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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.
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on June 14, 2006
Why Do Birds is Damon Knight's second-last novel, from 1992. It is described on the cover, fairly accurately, as "A Comic Novel of the Destruction of the Human Race". (Actually, it's not clear that the Human Race is actually destroyed.) The main character is Ed Stone, who shows up in 2002 claiming to be from 1931, despite being about 30 years old. He says aliens kidnapped him and kept him on their spaceship for 70 years, and now they have released him and given him a job. He is supposed to convince everyone on Earth to voluntarily enter a huge cube, and go into suspended animation. Then the aliens will take everyone somewhere, while the Earth will be destroyed.

Naturally people think he's crazy -- indeed, he thinks he might be crazy. But he has a ring that compels anyone he shakes hands with to believe him. Before long he is meeting the President and other political leaders, and the Cube Project is well under way. He also acquires a girlfriend and a number of additional allies. But there are a few people who oppose his plans, in some cases for sinister reasons.

The narrative is deadpan, simple on the surface, often quite funny. Ed is a curious character -- not quite likeable, a bit sinister himself, but in the end someone we sort of root for. His girlfriend Linda Lavalle is rather more likeable. The story plays out over a dozen years or so, as the Cube is built, while the forces arrayed against Ed raise doubts about his story, and Linda has her own loyalties tested. The ending is pretty much as we are compelled to expect, and mostly satisfying. That said, I couldn't love the book -- parts of it made me impatient, and I must confess I am not sure what Knight was really up to. Certainly the aliens and their plans are never explained. There are hints that the world of the book is not quite our world (besides the obvious differences between the 2002 Knight imagined as of 1992 and the real 2002). There are strange occurrences that might imply something really odd is going on, but I never figured out just what. Knight is never less than interesting, but I never really warmed to his book -- perhaps simply because I failed to grasp it fully.
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on November 19, 2009
I'm in the love it camp. It's one of my favorite novels.

Why is a sly satire. Sly twice over: it is not obviously a satire, and is not a satire with an immediately obvious target. The prose is not thorny grad student reading list wankery and this transparency is its greatest strength. It looks simple, feels effortless, and ends with a thudding whimper. It's a grand jape and a damn good one. The book is funny in the details and the total.

It's also a love letter to the tropes of SF. Knight was there near the beginning, near single-handedly creating SF criticism and creating a couple of the cliches himself with his early short stories. The better you know the history of the written genre the better the book is. Not fannish in-jokes or name checks but knowing the touchstones of the core works.

The plot summation is simple enough: a guy is given the ability to control a person when he shakes their hand. He shakes some hands and the leaders of the world build and load folk into giant stasis cubes to survive the apocalypse which may or may not be coming so they may or may not get rescued by aliens. Humanity gets loaded into these structures and the novel ends.

Bit at a loss how to convert anyone to seeing just how funny and clever the book is. Tried and completely failed with my girlfriend. "What the [bleep] is this? It doesn't end? Do the aliens come?!?" She was seriously pissed I made her read it.

Knight was a great short story writer but really struggled with novels. They were all godawful until the CV series which were a training run for "Why Do Birds" but he miraculously hit gold here near the end of his life.

Try this. Retitle the book "Why Do Birds Flock?" and reread it.
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on June 16, 1998
Damon Knight has created a rather haunting and slightly whimsical piece (in the same vein as George Alec Effinger's: Two Sadnesses). The book isn't a long worded comedy and people reading it shouldn't be expecting Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett ... this novel is above all that. It's humor isn't based on physical humor or pure absurdity, I found it more sad than anything else. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who's not just looking for a hollow laugh ... to someone who enjoys a book that transcends the popular boundaries of the genre and transcends it well.
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on April 20, 1999
The story is well written, but like the title, something vital is missing, without which it doesn't make sense. Things happen, but there's little progress after the situation is set-up.
The characters are unusally low-key; in most other SF stories of this type, upon realizing that they are brainwashed by aliens, a character will try to resist; here they just shrug and go on with the alien plans.
When I read the last page, there was no sense of finishing a complete story: we never do find out what it was all about, anymore than we find out what the missing verb was in "why do birds".
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on May 8, 1998
A little disappointing. I like the premise, but thought the humor angle wasn't played up enough.
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on April 19, 1999
Damon Knight tells an entertaining and wry story, but seems to leave a lot of loose ends. The book turns on the question of whether or not Ed Stone's warning that the Earth will be destroyed is true, or is it a hoax on either his part or the part of the aliens he says sent him. When I found the answer, I was left trying to figure out why Knight put in some strange incidents or clues that turned out to be red herrings. And the title! Will somebody please explain the title to me?
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on May 26, 2003
The first time i read this book in my early teens, i didn't really like it. i thought it seemed like a cool idea that didn't really go anywhere. i'd never heard of Damon Knight before, and i probably picked the book up because of the title, Why Do Birds. Yet i have read many, many books since. The mass majority of them i've forgotten, yet this book has always stayed with me for the same reason the title once captured my attention. this story is so incomplete, yet so unforgetable. it's like an experience that was unsatisfactory at the time yet for some reason becomes a cherished memory. there is something fantastic about this book, something which i find myself thinking about more and more as the years go on, yet something that, even now, i cannot put my finger on. Thank you, Damon Knight, if you ever read these reviews. i truly appreciate how you've stimulated my mind, and i truly appreciate you writing this incredible book.
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on July 31, 2004
This is a self-consciously clever book that must appeal mostly to academics and intellectuals painfully aware of their own ironic insights. In places it is downright annoying.. such as the idiotic characterizations of world leaders... and the rest of the time it is just childish. Some people may breathe "Wow..." after the final chapter. I just breathed, "Yeah, so what?" It's all been done better elsewhere, with more intellligence.
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on November 2, 2006
SPOILERS

The narrative is not particularly compelling. As one reviewer pointed out: the main character is not particularly likeable--so when he presumably gets beaten to death at the end I was like. "Oh...alright. whatever." at this point the book shifts to his girlfriend who then proceeds to lead an equally uninteresting life until the aliens show up and presumably (but maybe not) blow up the earth.

This book was ridiculously unrealistic in the dialouge and motivations of just about every single one of its characters. E.g., no one seems to care that Ed is manipulating them with his ring even though they know he is. Secondly, important details are completely left out. E.g., are aliens visiting Ed? Does he have one inside of him? Did the aliens blow up the earth? Is Ed who he says he is? Thirdly, Knight spends a ridiculous amount of time explaining some dull card game.

And finally, this book was written in the early 90s and Knight seems to think that it would be a good idea to write a story that takes place in the far-off future of...about a decade later (not surprisingly, the real 2002 was nothing like his book)! I always HATE it when sci-fi writers create these futuristic tales and then place them 10, 20 or even 50 years later--it makes them seem incredibly naive and yet they do it over and over again.
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