The Country of the Kind
A multi-talented professional whose career as writer, editor, critic, and anthologist spans almost fifty years, Damon Knight has long been a major shaping force in the development of modern science fiction. He wrote the first important book of SF criticism, In Search of Wonder, and won a Hugo Award for it. He was the founder of the Science Fiction Writers of America, cofounder of the prestigious Milford Writers' Conference, and, with his wife, writer Kate Wilhelm, is still deeply involved in the operation of the Clarion workshop for new young writers, which was modeled after the Milford Conference. He was the editor of Orbit, the longest-running original anthology series in the history of American science fiction, and the most prominent American avant-garde market during the New Wave days of the mid to late '60s. Knight has also produced important works of genre history such as The Futurians and Turning Points, as well as dozens of influential reprint anthologies, such as A Science Fiction Argosy, Worlds to Come, Dimension X, The Dark Side, and Science Fiction of the Thirties.
Knight has also been highly influential as a writer, and may well be one of the finest short-story writers ever to work in the genre. Like Bradbury, Ellison, Tiptree, and a number of other SF writers, Knight's reputation rests almost entirely on his short fiction, for somehow his novels, though entertaining, have never reached the level of quality of his best short fiction (although – before the disappointing ending – he wrote half of one of the best novels of the '80s in The Man in the Tree). Like a handful of other writers during the '50s (Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, C. M. Kornbluth, Brian W. Aldiss, William Tenn, Ray Bradbury, and Algis Budrys, among others), Knight at his best was engaged in the chore of redrawing the boundaries of the science-fiction short story, redefining its possibilities, and greatly expanding its limits. For this alone – ignoring his accomplishments as a critic and as an editor – the new writers of the '60s and '70s, who would build on the foundations laid in the '50s (and several of whom – at the very least, inarguably, Michael Bishop, James Tiptree, Jr, and Kate Wilhelm – were directly influenced by him), owe him a great deal.
There are a number of Knight stories I've never been able to forget, and which would have served for this anthology – "Stranger Station," "The Dying Man," "What Rough Beast?," "Masks," "Rule Golden," "The Earth Quarter," "Mary" – but in the final analysis, the one that could not be excluded was "The Country of the Kind," a story which still strikes me as one of the best SF stories of our times, and which James Blish once referred to as "one of the most uncomfortable parables in our language."
Knight's other books include the novels A For Anything, The Other Foot, and Hell's Pavement, and the collections Rule Golden and Other Stories, Turning On, Far Out, and The Best of Damon Knight. His most recent books are the novels CV, and its sequel, The Observers. Coming up is a new novel, A Reasonable World, and a new collection, One Side Laughing. Knight lives with his family in Eugene, Oregon.
The attendant at the car lot was daydreaming when I pulled up – a big, lazy-looking man in black satin chequered down the front. I was wearing scarlet, myself; it suited my mood. I got out, almost on his toes.
"Park or storage?" he asked automatically, turning around. Then he realized who I was, and ducked his head away.
"Neither," I told him.
There was a hand torch on a shelf in the repair shed right behind him. I got it and came back. I knelt down to where I could reach behind the front wheel, and ignited the torch. I turned it on the axle and suspension. They glowed cherry red, then white, and fused together. Then I got up and turned the flame on both tires until the rubberoid stank and sizzled and melted down to the pavement. The attendant didn't say anything.
I left him there, lookng at the mess on his nice clean concrete.
It had been a nice car, too; but I could get another any time. And I felt like walking. I went down the winding road, sleepy in the afternoon sunlight, dappled with shade and smelling of cool leaves. You couldn't see the houses; they were all sunken or hidden by shrubbery, or a little of both. That was the fad I'd heard about; it was what I'd come here to see. Not that anything the dulls did would be worth looking at.
I turned off at random and crossed a rolling lawn, went through a second hedge of hawthorn in blossom, and came out next to a big sunken games court.
The tennis net was up, and two couples were going at it, just working up a little sweat – young, about half my age, all four of them. Three dark-haired, one blonde. They were evenly matched, and both couples played well together; they were enjoying themselves.
I watched for a minute. But by then the nearest two were beginning to sense I was there, anyhow. I walked down onto the court just as the blonde was about to serve. She looked at me frozen across the net, poised on tiptoe. The others stood.
"Off," I told them. "Game's over."
I watched the blonde. She was not especially pretty, as they go, but compactly and gracefully put together. She came down slowly, flat-footed without awkwardness, and tucked the racket under her arm; then the surprise was over and she was trotting off the court after the other three.
