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Nothing Thrills Us Anymore

Orbit 16  (Orbit, volume 16)

Edited by Damon Knight 

11 Jan, 2022

Damon Knight's Orbit


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1975’s Orbit 16 is the 16th volume in Damon Knight’s original SF anthology series. 

This volume includes thirteen stories and four essays. Of the thirteen stories, three are by women, while ten are by men. One essay is by Knight, while three are uncredited. One of the essays — A Lexicon for Time Travellers” — is not listed in the table of contents. It seems likely that the three uncredited essays were also penned by Knight.

This is a lesser Orbit anthology, which is reflected in nominations accrued: two that I could see, a Locus for Mother and Child and a Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Prison of Clay, Prison of Steel” (presumably for the original French version). As well, most of the stories in this anthology only appeared in Orbit 16: of the thirteen stories featured here, only Mother and Child, The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street,” Prison of Clay, Prison of Steel,” Ambience”, and Euclid Alone were reprinted.

I was unenthusiastic about Orbit 16s contents, with two exceptions: I enjoyed the Vinge, and I loathed the Piserchia for reasons I will mention later. Otherwise, this volume is neither remarkably interesting nor remarkably terrible. It is mainly notable for separating Orbit 15 from Orbit 17.

Orbit 16 is out of print.

They Say (Orbit 16) • (1975) • essay by Damon Knight

A word collage; excerpts from commentaries on SF.

Mother and Child • (1975) • novella by Joan D. Vinge

Kidnapped by a king who covets her fertility, pagan priestess Etaa’s decisions will have a profound effect on matters outside her ken: a dispute among aliens re management of potentially dangerous humans. 

As I’ve said before, this seems to be Vinge’s reply to Anderson’s No Truce with Kings. It’s also in the grand tradition of quasi-feudal settings where some of the characters have a mysterious sense. In this case, it’s called hearing.”

The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street” • short story by R. A. Lafferty

Canute Freeboard first noted the peculiar demographics of the street — an unusual number of inhabitants are talking animals — then its curious economics — and finally that it is a place a man of the proper sort could call home. 

A Brilliant Curiosity • (1975) • novelette by Doris Piserchia

Modern human civilization suffers through the brief active period of an ancient species’ cyclic lifestyle. 

If this began as what if dragons had cicada life cycles” I would not be surprised. Nor would I be terribly astounded if it turned out that Piserchia was curious to see how many times she could have her racist protagonist toss out the n‑word and still get the story published. 

Phoenix House” • (1975) • short story by Jesse Miller

In a ruined world, a hermit does his best to help passersby, even the most difficult of them. 

Miller was one of very few African-American SF authors of this era. There is an overview of his body of work at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Jack and Betty” • (1975) • short story by Robert Thurston

Trapped in a room subject to unexplained and alarming time-jumps, Jack and Betty seek escape … even though it’s possible that what waits outside is even worse than the room.

Prison of Clay, Prison of Steel” • (1975) • short story by Henry-Luc Planchat (trans. of Prison d’argile, prison d’acier” 1977)

A star is enslaved by self-centered mortals. Frustrating, but on a star’s timescale, very short term. 

It seems the original French version was published after the English translation appeared. 

Heartland” • (1975) • short story by Gustav Hasford

A married couple struggles with marriage’s usual mundane challenges, and also the fact that the wife is a horse. 

There were a lot of horse puns in this. 

A Little Lexicon for Time Travellers • (1975) • essay by uncredited

A list of useful neologisms for time travellers.

Sandial” • (1975) • short story by Moshe Feder

A tired wanderer marches resolutely across a vast expanse of sand while musing on the nature of sand. 

The Memory Machine” (Orbit 16) • (1975) • essay by uncredited

Another collage of other people’s comments on SF, in this case drawn from the ancient past of the 20th century.

I wonder if and how Knight chased down the rights for Depression-era letters? Or if under the copyright regime of the day he would have faced any penalties for not doing so? 

In Donovan’s Time” • (1975) • short story by Charles L. Grant 

A resolute Donovan leads his people on a historic migration across the city.

People wandering from one place to another for no good reason seems to have been a rich and vibrant subgenre back in the Disco Era. 

Ambience” • (1975) • short story by David J. Skal

A pro-development tirade denouncing pro-environment agitation is contrasted against the grim reality that development delivers.

Somewhat less upbeat than The Sheep Look Up, but also shorter. 

Binary Justice” • (1975) • short story by Richard Bireley

Short-term financial fraud attracts inevitable punishment from the algorithmic justice system.

The House by the Sea” • (1975) • short story by Eleanor Arnason

Lucia’s former lover Craig installs himself as an unwanted house-guest. He is confident that he has eliminated all means of calling for help, little comprehending that silence can also be a message. 

Euclid Alone • (1975) • novelette by William F. Orr

A mathematician struggles with grief over a friend’s death even as he tries to come to terms with a proof that mathematical fundamentals are inconsistent and that the foundation on which much of modern civilization is based is inherently, irredeemably flawed. 

Arcs & Secants” (Orbit 16) • (1975) • essay by uncredited

This essay comments on authors and stories herein. It also serves as a letter column; Knight replies to questions asked in correspondence. Of note: he was happy to receive MSes from unknowns and willing to publish the better stories at 3 to 5 cents a word in 1975 US currency. That is about 15 to 25 cents a word in modern US currency. Interestingly, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has a minimum payrate for minimum payment rates for professional short fiction markets is also 3 to 5 cents a word … in 2019 currency. Which is to say, writers get paid a hell of a lot less than they used to. Presumably, this is OK because they all have lavish trust funds. If they didn’t, this would be legit horrifying.