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April 19, 2002

Damon Knight, 1922-2002
Posted by Teresa at 09:33 AM *

Damon is dead, and I find I suddenly feel much poorer. I hadn’t realized he was part of my internal sense of wealth.

As I’ve mentioned here before, the last time I talked to Gordy Dickson he observed that this will be a different world when the last person dies who remembers a world without science fiction. Technically we’re still not over that line, but it feels like a different world. Damon was arguably the most important person in modern science fiction. He was variously a fan, fiction writer, editor, critic, organizer, historian, educator. He also founded SFWA and Clarion and helped Art Widner found the N3F, but never mind that.

For the last ten years or so he was a truly sublime curmudgeon on line, first on the GEnie SFRT and after that on SFF Net. One of my most cherished online memories is of watching Damon Knight and Jerry Pournelle’s encounters when Damon first got online. Online, Pournelle is inclined to be forceful, and chronically splenetic. What’s less obvious is that he’s got a real case of fancestor worship. When Damon went online — there was all of a week or two between his first tentative moves and going up en pointe — it rapidly became clear that he wasn’t moved to a reciprocal sense of noblesse oblige by the discovery that he was Pournelle’s reverend fancestor. (He also had the drop on him, plain and simple. He had the drop on most of us.)

I don’t want to write his obit here. I want to quote my favorite section from his book The Futurians (New York: John Day, 1977). It’s from Chapter 6, titled “A country yokel, just what we expected”, which is about the teenaged Damon Knight coming to NYC to join the Futurians.

Earlier in the chapter, Damon describes his discovery of science fiction:

I discovered Amazing Stories in the fall of 1933, when I was eleven; then Wonder, and a year or so later Astounding; then I found the secondhand bookstores in Portland, with their shelves piled high with huge old Wonders and Amazings.

In one of his short stories, “We Also Walk Dogs,” Robert A. Heinlein says of a character’s first experience of beauty: “It shook him and hurt him, like the first trembling intensity of sex.”

Christ! Beauty was not in it, or sex either—I knew them both, and they were pitiful, pale things in comparison. Battleships hanging upside down over New York! Men in radio tubes being zapped by electricity! Robots carrying off pretty girls to Antarctica! Here was the pure quill, the essential jolt, so powerful that if my parents had understood what it was they would have stopped my allowance, painted my eyeglasses black to keep me from reading such stuff.

I went through all the stages of the proto-fan, recapitulating Wollheim’s phylogeny. In Fred Pohl’s magazines I found lists of fanzines, subscribed to several, and in this way got into correspondence with a number of fans, including Lowndes, who kindly offered to look at some stories I had written. In 1940 I produced two issues of a fan magazine of my own called Snide … Snide, I realized later, was my passport out of the Pacific Northwest. It so impressed the Futurians that they fell upon Lowndes for writing a lukewarm review of it in Le Vombiteur

How the idea of my going to New York came up I don’t remember, but it was somehow decided that I would meet the Futurians at the convention in Denver and go back with them to live at the Embassy. My parents fell in with this scheme with what I thought was surprising alacrity; now I have grown sons of my own, and I know better.

Here’s the passage, pp. 76-77:
In memory I reenter the Embassy — climb the stairs, round and round, then along the hall, open the door, and I am in the kitchen. In these railroad apartments, the kitchen is always the first room. The ceilings are high. The kitchen is painted a peculiarly dull and dingy white, and looks shabbier than the rest of the apartment. I don’t know why this should have been so, unless the lease required the landlord to repaint the other rooms oftener. And I don’t know why they were always that almost-white color.

To my left are the sink and the bathtub, covered but not disguised (its clawed feet are visible below) by an enameled drain board. Straight ahead is a kitchen table of enameled metal; behind it is a window opening on an airshaft. The floor is worn linoleum. The only decoration is a calendar on the wall.

To the left, past the bathtub, is a long vista of open doorways. No one is here. I walk through the first doorway, past the bathroom on the right, the closet on the left where my pornographic magazines are stored in a cardboard carton, beside a pile of Communist pamphlets. The next room is the guest room — nothing in it but a folding metal cot covered with a worn gray blanket. It has no window; the only light is a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. All the rooms except the kitchen have floors of bare varnished wood.

The next is Johnny Michel’s bedroom, cot, wardrobe, bureau, and a dark green footlocker, all neat and clean. Then my room, cot, battered bureau.

Then the living room, where Lowndes’s bed is in an alcove to the left. This is the largest room, airy and bright: it has bow windows looking out on the street four stories below. A card table to my right, with a typewriter on it; a stand nearby with a small phonograph, Lowndes’s—it has the kind of turntable that can revolve in either direction, and it has steel needles, or perhaps Lowndes is experimenting with cactus. On the wall behind the table is a cover painting by Hannes Bok: it shows a creature like a ray, with many tentacles, ascending and drawing after it two hypnotized-looking young people, a man and a woman. It is painted on illustration board, partly in oil, partly in tempera, and the tempera is flaking.

How can I explain how happy I am to be here?

Perfectly Damon. It’s that jolt of waking into your real life; and what a world of explanation is subsumed in that one brilliantly lit, silent, hyper-precise long tracking shot.
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