PNH remembers Damon Knight
Patrick Nielsen Hayden has written an excellent remembrance of Damon Knight on his blog, Electrolite. I’m still in shock. I keep remembering little snippets about Damon, like:
- He was a total net.fanatic. When I first encountered Damon, it was online, on GEnie, and he was in his late sixties. He was all over GEnie’s science-fiction roundtable, picking fights, starting word-games, educating. I assumed at first that it must have been someone impersonating Damon, since I could not imagine that this grand master of the genre could be hanging around, being so, you know, human, let alone negotiating the intricacies of getting a creaking PC to successfully connect to GEnie’s modem-pool.
- We’d all heard legends about the water-gun fights at Clarion, but they largely failed to materialize — until Damon arrived. He’d sit in his ground-floor dorm-room, sheilded by the window-screen, and squirt passers-by, then duck and cover. At the Clarion 25 Anniversary reunion party at the end of my year, Damon nailed Harlan Ellison but good, and was later captured by a gang of students and former students and given a thorough drenching.
- He’d lost his ability to hear the higher registers. For days, we stared at each other in nervous confusion when Damon’s digital watch would emit a blast of ear-splitting, high-pitched beeps during the workshop sessions while Damon studiously (seemingly) ignored it — until he remarked casually that he’d bought a watch with an alarm built in to help him remember to take his pills, and the damned alarm didn’t work.
- Further to that, Damon couldn’t hear young Felicity Rose Savage, the 17-year-old prodigy of our group, whose high voice was outside of his register for hearing. When Rosie spoke, then, Damon would cross the floor and crouch before her, hands cupped to his ears.
He was an absolutely central figure of the science fiction world. As a teenager in 1939, he hitchhiked from his home in Oregon to New York City, where he became part of the Futurians, the group of fans and writers that also included the young Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, C. M. Kornbluth, and many others; his book-length memoir of this period, The Futurians, remains one of the most entertaining works of SF history ever published. He was the first reviewer to subject science fiction to the standards of ambitious mainstream fiction; his collection of essays and reviews, In Search of Wonder, is the founding document of modern SF criticism. With Judith Merrill and James Blish, he founded the Milford series of writing workshops, which led to the creation of the Clarion SF and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, at which he and his wife Kate Wilhelm taught for decades–helping to raise generation after generation of some of the field’s best writers. His book Creating Short Fiction remains one of the best how-to texts for the any aspiring fiction writer. He founded the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and served as its first president; he was a tireless defender of authors’ rights and critic of bad publishing practices. He edited dozens of important anthologies, most notably the “Orbit” series; in that capacity, he discovered many writers who later rose to prominence, including R. A. Lafferty, Gardner Dozois, and Gene Wolfe. (Wolfe’s classic The Fifth Head of Cerberus is dedicated “To Damon Knight, who one well-remembered June evening in 1966 grew me from a bean.”)