I’ve read about a dozen of the 19 volumes of ORBIT that Damon Knight edited from 1966 to 1976. I prefer the early volumes that featured stories like “The Secret Place” by Richard McKenna (which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story for 1966). The Best From ORBIT (1975) collects stories Damon Knight considered “the Best” from Volumes 1-10. My favorite story in this anthology is Robert Silverberg’s “Passengers” (winner of a Nebula Award for Best Short Story for 1969). I’m a big Silverberg fan and “Passengers” is one of his best stories. I like Harlan Ellison’s “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” and Gene Wolfe’s “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories.”

I found Damon Knight preferred stories for ORBIT that were “different.” That strategy leads to a couple R. A. Lafferty stories (some people love them, others hate them), a couple Joanna Russ stories, and a couple stories by Damon Knight’s second wife, Kate Wilheim.

Instead of writing traditional introductions to these stories, Damon Knight included correspondence from various writers–Barry Malzberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, and “James Tiptree, Jr.” In a letter to Virginia Kidd (February 16, 1970), Knight writes, “If by magic I could make writers forget all the Thrilling Wondersthey ever read, I would do it. Nine out of ten writers in this field are still writing for Sam Merwin, & it is sad.” (p. 347) There you have it: Damon Knight’s view of traditional Science Fiction. GRADE: B+
A Sort of Introduction / Damon Knight — 1
The secret place / Richard McKenna — 3
The loolies are here / Allison Rice — 18
The doctor / Ted Thomas — 24
Baby, you were great / Kate Wilhelm — 31
The hole on the corner / R.A. Lafferty — 45
I gave her sack and sherry / Joanna Russ — 56
Mother to the world / Richard Wilson — 71
Don’t wash the carats / Philip José Farmer — 104
The planners / Kate Wilhelm — 109
The changeling / Gene Wolfe — 124
Passengers / Robert Silverberg — 135
Shattered like a glass goblin / Harlan Ellison — 147
The time machine / Langdon Jones — 156
Look, you think you’ve got troubles / Carol Carr — 176
The big flash / Norman Spinrad — 187
Jim and Mary G. / James Sallis — 206
The end / Ursula K. Le Guin — 212
Continued on next rock / R.A. Lafferty — 221
The island of Doctor Death and other stories / Gene Wolfe — 242
Horse of air / Gardner R. Dozois — 259
One life, furnished in early poverty / Harlan Ellison — 273
Rite of spring / Avram Davidson — 288
The bystander / Thom Lee Wharton — 295
The encounter / Kate Wilhelm — 313
Gleepsite / Joanna Russ — 334
Binaries / James Sallis — 339
Al / Carol Emshwiller — 350
Live, from Berchtesgaden / George Alec Effinger — 363

18 thoughts on “FRIDAY’S FORGOTTEN BOOKS #574: THE BEST FROM ORBIT Edited by Damon Knight

  1. Steve Oerkfitz

    I read all the Orbit anthologies as they came out. So I read all these stories but don’t remember a lot of them. Passengers and The Island of Dr. Death are both classics. I like both of the Lafferty’s. I am a big fan of his but he is best read in small doses. I wonder about Knight’s selections. The stories tend to be on the short side and I know Orbit contained novelettes. Some of my favorite novelettes such as Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Thomas Disch’s The Asian Shore are not included. Still a pretty good selection of authors.

    1. george Post author

      Steve, I’m guessing Damon Knight was under some page constraints for this anthology that affected the choice of stories. I love Thomas Disch’s “The Asian Shore.”

  2. Jerry House

    I loved this book. The stories were good to great to super-great and Knight’s comments were worth the price of the book alone. You could always find something a bit different in an ORBIT volume

    1. george Post author

      Jerry, you are so right! ORBIT volumes always held something different between their covers! I enjoyed Knight’s comments and his sharing of author correspondence.

  3. Prashant C. Trikannad

    George, I can see that the Orbit anthologies are a fine collection of sf stories and by many writers I have never read, including Damon Knight himself. I did not know Knight had written so many novels and short stories.

    1. george Post author

      Prashant, Damon Knight wrote the classic, “To Serve Man,” that was first published in GALAXY in 1950! Knight wrote quite a bit in the 20 years that followed. But, I think he’s best remembered today for his ORBIT anthologies.

      1. Todd Mason

        I’d suspect that Knight is not quite remembered enough for his brilliant short fiction (“The Country of the Kind” is probably my favorite story in THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME; some stories, such as “You’re Another” or “Babel II”, have never reached the audiences they deserve)–his novels weren’t up to the shorter work till the end of his career), co-founding The SF Writers of America and the Clarion workshops, and writing notable texts for writers and notable criticism, and editing dozens of anthologies, including one that gathers some of the most distinctive fiction Sam Merwin published in THRILLING WONDER and STARTLING STORIES.

      2. george Post author

        Todd, I’ve always admired Damon Knight’s career in SF. He was always active and brought quality and originality to a field famous for its banality from time to time.

