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!