Birthday Reviews: Damon Knight’s “Backward, O Time”

Birthday Reviews: Damon Knight’s “Backward, O Time”

Cover by Virgil Finlay
Cover by Virgil Finlay

Damon Knight was born on September 19, 1922 and died on April 15, 2002. He was married to author Kate Wilhelm. Over the years, he used the pseudonyms Stuart Fleming and Donald Laverty. As an author, he collaborated with James Blish and Kenneth Bulmer. He edited a variety of anthologies and magazines with Martin H. Greenberg, Bill Evans, and Joseph D. Olander. A member of the Futurians, Knight published a history of the organization and also inspired the founding of the fannish group the National Fantasy Fan Federation (N3F) and founded the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), and the Milford Writer’s Workshop which gave birth to the Clarion Workshop.

Damon Knight won a Hugo Award for Best Reviewer in 1956 and in 2001 his story “To Serve Man” was awarded a Retro Hugo Award. He won a Jupiter Award in 1977 for his short story “I See You.” The Science Fiction Research Association presented him with a Pilgrim Award in 1975 for Lifetime Contribution to Scholarship. He and Wilhelm both received the Gallun Award from I-Con in 1996. In 1995, he was named a SFWA Grand Master. The award’s name was changed to the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award following his death in 2002 and in 2003 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Knight, along with Wilhelm, were the guests of honor at Noreascon II, the 1980 Worldcon in Boston.

Knight published “This Way to the Regress” in the August 1956 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, edited by H.L. Gold. The story was also translated for the February 1958 French language edition of the magazine. By the time Knight included it in his 1966 collection Turning On: Thirteen Stories, Knight had changed the title to “Backward, O Time.” The first title, of course, is a play on the sign P.T. Barnum used in his side shows, the latter comes from a hymn written by Elizabeth Akers Allen. The story appeared in French again in 1970 and 1976 as well as in English in 1976 in The Best of Damon Knight. The latter book was translated into both Spanish and Dutch, meaning additional versions of the story. In 2014 it was included in the Gollancz collection of Knight’s works Far Out/In Deep/Off Centre/Turning On, which was an omnibus edition of his first four collections.

As the title would suggest, “Backward, O Time” is a time slippage story in which the main character, and probably all the other characters, live their lives backwards. Knight follows the life of Lawrence Sullivan from the moment of his birth in a car accident to his eventual death, being inserted into his mother’s womb. At first, the reader is under the impression that in his moment of death, Sullivan flashes back on his life, but it becomes clear that what Knight is doing is much more experimental.

The story works quite well once the reader understands that the story is not a flashback, but rather a global Benjamin Button sort of situation. The fact that what is happening to Sullivan is happening to everyone else gives it a sense of normality that removes any sense of horror at the reverse aging and living. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is when Knight relates a conversation Sullivan has with one of his professors as he regresses through college in which the two speculate on what life would be life if it flowed opposite the direction it does in the story. The discussion reads properly going forward or backwards.

Of course, it is obvious where the story is going since Knight is following Sullivan’s life from his birth (death) to his death (birth). Knight has stated that the story didn’t work for him until he wrote it normally and then repositioned the various pieces to run backwards.

Reprint reviewed in the collection The Best of Damon Knight, by Damon Knight, Pocket Books, 1976.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Rich Horton

Knight is a great writer of course, and in my opinion curiously underrated. I think it might have been John who thought he was out of place as a Grand Master. I think that’s because until late in his career his novels were much weaker than his short fiction.

It must be said, however, that the Retro Hugo for “To Serve Man”, essentially a one-joke story, and that joke a pun, was a horrible mistake. As I put it at the time, they might as well have called it the award for “Best Twilight Zone episode”, because that’s all most of the voters likely knew. It’s the perfect illustration of the problems with the Retro-Hugo.

But Knight’s novellas in particular (such as “The Earth Quarter”, “Rule Golden”, “Double Meaning”, “Dio”, etc.) are brilliant, and so are many shorter stories, like “A for Anything”, “The Handler”, “Masks”, “Four in One”, “I See You”, “Fortyday”, and many others.

Rich Horton

Kind of an embarrassment of riches today. I mean, Catherine McMullen (Sean’s daughter, I think), who published her first story in Interzone at age 11! Hilary Bailey! Robin Scott Wilson! Mary Caraker!

And those are the “minor” possibilities. Because you could have picked Tanith Lee. Or N. K. Jemisin! Obviously great choices.

And a couple of “Old Bestseller” writers too — Louis Joseph Vance and Mika Waltari.

But obviously you did the right thing by featuring a writer of Ace Doubles!

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