I followed their voices around the curve of the path, between towering masses of lilacs, inhaling the sweetness, until I came to what looked like a little sunning spot. There was a sundial, and a birdbath, and towels lying around on the grass. One couple, the dark-haired pair, was still in sight farther down the path, heads bobbing along. The other couple had disappeared.
I found the handle in the grass without any trouble. The mechanism responded, and an oblong section of turf rose up. It was the stair I had, not the elevator, but that was all right. I ran down the steps and into the first door I saw, and was in the top-floor lounge, an oval room lit with diffused simulated sunlight from above. The furniture was all comfortably bloated, sprawling and ugly; the carpet was deep, and there was a fresh flower scent in the air.
The blonde was over at the near end with her back to me, studying the autochef keyboard. She was half out of her playsuit. She pushed it the rest of the way down and stepped out of it, then turned and saw me.
She was surprised again; she hadn't thought I might follow her down.
I got up close before it occurred to her to move; then it was too late. She knew she couldn't get away from me; she closed her eyes and leaned back against the paneling, turning a little pale. Her lips and her golden brows went up in the middle.
I looked her over and told her a few uncomplimentry things about herself. She trembled, but didn't answer. On an impulse, I leaned over and dialed the autochef to hot cheese sauce. I cut the safety out of circuit and put the quantity dial all the way up. I dialed soup tureen and then punch bowl.
The stuff began to come out in about a minute, steaming hot. I took the tureens and splashed them up and down the wall on either side of her. Then when the first punch bowl came out I used the empty bowls as scoops. I clotted the carpet with the stuff; I made streamers of it all along the walls, and dumped puddles into what furniture I could reach. Where it cooled it would harden, and where it hardened it would cling.
I wanted to splash it across her body, but it would've hurt, and we couldn't have that. The punch bowls of hot sauce were still coming out of the autochef, crowding each other around the vent. I punched cancel, and then sauterne (swt., Calif.).
It came out well chilled in open bottles. I took the first one and had my arm back just about to throw a nice line of the stuff right across her midriff, when a voice said behind me:
"Watch out for cold wine."
My arm twitched and a little stream of the wine splashed across her thighs. She was ready for it; her eyes had opened at the voice, and she barely jumped.
I whirled around, fighting mad. The man was standing there where he had come out of the stair well. He was thinner in the face than most, bronzed, wide-chested, with alert blue eyes. If it hadn't been for him, I knew it would have worked – the blonde would have mistaken the chill splash for a scalding one.
I could hear the scream in my mind, and I wanted it.
I took a step toward him, and my foot slipped. I went down clumsily, wrenching one knee. I got up shaking and tight all over. I wasn't in control of myself. I screamed, "You – you –" I turned and got one of the punch bowls and lifted it in both hands, heedless of how the hot sauce was slopping over onto my wrists, and I had it almost in the air toward him when the sickness took me – that damned buzzing in my head, louder, louder, drowning everything out.
When I came to, they were both gone. I got up off the floor, weak as death, and staggered over to the nearest chair. My clothes were slimmed and sticky. I wanted to die. I wanted to drop into that dark furry hole that was yawning for me and never come up; but I made myself stay awake and get out of the chair.
Going down in the elevator, I almost blacked out again. The blonde and the thin man weren't in any of the second-floor bedrooms. I made sure of that, and then I emptied the closets and bureau drawers onto the floor, dragged the whole mess into one of the bathrooms and stuffed the tub with it, then turned on the water.
I tried the third floor: maintenance and storage. It was empty. I turned the furnace on and set the thermostat up as high as it would go. I disconnected all the safety circuits and alarms. I opened the freezer doors and dialed them to defrost. I propped the stair well door open and went back up in the elevator.
On the second floor I stopped long enough to open the stairway door there – the water was halfway toward it, creeping across the floor – and then searched the top floor. No one was there. I opened book reels and threw them unwinding across the room; I would have done more, but I could hardly stand. I got up to the surface and collapsed on the lawn: that furry pit swallowed me up, dead and drowned.
* * *
While I slept, water poured down the open stair well and filled the third level. Thawing food packages floated out into the rooms. Water seeped into wall panels and machine housings; circuits shorted and fuses blew. The air conditioning stopped, but the pile kept heating. The water rose.
