Friday, December 11, 2009

In search of Damon Knight

Damon Knight was -- along w/ James Blish & Algis Budrys -- 1 of the best book critics that science fiction ever had.
IN SEARCH OF WONDER is a long collection of cutting, hilarious SF book reviews from the late '50s & early '60s, almost worth reading just 4 the many samples of atrociously bad writing that Knight quotes from.
Cms there was a LOT of Really Bad Writing in SF back then, & Knight had no trouble poking fun at it -- he referred 2 this fun-poking as 1 of the tools he used 2 take apart a story & C what makes it tick. Bad stories fall 2 pieces. Really good stories sometimes defy all attempts 2 take them apart.
I 1st read this book at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey back in the summer of 1991, while waiting around 4 my daughter 2 B born (the same place I finally read Robert Silverberg's brilliant-but-overlooked SF novel THE MAN IN THE MAZE), so I didn't remember much of it & was looking 4ward 2 a re-read. If U're a fan of late-'50s/early-'60s SF, or a reader of NE of the writers from SF's "Golden Age," I think U'll Njoy this book very much.
All SF's Big Names from those days R here: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl (still writing -- & blogging! -- at age 90), Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Robert Sheckley, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Jack Vance, Edgar Pangborn, Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, Richard Matheson, L. Ron Hubbard (wait, how'd HE get in here?), Blish, Budrys, & more, lots more. There R also many names that R now nearly 4got10, even 2 longtime SF fans. & some Knight points out that DESERVE 2 B 4got10.
If Blish's criticism leaned more toward the scholarly & kinda dry, & Budrys' work had more of a down-home, modest, just-plain-folks kinda feel until he went 4 the jugular, Knight was somewhere in-Btween: There R some writers he just plain raves about (Sturgeon, Heinlein, some Asimov, some Clarke) but can always tell U why -- & others he can take apart in Ndless, hilarious Dtail. He Cms 2 have much more fun with Really Bad Writing, done by a class of writers he calls "Chuckleheads." There R a lot of them pointed-out in this book.
I coulda done w/o the 10 pgs of cheerleading 4 the early work of Bob Heinlein -- 1 of the 2 or 3 guys listed above w/o whom modern SF would never have happened, but whose early work now Cms even more of a conservative, strait-laced, steel-jawed all-American cliche than John Wayne.... Wonder how dismayed Knight was 2 C what Heinlein did in the '60s & '70s, when RAH took all the rules he ever learned about commercial writing & threw them out the window (Xcept 4 THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, which is a GREAT novel).
NEway, Knight makes up 4 his worship of Heinlein by dismantling an apparently hideous, nonsensical novel (THE WORLD OF NULL-A) by the now-almost-4got10 A.E. van Vogt. This chapter is hilarious at 1st, then Xhausting in its Ndless citations of botched, illogical writing -- which was nevertheless very popular among SF fans back in the '40s.
It's also intresting that Knight almost worships Asimov -- Xcept 4 Dr. A's FOUNDATION series, which Asimov went on 2 spend much of the later yrs of his life writing sequels 2.
But Knight's choice 4 best-rounded SF novelist up til 1960 is Blish, whose work is always compelling, & almost always clear & logical -- but even Blish slips up, as noted herein....
Knight also reviews sevral other notorious Bad Novels, like Jerry Sohl's POINT ULTIMATE (U can still find copies in used bookstores -- CHEAP!), J.T. McIntosh's ONE IN THREE HUNDRED, & possibly my fave Bad SF Novel Ever, Edmund Cooper's 150-pg novel-outline SEED OF LIGHT.
Knight Cmd 2 get a kind of joy out of spotlighting these bad books. He knew there was a lotta hack writing going on in SF back then -- there still is, but the editors were better back then, & there were fewer publishers ... but they cranked-out more titles....
I'm still not sure about Knight as a fiction-writer, myself. He died a few yrs back after publishing sevral novels over the last decade-plus of his life. At his peak, he was acclaimed as a really good short story writer -- I've only read a couple of his short stories, so I can't say. 4 yrs he retired from fiction-writing 2 edit the award-winning & long-running ORBIT series of SF anthologies. 4 yrs the rap was that critiquing other writers' work had ruined him as a writer.
The 1 novel of his that grabbed me, THE MAN IN THE TREE, has a BRILLIANT 1st 1/2 -- a vivid & involving look at what it's like 2 grow up smart & odd in America's Pacific Northwest. But the 2nd 1/2, in which the hero Bcomes a messiah, is a dull anti-climax -- Dspite some good writing in places, there's none of the magic of the 1st 1/2. The book reads like it was written by 2 diffrent people -- or by 1 person, but w/ a LONG gap of yrs Btween the 2 parts....
NEway, if U like reviews that show-up the flaws of a book in glaring lite & R filled w/ cheap laffs, U'll probly like at least 1/2 of this. U might learn a lot, 2 -- I've only read mayB 10% of the Good Stuff Knight reviews in these 300 pgs.
& his more serious, sober, considered reviews R pretty cool 2....
Coming soon, I promise: MUSIC REVIEWS!

