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Obituaries

Damon Knight, 79; Science Fiction Author

April 18, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Damon Knight, an award-winning science fiction author, editor and literary critic who pioneered the serious analysis of science fiction works, has died. He was 79.

Knight, whose short story "To Serve Man" was turned into a memorable episode of the TV series "The Twilight Zone," died Monday of age-related causes in a hospital in Eugene, Ore., according to family members.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Sci-fi writer--In a Thursday obituary of science fiction author Damon Knight, the name of writer Lucius Shepard was misspelled.

"He was a fine writer and much appreciated and won several awards," said Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who edited Knight's last two novels at Tor Books.

"But he was best known as a provocateur, an organizer, a critic and a teacher."

Hayden said Knight "was the first person to take the serious trouble of reviewing contemporary science fiction and hold it up to the standards of intelligent mainstream fiction in various magazines in the late '40s and early '50s."

The bulk of Knight's most important reviews were collected in a 1956 book, "In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction," which is still in print and is considered one of the important works of science fiction criticism.

The same year the book came out, Knight won a Hugo Award at the World Science Fiction Convention for best-science fiction criticism.

Knight also was known as a tireless organizer on behalf of fellow writers. In 1965, he founded Science Fiction Writers of America, the professional advocacy group for science fiction and fantasy writers, which sponsors the Nebula Awards.

In the mid 1950s, Knight, along with James Blish and Judith Merril, co-founded the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference in Pennsylvania.

That led to the highly regarded Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop, now held at Michigan State University.

For 27 years, Knight and his second wife, writer Kate Wilhelm, taught at the workshop, whose graduates include Kim Stanley Robinson, Luscious Shepard and Vonda McIntyre.

"He taught thousands of people, either through Clarion or his book, 'Creating Short Fiction,' which is a great primer for any fiction writer; it tells you everything," said Leslie What of Eugene, a Nebula Award-winning author who first met Knight at the workshop in 1976 and became a friend.

In recent years, she said, Knight taught writing workshops over the Internet. He and his wife also conducted a monthly workshop in their home in Eugene.

"He was a tough critic as far as being a teacher and had very high expectations," What said.

To one Nebula Award-winning writer, Knight once said: "I don't know why you wrote this story. I wish you hadn't."

"There are 36 ways to tell this story," he told another writer. "And all of them are disgusting."

Knight was born in Baker City, Ore. At 19, he hitchhiked to New York City, where he joined a writers' group called the Futurians. Knight wrote about the group, whose members included Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim and Frederik Pohl, in his 1977 memoir, "The Futurians."

While living in a cold-water flat in 1941, Knight sold his first short story. He went on to write more than 100 short stories and 13 novels, beginning with "Hell's Pavement," published in 1955.

Knight's best-known short story is "To Serve Man," which was published in 1950 and turned into an episode of "The Twilight Zone" in 1962.

"In terms of his work and influence in the [science fiction] world, it's a minor but very good story," Hayden said.

The story deals with the arrival on Earth of giant aliens who promise to end hunger and war. But their true intentions are made known when their guidebook, "To Serve Man," is finally decoded: It's a cookbook.

Dark humor was an ongoing ingredient of Knight's fiction, Hayden said, "but there are other things that can be said about his work."

"He had a wry but not entirely pessimistic view of human nature. I don't think anybody that works that hard to get other people to do better work is fundamentally a pessimist."

Family members say Knight was especially proud of "To Serve Man." Last Christmas, he had the original story printed on linen paper, encased it in a plastic spine, and gave signed and numbered copies to 17 family members.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Valerie Olney of Eugene and Leslie Saulsbury of Portland; two sons, Chris Knight of Los Angeles and Jonathan Knight of Eugene; two stepsons, Richard Wilhelm of Portland and Douglas Wilhelm of Hilton, N.Y.; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held today at Musgrove Funeral Chapel, 1152 Olive St., in Eugene.

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