The founder of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Damon Knight, passed away Monday (link via Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a science fiction editor at Tor Books, who has written his own brief tribute to Knight). Knight is probably best known as the author of "To Serve Man", memorably adapted for The Twilight Zone and nicely spoofed on The Simpsons a few years ago, but his work in the field as a reviewer, teacher, and editor really surpass his contributions as a writer. I don’t think that I’ve ever read a novel-length work by Knight; he was largely known for his short fiction, which remains heavily anthologized. But The Best of Damon Knight has far too many punchlines in search of a story. "Man in a Jar", "To Serve Man", and "Not With a Bang" emit the whiff of shaggy-dog stories or amusing one-liners tacked on to rather generic setup material. "Cabin Boy" sprang from an attempt to write a dirty limerick into a story that John Campbell would publish. Not all of Knight’s fiction is lightweight; "Masks", an exploration of the emotional life of a crippled man whose life has been saved by machinery but whose humanity may have been stripped away, is a powerful story (and is available online for a nominal charge; Fictionwise sells a number of Knight stories for under a dollar, but not "The Country of the Kind", a diamond-edged story about the only madman in Utopia). On the other hand, his SFWA obituary rightly notes that as an anthologist, he helped spur a number of writers (including R. A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, and Gardner Dozois, himself a longtime s.f. anthology editory) into prominence. He was apparently a wonderful teacher. What he wrote about the craft fiction certainly is good common sense, the sort that can be easily overlooked. Consider this exceprt from his Creating Short Fiction:

In order to discuss this, we must talk about an ideal structure that is seldom found in its complete form in short fiction. One name for it is the "plot skeleton." The skeleton has five bones:

  1. a believable and sympathetic central character;
  2. his urgent and difficult problem;
  3. his attempts to resolve the problem, which fail and make his situation more desperate;
  4. the crisis, his last chance to win;
  5. the successful resolution, brought about by means of the central character’s own courage, ingenuity, etc.

The reverse of this plot is the story in which the central character is the villain; the story ends with his defeat rather than with his victory… Some writing manuals insist that this is the only structure of successful popular fiction, but in fact, although many short stories begin this way, nearly all of them lack the third element (the failed attempts) and the fifth (the central character’s victory by his own efforts). The third is left out because it is too hard to cram into a short story, and the fifth because repetition would make it dull. When a story has only two possible endings, it is hard to surprise the reader with either; when the story has only one conventional ending (the triumph of the hero), it is even harder.

Knight’s teaching and criticism helped drag science fiction toward a more literary sensibility, even if much of the fiction he wrote didn’t reflect those ideals.

Knight was famously a member of the Futurians, a group of Bohemian science fiction enthusiasts who lived in New York in the ‘30s and ‘40s. A number of prominent writers and editors — Isaac Asimov, Frederic Pohl, Judith Merrill, agent and editor Virginia Kidd, Cyril Kornbluth, James Blish, editor Donald A. Wollheim — were in this merry band, who were about thirty years early for their particular blend of radical politics, unique lifestyle choices, and devotion to marginalized popular culture. They lived in group houses, dabbled in leftist causes (Merrill, a member of the Communist Party, later moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War; Isaac Asimov’s vision of the future has been denounced by the libertarian Cato Institute), married each other (Blish married Kidd, Merrill married Pohl), divorced each other, and fooled around on the side.

But Kornbluth and Blish, the two best writers of the group, never fulfilled their promise; Kornbluth died early, and Blish veered away from science fiction with little success, drank too much, and was reduced to writing Star Trek novels and turning his withering critical eye on the genre he couldn’t escape. Asimov and, to a lesser extent, Pohl became hugely successful writers with appeal beyond the world of science fiction fans, but Asimov never became more than a workmanlike prose stylist and Pohl’s work after the 1960s is largely forgetable. Merrill had a fairly good eye as an editor and anthologist, but her own best known and most anthologized story, "That Only a Mother", strikes me as slow, obvious, and overpraised. None of the Futurians were really writers first; they were fans. The group of kids kicking around New York during World War II invented the strange world of modern fandom; the fact that few of them were born wordsmiths the way Ted Sturgeon or Cordwainer Smith or the great duo of Kuttner and Moore were was beside the point. They were inventing a counterculture. They were living in the Big City; they had Big Ideas. The ideas that inspired them — whether the Second Foundation or microcosmic gods or dialectical materialsm or simply that science fiction should feature realistic characters using believeable science and acting in sensible ways — may have been more important than the stories themselves. The fact that one can point to writers like Gene Wolfe or Ursula LeGuin as even marginally respectable figures in the American literary canon is rather shocking coming given the Gernsbackian work that that the Futurians had to build upon, and Damon Knight was one of the architects of that legacy.