Book Review: Orbit 4, ed. Damon Knight (1968) (Wilhelm + Silverberg + Vinge + Ellison + Lafferty, et al.)

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(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1969 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Very Good)

A quest for SF magazines! Alien possession and its psychological damage! The Supreme Court tackles future crime! And many more unusual visions….

Orbit 4 (1968) dethrones Orbit 3 (1968) for the overall collated rating crown (as of now) in the anthology sequence. All of the anthology so far contain worthwhile stories and should be tracked down by fans of SF from this era—see my reviews of Orbit 1 (1966) and Orbit 8 (1970).

Highly recommended for the Wilhelm, Emshwiller, Lafferty, Sallis, and Silverberg stories. A must buy for fans of the more audacious and inventive 60s SF.

Analysis/Summary

“Windsong” by Kate Wilhelm, novelette, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): See my earlier review. The reread of the story provided additional insight. If I had more time I’d expand my earlier analysis.

“Probable Cause” by Charles L. Harness, novella, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): Nominated for the 1970 Nebula. The story of I’ve read by Harness—best known for The Paradox Men (1953) and “The Rose” (1953)—tackles a subject infrequently (if ever?) explored in SF: The Supreme Court. The scenario: Frank Tyson murders President Cromway and there is plenty of evidence placing him at the scene. However, the evidence was procured via a clairvoyant who indicates the location of the murder weapon. The court must decide whether or not clairvoyance exists, and if it does exist, was Frank Tyson’s right to privacy violated by its usage. These thorny questions are up for debate among the nine justices who all bring different ideas and positions to the table. The story follows the first woman Supreme Court Justice, Helen Nord. Although the story stretches its premise to the extreme (and its hard to escape the idea that it’s all a joke), the backroom Supreme Court debate filled with legalese vibe appeals but does not transfix.

Vaguely recommended for its premise.

“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” by Harlan Ellison, short story, 3/5 (Average): Nominated for the 1970 Nebula. My recent exposure to Ellison has been more cold than hot and the drug-addled hippies in horror house despair in “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” fits the pattern. An anti-drug polemic wrapped draped with body horror, a well-meaning veteran returns to LA to track down his girlfriend. He finds her in a drug house piping with Simon and Garfunkel music, “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” (104). He becomes the house’s contact with the outside world. Eventually he too succumbs to drugs and the bodily mutations (mental or physical or both?) transpire….

There’s a polished/professional feel about the story but why it received a Nebula nomination bewilders. Ultimately, it feels like Reefer Madness (1936-1939) for the 60s, with acid rather than pot, and monsters: “the little glass goblin turned, and the werewolf rose up on its hind legs and touched him till he rang like fine crystal” (111).

“This Corruptible” by Jacob Transue (aka Joan Matheson), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): Other than this short story, Joan Matheson’s only other SF contribution was the novel Twilight of the Basilisk (1972). More body horror! “By February the lump was the size of a bushel basket and had separated itself from him except for a gristly shining skin-covered tube, that pulsed with his heart like an obscene umbilicus…” (112). Paul and Andrew are old scientist colleagues. Paul discovers a new technology that will allow him to live indefinitely. In this overpopulated world, such a technology has dangers…. Andrew eventually gives in an allows Paul to give him the procedure. And there’s no going back!

Although the intellectual debate about the merits of living forever in an overpopulated world are hardly groundbreaking, the horror evoked by the disturbing process (a new you grows out of your side) makes the story memorable. The ending, well, the ending….

I wish  Joan Matheson wrote more SF. “This Corruptible” contains promise that doesn’t quite deliver.

“Animal” by Carol Emshwiller, short story, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): A SF fable of the highest caliber…. Carol Emshwiller, the wife of the famous SF artist Ed Emshwiller, produced short stories for the magazines from the 1950s till 2012 and since the late 1980s, four novels (2002’s PKD award-winning and Nebula-nominated The Mount is the best known). I must find her collection Joy in Our Cause (1974).

For good reason I placed “Animal” on my best SF I read in 2016 list. Like Josephine Saxton’s The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969) or John Crowley’s The Deep (1975), “Animal” is a SF fable told with well-wrought prose and an eye for the detail. In a nameless city an animal in a humanoid form is taken from the “deepest part of the forest” (137) Although his body shows the signs of a difficult capture, his more animalistic tendencies are subdued and “some intelligence seems to shine in his eyes. The keepers all feel he may be conscious of some meaning in their words, no doubt interpreting them in his own way” (137).

Eventually he eats and is permanently installed in a small park so that the city folk may walk past and gawk at him. His status as an animal, and the debates about his animalistic nature (if it exists at all), generates a range of reactions. A woman brings him cigarettes and imagines herself “in a mother role and act out a part she would prefer he played” (140). Eventually the animal escapes and there are shocking reports of animalistic violence and rape, although none can be pinned on him. Eventually he is found “ten days later eating a hamburger and French fries in a diner in a distant city, wearing an astrakhan hat, sunglasses, and smoking Marlboros” (142). Reinstalled in his enclosure, he begins to write poetry on old envelopes “and shredded wheat cardboard” (143). Slowly introduced into society and “civilized” the animal runs from it all back into the deep forest. However, the community takes pride in the the new “blood of the animal” (148) that now runs through their veins.

