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In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, 3rd ed.

Damon Knight. 3rd ed., enlarged and extended. Chicago: Advent Publishers, Inc., 1996. xiv + 420 pp. $20.00.

FOR THE MOST PART this is a collection of book reviews, written to deadline for various science fiction magazines, 1952-60, and woven into chapters dealing with such subjects as "The Critics," "Chuckleheads," "Half-Bad Writers," and "Anthologies." Like the earlier editions, the text of this one begins with an Introduction (unchanged) by Anthony Boucher crediting Knight with introducing criticism into professional (science fiction) magazines and ends with a chapter, "What Next?" (expanded and with slightly different perception for each succeeding edition). The total number of chapters rises from twenty-two to thirty-three and the number of pages from 180 to 402. Knight stopped reviewing for magazines in 1960 in a dispute over a review his editor refused to print, of Judith Merrill's The Tomorrow People (here included, pp. 104-105). As a result, his later criticism is less topical and more measured, but still straight-forward, biting, and often--yes--hilarious.

Knight is scholarly but not pedantic, a writer who can cheerfully admit: "I know perfectly well that if I hadn't a review column to do, I never would have got past page 5 . . ." (264). Most reviewers can relate to that--not that we aren't interested in the books we review, but some of our most respected colleagues manage to couch even brilliant literacy insights in very dull language, lengthy footnotes, and overly zealous excursions to previous scholarship. Knight is different, and reading the greater part of his righting--even, as in some cases for me, the fourth time, three editions and earlier magazine publication--is like having a conversation with a friend with whom one does not always agree, but whose views are always learned and worthy of respect.

Knight is especially good at skewering bad writing, bad plots, bad science. For example: "[This book] is a truly sick-making combination of soap opera and comic book, honest ignorance and deliberate hypocrisy" (268). "[The author] gives the uncomfortable impression that his science is too deep, not for the reader, but for the author" (276). These statements are found in the chapter, "Pitfalls and Dead Ends," but elsewhere he writes that the author of the first book produces "a cerebral, quietly competent game of wits with her readers" (142) and calls the second "a skilled and persuasive writer" (244).

An important principle appears at the beginning of the chapter on "Chuckleheads": "Why should anyone rip a bad work of art to shreds? Why, to find out how it is made. The critical method is to take things apart. The critic uses the same sharp-edged tools on all stories, but good stories resist; bad ones come to pieces. One of these tools happens to be laughter; that's all" (33). He follows this statement with three pages of devastating criticism of The Blind Spot, by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, "an acknowledged classic of fantasy," finding the authors "style-deaf," "totally innocent of grammar," "credulous without limit," "no empathy. . . no sense of humor," "knowledge of science . . . not discoverable," "incapable of remembering what he had already written or looking forward to what he was about to write" (33-34). In "More Chuckleheads" he points out: "The only thing worse than a bad American novel is a bad British one" (107) and then demonstrates why.

As these examples show, Knight pulls no punches when he finds books not up to his standard, and certainly such criticism is not only useful but fun to read. Nevertheless, the overall effect of his criticism is an understanding of what good science fiction is and a desire to read more of it. "Amphibians" (a thirteen-page enlargement of the five-page "The Giants" of the first edition) is a good appraisal of a dozen utopian/dystopian books. His praise of the early work of "One Sane Man: Robert A. Heilein" is accurate and a welcome predecessor to some of those who have derogated Heinlein's later work. Similarly, he pays homage, among others, to James Blish, Cyril Kornbluth, the team of Henry and Catherine Moore, and the (then, 1953-56) "New Stars," Frederic M. Phol, Arthur C. Clarke, and Chad Oliver. Notable, too, are balanced judgments of John Campbell and the early Isaac Asimov.

The second edition (1967) had interpolated new material and added five new chapters; similarly, the expansion of this edition includes only minor interpolation but six additional chapters. Where the additional chapters of the second had been mostly more reviews the chapters added to the third edition deal with such longer subjects an an attempt to define science fiction, how to write science fiction, autobiographical reminiscences, and a consideration of "Science and the World." Not carried over from the first editions are the lively illustrations of J.L. Paterson.

One need not agree with all of Knight's judgments. For example, the chapter on "Symbolism," which subjects James Blish's "Common Time" to a sex-and-death, return-to-the-womb reading, is far-fetched and does not hold up (Knight reminds us that the second part of this proposed two-part study was never completed in part because of adverse reader reaction). Thus, although always based on sound principles his criticism of Pohl's "The Midas Plague," Piper's "Uller Uprising," Williamson's The Humanoids, and Bennett's The Long Way Back obscures their true merit.

It could be said that the book is out of date, and in a sense it is: the bibliography adds criticism of only a half dozen post-1967 books; some of the writers discussed did their best work long after the books reviewed in this text; of the forty acknowledgements (most of multiple works) twenty-six are for publication in the 1940s and only nine after the 1960s; the most recent entry, a brief addition to the last chapter, first appeared in 1987. Nevertheless, especially for those of us who were reading science fiction in the 30s, 40s and 50s, reading Knight's reviews is like going home after years of absence.
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Author:Lewis, Arthur O.
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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