Search This Blog

Friday, April 25, 2014

"The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight

First appeared in F&SF. Reprinted in various major genre retrospectives by Judith Merril, Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Robert Silverberg, Jack Dann, Gardner Dozois, Gregory Fitz Gerald, John Dillon, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Kingsley Amis, and Isaac Asimov. Up for the Locus All-Time Poll.

The narrator starts the story by driving and torching a car that wasn't his.  The parking attendant does nothing because he cannot interact with a criminal like the narrator.  Since he can do whatever he wants, he considers himself the king of the world.

He ends a tennis game and pursues a female into a kitchen, who closes her eyes. He throws hot cheese all around her but not at.  He's about to throw something cool at her, to make her think it too is hot.  But someone interrupts his attempt.  He tries to throw the hot cheese, but he blacks out.

For men like himself, the narrator has been altered so that he cannot commit violence.  He also is programmed to have an odious stench so that everyone knows he's coming.  The narrator received this treatment killing his girlfriend (he'd only meant to scare her).

Underwater, another woman almost falls for him... until she smells him and knows him for what he is.

In the end he tries to incite a young boy to join him in violence but cannot get the boy's attention.  The narrator's unacknowledged loneliness is palpable.

James Blish called this, "one of the most uncomfortable parables in our language."  That eases my feelings toward this story.  Like "Not with a Bang", I sympathize with a bad man and wonder, "Is anyone else feeling this?"  Sometimes it appears in our present society no one can sympathize with those unlike them.  We attempt to burn people down we don't like or disagree with, permanently ostracize, cheer, and pat ourselves on the back for a good deed done.  Therefore, Knight's tale must read as a utopia.  However, if you made a mistake, would you want to be on the receiving end?

What's interesting is how the narrator sees himself as the society's only artist.  Is that what art is?  Getting someone to notice an ugly truth, but none want to pay attention?  Is that what an artist is, the outlier, the ostracized, the condemned?

On the other hand, maybe we're supposed to note merely his delusional state (after reading the pamphlet of rules against him):
"The words stopped meaning anything, as they always did at that point. I didn't want to read any farther; it was all nonsense, anyway. I was the king of the world."
In other words, bad men are delusional and don't understand the cruelty we do to them, so it's okay to mistreat them.  But if it's okay, why would this story be uncomfortable?  We can do as we feel to others and feel not just comfortable but vindicated.

The title is a play off of H.G. Wells' "The Country of Blind" which states:
"In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King."
 But he isn't.  Likewise, the man who can do violence should be king, but isn't.  Perhaps this backs up the comfortable interpretation.

No comments:

Post a Comment