Damon Knight (1922-2002)
Damon Knight, author of science fiction classics like Hell's Pavement and "To Serve Man," has died.
He was an absolutely central figure of the science fiction world. As a teenager in 1941, 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.")
With a tremendous sense of non sum dignus, I served as editor on his last two novels, Why Do Birds (1992) and Humpty Dumpty: An Oval. I'm proud to have been involved in publishing them. Humpty Dumpty, in particular, is a novel I believe the SF world and the literary world will eventually catch up to; it is a great humming elegy for the world, told at the moment of death.
Damon was annoying, brilliant, lyrical, irascible, funny, patient, generous, and one of the people who created the modern science fiction world. In the great cosmic index of Homeric epithets, his is one word: "Teacher."
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
The service will be at Musgrove's Mortuary, 1151 Olive Street, Eugene, Oregon on Thursday, April 18, at 2:00 PM. An informal gathering will follow at L&L Market 1591 Willamette a few blocks from the Musgrove Mortuary.
Kate requests no flowers and that donations in honor of Damon can be sent to:
Womenspace, (the address isn't listed because battered women are sheltered there) Eugene OR US (541) 485-7262,
Food for Lane County
the Knight-Wilhelm Endowed Scholarship Fund.
National Public Radio coverage in Real Audio from April 17 All Things Considered: http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/20020417.atc.18.ram
Let us light a candle:
we just got word that Damon Knight died last night --
Damon was about the most welcoming and enthusiastic person I've ever met; and that I had a chance to work with him on what he felt was a major life project for him -- The Futurians -- is one of the treasures of my life.
In brief he was responsible in a real way for a number of institutions which have outlived him -- Clarion workshops (and their clones), SFWA, and even the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation) which in several periods was a force helping bring fans across the country (and indeed across the world) together.
As a writer he gave us fine stories and an attitude, and as a teacher he helped many young and not-so-young writers find voice. As an editor...he was hard to match and is still an influence...
I've heard people describe Damon variously as quiet, outrageous, a genius, and even a has been. This last was and is silly, of course, for Damon's work is not over.
Damn. I was looking forward to, perhaps, stealing away to Oregon for a day on our West Coast swing and catching up on things for an hour or two. Or three.
It'll be awhile before this one really sinks in for me. Looks like I'll have some reading to do.
Our world is darker now. One of our stars has gone missing.
Damon Knight was in turns brilliant, provocative, clown prince and philosopher. A supreme storyteller, he was also a wise old man. He did not suffer fools and yet was, on his own terms, not above foolishness. He simply demanded that we all rise to our greatest heights, as writers, as human beings. Sometimes we managed it. When we failed, he cheered the trial.
He was one of SFWA's consciences and we still need him. So we will have to remember him--that gadfly--who made us better than we are.
Jane Yolen, past president, SFWA
Patrick Nielsen Hayden chose the perfect descriptors for Damon: annoying, brilliant, lyrical, irascible, funny, patient, generous. All of us who lived within commuting distance of Kate and Damon's monthly workshops in Eugene got to enjoy those facets of Damon right up until a short time ago. Damon was physically uncomfortable at the last of those workshops, but he nevertheless read our stories and vivisected them with his deft and compassionate wit. He may not have been having much fun that night, but it was as fun as ever to be in his company. And as instructive. He'll be remembered for many things, but perhaps for his generosity above all.
Bruce Holland Rogers
It's hard for me to put into words the influence Damon Knight has had on my career. I never looked to him as a role model, like I did Isaac Asimov. I never devoured every book of his I could get ahold of, like I did the books of Robert Heinlein. I never tried to emulate his style. Nor did I ever have much of a personal connection with him, other than two short weeks one summer during which eighteen of us shared conversations with him.
About all I can say, though, is that if it weren't for Damon's abilities as a teacher, I wouldn't be writing science fiction stories at all.
Sometime in my teenage years, I got into my head that I wanted to write stories. Throughout my teen years and well into my twenties, I read many, many books on writing. But one of the first I read, and one of the best, was Damon's book _Creating Short Fiction_. I've gone on to teach writing myself, and whenever I can I use Damon's book as my textbook. In fact, anytime a struggling writer asks me to name the best book on writing for a new writer of short stories, it's no contest; I always name _Creating Short Fiction_. If this was all Damon had ever done as a teacher, it would have been enough. But Damon did so much more, by founding the Clarion Workshops for new writers.
I was a member of the 1994 Clarion Workshop, the last one with Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight teaching the final two weeks. I still remember going to my one-on-one meeting with Damon, in which he introduced me to the concept of line editing. He met me at the door of their room, stick-thin, wearing short sleeves and a pair of shorts. He was eating bologna, and had a whole slice hanging out of his mouth. Smiling, he offered me a slice, which I declined.
We sat on a bench in the warm shade of that summer day, and he covered my story with a piece of paper out of which he had cut a line the length of the page and the width of the letters. Using this hole, Damon took me through the first page of one of my stories, sentence by bloody sentence. He forced me to focus on the actual words I had used to present my ideas, and pushed his way through my obstinate objections that the sentences were better looked at in its context. Through a simple technique, Damon taught me the most important principle of writing: every sentence, in fact every word, must be there for a reason.
