Book Review: The Best from Orbit edited by Damon Knight

“Orbit” was a series of anthologies of original speculative fiction stories edited by Damon Knight in the 60s and 70s.  His aim was to expand the genre and select literary stories that would avoid the stereotypical spaceships and ray guns of pulp science fiction.  The series was quite successful and attracted some of the best writers in the field; the stories themselves won numerous awards.

I myself, as a young writer and avid reader of speculative fiction, followed the “Orbit” series for many years.  I didn’t always like or even understand all the stories, but there were enough gems therein to retain my interest.

I didn’t buy this anthology as an exercise in nostalgia.  In fact, I sought out and
bought this anthology – which after some years I found affordable used on Amazon – mainly due to one of its stories, a story that is in the list of my ten favorite short stories of all time:  “The Big Flash” by Norman Spinrad.  This story is not so easy to find, and I
hadn’t read it in years.  It’s a Cold War story.  The government decides to use
tactical nukes in Vietnam, and to stoke up popular opinion they raise up a rock
group, The Four Horsemen, to promote nuclear warfare.  The gambit “succeeds” far beyond their expectations.  Though it would seem the idea, in these more complex times, would be dated, such is not the case.  The story reads as fresh now as it had forty years ago when I first read it.

Concerning the rest of the stories, as with all anthologies, it is a mixed bag.  Some stories are dated, extremely so.  Some are joke pieces, some are slow and go nowhere.  But most are at least readable, and there are some other gems in the mix, such as “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” by Harlan Ellison, “Passengers” by Robert Silverberg, and “Mother to the World” by Richard Wilson.

It’s easy to see as you read through that Damon Knight had a predilection for a certain type of story.  By today’s standards some of his selections might seem odd, but at the
time he was fighting the general stultification and decay rampant in the field.  It was an era in which good literature was regarded with suspicion and taboos were numerous.  “Orbit” was part of the trend in the speculative fiction field which became known as “the new
wave”.  It was a much-needed blast of fresh air, a wake-up call to writers that science fiction and fantasy could be taken seriously as literature and could be written as serious literature.

Nowadays, some of the stories that at the time seemed so radical appear tame, and the literary pretensions of others are no longer considered pretentious.  But overall
there are enough good stories to make it worth the price of admission.  And for me, the Spinrad story alone was worth the long search and the price of the book.

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3 Responses to Book Review: The Best from Orbit edited by Damon Knight

  1. Chris says:

    “The Big Flash” sounds really good. I’ll have to read it sometime.

  2. James Pailly says:

    This sounds interesting. I’m going to have to find myself a copy.

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