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An Homage to Damon Knight


Below right, an alien played by Richard Kiel blocks a woman warning Lloyd Bochner that he's about to become an alien's dinner in a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, "To Serve Man." Below, the author of the original short story, Damon Knight, teaches with his wife, author Kate Wilhelm, at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop in 1974. Knight died in 2002 at 79.

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm
are shown at the Clarion Workshop
in Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1974,
which Bill attended.

Small Twilight Zone Logo

To Serve Man

Courtesy CBS

To Serve Man:

Recipe for author's career

Special to the Valley Press
Copyright 2002 by William F. Wu

In the film noir light and shadows of a classic "Twilight Zone" episode from the early '60s, a woman holding a book shouts a frantic warning to a man entering a spaceship for a journey to an alien planet: "It's a cookbook!"

The aliens had ended war, poverty and hunger on Earth, and told humans the basis for this altruism was in the book, titled "To Serve Man," which was not yet translated from their language.

Then the aliens, whose leader was played by Richard Kiel, started inviting humans to their planet. People lined up to go like sheep at a slaughterhouse. The hero, played by Lloyd Bochner, is forced into the spaceship after hearing the shout and the ship lifts off to serve man -- as an alien's dinner.

"To Serve Man" is the title of the episode and the short story on which it was based, which went on to be reprinted 15 times after its initial publication in Galaxy magazine in 1950 -- a time that explains the generic use of "man" to mean humanity.

Rod Serling wrote the adaptation for "The Twilight Zone," which first aired in the 1961-62 season, but the author of the original story was Damon Knight, a giant of the science fiction field who died April 14, 2002, at 79 in Eugene, Ore. An author of many short stories and novels, he was also an editor, critic and writing instructor, and I was fortunate to be one of his students years ago.

I attended the Nebula Awards banquet in Kansas City, Mo., presented by the Science Fiction Writers of America, the weekend of April 25, 2002. It was a bittersweet weekend for many, as Damon had conceived and founded and was first president of the organization starting in 1965. He received the organization's Grand Master award in 1995 for his life achievements in science fiction.

I met Damon when I was 23 at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop at Michigan State University. He and his wife, Kate Wilhelm, who is a science fiction and mystery writer, were co-instructors at Clarion for decades, helping develop two more generations of writers.

At Clarion I showed him a short story I had written that was a science fiction satire of westerns about cyborg gunfighters in the American West after a disaster had depopulated much of the world. He told me in a kind but definite tone that he did not want it for the anthology he was editing, but some editor would, somewhere.

I was annoyed as well as disappointed. If a writer and editor of Damon's experience didn't want it, could it be good? Was he right that it was good?

Damon was brilliant, impish and kind, known for blunt criticism in reviews and in workshops, and also for bringing Superballs, round and football-shaped, in his pocket. He was as likely to throw them at dinner as he was at a party, always exasperating Kate. And if a young writer bounced a Superball back to Damon, he might just pull out a squirt gun and start shooting.

When I met him, he wore mundane eyeglasses, had gray hair and a long, Gandalf-like beard. Damon and Kate taught the final two weeks of the six- week workshop and opened their apartment at night to students eager to hear about the field from professionals.

Their rapport with each other was memorable; once in the middle of a workshop, Damon interrupted Kate with a comment -- probably obscene -- too quiet for the rest of us to hear; Kate smiled, tapped out her cigarette ash in his lap and went on talking to the rest of us. They never would tell us what he had said.

Despite his humor, Damon had been serious about his goals from his youth. As a teenager out of high school in 1941, he hitchhiked from his Klamath Falls, Ore., home to New York City in order to become part of the burgeoning science fiction field, which was still in its infancy as a branch of pulp magazines. His first published short story appeared that year.

In New York, Damon joined a group called the Futurians, which also included Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl and many other authors and editors who would shape the field in the following decades. He was among the first critics to hold science fiction to literary standards, helping to raise the quality of writing out of the pulp magazine level.

Science fiction writer Rob Chilson remembers Damon's first book of criticism, "In Search of Wonder": "I read and reread (it). What a training it was! Trenchant and funny, too. Damon could not only tell you something was bad, he could explain what was bad about it and how it should have been done. Who could ask for a better professor than that?"

Damon won a Hugo Award for his criticism in 1956 and another award for critical work in 1975. "To Serve Man" is a fun story with a great twist, yet his best fiction was more substantive, using science fiction to create allegories that reveal human foibles and strengths. The lists of his novels, short stories, the anthologies he edited -- which altered the field of short- story publishing -- and his well-deserved accolades run long.

Ultimately, "To Serve Man" became a recipe for Damon's life and career. The list of contemporary science fiction and fantasy writers he taught is even longer than that of his published work.

During the Nebula banquet weekend, the organization he founded renamed its lifetime achievement honor as the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.

Oh, yeah: That cyborg cowboy story I wrote was published in Omni magazine and became a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards. As usual, Damon was right.




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Last Modified: January 23, 2005
Modified by: LJL

Copyright William F. Wu 1999, 2000-8. All Rights Reserved.