Damon Knight

Intellectual gadfly of science fiction
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The Independent Online

Damon Francis Knight, science-fiction writer and editor: born Baker City, Oregon 19 September 1922; three times married; died Eugene, Oregon 14 April 2002.

It seems astonishing that Damon Knight was an old man when he died. For more than half a century, he had served as an intellectual gadfly and iconoclast for the science-fiction field in America; it was a young man's role, and, for decades after the Second World War, he performed it with verve and wit. His Socratic scrutinising of science fiction and its practitioners ended only with his death. At the same time, during the same decades, he was a writer, a critic, an editor, and, strangely perhaps, the field's greatest organisation man.

Damon Francis Knight was born in 1922 in Baker City, Oregon, and was educated in the West, graduating from the WPA Art Center in Salem, Oregon. He published his first story as a teenager, in 1941, and soon began to create a career and a role for himself in New York, where the action was, becoming a leading member of the second generation of writers to devote the entirety of their careers to the growing science-fiction genre. From 1943, he worked in publishing, first with Popular Publications, then in his own right, editing Beyond in 1950-51 and If in 1959-60. During his brief tenures, both magazines became famous in the field.

His first fame, however, was for his criticism. His very first review, a demolition of the 1945 magazine serialisation of A.E. Van Vogt's The World of A, exposed the profound irrationality lying at the heart of much traditional science fiction; this review, which became famous, was assembled with other work as In Search of Wonder (1956). The book won a 1956 Hugo Award. As this superb collection shows, he was the first reviewer in the field to treat science fiction as a genuinely serious form of literature, and to demand of the books he reviewed that they be adult, literate, logical.

Meanwhile, Knight joined a fan group called the Futurians, a gang of Young Turks (other members included Isaac Asimov, C.M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril, Frederik Pohl and James Blish) who galvanised the field, usually from a stance that seemed left-wing in the American context, and who lived in each other's pockets. Knight's sharp-tongued but loving memoir of the time, The Futurians (1977), makes it clear how deeply he adhered to the concept that science fiction was a conversation of thinking writers, that it was a communal activity.

It was not until a few years later, however, that his own fiction began to make an impact, with the launching of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy in 1949, where he found a ready market for the iconoclastic, wry pessimism of tales like "Not With a Bang" (1949) or "To Serve Man" (1950), a television adaptation of which appeared in The Twilight Zone. To young readers at the time, he had a revelatory radical voice.

Until he returned to the form at the end of his career, his novels, on the other hand, were comparatively diffuse, though the first, Hell's Pavement (1955), was sharply disturbing. Knight's attention was, in any case, shifting. His editorial work became more influential; as an anthologist, his extremely influential Orbit series of original stories (21 volumes from 1966 to 1980) published the best early work of the late R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Gardner Dozois and Kate Wilhelm, who in 1963 had become his third wife.

The Futurians had folded by 1950, but Knight soon formalised what they had taught him in the first of his organising initiatives. In 1956, with Blish and Merril, he co-founded and for 20 years ran the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference, the first and still the most significant writers' workshop in the field (a British Milford soon followed); Thomas M. Disch's extraordinary tale "The Master of the Milford Alterpiece" (1966) captures some of the élan of those days.

In 1965, he founded the Science Fiction Writers of America, becoming its first president; as a combination writers' union and ginger group, it remains central to the field. He did not directly found the Clarion Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy, which continues to operate, but with Wilhelm he was a shaping influence, and inspiring teacher, until nearly the end of his life.

Knight had been known as only an occasional novelist, though in fact he wrote at least 15 novels; but in 1981, with The World and Thorinn, he effectively relaunched his writing career. Of the six novels that followed, the last, Humpty Dumpty: an oval (1996), is perhaps the finest, a mature, surreal, melancholy, funny last testament.

With Kate Wilhelm, Knight moved back to Oregon, where he spent his last decades. In 1994, in recognition of his life's work, he was given the Nebula Grand Master Award.

John Clute

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