In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight
‘In Search of Wonder’ is one of those books, along with the likes of Fred Pohl’s ‘The Way The Future Was’ and ‘Hell’s Cartographers’ by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, that all SF fans interested in the history of the genre are told are ‘Must Reads’. Not so much.
First published in 1956 by author, editor and renowned critic Damon Knight, this collection of his reviews and essays was a bit of a disappointment. As one of the first critics to apply the same standards of criticism to SF as to so-called ‘literary fiction’, I was expecting incisive and insightful examinations of the works covered, but most of the reviews in this volume just seem like bog-standard reviews that can be found in a hundred-and-one places today. Now, this may just be because I am used to reading modern reviews — at the time these reviews were written, they may have been mind-blowing stuff.
Each chapter begins with a few lines of introduction and then we are into the reviews or essays. I would have preferred to see some comment from the author, either before or after each review, explaining why that particular work had been selected and what we could learn from the review, but no… we just get the text of the reviews, and that’s it.
The book contains chapters on bad sf, classic sf, good sf, and half-bad sf, along with individual chapters for some of the big names, such as Heinlein, Sturgeon, Asimov, Bradbury and van Vogt. There are also separate chapters for anthologies, new writers (new at the time, anyway) and British authors. The third edition has also been expanded with chapters on the Milford and Clarion writers workshops, what is sf? and writing sf, along with a brief biographical section about the author when young.
All in all, not a waste of reading time (some of the barbed comments in some of the reviews are quite amusing), but not a ‘Must Read’ by any means.