I went to Clarion as a wannabe writer; I came home that summer and sold my first stories just a few months later. When I sit at my computer and write, I can still hear Damon's voice giving me words of advice, guiding me through my work.
Michael A. Burstein (former Secretary, SFWA)
There isn't a branch of SF that Damon Knight didn't touch, is there? I met him first through his writing; then in person at Clarion in 1981. He was an intent listener and a succinct critic, and could cut through bullshit faster than a speeding bullet. He was funny, too. Sometimes--throwing a handful of Superballs into the classroom, or playing a role in our wedding-by-proxy of Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales--he had an of eldritch glee which was infectious--a fellow Clarionite referred to him in my hearing as the Merry Prankster of SF.
What Damon did, writing, listening, critiquing, arguing on line, was to take things seriously. SF, for starters--a literature he loved. And SF writing. Damon was an antidote to those relatives who asked me why I was writing SF instead of =real= stories. His tone might have been jocular, but he took his students seriously, too. Sitting in a room with Damon and Kate talking about =your= work was scary, but exhilarating. Because they took you seriously, you had to take yourself seriously, too.
Damon left his tracks everywhere--as agent, writer, editor, online provocateur. He founded SFWA and Milford ad Clarion. He's got a lot to answer for. Or maybe those of us who are his beneficiaries do. I will miss him. People who don't know him--people who haven't even heard of him yet--will miss him too.
I have this image of Damon in some celestial venue, casting Superballs into the empyrean and watching the angels scatter. Good on you, Damon.
I attended the 1988 Clarion. Kate and Damon were still the final fortnight instructors. Damon told me I'd be a good writer and that I would do all right. I probably would have figured that out for myself, but coming from him meant a great deal. He was, in many ways, a figure out of myth for readers and writers of my generation, one of the Futurians, a founder in every sense of the word. The surprise when you meet someone like that is how thoroughly human they are after all. Human and humane. He took pains, offered of himself, and gave vital care and encouragement. He made a difference, for me and many, many others. I think that's a pretty great thing to be able to say about someone--he made a difference.
We'll miss you, Damon.
Mark W. Tiedemann
"I think of Damon Knight as an Eternal Flame on a slowly revolving pedestal, passing flickering yet eventually even light in all directions. His death is only a force field that cuts the light in half, not horizontally but vertically, and leaves a dark side. The side that is still aglow will now revolve with the dark side, passing a less bright but still even light until the energy of its creation passes from the consciousness of Mankind."
George C. Willick
I have looked upon the face of genius and seen that it wore stylishly authoritative glasses, a pony tail, and an unruly beard that might have been won after a Scrabble game bet with Santa Claus. The feet of genius wore Birkenstocks and often no socks.
Damon Knight has been one of the most important people in my life. I've known him since 1976, when he was one of my writing instructors at the Clarion Writers Workshop. Being a slow learner, I stalked Damon and his wife Kate Wilhelm to Oregon so I could ask them to teach me even more.
He and Kate held a monthly workshop at their home, and even though I was arguably their worst student ever, after twenty- something years, I have finally started to get better.
It was clear to me early on that I would not easily win Damon's approval with my fiction ("If this is for that prom night anthology then you'll probably sell it, for while I think it is a dreadful story, the others are bound to be worse." "How much are you paying me to read this?" "You must remember that reading fiction is a voluntary act.") I worked hard to keep him amused in other ways so that he would not regret his decision to let me hang around. We shared an appreciation for the humor of the absurd. We made each other laugh -- he could accomplish this through wit and squirt guns, but I sometimes needed to tap dance in a gorilla suit to get him to crack a smile. Eileen Gunn reminded me of a time soon after I'd gotten a book called something like _Stupid Tricks_, when I wanted to try out one of the stunts and Damon agreed to play my straight man. It might have been after a workshop; it had something to do with his lying face up on their gorgeous Persian carpet and me trying to lift him by his belt buckle, perhaps with my teeth. The details are fuzzy, and I can't remember how far off the ground we got. I just remember his laughter and his trust and continuing good cheer.
I remember the first time I wrote something he approved of, when he forgave me for being such a slow learner. Once I had experienced the pride of a student who has managed to learn some of the lessons of the master, I valued his opinion even more, perhaps more fully appreciating the gift of his patience and generosity. He was an honest critic who did not hold back his opinion when his students failed to produce worthy work; when he praised our writing, we knew he wasn't just saying things to be nice. I can't count how many writers have benefited from his teachings; the wisdom of his lessons will not end with his passing. He and Kate have always urged us to work harder than we thought was necessary, and during a visit several weeks before his death, he let me know that he expected even more, that I was slacking off and ought to be more productive. I've never been a good student, but I think I hear what he was saying. Time is short. Use it well.
Damon's writing was awesome. "Creating Short Fiction" is an enormously useful book for any writer. "Humpty Dumpty" is a brilliant novel that manages to translate surreal language and landscape into the compelling and understandable story of an everyday man. "The Country of the Kind" is a Big Science Fiction story that questions the very nature of humanity.
Seek out his work.
I am enormously grateful for having had the opportunity to read his work, know him, learn from him, laugh with him, befriend him, and appreciate his genius and good humor and generosity during the time when his physical presence graced the planet.
Updated April 17, 2002