Largely lost to modern science fiction fans, Damon Knight was influential in sci-fi from the 1950s-1970s, not so much as a writer but as one of the early critics advocating that science fiction be taken as a literary art form and held to the same standards as “straight” literature. The introduction to The Best of Damon Knight claims that Knight first became known in science fiction circles after “a classic demolition in a fan magazine (despite the fact that the magazine had a circulation of no more than two hundred, the review had significant consequences upon two careers)”. I have no idea who he reviewed in that take-down, but I would sure love to read it!
We’ll get to some more autobiographical details through the lens of our three stories. First up could be none other than –
To Serve Man
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950 (click to read the issue on the Internet Archive)
Read in The Best of Damon Knight
If Damon Knight is known by name to any science fiction fans of my generation it would undoubtedly be for his short story To Serve Man which was the basis for the classic Twilight Zone episode of the same name. This is such a classic episode that even those that haven’t seen it will know the ending (“It’s a cookbook!”), perhaps from the excellent Simpsons parody. As such, I have no reservations about spoiling the story’s twist ending. Knight’s story starts quite brilliantly, with the Kanamit portrayed visually differently than in the Twilight Zone episode. I absolutely love the opening paragraph.
The Kanamit were not very pretty, it’s true. They looked something like pigs and something like people, and that is not an attractive combination. Seeing them for the first time shocked you; that was their handicap. When a thing with the countenance of a fiend comes from the stars and offers a gift, you are disinclined to accept.
As opening paragraphs go this is basically perfect. In four sentences we know that the story is about an alien race called the Kanamit, that they are vaguely humanoid and repulsive in appearance, and that they want to give humanity some form of gift. Not to mention the brilliance of making the alien race that wants to eat people look like pigs. Outstanding!
Unfortunately, the story declines in quality after that. Everything holds together well enough, but the story is written as a very short stream of consciousness, with the entire thing racing by at breakneck pace. As a result, the ending falls pretty flat because of its abrupt reveal and muted emotions. I’m sorry to say that I think the plot was better executed in the Twilight Zone. Perhaps we should forgive Knight, because The Best of Damon Knight comes with brief story introductions by the author, and this one reads, in its entirety,
‘To Serve Man’ was written in 1950, when I was living in Greenwich Village and my unhappy first marriage was breaking up. I wrote it in one afternoon, while my wife was out with another man.
An Eye for a What?
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1957 (click to read the issue on the Internet Archive)
Read in The World That Couldn’t Be (a collection of novellas that first appeared in Galaxy)
One of Knight’s contributions to literary criticism was to popularize the excellent term “idiot plot,” defined as a plot which only functions because everybody in the story is an idiot. A prominent example of this is Back to the Future II, in which Doc recklessly uses self-evidently dangerous time travel to help his friend stop his unborn child from making a bad decision. (Could Doc not just have told Marty to do a better job raising his kid?) Mentioning the idiot plot is appropriate here because this story has a one hundred percent idiot plot.
The novella revolves around a vaguely defined group of humans aboard a space station orbiting an alien world which they hope to rape for all its natural resources. Native to this world is a species of intelligent gelatinous balls, one of which lives on the space station as a sort of exchange, the goal of which is to get the gelatinous elders to agree to massive strip-mining or their planet. While at a state dinner, the normally polite resident ball attacks the commander’s wife, who, being a woman, is in hysterics for the rest of the story. The alien society says that the humans must punish their resident alien for his transgression, and if the humans don’t do it, then the alien society will attack all of the humans presently on the planet. So the humans must punish the alien, not knowing why he did what he did or even what a suitable punishment is.
This is where the idiot plot comes in, since brief and unbelievable excuses are made as to why they can’t just ask what the hell is going on. Instead, the story degenerates into a quest to torture this alien, not knowing what methods will even work. Oh, but the first idea they have amounts to water boarding! The story gets increasingly dumb from there, and not in a fun way. In the end, the entire thing basically amounts to a fat joke directed at the commander’s wife, which along with “automatic whistles” at a few passing women on page one, really sets a tone for this story that can fuck right off.
Overall this one is disjointed, confusing, objectionable, and just plain bad.
