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