In Search of Wonder
Essays on Modern Science Fiction
by Damon Knight

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
introduction by Anthony Boucher

Advent: Chicago  (via NESFA Press)
first edition: 1956
second edition: 1967
third edition, enlarged and extended: 1996

402 pages

January 2007

The landmark of SF criticism

In Search of Wonder is the foundational work of science fiction criticism, as Sam Moskowitz's The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom is the foundational history of its organized readership. Like Moskowitz's book, much of Knight's was written in the early 1950s when science fiction in magazines was proliferating at the newsstands, and beginning to burst into the paperback and even the hardcover book market. Partly because of these growing pains, SF quality was all over the lot.

Meanwhile the field's history and critique were fugitive and in-group rarities, appreciated and encouraged only by science fiction's still-tiny organized fandom. In those days you could hold in your two hands all the books ever written about science fiction, and probably juggle them too.

Most of Knight's material appeared as articles or columns, first collected as a book in 1956. The third edition is substantially longer than previous editions.

This book is not a history, more a delightful grab-bag of Damon Knight's critical writing, with some chapters which are memoir, or how-to-write, or definitional overview. The memoir sections seem to me more enjoyable than Knight's autobiographical The Futurians. As a particular treat for writers, there is a technically annotated version of a short story by Knight himself. And for a definition, or definitions, of science fiction, of this field so brash but elusive-to-definers: Knight has tried longer and with better success than almost anyone.

Our beleaguered sense of wonder

Just about since I first read it as a teenager, I've felt that Frederik Pohl's novella "The Midas Plague", in Galaxy for April 1954 and collected in The Case Against Tomorrow, is an overrated story. Knight shows what's wrong with it, illustrating some larger tendencies or risks in the author, the magazine, and the field:

"The Midas Plague" is a distressing example of the kind of story that became identified with Galaxy during the 50s; the inside-out future society, played poker-faced for snickers, in which the author, whenever he comes across an inconvenient fact or consequence, slaps a coat of paint over it and goes right ahead.

In this case, the thinking behind the story goes something like this: Expanding technology means overproduction. The solution to this is compulsory overconsumption, with ration points. Therefore the rich are poor, and the poor are rich.

This is good for one laugh, or possibly two, but there is something gaggingly irrational after a while in the spectacle of Pohl's hero choking down more food than he can eat. ...

This is something new in idiot plots — it's second-order idiot plotting, in which not merely the principals, but everybody in the whole society has to be a grade-A idiot, or the story couldn't happen. Admittedly, this attitude toward amusing but intrinsically wobbly ideas gets a lot of stories written that otherwise would be discarded: but it also populates the future exclusively with lackwits.

Howard & de Camp

Knight revels in comparing and contrasting, both within and without science fiction and fantasy. His analysis often makes essential qualities jump into clarity, as though with a few quick turns of a focusing wheel. A lovely example:

The Coming of Conan, by Robert E. Howard, is of interest to Howard enthusiasts, who will treasure it no matter what anyone says, and to students who may find it, as I do, an intriguing companion piece to L. Sprague de Camp's The Tritonian Ring. Howard's tales lack the de Camp verisimilitude — Howard never tried, or never tried intelligently, to give his preposterous saga the ring of truth — but they have something that de Camp's stories lack: a vividness, a color, a dream-dust sparkle, even when they're most insulting to the rational mind. Howard had the maniac's advantage of believing whatever he wrote; de Camp is too wise to believe wholeheartedly in anything.
Van Vogt & Heinlein

The pointedly accurate dissection of The World of Null-A in "Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt" is expanded from Knight's classic fanzine essay, published shortly after van Vogt's impressive novel's serialization in Astounding in 1945. Reading this chapter in the first edition of In Search of Wonder was a baptism of fiery darts for my teenage critical faculties.

The chapter "One Sane Man: Robert A. Heinlein" is particularly fine and insightful, as are various discussions of James Blish's works. Early looks at Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke are perceptive as well as appreciative. Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and the husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore are included — but all, inevitably, with fewer pages than I'd like. A lot of middling and minor writers and works are analyzed; some of the best and perhaps most useful insights are into lesser or problematic works of major writers.

On non-fiction, there is a review of The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz; and a chapter on "The Excluded Data: Charles Fort" heralds Knight's book-length biography-analysis, Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained.

Virtues and weaknesses

Given the grab-bag format, what are the weaknesses of the criticism of In Search of Wonder?

I think Damon Knight's view of John W. Campbell as editor of Astounding Science Fiction is much too shallow, as are the mentions of Edward E. Smith — Knight's once-modern outlook is dating itself with these. Campbell's absolutely critical importance to the development of science fiction, while never lost, as more years pass is being rather grudgingly re-acknowledged. And despite changing fashions, Doc Smith's Lensmen continue to cast an illumination that has been spurned, but not dimmed.

Of several excellent authors: James H. Schmitz is mentioned only once, albeit quite positively. Both Murray Leinster and Fritz Leiber are mentioned multiple times, but discussed too little. On the other hand, from assorted writers too many truly worthless stories are covered, which scarcely deserve mention as horrible examples. But the substantial virtues of the book vastly outweigh its weaknesses: a characteristic sadly not shared by too many of its targets.

A few words of warning: In Search of Wonder is full of plot spoilers. It's meant for aficionados who already are fairly well read in the science-fiction field and curious about its structure and history, rather than for those who mainly are looking for good stories to read and bad stories to avoid. That said, it is a critical landmark, informative, and fun to read. If you have a deep interest in science fiction's means and ends, how and why it works its wonders or fails to do so, Damon Knight's set of analyses is the place to start.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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