    1. george Post author

      Todd, I remember reading THE SHAPE OF THINGS back in the 1960s. I’ll have to search my basement to see if I still have a copy or if I donated it to SUNY at Buffalo.

  4. Kevin Cheek

    The Orbit series were (and still are) a magnificent primer on New Wave Science Fiction. They were my introduction to a lot of great authors. I think Silverberg’s New Dimensions is the other cornerstone of the New Wave. Between the two, you have a pretty complete snapshot of what New Wave SF was all about–heck with those two, you don’t even have to read Dangerous Visions (though you ought to, just for sheer enjoyment).

    My favorites by far are the two Lafferty stories, among his very best.

    “Hole on the Corner” plays with the idea of parallel universes in a thoroughly surreal way. What is most surreal about it is the way the characters are nonplussed by the extraordinary, and the fact that it manages to be both a horror story and uproariously funny at the same time.

    “Continued on Next Rock” does a lot of things that only Lafferty could do. He introduces characters as archetypes. He plays with time and timelessness in a way that allows it to make perfect sense that the archeologists are studying future strata at the end. And he includes some of the most beautiful gruesome poetry in the form of ancient (ish) love letters. It is a timeless story that will continue to play itself out through all of time.

    1. george Post author

      Kevin, your enthusiasm for the ORBIT series is infectious! I’ve moved a couple ORBIT volumes to my Read Real Soon stack! I have some of Silverberg’s NEW DIMENSIONS series around here somewhere. I read them when they were first published. NEW WAVE SF had some outstanding entries…but there were also a lot of duds.

  5. Kevin Cheek

    The batting average of the New Wave might not have been that great, but that’s because they they were swinging for the literary fences. And Man, did they hit some home runs!

    Similar to the Best From Orbit, there was a Best of New Dimensions volume that actually lived up to its “Best of” title. It has a number of stories I use to show lot snobs just what SF is capable of. Including:
    – Gardner Dozois’ amazing “A Special Kind of Morning” Just mentioning that story makes me want to go back and re-read it)
    – “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin
    – and of course Lafferty’s “Eurema’s Dam” which alone is worth the price of admission!

    1. george Post author

      Kevin, now I want to search my basement for THE BEST OF NEW DIMENSIONS. I’m a fan of Dozois’ “A Special Kind of Morning” and LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” And, “Eurema’s Dam” might be Lafferty’s best story ever! THE NEW WAVE experimented with SF in new ways. We all know most experiments fail. But, as you say, some of those NEW WAVE writers did hit some home runs!

      1. Kevin Cheek

        I’d love to see which stories are your favorites from The Best of new Dimensions. It was a pivotal collection for me, I imagine largely because of when I stumbled into it. I found it in a bookstore the summer after my freshman year of college. i was looking for any anthology that had a Lafferty story. Given my age and circumstance, 18-year-old kid home from college working construction for the summer but with brain and curiosity on fire, beginning to be a little bit literate, and way too arrogant about that, this became my New Wave primer – NWSF 101, as it were.

        “A Special Kind of Morning by Gardner Dozois – As I said above, this is one of the stories I thrust into the hands of literature snobs to show that yes, Science Fiction can indeed be literature. It’s a classic set-up with references to Hemingway. It is a tour-de-force in SF worldbuilding, and the science fiction elements are completely pivotal to the plot. And ultimately, it is a beautifully human story. And his descriptive prose! I can’t believe this was only his second story. The world of SF is vastly reduced with Gardner Dozois’ passing last year. On a scale of 1 to 10 this was a spectacular home run.

        “The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” by Philip José Farmer – I was already a fan of Philip Jose Farmer. I had even used To Your Scattered Bodies Go (the first Riverworld book) as both inspiration and source on a 9th-grade history report on Sir Richard Francis Burton. This was a very fun, and inventive story. I think the short story was far superior to the Dayworld trilogy of novels it spawned. As good as the story was, and with the fun twilight-zone-esque ending, it still wasn’t as great in my mind as some of the other stories in this book.

        “At the Mouse Circus” by Harlan Ellison – Gaah, I really want to like this story better than I do. It’s an acknowledged masterpiece, but i guess I’m not as literary as those who acknowledge it as such. It’s fun, and I love his damn-near synesthesia of imagery.

        “Nobody’s Home” by Joanna Russ – I’ve always loved this story for it’s worldbuilding, but it leaves the reader (or at least me) feeling a bit bereft. Not so much of a story as an exercise in showing a snapshot of a future world and holding it up as a mirror to our society.

        “Eurema’s Dam” by R. A. Lafferty – This is my favorite story in the book and one of my top 6 or 7 favorite Lafferty stories. Oddly enough, Lafferty claimed that the other stories he wrote that year were much better. I respectfully disagree. I really see this as a letter of encouragement and hope to all of us who feel surround by people more intelligent, accomplished, urbane, socially ept, etc. than ourselves. Hey I work at Google now, and Imposter syndrome is a real thing! Maybe because of reading this story so often, i taught myself enough Javascript to write a program to do portions of my job for me. It does it better, more consistently, and with far more patience than I can muster.
        (Disclaimer – I am a rabid Lafferty fan. I help organize our annual Lafferty convention, LaffCon, every June in New Jersey and I edit and publish a vaguely annual volume of writing about and/or inspired by Lafferty, Feast of Laughter. Volume 5 is coming soon!)

