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How Fast Things Change

Orbit 1  (Orbit, volume 1)

By Damon Knight 

15 Jun, 2021

Damon Knight's Orbit


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1966’s Orbit 1 is the first volume in Damon Knight’s long-running Orbit anthology series. 

Two of the stories in this volume either won or were nominated for awards: Kidd’s Kangaroo Court made a Nebula first ballot, while McKenna’s The Secret Place” won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo. This was the first evidence of Orbit’s tendency to publish works that would win nominations and awards. Now, you might think that routinely offering award-worthy material would have pleased Knight’s contemporaries, but as we will see in later reviews, this was not to be. People say nothing succeeds like success, but perhaps they should say nothing succeeds in infuriating one’s colleagues like success. 

One way in which this volume is noteworthy is the gender balance revealed in the TOC: four stories by five women to five stories by five men, which is much, much closer to an even split than I would expect from an anthology of this vintage. To be honest, a more typical ratio between women and men in a mid-1960s anthology might be 0:1. I have wondered for years how it was I was aware of women authors in the 1970s when so few of the Best SF annuals cared to acknowledge them. It seems likely that Orbit was my primary source at that time. 

Something else of note: although this collection contains nine (count them! nine!) different stories, it is a pleasingly slender 192 pages, a plus in our modern era, when sustained focus can be a challenge. 

Orbit 1 is a perfectly acceptable debut. While the works within are not as ambitious as later Orbit offerings would be, they are a reasonable sample of the better stories of the mid-1960s. The prospect of twenty further volumes does not fill this reviewer with dread. Anticipation, rather.

Now for the nitty-gritty:

Introduction (Orbit 1)• (1966) • essay by Damon Knight

As Knight explains, this volume was his attempt to assemble a selection of stories as worthy as any classic works. Knight is pretty chuffed about the result: By my count, there are three brand-new ideas in this collection, and six brilliant variations on old themes […]”. 

I vaguely remember that more or less at the same time that Knight was chortling over his discoveries, Campbell asserted that Bob Shaw’s slow glass was the first original idea he’d seen in quite a while. I wonder if the difference isn’t purely due to Knight being Knight, and Campbell being, well, John W. Campbell1?

Each story has a short introduction. 

Staras Flonderans” • (1966) • short story by Kate Wilhelm

A Chlaesan named Staeen joins an investigation to determine why human crews have suddenly taken to abandoning their spacecraft in deep space. There being no human survivors, the investigators must examine the hulks left drifting through space. The solution reveals a fatal oversight in operating procedures. 

This story is told from Staeen’s perspective; he’s a cheerful fellow for whom humans are essentially adorable kittens. I don’t think Wilhelm reused any of her SF settings, which is a pity because I think there could have been more stories in Chlaesan/human relations.

As you know, Knight and Wilhelm were married. Knight focuses entirely on her professional qualities, rather than any personal traits. 

The Secret Place” • (1966) • short story by Richard McKenna

As World War Two grinds on, a grumpy geologist unravels a mystery. There’s an assay (inexplicable), its discoverer (a young man), and the something that mauled the discoverer to death. The answer will not help the war effort, but it does lead the geologist to true love.

At the risk of spoiling a fifty-five-year-old story, time travel is involved. The protagonist does not even consider trying to weaponize it. 

All the men in this story are determined to ensure the lone woman in the narrative is treated correctly. Asking her what she wants does not seem to occur to them. 

How Beautiful with Banners” • (1966) • short story by James Blish

A frustrated academic venturing onto Titan’s surface in a novel space suit discovers an unexpected and quite lethal emergent behavior of the new life-support technology.

The narrative takes a rather dim view of academics in general and woman academics in particular. It’s probably supposed to be funny that a frigid woman gets frozen solid on Titan. 

The Disinherited” • (1966) • short story by Poul Anderson (variant of Home)

The star Groombridge 1830 is orbited by one terrestrial-like planet, Mithras. Mithras is the one world that can be reached with sublight star craft and that offers a shirt-sleeve environment. A human research colony on Mithras learns that the Directorate running Earth has decided to halt interstellar exploration. The researchers mutiny; they will stay on Mithras, there to build a new, better world without Directorate interference. 

How will the human colonists deal with the planet’s natives?

This story has a typically Andersonian moment, when the narrative stops for an infodump explaining why Mithras is not tide-locked to Groombridge 1830. I don’t believe it was known in 1966 that Groombridge 1830 is a super-flare star, because, had Anderson known, he would certainly have worked that into the infodump. 

Anderson’s protagonist takes a very pessimistic view about how a high tech, rapidly expanding culture is likely to treat a low population, low tech, largely static culture. At this time, it was not unheard of for settlers to argue that native underutilization of resources justified taking those resources from them. That’s not the reasoning that Anderson adopts. 

The Loolies Are Here” • (1966) • short story by Ruth Allison and Jane Rice [as by Allison Rice]

A housewife’s household struggles are greatly complicated by uninvited, unruly gremlin-like visitors.

Kangaroo Court• (1966) • novella by Virginia Kidd 

A functionary faces two entwined challenges: 

  • first contact between humans and a ship full of kangaroo-like starfarers;
  • a paranoid bureaucrat, convinced that the star travellers are an existential threat to humanity, who is determined to strike first at the visitors before they can attack us.

Among the complications faced by the poor star travellers, the unexpected discovery after the fact that their brand-new star drive can miss by a hundred million years. 

This is one of the few SF stories I can recall in which a major family of terrestrial animals turns out to be alien AND the descendants of the aliens are not humans. Interesting, but not enough to salvage the story for me. I wonder that it made it onto a Nebula ballot. 

Splice of Life” • (1966) • short story by Sonya Dorman

A confused patient plays a vital role whose import it is probably for the best she cannot comprehend.

This is both hard SF and a horror story.

If Dorman’s ISFDB entry is to be believed, there is no collection of her prose SF in print. 

5 Eggs” • (1966) • short story by Thomas M. Disch

Smitten with Nyctimene’s cruel, inhuman beauty, an infatuated ornithologist gets a pointed lesson in just how cruel and inhuman his former lover was. 

The Deeps” • (1966) • short story by Keith Roberts

Overpopulation has driven a certain community into a deep-sea environment. An undersea housewife finds the setting alien and disturbing. Her children turn out to be the key to her coming to terms with the world in which her kind will now live.

Orbit 1 is out of print. 

1: I flipped through 1966’s Analog 6 (which has Shaw’s slow glass story The Light of Other Days”) to see if Campbell’s comment re originality was in there. Nope!