Spoiled food, floating supplies, grimy water surged up the stair well. The second and first levels were bigger and would take longer to fill, but they'd fill. Rugs, furnishings, clothing, all the things in the house would be waterlogged and ruined. Probably the weight of so much water would shift the house, rupture water pipes and other fluid intakes. It would take a repair crew more than a day just to clean up the mess. The house itself was done for, not repairable. The blonde and the thin man would never live in it again.
Serve them right.
The dulls could build another house; they built like beavers. There was only one of me in the world.
The earliest memory I have is of some woman, probably the cresh-mother, staring at me with an expression of shock and horror. Just that. I've tried to remember what happened directly before or after, but I can't. Before, there's nothing but the dark formless shaft of no-memory that runs back to birth. Afterward, the big calm.
From my fifth year, it must have been, to my fifteenth, everything I can remember floats in a pleasant dim sea. Nothing was terribly important. I was languid and soft; I drifted. Waking merged into sleep.
In my fifteenth year it was the fashion in love-play for the young people to pair off for months or longer. "Loving steady," we called it. I remember how the older people protested that it was unhealthy; but we were all normal juniors, and nearly as free as adults under the law.
All but me.
The first steady girl I had was named Elen. She had blonde hair, almost white, worn long; her lashes were dark and her eyes pale green. Startling eyes: they didn't look as if they were looking at you. They looked blind.
Several times she gave me strange startled glances, something between fright and anger. Once it was because I held her too tightly, and hurt her; other times, it seemed to be for nothing at all.
In our group, a pairing that broke up sooner than four weeks was a little suspect – there must be something wrong with one partner or both, or the pairing would have lasted longer.
Four weeks and a day after Elen and I made our pairing, she told me she was breaking it.
I'd thought I was ready. But I felt the room spin half around me till the wall came against my palm and stopped.
The room had been in use as a hobby chamber; there was a rack of plasticraft knives under my hand. I took one without thinking, and when I saw it I thought, I'll frighten her.
And I saw the startled, half-angry look in her pale eyes as I went toward her; but this is curious: she wasn't looking at the knife. She was looking at my face.
The elders found me later with the blood on me, and put me into a locked room. Then it was my turn to be frightened, because I realized for the first time that it was possible for a human being to do what I had done.
And if I could do it to Elen, I thought, surely they could do it to me.
But they couldn't. They set me free: they had to.
And it was then I understood that I was the king of the world....
* * *
The sky was turning clear violet when I woke up, and shadow was spilling out from the hedges. I went down the hill until I saw a ghostly blue of photon tubes glowing in a big oblong, just outside the commerce area. I went that way, by habit.
Other people were lining up at the entrance to show their books and be admitted. I brushed by them, seeing the shocked faces and feeling their bodies flinch away, and went on into the robing chamber.
Straps, aqualungs, masks and flippers were all for the taking. I stripped, dropping the clothes where I stood, and put the underwater equipment on. I strode out to the poolside, monstrous, like a being from another world. I adjusted the lung and the flippers, and slipped into the water.
Underneath, it was all crystal blue, with the forms of swimmers sliding through it like pale angels. Schools of small fish scattered as I went down. My heart was beating with a painful joy.
Down, far down, I saw a girl slowly undulating through the motions of sinuous underwater dance, writhing around and around a ribbed column of imitation coral. She had a suction-tipped fish lance in her hand, but she was not using it; she was only dancing, all by herself, down at the bottom of the water.
I swam after her. She was young and delicately made, and when she saw the deliberately clumsy motions I made in imitation of hers, her eyes glinted with amusement behind her mask. She bowed to me in mockery, and slowly glided off with simple, exaggerated movements, like a child's ballet.
I followed. Around her and around I swam, stiff-legged, first more child-like and awkward than she, then subtly parodying her motions; then improving on them until I was dancing an intricate, mocking dance around her.
I saw her eyes widen. She matched her rhythm to mine, then, and together, apart, together again we coiled the wake of our dancing. At last, exhausted, we clung together where a bridge of plastic coral arched over us. Her cool body was in the bend of my arm; behind two thicknesses of vitrin – a world away! – her eyes were friendly and kind.
There was a moment when, two strangers yet one flesh, we felt our souls speak to one another across that abyss of matter. It was a truncated embrace – we could not kiss, we could not speak – but her hands lay confidingly on my shoulders, and her eyes looked into mine.
That moment had to end. She gestured toward the surface, and left me. I followed her up. I was feeling drowsy and almost at peace, after my sickness. I thought ... I don't know what I thought.
We rose together at the side of the pool. She turned to me, removing her mask: and her smile stopped, and melted away. She stared at me with a horrified disgust, wrinkling her nose.