A Look Back at All 21 Volumes of Damon Knight’s Orbit Anthology Series

There are editors who have assembled impressive numbers of anthologies. There are editors who have given the world anthologies of remarkable quality. The two sets overlap, but perhaps not as much as one would like. Damon Knight’s Orbit series is an example of an oeuvre that sits in the overlap between quantity and quality.

Some basic facts: The first Orbit anthology was sent to bookstores in 1966. The final volume of Orbit was published in 1980. Between 1966 and 1980, no less than twenty-one volumes appeared. While individual volumes might seem slim by the standards of, oh, any given Ceres-sized Dozois Best SF annual, all twenty-one add up to a magisterial 5008 pages (5381 if I include 1975’s The Best From Orbit, which reprinted material from Orbits 1 through 10). Early volumes were surprisingly open to women authors, although the series trended heavily male in the later issues. Authors were almost all (but not entirely) White.

If one wants to helm a long-running series, it helps to have a guiding ethos. To quote Knight himself, Knight believed that

…science fiction is a field of literature worth taking seriously, and that ordinary critical standards can be meaningfully applied to it: e.g., originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity, garden-variety grammar.

This belief fueled Knight’s notoriously caustic reviews, in which he chastised otherwise beloved SF works for egregious flaws in prose, plotting, characterization, and basic plausibility. Orbit was a more positive expression of his standards. Rather than complain about what was missing, Knight assembled examples of the sort of work he wanted to see.

Given Knight’s critical proclivities, it’s not surprising that much of the material that appeared in Orbit was if not fully New Wave SF, then definitely New Wave-adjacent. The contributors’ prose tends towards ambitious; characters have interior lives; plot is sometimes a distant second to style. That said, Knight’s tastes could be wide-ranging: in amongst the Laffertys, the Wolfes, and the Wilhelms, there are stories by Laumer and by Vinge, both Vernor and Joan D.

Another useful metric: awards. A quick skim through all 5008 pages reveals at least twenty-one works considered for the Nebula (four wins, if I recall correctly), and at least ten considered for the Hugo. Nebulas being an awards granted by writers and the Hugo by fans, one gets the sense that Orbit was populated by writer’s writers, rather than popular authors, which may be true to a degree…but consider: the series survived, by means of sales, for twenty-one volumes. Knight had won over some devoted readers.

An overall summary of awards provides a misleading average: yes, the series averaged a Nebula nod (sometimes a win!) almost every volume and a spot on Hugo ballots every other volume. However, a closer look reveals that the nominations were very unevenly distributed: of the twenty-one Nebula candidates, six appeared in Orbit 6, and four in Orbit 7, while of the ten Hugo nods, two were in Orbit 7.

(This egregious display of quality in Orbit 6 and Orbit 7 sparked a backlash: old guard SFWA members deliberately coordinated their votes to ensure that the Nebula went, not to one of Knight’s New Wave offerings, but rather to No Award. More details here.)

The uneven reward and nomination distribution hints at the reason the series ended. If Knight had been able to keep up the pace, we would be reviewing Orbit 84 today. Knight’s effort was impressive, but not sustainable. Orbits 6 and 7 were the high note; after those volumes, there were fewer nominations. As well, while noteworthy works appeared in volumes right up until the series ended, individual Orbits became rather hit-or-miss, as detailed here.

Orbit’s original publisher Berkley/Putnam belatedly discovered that sales had begun to slip after Orbit 6; a discussion of whether the issue was content or packaging ended the relationship with Berkley/Putnam after Orbit 13. New publisher Harper eschewed paperback editions of subsequent Orbits. Sales of the hardcovers were disappointing and the series ended with Orbit 21.

Still, twenty-one Nebula nominations, at least four wins, and a sack of Hugo pins is nothing to sniff at. Knight could justly take pride in publishing debut or early-career stories by Carol Carr, Steve Chapman, Gardner Dozois, George Alec Effinger, Vonda N. McIntyre, Doris Piserchia, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Sallis, Kathleen M. Sidney, Dave Skal, Joan D. Vinge, Gary K. Wolf, and Gene Wolfe.

Where should the Orbit-curious start? On the minus side, the books are all out of print. On the plus side, used copies are easy to find. One could just hunt down all twenty-one volumes (twenty-two with the Best From!). A more affordable option would be to focus on Orbit 6 and Orbit 7. An even more affordable option would be to order a copy of The Best From Orbit (with the caveat that it draws exclusively from Orbits 1 through 10 and you will miss interesting works from later volumes).

Some readers may prefer other strategies to tackle the Orbit series. Comments are below!

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.

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