Saturday, June 8, 2013

More Authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction-Damon Knight

Damon Knight
Author, Editor, Critic, Artist, Cartoonist, Science Fiction Fan
Born September 19, 1922, Baker, Oregon
Died April 15, 2002, Eugene, Oregon

Damon Knight was the youngest by far of my current batch of authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He may have been the most precocious among them as well, becoming as he did a science fiction fan at age eleven and publishing his own two-issue fanzine as a teenager. Born in 1922, Knight was only seventeen when his first cartoon was published in Amazing Stories in May 1940. That same year, Knight also had his first fiction ("The Itching Hour," Futuria Fantasia, Summer 1940) and his first non-fiction (one or more pieces in 1939 Yearbook of Science, Weird and Fantasy Fiction) published. The record of his career, which started off so auspiciously, is extraordinary.

Knight wrote reviews, essays, memoirs, editorial content, and of course fiction in his six decades in science fiction. I won't go into his accomplishments when you can read them in other sources. Being an artist myself, I would like to mention that Damon Knight drew illustrations for several science fiction and fantasy magazines. There aren't many writers of science fiction and fantasy who are also artists. Weird Tales may have had more than its share with C.L. Moore, Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and Damon Knight. Also, I would like to point out that Knight was married to another science fiction writer, Kate Wilhelm (b. 1928).

According to Wikipedia, Damon Knight attributed the term "idiot plot" to James Blish but helped to popularize it in his own critical essays. We have all seen and suffered through movies and TV shows with idiot plots, although we may not have known there was a term for such a thing. An idiot plot, simply enough, is a story that depends on the stupidity of its characters: if they weren't so stupid, the story would come to an immediate end. I have complained for years that the people in a movie or TV show can't be and shouldn't be less intelligent than the people watching it. If they are, the show is in real trouble. Some examples of idiot plot devices: "There's a psycho killer on the loose--let's split up." Or, "There's a Tyrannosaurus rex trying to find us and eat us--let's draw attention to ourselves by shining a flashlight in his eyes." Or, "These aliens speak in metaphors instead of words, but we're too stupid to figure that out in the first five minutes of the show the way our viewers have." (That last example is from Star Trek: The Next Generation, an idiot plot champion if there ever was one.) Damon Knight seems to have been a crusader against bad writing. I'm glad he stood against the idiot plot and other sins.

Finally, Damon Knight wrote "To Serve Man" (Galaxy Science Fiction, Nov. 1950), a sort of idiot plot turned inside out. That story became one of the most memorable episodes from The Twilight Zone and a very fine in-joke from Naked Gun 2-1/2. It was also won a Retro-Hugo Award in 2001, a year before the author's death.

For Weird Tales
"Ghouls Feeding" (poem, Mar. 1944)

Illustrations for Weird Tales
"Herbert West: Reanimator: The Scream of the Dead" by H.P. Lovecraft (Nov. 1942)
"The Dead World" by Clarence Edwin Flynn (poem, Nov. 1942)
"Seventh Sister" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (Jan. 1943)
"Quest Unhallowed" by Page Cooper (poem, Mar. 1945)
"The Haunted Stairs" by Yetza Gillespie (poem, May 1946)

Damon Knight became a member of the Futurian Society, based in New York City, in 1941. Among the group's other members were Isaac Asimov, Frederick Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, James Blish, Judith Merril, and Donald A. Wollheim. "Seven marriages and five divorces took place within this group," Knight remembered. "Like the members of any other large family, the Futurians sometimes found they couldn't stand each other: there were quarrels, feuds, factions, even a few more or less serious murder threats." Knight wrote about the group in his memoir from 1977, The Futurians. Despite the occasional or frequent enmity among the members, I have a feeling they looked back on their days in the Futurians as a kind of golden age.
Damon Knight had just turned twenty when this illustration for "Herbert West: Reanimator" was published in Weird Tales in November 1942. The model for West was Knight's friend, John B. Michel (1917-1969).

Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley


  1. One particular example of an idiot plot (and one that is often cited) is that of a young woman who is being stalked. Instead of heading towards lights and people, she runs to some sparsely inhabited part of town (or ideally out into the country) then up to the top of a tall building where she's inevitably cornered.

    That illustration is pretty cool and may be a lithograph - a type of printing which involves drawing onto a block of limestone with a wax crayon (I kid you not).

  2. Hi, Aonghus,

    I forgot about the stalked woman as an example of the idiot plot. I would like to invite readers to send in more examples of idiot plots. Here are a couple more:

    1) The character is sneaking around and doesn't want to be discovered, caught, or surprised, yet he leaves the door open behind him.
    2) The character is outgunned, but with his pistol shoots the bad guy who is carrying a machine gun. Instead of taking the bad guy's gun, he keeps his pistol, which now has even fewer bullets in it.

    A variation on the idea of the idiot plot is when the moviemaker thinks that we the viewers are too stupid to notice the holes in his plot. A word to every moviemaker (are you listening, J.J. Abrams?): We notice. We remember.

    I thought the same thing: Damon Knight's illustration looks like a lithograph. He may have gotten the same effect a little more easily and cheaply by drawing on textured paper with a crayon, a china marker, or a lithograph pencil.

    Thanks for writing.


  3. Another recent example was Iron Man III. The MC has a secret arsenal of robots under his house - which he only unleashes after being attacked a second time.

    Re the drawing. I forgot I was talking to an illustrator! I worked in a print studio for a couple years (this was a long time ago) and spent most of my days grinding lithostones. I thought exactly the same as you - that grainy texture is very typical of lithograph. We had stones that still had images for packages etc, dating from the Forties or Fifties at a guess, which is what made me wonder.

  4. The fellow-Futurian model for West was John Michel, rather than Jean...

    1. Todd,

      I'm not sure why I misspelled his name, as all my sources say "John B. Michel." Thanks for the correction. I have made the change.