Now what does this mean? Obviously the animal isn’t an “animal” but rather a man treated as an animal. At one level, Emshwiller explores the necessity of a society to create an exotic (and in this case sexualized) Other, and their interactions with the Other reinforce the community’s self-conception. The “civilizing” that the animal undergoes reinforces the benevolence of the community although at no point is the animal, despite outward appearances and behavior, not considered an animal.

Highly recommended.

“One at a Time” by R. A. Lafferty, short story, 4/5 (Good): Lafferty, the master of the SF tall tale, directly engages with the idea of the storytelling in “One at a Time.” I recommend this it to gain insight into Lafferty’s often oblique but endearing (yes, I am slowly coming around) take on genre. Sour John heads to Barnaby’s Barn “to see the Odd One” (150) named McSkee. McSkee eats, fights, drinks, and womanizes at inhuman levels.

And of course, McSkee tells stories about his past exploits: a time where he was to be hanged but postpones it for days and days eating his last meal, denuding an entire countryside of food… And another story about when he “was a footsoldier in the service of Pixodarus the Carian (with his Celtic Mercenaries, of course)” (155). Sour John speculates that McSkee is lying, but his inhuman abilities suggest otherwise. “How old are you?” (155) Sour John inquires. “About forty years old by my count, John” (155) McSkee replies. The reveal suggests at SF potentialities, and the reader receives a fascinating insight in the interlacing nature of science and myth, memory and story, storytelling and indirectly yet with intent, Lafferty’s own way of telling.

Recommended.

“Passengers” by Robert Silverberg, short story, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): Won the 1970 Nebula. Nominated for the 1970 Hugo. Robert Silverberg strikes again with a haunting and effective story of alien possession. The premise is almost passé but Silverberg, as is his wont, puts a searingly psychological spin on the dissociative potential:” There are only fragments of me left now. Chunks of memory have broken free and drifted away like calved glaciers” (163). The narrator awakes after the Passenger leaves his body, confronted with the actions his occupied self undertook. The physical occupation of the body, that could occur at any moment, yields but a blink from those who pass bye, dreading when they too might be occupied: “He thrusts out his tongue. Ridden. Ridden. I avoid him” (1967). “We go on thinking even while we are ridden, and we live in quiet desperation, unable to halt our courses no matter how ghastly, no matter how self-destructive” (167).

The narrator seeks out the woman he met while occupied, a violation of societal taboo. He feels drawn to her despite how his body was guided by an alien force. Of course, any human connection created can only be a fragment as Passengers return on whim. The premise and Silverberg’s dark take allow him to explore the power of human connection, of the fleeting nature of time.

Gorgeous.

“Grimm’s Story” by Vernor Vinge, novella, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): My first Vernor Vinge story in a decade…. I’d previously read The Peace War (1984), Marooned in Realtime (1986), A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), and A Deepness in the Sky (1999). On the whole, I do not find his novels appealing as I age.

“Grimm’s Story” has a fascinating premise! On one level it reads as Jack Vance planetary adventure: Hedrigs and his alien fox creature Svir join a grand old adventure led by the beautiful Tatja to procure the entire collection of Fantasie, a science fiction magazine. As the Chainpearl Archipelagate relies on printing barges that infrequently journey from island to island few have complete magazine collections or even all the serializations of a favorite novel. Hendrigs unfortunately is too naive and does not see through Tatja’s charms, and his fox might use its powers for a new master…. At a second level, and far more appealing, Vinge explores the notion of “contrivance fiction” in SF: what he means is that “there could be a mechanical means to of achieving fantastic ends” (205). Of course, Hendrigs loves this form of SF and finds himself in a narrative straight out of his favorite stories.

A breezy read that tries to say something about SF.

“A Few Last Words” by James Sallis, short story, 4/5 (Good): Indicated by the opening lines, “Again: the Dreams. He was eating stained glass and vomiting rainbows” (238), Sallis’ story takes the form of a kaleidoscopic array of dream images. As with Sallis’ manic “Kazoo” (1967) in Best SF from New Worlds 3 (1968), “A Few Last Words” requires a reread to grasp the fragments. The image cavalcade of the somnolent interludes mixed with regurgitated memories does cohere as the dissociative moments are mixed with daily life, the eating of breakfast, etc. Sallis positions the psychological fragmentation as a manifestation of crumbling relationships that tether society as a whole. Sallis’ vision reeks with apocalyptic overtones. It might be worthwhile to read “A Few Last Words” in dialogue to Pamela Zoline’s superior “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967). Recommended for the fascinating images. Not recommended for those who eschew experimental SF.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1972 edition)

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24 thoughts on “Book Review: Orbit 4, ed. Damon Knight (1968) (Wilhelm + Silverberg + Vinge + Ellison + Lafferty, et al.)”

  1. Carol Emshwiller’s story “Animal” (1968) was the surprise + thrill (for me!) of the collection. Has anyone reader her work? If so, what other stories + novels would your recommend?

