Recently I was remembering Twilight Zone episode 89 (1962), the one with the big reveal so iconic I don’t even need to issue a spoiler alert for it. You know the one.
This line of dialogue, “It’s a cookbook!” has entered the culture big-time, one of the first pop culture memes of the mass media age. Here’s The Simpsons version:
A friend in an mmorpg I play told me something I didn’t know, that the Twilight Zone episode was based on a great Damon Knight short story titled, as the episode is, To Serve Man. It’s widely anthologized; I promptly found it and read it. (Thanks, Aeolith!) The television episode is fairly faithful to its source.
Knight, one of the great writers of classic sci-fi, died in 2002. The obituary from The New York Times https://nyti.ms/2FCYr3O is a good place to start if you want to know more about Knight, as is The Internet Speculative Fiction Database, http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?633. Here’s another place to look, the obituaries and tributes posted on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America web site: https://web.archive.org/web/20110811182249/http://archive.sfwa.org/news/knight.htm
Knight’s story “To Serve Man” was a revelation. I love sci-fi when it’s good, but too often it’s not. Too often the author relies on high concept, maybe even great world-building, but these are not enough to make up for bad writing, plots that stretch credulity, and wooden characters. Knight was known as an insightful and brutal reviewer, coining, with fellow sci-fi great James Blish, the concept of “the idiot plot,” the kind of plot that would never happen in real life unless everyone in the place happens to be a total idiot ( https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IdiotPlot ). Here’s a great interview with Knight about the famous controversy in which he decimated Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land–a review that Galaxy magazine commissioned from him and never ran: http://efanzines.com/EK/eI34/index.htm#budrys
Knight despised bad sci-fi writing and said so. “To Serve Man” is the opposite. It’s admirable sci-fi writing in every way, all the more so because its surprise ending actually works. I personally hate the gotcha twist at the end of too much fiction and too many movies. These twists are usually too clever for their own good, clever just to be clever. The Sixth Sense, for example, over-relies on a cheap trick to put one over on the viewer. Don’t even get me started on that thing with the crop circles, which apparently takes place during a profound drought–otherwise, no story. I’m no fan of O. Henry or any of his ilk.
By contrast, the ending of “To Serve Man” organically grows from plot and characterization. That’s the kind of surprise ending I do like, and they are rare. (The Usual Suspects comes to mind.)
The ending is not the only aspect of this great short story that works. The writing is matchless. It is simple, direct, muscular, effective. Here’s where Knight’s short story leaves The Twilight Zone episode in the dust, with its portentous Rod Serling intro and manipulative soundtrack, its bad acting punctuated with gratuitous cheesecake. And that poor silly alien! I like the Simpsons aliens so much better.
Whatever. I need to read more Damon Knight.