside from Blish's considerably greater talent, lies in his insistence on imposing the Okie parallel - the idea referred to above, that light can be shed on the cities' career by comparing them with displaced migratory workers.

This is the deepest flaw in the book, and there's no way of justifying it within this framework - you simply have to accept it or forget it.

Simply brilliant commentary about one of the most difficult to read series of books out there - at least that is what I thought of them. Although I wish he had said more about Steinbeck's treatment of the same phenomena. Actually, the historical event from which Blish's ideas arose. Once I get around to these books, I certainly will.

This is actually a pretty big book. Its not as big as Panshin's The World Over the Hill, but it's up there. As I mentioned before, the bulk of the book is given to reprints of articles and reviews that Knight wrote for various publications. Within that though are some pretty cool chapters. There is one on unconscious symbolism, another on the Milford and Clarion Workshops that Knight and his wife, author Kate Wilhelm (and others) held to train new writers. Another chapter, called "Amphibians," is about mainstream writers who dive into the waters of SF for a time, then return to the air from whence they came. There is even a chapter on how SF authors use (and misuse) science. This may be one of the most telling, as one of Knight's strongest criticisms of those who failed to pass muster was that they abused scientific knowledge.

At the end of the day I found Knight's book to be excellent. His ideas were superb and his criticism well thought out and meaningful. The only criticism I had about the technical aspects of this book was that Knight is a little creative with punctuation. I also wondered how much relevance his methods have today. His method was a little rigid, and with teh blurring of the lines that has happened in the last fifteen or so years between science fiction and fantasy, I think it may not be a useful as it once was to parse modern author's application of scientific principles. Personally I think that analysis still has merit; but I'm kind of a throwback reader; I'm not so sure that in another fifteen years that many readers are going to care too much about how specific authors are, and how they differentiate between science and magic. Fifty years ago when much of this was written science fiction was itself a much more rigid genre. But now we are well along the way towards mainstream acceptance, and have realized that those fetishistic differentiations only work against that goal. We shall see . . . We shall see.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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