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.
In my ever growing collection of vintage science fiction books I hold a high regard for anthologies. Ever since I was a kid, short stories have been my preferred sci-fi format. Anthologies are a great way to read a wide selection of authors and find favorites you never knew about. As such, my library boasts a respectable (and ever growing) collection of anthologies from the 1950s to today. Many of them are filled with repeat authors that I’ve never read before.
So it occurred to me, why not pick one of these authors and – almost at random – pick a trifecta of stories from different anthologies to get a pseudo-random sampling of the author’s work? Then I thought, why not blog all of these trifectas? Then I thought, what life choices have brought me to such a weird decision? Then I got to reading.
First up on the list of authors-I’ve-never-read-before: James Tiptree, Jr.
Our first story comes from Harlan Ellison’s venerable original sci-fi anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions volume 2. Tiptree ends the anthology, which means that this story was the last published in this iconic anthology series (though there are claims that the final volume is on the way). Ellison felt that the last story in an anthology had to be the best, and positively glows when writing about the story he nabbed from Tiptree.
I had been reading Tiptree for some time. He’s a fairly recent addition to the corps of sf writers, and he hadn’t had all that much published – not even a novel as of this writing – but what I’d seen had impressed me considerably, and so I wrote asking for a submission.
Ellison’s fantastic chauvinism is rendered even more ridiculous because James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman. Of course, it wasn’t known at the time, and wouldn’t be known until 1977, which really makes me wonder what Ellison thought when he found out. Alice Bradley Sheldon published under the name, and male moniker, of James Tiptree, Jr. from 1967 until her death in 1987. From 1974 to 1977 she also published under the name Raccoona Sheldon, but even in anthologies today she is still listed at “James Tiptree, Jr.”, there’s just too much history I guess.
I’m not going to explain probable reasons why she wrote science fiction under the moniker of a man, or passed herself off as a man in all contracts and correspondence. I think there’s enough explanation in Ellison’s introduction that I’ve quoted above. Though how Ellison continues can only be considered comical today.
All of this ferocity of flack is offered not merely because I am so high on his story, but… because, ironically, James Tiptree refuses to provide any personal data on himself.
Now, on to the stories.
The Milk of Paradise
Originally published in Again, Dangerous Visions volume 2
Read in same
It’s easy to tell why Harlan Ellison liked this story so much. Having received a solicitation to write a story for Ellison, Tiptree wrote what I can only describe as a knockoff Ellison story. The story follows a human spaceship-hand that was apparently raised by an unknown race of incredibly beautiful aliens that make humans look like C.H.U.D.s. He is confident that these aliens all died out from some pathogen that was inadvertently brought to their world by his human rescuers, but is tricked by a trader into going back to the world of Paradise, where the aliens lived. The story starts with the protagonist having sex with a random human woman and vomiting because he finds her human body so hideous, and that was my introduction to Tiptree. This is a weird one, and I think Ellison fans will like it. I have to take Ellison in small doses, and I like my science fiction prose a bit less enigmatic, so this one was not for me.
The Man Who Walked Home
Originally published in Amazing Science Fiction, May 1972
Read in The 1973 Annual World’s Best SF
I picked this one because after reading the title I had to know what it was about. This tale was super clever, and has to be one of the best and most original time travel stories ever told. Written in the omniscient, with a hint of A Canticle for Leibowitz , it begins with an apocalypse at a particle accelerator and follows the slow rebuilding of society at the devastated site. On the same day every year a man appears for a split second accompanied by a thunderclap, and local superstitions, myths, cults, and scientific curiosity surround his appearance. I don’t want to give too much away as its a fun trip, but this was a much more straight story than my first introduction, and turned me on to Tiptree’s creativity.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
Originally published in Aurora: Beyond Equality (a feminist anthology published in 1976)
Read in The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF
This one was proceeded in Annual World’s Best SF with a disclaimer that it wasn’t for prudes, and it definitely has a lot of eyebrow raising bits. This novella length story starts on a spaceship with our narrator, a “beta” male astronaut often felt emasculated by his two alpha male colleagues, on a spaceship full of female astronauts. You are given the impression that the men are surprised to find themselves on a ship of women, and as the story develops our narrator is convinced that he’s been drugged. Tiptree uses a clever device here where the drug induces a near stream-of-consciousness which allows the story to be told in shifting time frame. The narrative is linear, sprinkled with moments of clarity that brings the narrator to the “present.” It’s remarkably well executed and the transitions are not jarring or confusing in any way, giving us a really nice mystery to unravel. I really enjoyed this one, and it has a great punch for a climax. This one will stay with me a long time, and I highly recommend it for a commentary on gender equality that is as relevant now as it was in 1977 – maybe more so.