3 comments:

bearockr said...

That was a nice comprehensive and delicate review, Tad,kinda the first review of a book I read on your blog ... Though I am not much into books though,but I found it worth reading ! And yea, Hope you come up with some music reviews too, coz atleast I would be much interested in your music writings ! Rock on...

rastronomicals said...

Tad

If by "early Heinlein" you mean the 40's, then it sounds like the only work of his you care for are his juveniles, written in the '50's.

Which is cool: Citizen of the Galaxy is probably my favorite Heinlein novel, and I've read Tunnel in the Sky a couple times as well. And now that I'm thinking, Have Space Suit Will Travel, despite the silly title, depicts one of the most populous galaxies this side of David Brin.

But to call early Heinlein conservative and straight-laced misses the point I think in much the way that Panshin's criticism misses the point.

Perhaps Heinlein's early stuff is not pan-global, pan-sexual, pan-theistic, multidisciplinary, multicolored, or multicultural. And perhaps he does use his narrative voice as a bully pulpit from which to dispense his political views, those "opinions-as-facts" which Panshin talks about.

But, so what? The only sin that conservatism could possibly commit would be to bore the reader, and of course, Heinlein is eminently readable, and is very rarely boring.

I think as a reader, Heinlein's conservative views or more accurately, his vision of a conservative America, are no more bothersome to me than, say, Haldeman's brand of hippie liberalism as expressed in The Forever War.

You end up criticizing Heinlein for being Heinlein, which isn't fair criticism at all . . . .

tad said...

B: So I got U 2 read a review of a book of 50-yr-old science fiction criticism U weren't really intrested in? Not bad. 4 my next trick....
I'll B getting back in2 the music reviews more (in fact I've already posted another new 1).... But there R more books stacked-up here (a few of them R even music-related) that I'll B reporting on soon....

R: Don't get me wrong about Heinlein. I know modern SF wouldn't have happened without him. I think THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS is 1 of the best SF novels ever -- a revolution story set on the Moon, it's funny, action-filled, involving, gripping, rollicking, & the characters R GREAT -- it's everything NE1 who's ever raved about how good Heinlein is was talking about -- & more. & the WAY it's written is VERY diffrent, so much so that after reading it U'll B thinking in "Loonie" 4 a coupla days....
But I didn't like RAH's short stories much when I was 13, & I doubt I could get in2 them now. Even then I thot they were clunky, skeletal, awkward, kinda dull. But mayB I was reading the wrong stuff. "Requiem," "The Roads Must Roll," "By His Bootstraps," even the gimmicky time-travel-paradox story "All You Zombies" -- none of it worked 2 well 4 me. As 4 the novels, I tried 2 read BETWEEN PLANETS (1 of his juveniles) at the same age & couldn't get in2 it. But that might just have bn me not wanting 2 do the work. (HAVE SPACE SUIT... is sposta B 1 of his best novels ever, I'll try it if I C a copy.)
Later (around 15 or 16) I read STARSHIP TROOPERS & wasn't bothered by the supposedly war-hawk outlook -- I doubt it woulda occurred 2 me 2 B bothered by it back then. I finished the book, but I barely remember it.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND I remember well as a long-winded bore. Couldn't get in2 TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, either, tho the sections published seprately as the "Notebooks of Lazarus Long" R hysterical! I have no reservations about HARSH MISTRESS, tho -- great stuff. & RAH's book of essays & letters, GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE, is Xcellent!
So I guess I didn't like Heinlein much, but I don't think he was speaking 2 me. & I think his early "Can Do!" competent-man attitude reflected the attitudes of American men who helped pull this country outta the Great Depression. There were just other SF writers from the same period who I Njoyed more. (I'm not much of a fan of Asimov, either -- tho "Nightfall" & "The Last Question" R brilliant, & the middle section of THE GODS THEMSELVES is pretty wild.)
This all may Cm a little weird, cos a couple '70s writers I like a lot -- John Varley & Spider Robinson -- have both said they got a lot of their approach & confidence from studying Heinlein....
Sorry 2 get so wordy. U wanna talk about SF some more....? My tastes run more 2 Roger Zelazny, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree Jr., John Varley, William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, John Brunner, Ian McDonald, some Joanna Russ, Edward Bryant, some Ray Bradbury, James Blish, Frank Herbert, Spider Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Pat Cadigan, some Ursula K. LeGuin, some Connie Willis.... Let me know if U wanna compare notes....-- TAD.