      1. Hmm… This one did not feel ham-fisted. If anything, it was ultimately on the oblique/obtuse side. Leaving us to divine the meaning behind the unusual scenario. I have some friends who might want to read “Animal” — might make a PDF, interested?

  2. I recently read an early Carol Emswhiller story called ‘Hunting Machine’ I quite liked. I’m hoping to read more of hers. I also need to read more Wilhelm. I liked the one you recommended a few months back, ‘Baby, You Were Great!’. I had been earlier put off by a novella that I thought was just ok if a bit tedious – The Infinity Box. Actually I also read one other early (earliest?) shorts recently, ‘The Mile-Long Spaceship’ and enjoyed it, though also found it a bit flat. I probably need to reread it. And definitely move on to some of her other works.

    1. Thanks! I’ll see if I can find a copy.

      We’re in the same boat regarding “The Mile-Long Spaceship” — her 50s short fiction does not match up to her 60s/70s brilliance. I reviewed the collection here: https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/book-review-the-mile-long-spaceship-variant-title-andover-and-the-android-kate-wilhelm-1963/

      I recommend “The Planners” and “Winsong” from this collection.

      https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/book-review-the-downstairs-room-and-other-speculative-fiction-kate-wilhelm-1968/

  3. I read the Ellison piece in “Deathbird Stories”.Like all the others in there,it’s concerned with how ancient myths and gods manifests as atavarisms in the modern world.This one was less convincing in terms of such themes I think,and there are far better ones in the collection.

    I haven’t read “Passengers” for a long time,so my recollection of it is vague,but I remember the human quality of the alien who contemplates it’s parasitic existence.It was excellent.

  4. I read Carol Emshwiller in “Dangerous Visions”,but my memory of that one,has faded.It probably wasn’t one of her best pieces,although I suppose it was daring for it’s time.Yes,I hope to read these short stories though one day.”Passengers” was done in a first person,captivating prose that made it so absorbing.

    1. Ah, my memory fades even regarding good stories — one reason I write reviews is in order to solidify my thoughts about what I read and, at a later point, I can make connections between stories with more ease…. “Sex and/or Mr. Morrison” (1967) was the one in Dangerous Visions — it also was collected in Women of Wonder (1975) and her short story collection Joy in Our Cause (1974).

      1. Yes,I refreshed my memory of what it was about on Wikipeda.I think I found it quite good at the time I read it,but found it more confusing for some reason towards it’s end.Most of those in that anthology I find have faded in my memory now with a few exceptions,not mentioning any names,and it’s not a full four years since I read it.

  5. You might enjoy “The best of Orbit” as it includes lots of correspondence between Knight and assorted authors chronicling stories submitted, rejected (sometimes quite famous ones) and Knight making editorial suggestions.

  6. Silverberg’s “Passengers” along with his story “Warm Man” are considered classics of sf horror. I know I liked ’em. I’ve also read Vinge’s story, which was the basis for a later novel, and which was also a fun read if I remember correctly. Having read my fair share of mysteries and crime fiction, the Harness story also sounds interesting. The Ellison story sounds like he came up with a catchy phrase and wrote a story around it. What does “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” even mean anyway. And yes I’ve read the story several times already.

    Shockingly, I’ve never really liked Emshwiller, but that’s me, and I’ve never, even after several dozen stories, liked anything by Sallis. On the other hand I don’t recall ever disliking anything by cover artist Lehr. It would be interesting to list the most influential sf artists of the sixties. My guess would be Lehr, Powers, Gaughin, Freas, Schoenherr, Emshwiller, Punchaz, George Ziel, Frazetta, Bama, and Krenkel. In America, as I’m not an expert in any other country’s artists of the sixties. I bring this up as you can’t think of the American printings of the Orbit anthologies without thinking of those trademark Lehr covers.

      1. I like the look of all the works you show on your site, and I am looking forward to seeing more of that. I really like SF with space aliens and UFOs, space travel. I really like Megan and Flos, and Star Trek Voyager, and Lost in Space. I like most of it, but as you say, the experimental literary works are so interesting and original, there is so much to offer 🙂

      2. I must confess, I avoid a lot of traditional SF set in space with aliens and space battles, etc. I enjoy some of course! (and yes, a huge Star Trek fan — mostly Deep Space Nine). Always what intrigued me the most about Star Trek (and that holds over to the SF I read now) was its willingness to engage with and comment on society via contact with the alien other. Social SF in other words…

      3. Yes I agree – it’s brilliantly done 😀 I am very interested in psychological stories, I like the sound of Orbit 4 “Alien possession and its psychological damage! The Supreme Court tackles future crime! And many more unusual visions….” it sounds really interesting. I read a book called Chocky by John Wyndham and it was really brilliant because it had a little boy who was talking to someone whom nobody else could see, and it all takes place in ordinary day Earth, which makes the supernatural elements stand out in a more sinister way. Very creepy SF. I am very interested in the books you have been reviewing, and I am hoping to read them soon 🙂

      4. Orbit 4 was a pretty good anthology. Some far better than others (a symptom of all anthologies)….

        As for Wyndham, a blindspot in my SF knowledge. I have at least four of his novels on the shelf, but, unread.

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