No. 13 – A Member Journal of Robert E. Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
by Gary Romeo © 2013 – Gary Romeo can be contacted at: email@example.com
What follows is a Conan-centric review of In Search of Wonder followed by a short look at Damon Knight’s career.
In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight
Advent: Publishers, Inc., Second Edition, November 1974
Whether Damon Knight remains an important historical figure in science fiction is probably a matter of opinion. But during the 60s and 70s he was one of the most important. He founded the Science Fictions Writers of America (SFWA) and was co-founder of the Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference. He was a popular short fiction writer and edited numerous influential anthologies. He is chiefly remembered as a critic: one who pushed science fiction to higher standards.
His first review was a scathing look at A. E. Van Vogt’s The World of A. It has been said that his review was a major factor in Van Vogt’s decreasing popularity and diminished critical reputation. After that first review Knight’s critical essays began appearing in a cross section of science fiction magazines. Both fan publications and professionally published ones. The reviews were later collected in book form. In Search of Wonder was the recipient of a 1956 Hugo Award for best criticism.
In Search of Wonder was reprinted several times over the years. Advent: Publishers, Inc. was a specialty publisher of influential books on science fiction. It is the second edition, November 1974 printing that I’m reviewing.
Anthony Boucher, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction wrote the introduction and reminds us that whether we agree or disagree with the reviewer isn’t the point. It is whether the reviewer adds something to our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the book. If the reviewer makes us question assumptions or look at something in a different way then they are a good reviewer. Boucher adds “[Knight] has […] an undeserved reputation as a hostile critic; this volume contains far more praise than attack….” While that is most likely true, the criticism is of such a “no holds barred” type that it will certainly sting someone who is a fan of the particular work being discussed.
The first chapter is Knight’s credo as a critic. It mainly boils down to a forthright view that science fiction is a field worthy of discussion and should be held to the same literary standards of mainstream literature. The second chapter reviews some older classics: Karel Capek’s War With the Newts; Stanton Coblentz’s Under the Triple Suns; Eugene Zamiatin’s We; Norman Matson’s Enchanted Beggar; and Robert E. Howard’s The Coming of Conan. Knight says:
The Coming of Conan, by Robert E. Howard, is of interest to Howard enthusiasts, who will treasure it no matter what anyone says, and to students who may find it, as I do, an intriguing companion piece to L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring. Howard’s tales lack the de Camp verisimilitude – Howard never tried, or never tried intelligently, to give his preposterous saga the ring of truth – but they have something that de Camp’s stories lack; a vividness, a color, a dream-dust sparkle, even when they’re most insulting to the rational mind.
Howard had the maniac’s advantage of believing whatever he wrote; de Camp is too wise to believe wholeheartedly in anything.
This book contains the only fragment of a Conan story that I remember from Weird Tales – Conan tippy-toeing along a ledge with a naked girl held by the hair, and then dropping her carefully into a cesspool – which turns out to be neither as isolated nor as insignificant as I had supposed. Another naked lady friend of the hero’s, in another episode, winds up hanged to a yardarm with a rope of jewels; and for that matter, hardly anyone, man or woman, squeaks through the Conan saga without some similar punishment, except Conan himself.
All the great fantasies, I suppose, have been written by emotionally crippled men. Howard was a recluse and a man so morbidly attached to his mother that when she died he committed suicide; Lovecraft had enough phobias and eccentricities for nine; Merritt was chinless, bald and shaped like a shmoo. The trouble with Conan is that the human race never has produced and never could produce such a man, and sane writers know it; therefore the sick writers have a monopoly of him.
This volume contains seven stories, of which the first two are pre-Conan episodes and deal with a warrior-king named Kull; the difference, except for the name, is not remarkable. The book has been pieced out with snippets of the Howard-Clark essay, “The Hyborian Age,” and of Clark’s and Miller’s “An Informal Biography of Conan the Cimmerian,” and a bit of doggerel, “The King and the Oak” – not credited, though it appears as part of “The Hyborian Age,” so that we don’t know whether to curse Howard or Clark. All this makes a crowded contents page, and a patchwork book; I think one passage in “The God in the Bowl” that struck me as unusually fine; since this is one of the two posthumous stories which de Camp edited for publication, I wrote to him to ask if he’d made any changes in the scene that begins with Promero’s entrance on page 137, and learned that he had: one word, Promero’s last, which to me makes all the difference between climax and anticlimax. It seems a great pity that de Camp and Howard never collaborated while Howard was alive. De Camp has been careful in this recent work, to edit the stories as little as possible, for fear of making them sound like his rather than Howard’s; but if he’d been on hand when they were being written, to put solid ground under Conan’s feet and an honest itch on his back – what fantasies might we have not seen then!
Knight, here, probably influenced de Camp’s later rejoinder to his critics. De Camp, in response to criticism, would later say his Conan stories were not as good as Howard’s because he didn’t share Howard’s various fears, neuroses, etc. Pretty much aping what Knight said in the fourth paragraph.
The word change referred to in the last paragraph is, of course, the change from Howard’s “the god has a long neck” to de Camp’s “the god has a long reach,” in the story “The God in the Bowl.” This is inarguably a change for the better. De Camp was on solid ground making this change.
The third chapter deals with what Knight considers considerably bad science fiction stories. Mainly criticisms of plot motivations, bad science, and unconvincing characters. Chapter Four is a mostly favorable discussion of John W. Campbell, L. Ron Hubbard, and Fritz Leiber. L. Sprague de Camp comes up for some praise and criticism.
