Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: Orbit 3

Book Review: 'Orbit 3' edited by Damon Knight

1 / 5 Stars

‘Orbit 3’ (224 pp.) was published by Berkley Books in September, 1968. The cover artwork is uncredited, but is almost certainly by Paul Lehr.

The ‘Orbit’ series was the quintessential New Wave anthology in the US, and I approach each volume with a faint hope that two or three stories might possibly be coherent.... and readable. I have learned that such an approach is warranted and justifiable. And so it is with Orbit 3…….

My summaries of the contents:

‘Mother to the World’ by Richard Wilson: in the aftermath of a plague, the only people left alive on Earth are Martin Rolfe and Siss Beamer. Both are fertile and willing to play Adam and Eve. The catch ? Siss is mentally retarded.........

This isn’t a particularly impressive tale, and by the standards of the modern era of the Special Olympics and being disABLED, it is politically incorrect. However, it does address one of the more wrenching aspects of the End of the World: what is to be the fate of all the poor animals left in their cages and fish tanks ?

‘Bramble Bush’ by Richard McKenna: in his preface to this story, editor Damon Knight reveals he first read this story in 1960, when the author presented it at a writer’s conference; Knight found the story incomprehensible.

However, after McKenna died in 1964, his widow provided Knight with her husband’s unpublished manuscripts, and Knight changed his mind and agreed to publish ‘Bramble’ in 'Orbit 3'. Bad move; this is the worst story in the anthology. The plot has something to do with a team of explorers confronting perceptual problems on an alien planet. The dialogue is embarrassingly bad, like something from 1930s – era fanfic. What was Knight thinking ?!

‘The Barbarian’ by Joanna Russ: this story features Russ’s proto-barbarian heroine, Alyx. A magician with evil intentions coerces Alyx into assisting him in his transgressions. This is probably the best entry in the anthology.

‘The Changeling’ by Gene Wolfe: a man returns to his hometown, and discovers a childhood acquaintance is not what he seems. While the ending is vague and unfocused, this is one of Wolfe’s less obtuse, and more readable, stories. 

‘Why They Mobbed the White House’ by Doris Pitkin Buck: this short story won a contest hosted by ‘Data Processing’ magazine (!). It’s a humorous treatment of the ‘can computers really do it better ?' theme.

‘The Planners’ by Kate Wilhelm: a scientist ponders the implications of a treatment that enhances the intelligence of chimpanzees. As with several of Wilhelm’s other stories written in the 60s, the narrative shifts in time and place, and interweaves passages of real and imaged events, without any framing devices, leaving it to the reader to try and parse out what is happening when and where. This New Wave affectation hasn’t aged well.

‘Don’t Wash the Carats’ by Philip Jose Farmer: short-short tale about a man with a diamond for a brain; an effort at absurdist sf. It’s not very good.

‘Letter to a Young Poet’ by James Sallis: Sallis was a frequent contributor to New Wave anthologies, mainly because everything he wrote was ‘speculative fiction’, with the most superficial trappings of sf – and thus, irresistable to editors like the hapless Damon Knight. In this tale, the aging narrator, writing in his study on a far-off planet, provides advice to.….a young poet.

‘Here is thy Sting’ by John Jakes: a man discovers that the coffin transporting his late brother’s corpse has disappeared under suspicious circumstances; his investigation of the disappearance leads him to a disturbing scientific endeavor. This novelette starts on a note of satire, but in its latter stages actually veers, to an effective degree, into horror. 

Had it been shorter in length and more focused, it could have been one of John Jakes’ best short stories. 

Summing up, ‘Orbit 3’ delivers barely digestible New Wave content…. I suspect that only hardcore fans of this sub-genre of sf will find much here to reward them.

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