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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.

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So, What the Hell Am I, Anyway?

So, What the Hell Am I, Anyway?

critic-fsf-august-62

Mrs. [Rosel George] Brown is just about the only one of F&SF‘s former gaggle of housewives who doesn’t strike me as verging on the feebleminded; in fact, I think her work has attracted less attention than it deserves.

That’s James Blish (writing as William Atheling, Jr.) being nice. He was talking about Brown’s story in the August, 1962 issue of F&SF (then edited by Avram Davidson), pictured at right.

He doesn’t name the story – odd that a critic wouldn’t, even in a review published at the time – but a little online research shows it to be the novelette “The Fruiting Body.” It’s a pretty good read, too, as most of Brown’s work was.

For me, though, the salient point of the quote above is the off-hand contempt he throws on fine writers like Zenna Henderson, Katherine MacLean and Miriam Allen DeFord, a blatant disdain that is both unfortunate and unwarranted.

Looking over the first Blish/Atheling volume of collected criticism, The Issue at Hand (Advent Publishers, 1964), in fact, the reader finds similar contempt for one writer or another on nearly every page.

It gets worse. In the March, 1954 issue of Campbell’s Astounding, a story by one Arthur Zirul titled “Final Exam” appeared. It was the author’s very first story. Blish/Atheling, in the Spring 1954 issue of Redd Boggs’ fanzine Skyhook, devoted almost his entire column (which translated to an incredible six pages in book form) to tearing this story to shreds; calling it “…one of the worst stinkers ever to have been printed…”, and on and on.

Why? What was the point?

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Holding History

Holding History

sfwa-bulletin-11eBay.  It’s a silly place to be for any amount of time, not to mention its hideous potential as a money-sink.  I do spend time there, though, on a daily basis, and money as well.  It’s one of the sources I use to replace the stock I’ve sold at a convention, and it comes in handy to add to my personal collection on those rare occasions when I have disposable income.

Three weeks ago as I write this, I was lucky to have won a small lot of magazines that popped up on my radar because of the authors included therein.  I was up against another collector, and although the bidding was spirited in the last day or so I walked away with the prize.  And what was it, I hear you ask?

It was a dozen issues of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America dating from 1967, the earliest being #10.  After I paid for them – with shipping, a little over a dollar each – the seller found another issue dated 1970 and threw it in.

A few days later the package came, and I slit the tape carefully to open it.  They don’t look like much: just 8.5×11″ pages folded in half and stapled to make a booklet.  The pages are browned; the few photos are black and white.  All in all, pretty unimposing, really.

So why were my hands shaking as I lifted them gently out of the box?

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