        “f(x)=(11/15/67) x=her, f(x)!=0” by George Alec Effinger – I’ve always loved this story, partially because of the unrepeatable title. It’s one of the stories that takes the name of the genre literally – fiction about science.

        “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin – This is one of the great, great stories of the genre. I love the way she requires the world to do the worldbuilding, asking us to imagine musical accompaniment and picture the festivals as best as we can dream up, rather than telling us what we were seeing. By so doing, she gets us more mentally and emotionally involved in the utopian feel of Omelas before presenting us with the moral conundrum of its existence. I had a wonderful conversation with a Buddhist monk about this story. His comment was that turning their back on Omelas was a moral failing–that it was their duty not to accept the suffering of the child and to seek a solution. I posited that it’s really more of an ethical exercise than a realistic problem–that dilemma was presented as insoluble. The choice was to embrace utopia and accept the inequity upon which it was built or to reject it. Of course this led to a lengthy discussion of Lafferty’s Past Master!

        “They Live on Levels” by Terry Carr – I love this quiet little story! Most people remember Terry Carr as a brilliant editor (and he was), but Man, could he write!

        “Tell Me All About Yourself” by F. M. Busby – Did not like this! I know the reader is supposed to be uncomfortable with it, and therefore it was a very successful bit of writing, but I did not enjoy it. Very well written, but I can’t get past the revulsion. Of course I feel the same way about some passages in Naked Lunch.

        “The Examination” by Felix C. Gotschalk – In some ways his prose harkens back to more old-school writing, but subject-wise it is very much at child of the era just after the Civil Rights Movement when we as a nation were looking back and congratulating ourselves on our progress, but leaving so much undone. When I was 5, my parents and i spent several weeks in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, where I was the only white kid in a very small, very rural southern town with a 100% black population. I went to the school there for the time we were in town. I loved the entire experience, because the kids in the town took me under wing and had a great time showing me all of their haunts and secrets. Not a digression, this experience furnished my mental imagery for this story when I read it. In my mind’s eye, “The Examination” took place in the portable classroom in Gees Bend where i went to a few weeks of Kindergarten.

        “Find the Lady” by Nicholas Fisk – Just a good classic end-of-the-world-by-alien-invasion story that takes full advantage of all the character-building and narrative tricks for which the New Wave was famous.

        “A Scarab in the City of Time” by Marta Randall – A tour-de-force of New Wave writing. While the premise is tried and true–a city that closed itself off to survive ecological disaster but never recognized when the disaster had passed, What Marta Randal does with it is wonderful and completely original. This story made me start to seek out her other stories.

        “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” by James Tiptree, Jr. – Whoof, this story packs a punch. That it is at least an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, I think is given. This and “The Screwfly Solution” from an old Orbit anthology were my introduction to James Tiptree Jr. Man could she write! I love this story, but have to go a lot of years between re-readings, because of the emotional wallop.

        “On the Air” by Barry N. Malzberg – I think Malzberg’s quiet little short stories like this are often overlooked. In short form like this, he was a beautiful writer. While you could read this as a 60s-inspired story of astral projection, I think it speaks more strongly to that willingness within each of us to delude ourselves. From that point of view I sympathize deeply with his narrator.

        “A Quiet Revolution for Death” by Jack Dann – This one didn’t do it for me. It felt more like an experiment – an attempt to write a French New Wave Cinema piece as an SF story.

        “When the Morning Stars Sing Together” by Donnan Call Jeffers, Jr. – Cool intro by Robert Silverberg, and I love Robinson Jeffers’ poetry. I think I dismissed this story because I read it immediately following reading Asimov’s “Nightfall”, and John Brunner’s “The Suicide of Man.” It’s a grand story on a truly cosmic scale, but feels like an author’s early attempt at this type of writing.

        “Calibrations and Exercises” by Gregory Benford – This story lives up to it’s name, being largely an exercise in New Wave writing by a young-ish Benford–before he was known as one of the Killer Bs. Enjoyable.

        “Yes, Sir, That’s My” by Daniel P. Dern – And this one always struck me as well-enough written but not up to the quality of the rest of the volume. However that’s based on the memory of a single reading in the summer of 1984.

        Sorry bit of a long reply here. I’ve always loved this volume, and when I want to show people what the New Wave was all about, I thrust a copy into their hands.

      2. george Post author

        Kevin, I can’t wait to read THE BEST OF NEW DIMENSIONS. Of course, I’ve read several of the stories from earlier NEW DIMENSIONS volumes. I’ll give you a heads up when I’m about to review THE BEST OF NEW DIMENSIONS on this blog. I’ll compare your review of the stories with mine. Thanks for inspiring me to read THE BEST OF NEW DIMENSIONS!

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