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The Skies Above Are Clear Again

Orbit 14  (Orbit, volume 14)

Edited by Damon Knight 

14 Dec, 2021

Damon Knight's Orbit


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1974’s Orbit 14 is the fourteenth volume in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology series of original science fiction. This means I am now 2/3rds done with this project. Incremental progress over a long period for the win! Please don’t ask how the Story of the Stone project is going. 

Perhaps because Orbit 13 was a bit of a dud, Knight offers some new features in this volume.

There are eight stories by four women and four men, in addition to which Knight provides four essays (unless you count each book review as a separate essay as the ISFDB does, in which case it’s five essays). Knight reviews two books, which gives the anthology a rather magazine-like feel. While the Wilhelm is the only Hugo finalist and there are as far as I can see no Nebula finalists, three of the stories (“Tin Soldier,” The Star Below,” and A Brother to Dragons, a Companion of Owls) were Locus finalists. Almost all of the stories were later reprinted, The Bridge Builder” excepted. 

This issue was a significant step up from the unlucky Orbit 13. Also of note: this was apparently Joan Vinge’s debut in print (although for some reason I think Joan and Vernor Vinge’s Letter-to-a-Phoenix-esque The Peddler’s Apprentice may have been written first). 

Orbit 14 is out of print.

Now for the stories. Each story has an unhelpful intro/commentary by Knight. 

They Say (Orbit 14) • essay by Damon Knight

Knight excerpts short passages from other people’s essays about science fiction. The overall tone is positive.

I don’t really see the point of this Ballard-like essay exercise, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I am sure there was a point. 

Tin Soldier • novella by Joan D. Vinge

He is a cyborg, making his way through time thanks to his comparative immunity to aging. She is a starfarer, skipping past the decades thanks to relativistic starflight. Their low-key love affair plays out over more than a century, despite cultural barriers.

I’ve read this story many times. The setting resembles that of SPI’s StarForce/Outreachgames: only women may be starship crew. Men are shipped as cargo. Men have not reacted well to this, although the more negative reactions are largely off-stage. Details I missed on previous readings: the women starfarers are rather casual about editing retiree’s brains to use them as ship-minds. They’re also steadfastly ableist: not only are women cyborgs not permitted to serve as crew, women cyborgs are counted as dead. Thanks to the whole time-dilation thing, starship culture changes very, very slowly so that’s something that’s not going away any time soon. 

This is effectively a romance between an old man and a young woman, which is an exciting idea I am surprised nobody has ever previously used. I was also intrigued by the way that the cyborg repeatedly lets his charming companion enthusiastically lecture him at length about fields he mastered decades earlier. 

Reasonable People” • short story by Joanna Russ

An interstellar visitor proves unsuited to local reality. 

Royal Licorice” • short story by R. A. Lafferty

A travelling salesman offers youth in a bottle … but only temporary youth. Of his customers, only the lady of negotiable virtue has the wisdom to make effective use of the opportunity. 

Either this was a more than usually appealing Lafferty or I am developing the literary equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome where Lafferty’s Orbitcontributions are concerned. 

Book Reviews (Orbit 14) • essay by Damon Knight

Knight reviews Billion Year Spree by Brian W. Aldiss (later revised as Trillion Year Spree) and Imaginary Worlds by Lin Carter. The Aldiss examines science fiction while the Carter studies fantasy. Unsurprisingly, Knight is more positive about the Aldiss than the Carter, although he does acknowledge that the Carter is not without its virtues, when Carter discusses his very narrow field of expertise within the much greater field of fantasy. 

The Stars Below” • short story by Ursula K. Le Guin

An astronomer targeted by religious authorities is given refuge in a nearby mine, where he finds new purpose in life.

I can tell from the ISFDB entry for The Stars Below” that I have read this a number of times over the years, but I had no memory of it at all. I assume nobody reads down this far so it’s probably safe to admit I don’t think I am as enthusiastic overall about Le Guin’s fiction as other people are. Note that there is a lot of space between not as keen” and hates it with the heat of a thousand exploding suns.” [1]

A Brother to Dragons, a Companion of Owls • novelette by Kate Wilhelm

A community of elderly pandemic survivors who breezed through the collapse because they happened to have access to vast stores of supplies are confronted by feral children whose parents were presumably far unluckier than the elders. On the one hand, the children are dangerous animals. On the other, they are humanity’s hope of survival. The elders are forced to choose between immediate threat and meagre hope.

The Bridge Builder” • short story by Gary K. Wolf

A determined man finds purpose in his dangerous occupation.

This could have been published at any point in the last eighty years, which may explain why it fell out of print so quickly. 

Winning of the Great American Greening Revolution” • short story by Murray F. Yaco

An episodic account of bioengineering’s triumphs, each of which comes with a terrible (or hilarious, if you’re reading the account and not living in it) unforeseen complication.

Forlesen • novelette by Gene Wolfe

An amnesiac man wakes and is immediately dispatched to carry out duties about which he has not been properly briefed.

This is Actor’s Nightmare: the LARP (white-collar edition). Luckily, it’s easier to fake one’s way through middle-management than it would be heart surgery or plumbing. 

The Memory Machine (Orbit 14) • essay by Damon Knight

Somewhat more negative than They Say but otherwise the same game. Still don’t see the point.

Arcs & Secants (Orbit 14) • essay by Damon Knight

About the contributors, more or less. 

1: See either James reviews Kim Stanley Robinson’s works in general” or James reviews Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl in particular.” I’d provide links but I’ve only reviewed the one KSR on James Nicoll Reviews and I am not rereading The Windup Girl just to provide a JNR review of it.