Solomon’s Stone, by L. Sprague de Camp, is a nostalgic reminder of the kind of smooth, expert tale de Camp used to spin in the early forties. Via a bungled experiment in black magic, it takes a near-sighted C.P.A. named Prosper Nash into a world of daydream figures. Each inhabitant is somebody’s wish-I-were-cowboy, pirate, spaceman or what have you. De Camp is cheerfully irreverent and logical in everything from the tools of magic (he uses “virgin typewriter paper” instead of parchment) to the social ills of a community in which everybody is what he wants to be. As in Baum’s Tik-Tok of Oz, there are more general officers than anybody, so a Private has the supreme command. There are interplanetary Patrolmen, but no Interplanetary Patrol, because there’s no interplanetary traffic. “‘… So, as the first step, we formed a company to build a cosmobile. But there was the usual trouble… everybody wanted to be boss. They’re splendid fellows, but they couldn’t realize that the management belonged to me. Because of my natural gifts of leadership.’”
Knight goes on to summarize the plot and praise its virtues. He goes on to review another de Camp novel.
The Glory That Was is based on a pleasant conceit with which de Camp has amused himself before (in The Carnelian Cube): using historical reconstructions, hypnosis, and great gobs of money, an eccentric archaeologist recreates a city of the past – in this case, Periklean Athens – and in effect runs history over, either to see how it comes out, or to make it come out differently.
Knight goes on to criticize the novel’s protagonist, Knut Bulnes.
My notion is that sometime in the middle forties, without the author’s awareness and surely without his intention, the de Camp hero became a victim of overspecialization. As the dinosaurs are said to have gone out of business when they got too big, and the saber-tooth when its fangs got too long, de Camp’s hero grew too cynical, too selfish, too prosaically human to be admirable at all. In earlier stories, Shea’s vanity, Van Slyck’s selfishness and the like were little jabs at the reader to keep him awake, to make him sit up in surprise and say to himself, “Why, this guy’s really human!” … after which he could relax again and enjoy the swordplay. But Van Slyck, the spoiled young knight of Divide and Rule, was essentially an honest, idealistic and likeable man; the reader cared intensely what happened to him. Bulnes, although he goes through the motions, is simply – and sadly – not a man you can give a damn about.
I don’t disagree with Knight’s evaluation of Knut Bulnes but I think Knight should have added that The Glory That Was is a crackerjack adventure that has you wondering how it is all going to end from the first page. It is one of my favorite de Camp novels.
De Camp, most likely, was influenced by Knight’s criticism yet again. Aware that, perhaps, his heroes were getting stale he started doing more and more work with Conan. A character unlike any he ever wrote about in his own novels.
The next chapter is a reprint of Knight’s demolishing of A. E. Van Vogt. The poison pen follows into the next section. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is given criticism for bad science, Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers is deemed unconvincing due to the reactions of the characters. That both of these novels have been adapted by Hollywood, thrice each, suggests Damon Knight is out of touch with audience appeal but his criticisms are thoughtful.
The chapter on Robert Heinlein is full of unqualified praise. A love letter to the most influential science fiction author ever. Isaac Asimov, assuredly almost equal to Heinlein, is favored for everything except his Foundation series, which Knight finds “as dull as anybody.”
More chapters follow with more criticism. Ray Bradbury is praised for his early horror stories but after Dandelion Wine, “the skeleton has vanished; what’s left is recognizable but limp.” Theodore Sturgeon is given just praise. Anthologies are discussed. Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore are praised also. Cyril Kornbluth is given some qualified praise. James Blish’s chapter is another love letter. Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star is deemed read-worthy. Sam Moskowitz’ The Immortal Storm also.
The book continues on. Phillip K. Dick comes up for discussion. Knight suggests Dick has promise. It is unclear whether he would be surprised just how much critical acceptance Dick has today. A discussion of British authors and a look at what the future holds for science fiction finishes up the book.
I really can’t say that the book is required reading today. It was definitely a force in its day. The more historical minded among us would probably want to read it and even refer to it every now and then.
As stated before In Search of Wonder was originally published in 1956. John Campbell, that paragon of the golden age who nurtured Asimov, de Camp, Heinlein and many others rejected Knight’s submissions to Astounding. Knight had to make do with being published in lesser lights like Thrilling Wonder Stories. But this changed in the 1950s when The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy appeared. Knight’s most famous story, “To Serve Man” appeared in this era.
There are multitudes today who remember the Twilight Zone TV series adaptation of that story but couldn’t say who wrote it if their life depended on it. And I’m sure there are plenty who never saw the Twilight Zone episode but still know the story from either parody and/or homage.
Knight later began to produce more nuanced fiction. Science fiction certainly, but more centered on character than plot or scientific speculation. “The Country of the Kind,” which some consider his best work was quite skillful with its portrayal of a “utopian” society contrasted with an individual whose artistic temperate made him a misfit.
Once society caught up with Knight in the 1960s when all the institutions of society were questioned, his output began to slow. Other, younger, writers were now pushing the boundaries and Knight no longer seemed as revolutionary. Since Knight never wrote a great novel his reputation has diminished as the years have rolled by. He is chiefly remembered as science fiction’s first great critic and as an editor of several anthologies. But his short fiction remains interesting and often important works that deserve to be sought out.