Book Review: Three Novels (variant title: Natural State and Other Short Stories), Damon Knight (1967)

(Alan Peckolick’s cover for the 1967 edition)

3/5 (Collated Rating: Average)

Damon Knight’s Beyond the Barrier (1964) was so egregious that I have stayed away from his work until recently.  Around a year ago I acquired Three Novels (1969)—containing the two novellas “Rule Golden” (1954) and “Natural State” (1951) and one novelette “The Dying Man” (variant title: Dio”) (1951)—in order to start my reappraisal of the supposed Grand Master of the genre.  I have his collection Far Out (1961) and his novel A For Anything (variant title: The People Maker) (1959) on my shelf.

Although this selection of his 50s short fiction is far superior to Beyond the Barrier only one of the stories made any lasting impression: the philosophical and ruminative immortality themed tale, “The Dying Man.”  With that in mind it might be worth tracking it down in another place of publication, for example the thematic multi-author collection Immortals (1998) ed. Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.   There is a chance that the other two novellas in Three Novels will satisfy fans of Knight’s work or 50s SF in general.

Please point me in the direction of any short stories/novels of his that warrant the Grand Master designation.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Rule Golden” (1954) 75 pages, 2/5 (Bad):  I am perpetually annoyed by the following premise: enlightened alien comes to Earth and saves evil mankind from bashing each other to death.  Knight takes the situation an absurd step further: enlightened alien comes to Earth, releases a catalyst into the atmosphere that slowly spreads across the globe causing (illogically) that famous maxim of reciprocality,  The Golden Rule i. e. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”  Thus the epidemic takes this form, “a man in Des Moines kicked his wife when her back was turned.  She was taken to the hospital, suffering from a broken coccyx.  So was he” (5).

Now take it a step further.  If an alien was capable of developing such a sophisticated catalyst one would imagine it would target those primitive aliens worth reforming, i.e. only humans (you know, the only sentient inhabitants of the planet).  But, Knight in one of the more outlandish moments of the novella has the alien “savior” (Aza-Kra) elaborate on the nature of the magical chemical transformation: “Everything of sufficient brain.  Roughly, everything above the level of your insects” (50).  Of course Knight does not discuss how the entire ecosystem of the planet would be utterly and irrevocably destroyed.  The insects would take over the world and mankind, unable to exterminate them, would perish due to the lack of food!

And as entire armies are annihilated, nations implode, billions of animals who are unable to change the fact that they need to eat other animals slaughtered, our hero who helped rescue the alien “savior” from prison has the audacity to come to the conclusion that he is indeed the primitive one: “It was Aza-Kra who had come down alone to a planet so deadly that no one else would risk his life on it until he had softened it up.  It was Aza-Kra who had lived for nearly a month with a suspicious, irrational, combative, uncivilized flesh-eater” (77).

As a thought experiment or a work of comedic SF this had the potential to be worthwhile.  But, Knight does not seem to grasp the complete absurdity of his premise and the straight-laced delivery creates a veritable quagmire of inanity.

“Natural State” (1951) 69 pages, 3/5 (Average):  This is a slight improvement over “Rule Golden” in part because its told in a comedic vein.  Also, rather surprising considering the early 50s publication date, the main women character is a remarkably intelligent scientist—who educates over the course of the novella the remarkably unintelligent, brainwashed, “realie” (81) actor protagonist.

In the far future only twenty-two cities remain in the US.  These are isolated bastions of “civilized” culture (or so the occupants are brainwashed into believing).  The rest of the population is dismissed as primitive Muckfeet.  Beneath this veneer of enlightenment the cities themselves are experiencing serious problems: they are running out of metals.  A plan is hatched and Alvah Gustad, a rather dull and uninspired actor, is sent out into Muckfeet territory to market the “natives” trinkets they do not need in exchange for metals.  Little does Alvah know that the Muckfeet society, despite an external impression of rural provincialism, are adept at incredibly sophisticated biological engineering.  It’s up to Betty Jane Hofmeyer to show Alvah how Muckfeet society actually works.

A somewhat funny reversal of the standard European colonization paradigm where beads and guns were exchanged for swathes of land.  The city dwellers, who resort to brainwash to convince their children that they are the enlightened ones, are the but of many a funny joke.  A minor work of minor interest…

“The Dying Man” (variant title: Dio) (1957) 38 pages 4.25/5 (Good) is  head over shoulders the best story in the collection.  It is this story alone that gives me some hope for Knight’s other SF.  A highly evocative allegory about a technologically advanced Earth filled with immortals who desire new and fresh things and slowly forget about the past and concepts of death and decay.  One of the better 50s stories on the subject.  Recommended.

The central figure is Dio the Planner, an immortal architect, who builds and rebuilds the city “to make their world over every year—keep it bright and fresh, cover up the past—but they dislike us because they know that whatever they forget, we keep and remember” (154).  Claire, who becomes Dio’s student, begins to realize that the architect is slowly dying.  Dio himself plunges into his work as the end is neigh.

The story reeks of malaise and detachment.  Claire, initially overwhelmed and confused about the very word “death,” slowly realizes the immensity of the notion.  And the malaise parts ever so slowly.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX 

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1969 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Three Novels (variant title: Natural State and Other Short Stories), Damon Knight (1967)”

  1. The first book I read by him was ‘Humpty Dumpty: An Oval’, which i believe is his last novel, published in ’96. It’s a philosophical story on the nature of consciousness and life. One of my all time favorite books.

    However, I’ve been disappointed by everything else I’ve read by him since. His work may have been better suited as screenplays, such as for The Twilight Zone. Though I have liked his work as an editor of anthologies.

  2. “I am perpetually annoyed by the following premise: enlightened alien comes to Earth and saves evil mankind from bashing each other to death.”

    So I’m guessing you hated Simak’s Way Station? Alien interference in the Cold War?

      1. Haha! I forgot about that one. I liked both Childhood’s End and Way Station so I guess I like the enlightened alien plots. (Although I just finished one that was BAD.)

      2. The quality of delivery is a serious contributing force in whether I like any book or now. Hard SF / Space Opera etc are all not my favorite SF sub genres but that does not in anyway mean that I dislike all of that particular type. A good writer, a singular vision, can elevate even enlightened aliens rescuing poor stupid man plots! haha

      1. I actually meant Alan Peckolick’s cover, that is very forward looking, the heavy sans serif font at the top, the light font for subtitles, and the dot motif,TBH, it ould be an early 90′s album cover.

        Really good.

      2. Yes it is, the others are a bit straight in comparison.

        Looking around he has done some fine fine work but not in the SF cover field, it seems this was all early in his career, he graduated in 1964 it seems.

        On the Richard Powers subject, he has done so many good covers, he had a cracking career. Some of his stuff in the early 60s is terrific.

  3. I always assumed that Damon Knight was important as a critic and as an editor rather than as a writer; I even remember being surprised on finding out that he had actually written any fiction himself (none of which I ever read, to the best of my remembrance).

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