Originally published in Playboy, July 1968
Read in The Best of Damon Knight
In the introduction to this story in The Best of Damon Knight, the author mentions that he discovered that there were many new areas of science that were not being written about in science fiction, one of them being the (then new) field of prosthesis development. Masks was Knight’s attempt to write a story on the subject, one which he notes in the introduction feels “jagged and lumpy” to him, which is interesting because I find it to be the best written of the three. (An Eye for a What? in particular suffers from some abrupt and confusing scene changes.) This story has what I can now assume to be Knight’s characteristic minimal world building and setup, but the basic idea is an inspection of a ridiculously expensive government program to outfit a single wounded soldier with multiple prosthesis. (Think Johnny Got His Gun level of bodily injury.) In the end, the story takes the stance that someone with a prosthesis is automatically less than a man, which is undoubtedly offensive to anyone with a prosthesis. I will defend Knight a bit here in that he was holding up the lens of science fiction to this new technology of mechanical replacements for human limbs and organs in order to challenge the obvious belief that repairing a damaged body is always good. The story does raise a valid question about how much medical treatment a wounded soldier deserves, and at some point are you doing more harm than good? The story doesn’t really deliver on all its promise, but I do hand it to Knight for trying to poke a new branch of science and engineering with the sci-fi stick.
In the end it’s not hard to see why Knight has fallen to the wayside. Some of science fiction’s pioneers are forgotten for no good reason (my best example being Clifford Simak), but others didn’t so much disappear as they were surpassed by better writers that followed. For what it’s worth, it seems that Knight’s written criticisms had a strong positive impact on science fiction as a legitimate literary enterprise, and for that we can only thank him. I have to say that I found the mechanics of his writing to be inferior to almost everything published these days in Analog, Asimov’s, or Fantasy and Science Fiction, so the genre has clearly come a long way.
Adrienne LaFrance has a new article on The Atlantic today arguing that Facebook is a doomsday machine. Like, a Doctor Strangelove style doomsday machine. I admit that the metaphor is a bit over the top, but if 2016 did anything to me – and you can be certain that it did a lot to me – it was to make me question the value of social media as a whole. My day-to-day feelings toward social media are as favorable as you might expect from an aspiring writer with a blog. I definitely feel a love for social media since I’ve made so many great friends through it, and some of those friendships have outlasted my more “traditional” friendships by a decade or more. So to say that my relationship status with social media is complicated is a bit of an understatement.
As a result of my musings on science fiction I’ve recently developed a profound hope that the age of social media will be short lived. I dream that one day we’ll talk of social media in the “when I was your age” style of reminiscing reserved for holiday gatherings when it’s just too rude to completely ignore grandpa as he rambles on in his favorite recliner. You may think that social media is too big, too ingrained in our culture to disappear, but I submit that when a substantial segment of active users are questioning its value then the ground is readying for a shift. Former executives of both Google and Facebook have expressed regret over their role in social media corporations. They have said that social media serves as “amplifiers for idiots and crazy people” and are places where “no civil discourse, no cooperation” exist. They are clear to point out that this is “not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” These are the same people that built these tech juggernauts pointing at their product and advising people not to use it. That’s more than a bit unusual, and as a result I think we should seriously listen to them.
As an avid reader of science fiction I’ve noticed that a surprisingly small amount of stories involve social media. Most often the evolution of smart phone technology is used for texting or encrypted communications, which is undoubtedly a direction that we’re heading. Very few of the stories I’ve read in the last few years have had anything like Facebook or Twitter, and when they do they are a primary focus of the story in order to comment (unfavorably) on the concept of social media; thus is the nature of science fiction at its best.
This general lack of social media in contemporary science fiction stories leads me back to The Nerdwriter’s excellent video on smart phones in blockbuster movies. Obviously, the presence of smart phones and social media are tightly coupled, but in his video (which I highly recommend) he argues that smart phones don’t show up in films whose primary goal is wide spread entertainment appeal because we resent these devices and what they’ve done to us. Similarly, I’d like to believe that speculative fiction authors leave out social media because they aren’t happy with what it has done to us.
Whether or not I’m correct that social media is just a wild phase of the adolescent internet, the article by LaFrance is thought provoking and has a lot of good linked articles for a deeper dive. After reading that maybe give that Nerdwriter video a watch and think for yourself about why smart phones often do nothing but serve as flip phones in blockbuster movies. As for me… I need to put links to this blog post on all my social media.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.