All in all, Tiptree came across in these three stories as one hell of a writer with an amazing creative mind. Her ability to write an Ellison story to sell to Ellison is impressive in its own right, but the fact that it landed so perfectly with him just adds to the comedy of the effort. I’ll definitely seek out more of her stories.
As a parting note, depending on which version you believe, Tiptree either murdered her husband then killed herself, or she and her husband had a suicide pact that she enacted. She openly struggled with suicidal thoughts for years, and it is evident that she finally lost the battle.
The Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region is one of the greatest ongoing atrocities in the world. Over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been imprisoned, relocated, and sent to forced labor camps where they make, among other things, Covid-19 masks. The treatment of Uyghurs is an unironic talking point for many Republican senators under the “China Bad” banner. So desperate are they to point at the liberal entertainment industry (under the unending “Liberals Bad” banner), that now Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is a Republican talking point.
The conflict centers around comments Liu made in an expansive and outstanding New Yorker interview from 2019 authored by Jiayang Fan. Normally careful to avoid politics, a few beers (mixed with Southern Comfort) were enough to get him to comment when asked about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Fan reports that
he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
This quote was enough to make some Republican senators – specifically Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Martha McSally (Arizona) – foam at the mouth. Hence an angry letter to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was written to demand that the CCO explain how Netflix could possibly produce a series adaptation of the international Hugo award winning bestseller. “Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?” the letter asks. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Netflix if they think the thousands of children held at the US-Mexico border under appalling conditions by the US Republican Party is unacceptable?
Fortunately, I’m not the CCO of Netflix, who responded by saying “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”
The thing is, Liu’s comments aren’t entirely unrelated to his book. It’s hard to understate Liu’s notoriety in China. The New Yorker interview was conducted while Liu was in Washington D.C. to receive the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society, which could not have been more fitting as Liu is very much China’s Arthur C. Clarke. Liu has received countless honors both in China and abroad, and his international reputation is a source of pride for the Chinese government. He is credited with bringing science fiction into the mainstream in China, with his novella The Wondering Earth adapted into China’s first science fiction blockbuster, becoming the third highest grossing Chinese film in history. In the western world, Clarke was one of the writers that brought science fiction into the mainstream. He was a scientist, inventor, and television host. His most well known books include 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rendezvous with Rama. The latter contains this gem:
Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of a well-upholstered lady officer through the control cabin.
Now you might dismiss that by saying that it was written in the 1950s. Except it wasn’t written in the 1950s, it was written in 1973 in the middle of Second-wave Feminism, two years after Helen Reddy released “I Am Woman.” I can not, and will not, defend the above quote, but that does not say anything about the quality of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a phenomenally trippy ride. Despite what Star Trek fans will tell you, science fiction is not the best source of material to build a moral belief system. Science fiction authors hold a funhouse mirror to their society and show us glory or absurdity. Having a black woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise was a strong vision of equality in 1966, but it is equally interesting to me that the vision the studio was comfortable with was one where that bridge officer’s sole job was to answer the telephone. Notably, the original Star Trek pilot had a white woman (Gene Roddenberry’s future wife) as first officer, but the studio nixed that idea in part because test audiences found her to be “too bossy.”
If you only accept art from people you agree with morally then you will rapidly find yourself robbed of some great art. Lovecraft was a racist. Asimov was a sexual predator. J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. These facts stand next to their literary careers, but don’t – and shouldn’t – overshadow them. Nor should their accomplishments hide these deplorable opinions. Art that you love was created by imperfect human beings. Since nobody is perfect that should not come as a shock to anyone. Art speaks to us each on an individual level, which the authors have little control over. The magic of fiction is that authors place something before us, but what we take away can be much greater than the material given. Words on a page can turn into self realizations of life changing magnitude. The simple existence of a black lady on a spaceship three hundred years in the future became a sign of hope to African American children living through segregation, inspiring them to pursue careers in science. As a young girl, Whoopi Goldberg famously ran to her mother after seeing an episode of Star Trek and exclaimed “Momma! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!” Whoopi has since been a lifelong fan of all things Trek, which led her to request – and receive – a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Liu’s stories are fascinating, and he is undeniably a great writer. I’ve read The Three-Body Problem and one of his short stories titled Taking Care of God. In the latter, white bearded aliens come to Earth, having created all life as a means to establish an old-folks home for themselves. We are told that this is the normal course of societal evolution, and the “God” civilization is in its twilight. I interpreted the story as a metaphor for the difficulty and sacrifice in having to care for elderly family members, something that is a major aspect of Chinese culture. This cultural need is a great financial burden, as discussed in the story, but it also offers a great opportunity for knowledge and growth – if it is not squandered. Like all great science fiction, Liu’s work is full of cultural metaphor and reflection, but any reflection must come through the eyes of the author. Just as we see Clarke’s opinion of women in the above passage, we see Liu’s interpretation of his own society throughout his works. Fan describes a scene from Liu’s writing which is often marked by unconscionable moral choices.
