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Orbit 4  (Orbit, volume 4)

Edited by Damon Knight 

27 Jul, 2021

Damon Knight's Orbit


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1968 Orbit 4 is the fourth installment in Damon Knight’s Orbit science fiction anthology series. All stories are original to this volume.

This volume contains nine stories; two are by women and seven are by men. I guess the 50:50 gender ratio of volume one was misleading.

While there are a couple of stories that I liked a lot — in particular the Wilhelm and the Lafferty — on the whole this was a disappointing volume. Ellison, who would have been in his thirties when this was published, comes across as an irritated elderly curmudgeon muttering about damn dirty hippies — practice for the future, I suppose — while the Harness and Vinge stories are dreadful, cliched, and long. 

Like all of the books in this series of anthologies, Orbit 4 is out of print. Used copies, particularly of the mass market paperback, are surprisingly easy to come by for a book that’s fifty-three years old. Print runs were huge back then. Huuuuuge.

Windsong • novelette by Kate Wilhelm

Powered by coffee and amphetamines, a researcher strives to perfect an automated combat mechanism. Too bad that existing computer technology is not up to the task. The result? A machine that does not work as planned, a machine which commandeers human brains and drives the humans insane

Probable Cause • novella by Charles L. Harness

America’s first female Supreme Court justice and her fellow justices wrestle with a tricky case involving a convicted Presidential assassin, a warrant signed under questionable circumstances, and — of course — psionic powers.

Harness was a lawyer, a fact which gives the legal aspects of the story more verisimilitude than is usually the case in SF. SF authors seem to like courtroom scenes, but they seem to be as bad at getting it right in that setting as they are about getting the physics right in space operas. 

The woo-woo factor in this story increases exponentially as the conclusion approaches. 

The degree to which the justices are willing to accept anecdotal evidence as valid provided there is enoughanecdotal evidence is indeed alarming. It’s almost as though Supreme Court Justices are not entirely objective entities resolutely guided by law and law alone, but actual humans. 

Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” • short story by Harlan Ellison

Discharged from the army, an upstanding young man tracks down his fiancée, who has become a filthy hippie all hopped up on the evil marijuana. Unable to retrieve her from her drug-sodden household, he joins her there, hoping to protect her. This proves a fatal error, as he cannot protect her, not to mention himself, from the household’s dreadful secret. 

This Corruptible • novelette by Jacob Transue

Desperate for extended lifespan, a plutocrat buys potential immortality (of a sort) from an old colleague. There are several catches, most important of which is that immortality demands adaptability, a quality in which a man used to bending the universe to his will may be quite deficient.

Animal” • short story by Carol Emshwiller

A feral is captured by well-meaning townsfolk, but never truly adapts to their way of life. [Editor’s note: that sounds like my cats.]

One at a Time” • short story by R. A. Lafferty

The cheerful reprobate is quite frank about the secret behind his extended lifespan, confident that people may hear but do not listen.

A Lafferty story where I knew what was going on! 

Passengers” • short story by Robert Silverberg

This is a short story by Robert Silverberg. 

Grimm’s Story • [Tatja Grimm] • novella by Vernor Vinge

On a backwater planet where the age of pulp magazines has lasted almost a thousand years, a naïve astronomer is caught up in a bizarre scheme concocted by super-genius Tatja Grimm. Ostensibly her goal is to save a complete run of a venerable SF magazine. Her true purpose is quite different. 

Vinge does manage to spell his own name correctly but everything else about this tale is terrible. The worldbuilding is wretched (no, I cannot believe that a pulp SF mag is the height of human culture). The lead is a hapless dupe. Tatja’s ultimate reason for conquering the world?

For somewhere in this universe there must be what I need most … a man.”

Finally, it’s a novella rather than a short story or short-short, which means the unconvincing narrative goes on and on. And on. And then on a bit more. 

This was expanded into the 176-page Grimm’s World,

which in turn became the 277-page Tatja Grimm’s World. 

A Few Last Words” • short story by James Sallis

A lone researcher persists chasing an evaporating normalcy as those around him wander off to unknown fates. In time, it will be his turn.