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It Isn’t All It Seems

Orbit 17  (Orbit, volume 17)

Edited by Damon Knight 

25 Jan, 2022

Damon Knight's Orbit


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1975’s Orbit 17 is the seventeenth book in Damon Knight’s original science-fiction anthology series. 

I hate the new cover design introduced in Orbit 16. Still, I suppose it is important when publishing a long-running series to randomly change covers to ensure that completists will never have a uniform set. 

This issue contains thirteen stories and three essays. All three essays are by Knight. There are two stories by two women (unusually for Orbit, neither by Kate Wilhelm) and eleven stories by eleven men. None of the stories seems to have been nominated for any award that appears in the ISFDB lists, which I believe is a first for Orbit. As well, for eight of the stories, Orbit 17 was their first and only appearance to in print. I could find reprints for only five of the works included.

This Orbit seems to have been notable for featuring authors whose SF careers were overshadowed by other pursuits. Skal would be one example, as would Millar.

Nevertheless, Orbit 17 is not as minor as the lack of reprints and awards may make it seem. Stories such as The Anthropologists,” The Steel Sonnets,” Toto, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” In Which the Wood Decays” are not only readable, but memorable. So too are When We Were Good” and Under the Hollywood Sign,” though I found them memorable for being very off-putting. 

Orbit 17 is out of print. 

They Say (Orbit 17) • (1975) • essay by Damon Knight

A word collage of commentary about SF.

The Anthropologist” • (1975) • short story by Kathleen M. Sidney

Kidnapped and raised by humans, an alien named Robert is dispatched back to his home-world to establish whether Robert’s race is intelligent or if Robert’s intelligence is due to being raised by humans. Robert never manages to communicate with the other aliens; whether this is due to cultural gap or incapacity on the part of the aliens is unclear. What is clear is that Robert is miserable. 

Readers may find it odd that Robert’s acknowledged ability to think and speak is not deemed sufficient evidence to regard Robert’s species as intelligent. In-story, it is a nice example of doublethink. I suspect that POC who have been adopted by well-meaning white people would have an interesting perspective on this. 

Many questions are left unanswered in this story. There are two later stories which may cast more light on the matter. Alas for me, one of them is in Clarion SF, which I do not own.

Sidney also wrote the modern fantasy Michael and the Magic Man, which I remember as well-received. It too seems never to have been reprinted. 

The Man with the Golden Reticulates” • (1975) • short story by Felix C. Gotschalk

An academic is drawn into the seedy world of academic funding. 

I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and comfort old-time academics by telling them that no matter how horrible their circumstances at that moment, things would almost certainly get worse. 

The Steel Sonnets” • (1975) • short story by Jeff Duntemann

Monitored from orbit, robots explore an alien world. One is programmed with a wider range of emotional responses than its companion. As a perhaps unintended consequence, it is a poet. The other robot is baffled by the endless stream of verse. Danger presents a chance to transcend their programming. 

Toto, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” • (1975) • short story by Jeff Millar

A town is blackmailed by that most self-indulgent of terrorists: a teenaged Heinlein fan. 

Millar might be best remembered for his comic strip, Tank McNamara. Although his genre output was small, it’s clear from this story he was quite familiar with SF of this era, which to judge from lines like

They were well out of the building when it was realized that no one knew who Robert A. Heinlein was.” 

is something his unfortunate characters cannot say.

The depiction of gay people in this has not aged well, one says very diplomatically, although the general sense one gets is that Millar thought harassing gays was a waste of time. 

Autopsy in Transit” • (1975) • short story by Stepan Chapman 

An AI hearse pursues its career with enormous enthusiasm. 

There is a run-on sentence in this story — no doubt there to convey the vehicle’s mood — of such extent someone reading it aloud would expire from lack of oxygen before finishing. 

House” • (1975) • short story by John Barfoot

An old woman embraces the option to become a key part of her household.

Were she not so happy, this would be a horror story. 

The enabling tech provides an example of a technology invented for space exploration being repurposed for home use. 

Fun Palace” • (1975) • short story by Raylyn Moore

A researcher and her willing subject embrace a bold and entirely unethical path to personal happiness. 

When We Were Good” • (1975) • short story by David J. Skal 

Technology facilitated the creation of perfect children, who were then put to various abusive and perverse uses by the adults around them.

This was never reprinted in this collection, but it was expanded to novel-length in 1981. The short story is deliberately unpleasant and off-putting; there is a lot of old-time SF extolling the virtues of fucking minors but this is not one of them. The novel seems unlikely to be less unpleasant and off-putting. Skal wrote three SF novels, including When We Were Good, but seems to have focused mainly on non-fiction. 

The Memory Machine (Orbit 17) • (1975) • essay by Damon Knight

More word collage. What am I missing here?

Which in the Wood Decays” • (1975) • short story by Seth McEvoy

A thousand-year-old rich woman is visited by a descendent who is greedy, homicidal, and uninterested in just how the old lady managed to survive every danger of the last millennium. This proves a fatal visit — but not for the old lady.

The Venus featured in this 1975 story is very much pre-Mariner 2, which revealed the nature of the hell world in 1962

Great Day in the Morning” • [Argos Mythos] • (1975) • short story by R. A. Lafferty

What is to the masses a glorious up-ending of the bad old ways is for the protagonist mainly a sequence of confusing inconveniences of little apparent utility.

A sequence of confusing inconveniences of little apparent utility” is a nice metaphor for getting old. 

The Maze” • (1975) • short story by Stuart Dybek

A researcher participating in a lengthy program to breed superior mice becomes enthralled by the work. 

Quite Late One Spring Night” • (1975) • short story by John Michael Curlovich

Three would be ne’er do wells’ quest for urban adventure is complicated by a melancholy, telepathic robot. 

Under the Hollywood Sign • (1975) • novelette by Tom Reamy

An incredibly homophobic vice cop becomes obsessed with a beautiful man. Kidnap, imprisonment, and rape follow. The policeman eventually suffers a suitable comeuppance. 

Arcs & Secants” (Orbit 17) • (1975) • essay by Damon Knight

Biographical notes, more or less.