James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

The Strangest Things Are Happening

Orbit 11  (Orbit, volume 11)

Edited by Damon Knight 

2 Nov, 2021

Damon Knight's Orbit


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1972’s Orbit 11 is the eleventh volume in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology series. Each story is original to this volume.

Because the anthology confines itself to short stories, to the exclusion of novelettes and novellas, there is room for twenty stories. Eighteen are by men and two by women. Sigh. Of course, this is nothing unusual for anthologies of this vintage — some years after Orbit 11 came out, Le Guin famously declined to write an intro for an Aldiss anthology with no women at all — but compared to earlier volumes, this one is a bit disappointing. 

Of the twenty stories, most were subsequently collected or anthologized in other books1. As far as I can tell, none of the stories here were nominated for awards, which is again astonishing when one compares this to the award records of previous volumes — but unremarkable when we compare Orbit 11 to other anthology series.

The brevity of each tale works in the anthology’s favour; there are some stories that don’t engage but one is soon past them. 

Orbit 11 is out of print.

Alien Stones” • (1972) • novelette by Gene Wolfe

A human starship encounters a seemingly derelict starship out in deep space. What kind of beings could have built this?

The story states frankly that commanders must be raised from the beginning to command if they are to be suitable for the position. Former subordinates, if raised to power, can’t do the job. This bold thesis doesn’t really have much to do with the central puzzle. 

Spectra” • (1972) • short story by Vonda N. McIntyre

A servant genetically selected for servitude lives a miserable and hopeless life. 

I Remember a Winter” • (1972) • short story by Frederik Pohl

Musings about childhood underline how seemingly minor decisions can have significant consequences. 

Doucement, S’il Vous Plaît” • (1972) • short story by James Sallis

A writer becomes absorbed by the daily mail.

American readers may be astonished that the central phenomenon of the story (a publicly funded mail delivery network) actually existed when this story was written. In fact, many nations have such a service. 

The Summer of the Irish Sea” • (1972) • short story by Charles L. Grant

Unsuited for life in proper society, naked prisoners provide their social betters with excellent sport. 

Another entry in SF’s quest to somehow make incarceration even more inhuman. 

Good-Bye, Shelley, Shirley, Charlotte, Charlene” • (1972) • short story by Robert Thurston

An incurious man uses the discovery that his girlfriend has numerous duplicates to court versions of her, over and over.

Huh, Thurston was recently mentioned on Twitter. His original material was rather bleak and dreary, as I recall, and this is no exception. As the linked bio notes, most of Thurston’s output was tie-in novels. 

Father’s in the Basement” • (1972) • short story by Philip José Farmer

Despite the school system’s best efforts to compel her to attend school, a dutiful daughter helps her father realize his dream of being a writer.

I didn’t expect to see Farmer in Orbit but on reflection I am not sure quite why I should have thought that. After all, Farmer made it into Dangerous Visions and this period may have represented his career peak. This story wasn’t terrible. 

Down by the Old Maelstrom” • (1972) • short story by Edward Wellen

Efforts to escape the East Germany of nightmares go very poorly. 

Wellen is one of three authors in Orbit 11 with whose work I was previously unfamiliar. Not sure how I missed him; he was reasonably prolific. 

Things Go Better” • (1972) • short story by George Alec Effinger

Despite pointed warnings, a wandering musician quests for a seemingly mythical small American town. He finds the town but the reason for the warning escapes him.

Remember Easy Rider ? The ending of this story is even more of a downer. Square America is a land of horrific conformity.

Dissolve” • (1972) • short story by Gary K. Wolf

A man and his compliant girlfriend set out to make their own TV shows. What could possibly go wrong?

Television: what old people complained about before video games and social media. Are there enough short stories about people who lose track of the difference between TV and reality to assemble a ponderous anthology?

Dune’s Edge • (1972) • short story by Edward Bryant

A diverse group of castaways struggle endlessly to surmount a massive dune, unsure what drives them or what they will find over the crest of the dune.

The Drum Lollipop” • (1972) • short story by Jack Dann

A young girl dabbles with eldritch phenomena, even though she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She hopes to shape reality to her wish; her results are mixed at best.

Machines of Loving Grace” • (1972) • short story by Gardner Dozois 

An unhappy woman yearns for the one escape her coddling society will never permit her.

It’s a Dozois story so of course it’s about death. 

They Cope” • (1972) • short story by David J. Skal

In a society hypersensitive to sensory stimulation, one uncontrollably boisterous woman struggles to fit in. 

Counterpoint” • (1972) • short story by Joe Haldeman 

The biographies of two men — one unremarkable save for the wealth into which he was born, the other of humble origins but brilliant — follow dissimilar paths to the same destination. Neither man ever discovers the link that entangles them.

The mishap in which the rich man is rendered a vegetable thanks to a misaimed artillery round feels like it might have had real world inspiration. 

Old Soul” • (1972) • short story by Steve Herbst

A too empathic nurse struggles with the realities of her grim job.

Herbst is another author I know only from Orbit . Appears to have been a Clarion graduate, judging by the fact he was also published in Clarion anthologies. 

New York Times” • (1972) • short story by Charles Platt

A Chex Mix of reasons why living in the New York of Tomorrow is even worse than living in the New York of 1972.

The Chrystallization of the Myth” • (1972) • short story by John Barfoot 

The narrator struggles to discern the meaning in a vast structure. 

And this is the third author I know only from Orbit . A glance at ISFDB suggests that this may be because he was mainly published in Orbit.

To Plant a Seed • (1972) • short story by Hank Davis

A bold plan to secure humanity’s future fails because the plan is based on a cosmological model that is fatally incorrect.

Hank Davis wins this volume’s Author Seemingly Least Likely to Be in Orbit Who Is Nevertheless in Orbit Award. A grand plan, pushed to completion despite naysayers quite justifiably objecting that there is no urgency, fails because it is fundamentally wrong-headed. The story reminded me of something that might have been published in Analog , though perhaps it might have annoyed Campbell and been rejected — how dare the little people be correct! I imagine that Bova would have published it. 

On the Road to Honeyville” • (1972) • short story by Kate Wilhelm

A daughter deals with the aftermath of her father’s sudden death. 

This was a melancholy story that wouldn’t have been out of place in a non-genre anthology. There was, however, one funny bit.

I couldn’t really believe they’d still be interested in sex, he was already forty and she was nearly there. At that time I thought they’d had sexual intercourse in the past because they had wanted a family, and I forgave them for it.”

As horrifying as this may be for young people to comprehend, their parents may have had sex two or three times for each child they have. 

1: Good-Bye, Shelley, Shirley, Charlotte, Charlene,” Down by the Old Maelstrom,” Dissolve,” They Cope,” Old Soul,” New York Times,” Crystallization of the Myth,” and To Plant a Seed” do not appear to have ever been reprinted.