James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Stairway to the Stars

Orbit 15  (Orbit, volume 15)

Edited by Damon Knight 

28 Dec, 2021

Damon Knight's Orbit

12 comments

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1974’s Orbit 15 is the fifteenth of Damon Knight’s original science fiction anthologies. 


Orbit 15 includes eleven stories by three women and seven men (one of whom wrote two pieces, for a certain value of wrote), as well as three essays by editor Damon Knight. 

This hits what may be a low point for the Orbit award record: a single Locus spot for Wilhelm’s original version of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang . However, the fiction in Orbit 15 had legs; only one story, Ernie, wasn’t reprinted later. As well, two of the stories had initial sentences with unexpected resonance with current events. Lafferty’s Flaming Ducks’ first line is Yes, in fact, it has been a long time since the year began in April.” Well, April 2020 was a long, long time ago. However, the winner is Doris Piserchia’s Pale Hands,” whose very first line is 2021, and what had we to show for it?”1.

Still, lack of awards does not mean this is a terrible entry in the series. There’s nothing in here I dislike, although I was indifferent to a few of the stories. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is as joyful and upbeat in this version as it is in the expanded novel. [**Editor’s note: James, one would have to have read both to know that you are being sarcastic here. ] What If Eve Had Failed to Conceive” is no longer than it needs to be. Ernie” is slight but accomplishes its aim. 

Orbit 15 is out of print.

They Say” (Orbit 15 ) • (1974) • essay by Damon Knight 

Another collection of short quotations of other people’s essays about SF. I continue to miss Knight’s point here. 

Flaming Ducks and Giant Bread • [Institute for Impure Science] • (1974) • novelette by R. A. Lafferty

Institute for Impure Science scholars scrutinize the mysteries of an uncharted year. 

I am happy to report my indifference to Lafferty’s fiction persists, as has my blindness to the virtues other readers see in his work. By pure coincidence, I just stumbled over my copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers —it was an Ace Special! — so I could in theory find out if I like his stories en masse any more than I do when sampled one by one. I wouldn’t hold my breathe if I were you.

Pale Hands” • (1974) • short story by Doris Piserchia

The overpopulated world of 2021 offers its inhabitants endless pornography but little media of real value. This is particularly true for the hapless protagonist, whose lot it is to clean the public masturbation booths. 

Why Booth Didn’t Kill Lincoln” • (1974) • short story by Edward Wellen 

and If Eve Had Failed to Conceive” • (1974) • short story by Edward Wellen

I couldn’t find a physical copy of this Orbit so I resorted (feeling rather guilty) to reading archive.org scans. I read two separate scans because the first did not include the Wellens the ISFDB assures me were included. Neither did the second. In the case of Eve, it may be because the story is zero length. I don’t know where Booth went. Perhaps it was also zero length? I note that Wellen is the only author not listed on the cover. Did ISFDB make an error? 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang • (1974) • novella by Kate Wilhelm

Faced with pandemic, climate change, mass sterility, radiation, pollution and the collapse of civilization, a well-to-do family retreats into isolation and resorts to high-technology to perpetuate the human race. However, the surviving founders struggle to avoid being discarded as hopeless relics of a dead era by the next generation.

Isn’t that always the way, though? In this case, it may be the older people’s habit of referring to their clone offspring in dehumanizing terms failed to establish the close bonds the elders could have used to convince their kids to tolerate the old folk a little longer. 

Melting” • short story by Gene Wolfe

The shallow entertainments of the future prove even less satisfactory than the protagonist expected.

At the risk of spoiling a forty-seven-year-old story, there are probably enough SF stories in which the viewpoint character turns out to be imaginary to fill an Asimov anthology in which Martin H. Greenberg did all the heavy lifting. I think Niven wrote at least two such stories.…

In the Lilliputian Asylum: A Story in Eight Poems & an Interrogation” • (1974) • poem by Michael Bishop

A lengthy sequence of poems about exactly what the title suggests. I should remind readers my brain does not parse poetry for some reason, unless there is a tune, in which case it does. 

Ernie” • (1974) • short story by Lowell Kent Smith

A dying man is monitored and comforted by Ernie, a diligent, all-seeing companion who does its best to provide everything the old fellow could want, save for Ernie’s actual physical presence. 

This is a perfectly acceptable minor story about the possible beneficial applications for customizable Ais; it was never reprinted. As far as I can tell, Smith’s only other published story was Sneeze,” published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 6, 1981 , a story which I have not knowingly read. 

The Memory Machine (Orbit 15) • (1974) • essay by Damon Knight [as by uncredited]

More little snippets of SF stuff. I confess I have no idea why Knight thought these pieces were worth the page space. 

Live? Our Computers Will Do That for Us” • (1974) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss

Paradigm-shattering advances in predictive technology allow a rather unlikable man to live a life even more utterly bereft of meaning than he would have managed on his own. 

Ace 167” • (1974) • short story by Eleanor Arnason

Having created amphibian humans—Gillies —to work on Venus, society then treated the workers abominably. Nevertheless, while drifting from job to job, the baseline stock protagonist finds time to befriend a Gillie. 

1974 seems awfully late for a Golden-Age-version inhabitable Venus. 

One cannot help but notice that the two main characters follow broadly similar career paths, but the consequences for the Gillie are much grimmer than they are for the protagonist, for whom society has prepared soft landings. 

Biting Down Hard on Truth • (1974) • novelette by George Alec Effinger

A prisoner engages in what he is sure is an evenly matched battle of wits with the prison’s sadistic governor. 

It is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that the whole of society in the ill-defined era in which this is set is divided into prisoners and jailers, nor is it impossible they are all in hell. 

Arcs & Secants” (Orbit 15 ) • (1974) • essay by Damon Knight [as by uncredited]

About the contributors, more or less.

1: Perserchia’s actual 2021 went even more poorly than it might have: she died on Sept 15 of this year.