Damon Knight
One Side Laughing: Stories Unlike Other Stories

When Damon Knight was born in 1922, the usual supernatural visitors clustered round the cradle with their gifts: 'He will write sf with grace, wit and compassion,' one surely said, while a second promised that he'd produce the first decent book of sf criticism, and others prophesied the founding of SFWA, a renowned series of original anthologies, influential editorial posts, and so on. But the bad fairy Commerce, who hadn't been invited, pushed through and added her curse: 'He will always be too much respected for his own good, and will never quite succeed at novel length.'

[A smartarse generalization since falsified – if it hadn't been earlier – by the appearance of Knight's remarkable novels Why Do Birds (1992) and Humpty Dumpty: An Oval (1996).]

Knight has earned any amount of respect. A handful of his short stories – say 'Four in One', 'The Country of the Kind', 'Stranger Station', and 'Masks' – are among the best sf can offer. The curse works itself out in awkward fix-up novels (Hell's Pavement being perhaps the most ingenious and shambolic) and persistent critical disappointment at Knight's frequent failure to be stupendous. For example, the amusingly pulpish, van Vogtian novel Beyond the Barrier (which I enjoyed immensely at the prescribed age of 15) has been criticized in far harsher terms than many an inferior space opera, seemingly because so much more is expected of that fine man Damon Knight.

This seventeen-story collection bristles with lightweight items, but nearly half the pages are taken up with a reprint of our author's favourite novella 'The Other Foot' (1965 – expanded from Galaxy magazine, 1963).

In 'The Other Foot', a young French reporter and an alien 'Brecht Biped' held in Hamburg Zoo accidentally exchange minds. The story is about their coming to terms with this swap. Fritz from Brecht's Planet emerges as a perfectly good journalist after his spell of 'amnesia' (gentle satire here on how easy it is to pass as human). The erstwhile Martin Naumchik finds it slightly less comfortable to be an alien, but has after all acquired the body for it, and duly settles into his new job. Nothing else changes; the world rolls on. A smoothly entertaining read, whose quiet rubbishing of anthropocentrism remains good stuff but must have had more impact in those days when John W.Campbell stalked the earth.

For the rest ... there is one highly effective story, 'I See You', which in the best sf tradition uses its technological gimmick to explore, dismantle and indeed transcend a fondly held belief about 'human nature'. Here the foible under attack is our supposed need for privacy. Isaac Asimov's 'The Dead Past' got as far as the revelation that its time-viewing device was about to end all privacy forever, and stopped dead on a note of tight-lipped horror. Knight's fantasy of a closely similar gadget begins some while after this point, and offers the queasily fascinating vision of a truly open society. Perhaps this has particular force for Brits, living as we do in a country of secrets like the location of London's 619-foot Telecom Tower (which is omitted from Ordnance Survey maps) and the existence of a connecting door between numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street (acknowledged in open Parliament by Margaret Thatcher in 1989 and later declared by civil servants to be an unpublishable secret)....

Next in length: 'Strangers on Paradise' is a neatly told tale of humanity's nastiness (and of a small revenge), which loses something through sf's characteristic tunnel-vision. The paralleled fate of so many American Indians and – specifically – native Australians and Tasmanians becomes a socko revelation ... which, however cleverly presented and carefully understated, cannot convince. Real-world cover-ups leak information at every seam. Surely Knight's hero wouldn't stumble dramatically on the facts of genocide but would be already too knowing, too numbed by the output of the guilt industry.

Most of the rest are short-shorts, squibs, echoes, gags. 'Point of View': a tiny joke version of The Fly. 'Azimuth 1, 2, 3 ...': a temporal jape on Isaac Asimov. 'O': a condensed travesty of James Thurber's The Wonderful O which should really have been written as a lipogram. 'The God Machine': similarly brief presentation of the 'theological pollution' gimmick from Karel Capek's The Absolute at Large. 'The Man Who Went Back': a homeopathic dose of nostalgia and predictability ('It is hard to talk about this story without giving away its secret,' says Knight; hard too to read the title without guessing it). 'Goodbye, Doctor Ralston': one-liner about far-future standards of beauty. 'A Fantasy': just that, a literate man's daydream and no more. 'Forever': affable goonishness turning with merciful brevity on the traditional immortal-but-sterile ploy.

What else? 'On the Wheel' and 'La Ronde' are more serious, conscientiously unclear little narratives which once upon a time might have been regarded with admiration and distrust as Experimental, but nowadays do not seem all that Memorable.

I enjoyed the better jokes here, like 'The Time Exchange', sexual comedy with a delicate venom worthy of John Collier; 'The Very Objectionable Mr Clegg', which has no redeeming features (and slumps into an awful old punchline) but is irrationally engaging; 'Each Prisoner Pent', with its radical and almost plausible inversion of penal reform; and most especially 'Tarcan of the Hoboes', in which Edgar Rice Burroughs is transliterated into something rich and strange. Africa-bound ships become railway trains, with castaways fetching up in the trackside hobo jungles, etc. Most writers could carry on from there: few would have thought it up in the first place or could match the utterly deadpan pastiche....

Tarcan could read, after a fashion: he knew 'RR Xing', and 'Café', 'City Limits', and a few more words, but this was the first book he had ever tried to read. Although he was untaught, his keen intelligence enabled him to make rapid progress.

Damon Knight is strong on keen intelligence, yet even Kirkus Reviews (the US book-marketing guide which says only nice things) issues the subliminal warning 'covers familiar territory with style and wit'. The newer items in One Side Laughing return again and again to much-trodden quarters of Sf City, and only occasionally perform the master's trick of convincing us (as in the superb 'I See You') that we have never, really, thought about that old idea at all.

Everything here is finely written, but with the noted exceptions I longed for more substance, more stories whose page-counts made it into double figures.