Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #29 of 107: “Stranger Station” by Damon Knight
“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight is not a story I’ve read before. It was first published in the December 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was reprinted in Knight’s second collection, In Deep. It has also been reprinted in many significant anthologies. I own ten of them.
I’ve never read a novel by Knight, and I can count the number of short stories I remember reading by him on one hand: “To Serve Man,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Four in One,” “The Handler,” and now “Stranger Station.” I’ve been impressed with all of them except “To Serve Man.” It’s okay, but The Twilight Zone adaptation spoiled it for me. However, I feel a kind of kinship with Knight because he created the Clarion writers workshops, and I attended Clarion West in 2002. I mostly remember Knight because of his original anthology series Orbit.
“Stranger Station” is exactly the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — something I haven’t read that I regret not having read. I bought the SF Gateway Omnibus of Knight’s four collections: Far Out, In Deep, Off Centre, and Turning On after I read “Four in One,” but I haven’t started reading it yet. “Stranger Station” makes me want to find the time.
As I read “Stranger Station” I kept thinking this 1956 story should have been in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. I thought it exceptionally disturbing. I don’t remember reading “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” Knight’s story that was in that famous anthology. I barely remember reading Dangerous Visions in 1968, but can’t remember the specifics to any of the stories.
I didn’t think “Stranger Station” was disturbing because of daring content, but found it unsettling in the way Knight brought us into story, with Paul Wesson descending into madness, and leaving us with horrifying assessment of humans. Not only is the story well told, but it pushes the limits of science fiction for 1956.
Remember, these essays are not reviews. They’re my discussion for our group reads. There will be spoilers.
“Stranger Station” touches on several major science fiction themes: first contact, communication with aliens, ethnocentrism/xenocentrism, cultural humility, cultural shock, cultural imperialism, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, and more. Knight guesses human spaceflight will take us to Titan by 1987. Of course, that’s wrong, but it could have been right if we had continued with Apollo era funding of space exploration and had not quit in 1972. Knight’s design of space station with artificial gravity is also very impressive for 1956, as his imagination for picturing an AI that reminded me of an evolved Alexa. If Knight had guessed at digitizing media I would have thought he had access to a time machine.
One reason I’m late posting my comments for this story is I’ve read it twice trying to figure it out. Philosophically it seems to be the opposite of “The Country of the Kind” where society has apparently found an exceptional cruel way to deal with lawbreakers with kindness. In “Stranger Station” Knight suggests the solution to fight an alien invasion is hate. But are they really what he’s saying in both cases? The man who considers himself King of the World in “The Country of the Kind” makes a case that society’s rebels deserve compassion too. But Paul Wesson’s solution to the alien’s invasion plan is an act of hate like the character in “The Country of the Kind.”
Science fiction writers seldom try to deal with the problem of alien contact. Most SF stories present aliens like Star Trek and Star Wars. Some aliens are friends, some are enemies, but being around them is no big deal. Knight imagines aliens that drive us insane and we drive them insane. In his story, one human and one alien meet every twenty years at a specially designed space station. They do not meet face-to-face, and they aren’t even supposed to see each other via video. Just being near each other causes psychic distress.
Knight has set up a story about contact between an advanced society and a backward society. In this case, we’re the backward society. It reminds me of stories about cargo cults. We have latched onto a biological byproduct from the aliens’ body that produces longevity and make a fetish of it like a crudely designed model plane. We almost worship the golden fluid, and set up a highly ritualized meeting place where we encounter the aliens, kowtow to their wonders.
In the story, Paul Wesson discovers the aliens are preconditioning us with love so that when we finally do attain interstellar travel we won’t destroy their culture with hate. Wesson resists this and fights back with hate, causing the giant alien the writhe in so much pain that it shakes apart the space station and dies.
What is Knight telling us? Is it a very dark judgment of the human race? At the end we’re told that the computer, Aunt Jane, is also expressing love. My current guess is Knight believes we’ll destroy AI minds too with our hate because of resentment. I currently can’t tell if Knight goes beyond cynicism in this story to any higher judgments.
This is another story that has taught me there were far more great science fiction writers back in the day than I discovered growing up. In the 1960s I barely got beyond the Big Three (Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov) by discovering Delany-Zelazny-Ellison and a couple other writers like Brunner and PKD. I’m having BIG FUN in my old age discovering other writers from the 1950s and 1960s that I should have discovered way back then.
I doubt I’ve even begun to fathom this story. I will need to reread it several times, but as if now:
James Wallace Harris, 10/15/21