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4 of 4 people found this helpful
Koans have no punchline.
on April 1, 2009
Damon Knight was a revered writer, critic, editor and teacher within science fiction and he knew the ins and outs of his genre as well as anyone ever has. This book is clearly a product of a lifetime of working within the field (along with his last book "Humpty: An Oval"), and is only more enjoyable the more of its tropes you recognize. It plays as one extended riff on a very old idea, and part of the pleasure in reading it comes from recognizing the frequent references to earlier versions of itself. It is always plainly evident how much fun it must have been to write, and that carries over to the reader. The story flows with effortless smoothness, never pausing for exposition or to try to make sense of the compounded absurdities of the plot, and Knight never tips his hand as to what it's all about. I'm a close reader and I've read this book several times, and I'm still impressed by how seamless the tale is in the telling; Knight makes an absolutely preposterous story seem plainly obvious, and that is a difficult feat.
Is Ed Stone a pawn or a monster? Is he a con artist or a fraud? Or is he simply what he claims to be, a man wrenched out of time and given an absurd mission by "aliens"? Anyone expecting a satisfying resolution or explanation of what's going on is bound to be disappointed, nor is this a conventional character study (even by sf's lax standards). Much of the story's appeal comes from its irresistible momentum once it gets going, and the subtle way Knight uses transparently cartoonish caricatures to make brief, slashing observations about the way the world works and is. The politicians, businessmen, hustlers, and miscellaneous authority figures with whom Stone interacts hardly seem realistic, but that seems to be much of Knight's point.
Really, the books this reminds me of most are John Brunner's apocalyptic early-70s novels "The Sheep Look Up", "The Jagged Orbit", "Stand On Zanzibar" and "The Shockwave Rider". Like Brunner, Knight was deeply preoccupied with humanity's welfare, and like Brunner, he seemed ambivalent about its ultimate chances for survival. Like most satires, this book has a point. Like most good satires, it's not immediately obvious what that point is.