An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
Is this a criticism or an endorsement of the cold logic of survival? It’s unclear, but it doesn’t have to be clearly one way or another. Put another way, do you read it as a criticism? Maybe you read it as a reflection of the idea that in the face of complete destruction our compassion will evaporate, leaving only cold logic. Liu’s original intention is irrelevant outside of an academic discussion.
Liu has stated that his work is not political. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he says. Many authors have used that refrain when they face criticism or censorship for their work. I can’t blame Liu for echoing that claim. Maybe he doesn’t think his work is political, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. His writing has elevated him through a system where elevation is fraught with challenges of being born in the right place and to the right people (not unlike the USA). He is living a good life – a dream life – and he wants to keep it that way. Maybe he believes what he said and maybe he doesn’t, but we don’t have to live in the system he lives in.
In a way, maybe he’s right. Like I mentioned, we have camps in the USA that house people our society identifies as Others. Maybe “ordinary folks” don’t really care about that type of thing. Maybe, in the end, neither do Republican senators.
As I write this the power is out. I’m more prepared for this situation than most. I use a UPS backup battery to supply power to my modem and router, so I can have internet if my power goes out for up to about an hour. The UPS died about three hours ago. A cold front is moving down from Canada, and Denver, Colorado – about six hours drive north of us – experienced 100 degree temperatures just two days ago but is under a winter weather advisory for the rest of the week. This same cold front has brought sixty mile per hour winds to my city, resulting in local power outages caused by isolated line falls, meaning there isn’t just one problem to fix. Of course, any repair has to happen thirty feet up in these winds, so I’m not hopeful it will actually be back on by nightfall, as presently estimated.
Normally, we’d go out to eat somewhere that still has power. Of course it would have to be takeout because of the global pandemic. We’re going to stay in though, because apart from driving in these high winds it’s been kind of hard to breathe outside what with the thousands of wildfires burning from here to California. I’ve found myself wishing that my cloth Covid mask would also filter out the smoke. I guess what I really need is an N95 mask, but those are in short supply and I haven’t seen any around.
I think that covers pestilence, ecological devastation, climate upset, collapse of modern infrastructure, and scarcity of resources. I guess I should be really angry, but I can’t muster it. We’re basically living in a classic science fiction dystopia, and I don’t mean that in the “I like science fiction so this is neat!” sort of way, but in the “This is horrible, but we knew it was coming” way.
Mostly, I’m just tired. For decades now scientists have been saying that this kind of shit would start happening. More frequent wildfires, global pandemics (most recently this comically timed report from September 2019), climate upset, and a level of human suffering that we’ve not seen in modern times. Of course, we didn’t do anything about it. I guess we brought reusable bags to the grocery store. Maybe that helped?
Don’t get me wrong, my present off-the-grid state is not worthy of a claim of “human suffering.” My power will come back on, probably by dawn. The wildfires will burn themselves out or be put out (so far that second one has not been very successful). One day this pandemic disease will be contained (but I’m not optimistic about how soon that will be). The problem is that although these present difficulties will pass, there is no honest expectation that the overall trend will get any better. The present state of our planet is already worse than the “worst case” climate models, and many climate scientists are saying that we’ve crossed the point of stopping some level of substantial climate shift. It wasn’t a question of not listening. I think we listened, we just decided that we didn’t really care.
As I think about what the future will look like, I find myself picturing a trip to the grocery store while wearing a respirator to keep out the pollutants and viruses. I walk past white supremacists screaming that everything would be fine if we just didn’t let women be in charge of anything. It’s a future that I’m familiar with given a lifetime of reading science fiction. Lots of people misunderstand what speculative science fiction is about. People fixate on how science fiction never predicted the rise of computers, or the power of feminism. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about holding a fun house mirror to the society of today in order to call attention to some aspect of ourselves. Science fiction futures are about an extrapolation of today to the world of tomorrow. In that respect, decades ago when science fiction writers looked at pollution and uncontrolled population growth they knew what was up (see Make Room! Make Room! and Caves of Steel). They tried to warn us, and we definitely listened since those books have sold millions of copies, but we took the wrong message from the writing. Too many people took the entertainment and not the warning. Too many people read those books and thought “Wow, what a wacky future!” and not “Oh damn, that’s the path we’re on.”
The wind outside is blowing large detritus around. My son just said he’s scared. His mom told him that “You don’t have to be scared, you just have to be alert to what might happen.” She’s a smart lady, my wife. At this point I guess all we can do is be alert.
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.