A for Anything, Berkley, 160 pages (left)
cover of the original version of this book, The People Maker
Zenith Books, 159 pages (right)
I sat down to read this novel to honor the memory of Damon Knight, who passed away recently, on April 15, 2002, at the age of 79. I vividly recall being wowed when I first came across Knight's work as a teenager, beginning with his outstanding short story "The Analogues", later expanded into the novel Hell's Pavement. I was greatly saddened by news of his death, and it made me realize that it has been too long since I read any of his fiction.
Damon Knight contributed to the field of science fiction in a variety of ways. In the 1940's he was a key member of the famed fan club The Futurians, whose members included Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Donald Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, and Judith Merril, among others. (Knight wrote the definitive account of this group, The Futurians, in 1977.)
Despite all these achievements, in my view, Knight should be remembered foremost for his own fiction. Damon Knight began publishing fiction in 1941, and by the 1950's was recognized as one of the most important authors in the genre. He was as exuberant in the ideas he presented as any Golden Age writer, but his tone tended to be darker than was common in that period. He delighted in the irony of showing how a development that sounds wonderful could quickly turn into something awful. In Hell's Pavement, advanced techniques in psychology with the potential to alleviate untold suffering are subverted to support a totalitarian regime. In "To Serve Man", probably Knight's most famous story (certainly not his best story, but fondly remembered because it was made into a Twilight Zone episode), translation of the title of an alien handbook as "To Serve Man", reassures humanity that the aliens' intentions are benign, until further translation reveals that it's a cookbook.In 1994, Damon Knight became the thirteenth author named "Grand Master" by the SFWA. Yet for many years Knight has not received the sort of attention many other Grand Masters have enjoyed. As far as I can determine, A for Anything is the only of his works currently in print, and that only in a small press edition from Cascade Mountain Publishing. (Some of his short stories are also available for download to users of Microsoft Reader.) His undeserved obscurity is due in part to the fact that he was not terribly prolific. He never wrote a lot of fiction, and almost none between the late 60's and early 80's. What's more, when he did write, he favored shorter lengths. His relatively few novels were in many cases expanded versions of earlier short stories. It is difficult for a genre writer to maintain a significant base of readers without offering them a steady diet of new novels. Still, Knight's early works have aged well, and one can hope that at some point his collected body of stories will find a new generation of readers.
A for Anything was first published in 1959, but is still interesting and relevant. A for Anything, originally titled The People Maker, begins from the premise that a new invention, the Gismo, makes it easy for anyone to duplicate anything. With a Gismo, one need never again lack for food or water or clothing or any other essential material. Since a Gismo can even duplicate another Gismo, all of mankind's problems should be solved, right?
Not in a Damon Knight story. Knight observes that once all material items have become essentially free, the only remaining commodity of value will be human labor. He makes the intriguing assertion that the inevitable result will be an economy of slavery.
As this book illustrates, to Damon Knight the most interesting aspect of a major scientific advance is not the nuts and bolts of how it could be accomplished, but rather how it might really affect people's everyday lives. In the original version, The People Maker, Knight has a perfunctory scene at the outset where Dave Ewing, the inventor of the Gismo, shows off his creation and explains roughly how it works. In the revised edition, A for Anything, Knight omitted even that scene. (As far as I could tell, this was one of two early scenes in The People Maker deleted from A for Anything. All the other differences I noticed between the two were expansions of the story in A for Anything, adding meaningful background and making the later version much the better of the two.) We meet Ewing only long enough to see him come to the awful realization that his invention may not be the gift to humanity he expected, and he is gone from the narrative by page 24 (except that his daughter appears later on).
Most of the novel takes place some eighty years after the invention of the Gismo. Slavery has become an entrenched part of the social fabric of the future. Our protagonist, Dick Jones, is a young man lucky enough to be part of the ruling elite. A product of his environment, Jones is spoiled, arrogant, and obnoxious, living up to his first name in every possible respect. Knight manages to maintain the reader's interest by dropping a few hints that at his core Jones is not such a bad fellow, and there may be hope for him once he is exposed to some new ideas.
The main part of the story begins when Jones arrives for military training at Eagles, a fabulous city of the future built on and carved into the top of a mountain in Colorado. This is a great honor, since Eagles is the pinnacle of this future society, a lavish display of Gismo- and slave-generated wealth. As we learn how things work in Eagles, we see what a corrupt and contemptible society the Gismo has created.
The details of this future are fascinating. For example, one of the ways stability is maintained is by identifying particularly trustworthy slaves and making multiple duplicates of them. The most trusted slave in Eagles takes great pride in how many copies of him exist at any given time, apparently untroubled by the mechanisms that cause the number to decrease on any given day. Those in the ruling elite enjoy an abundance of (largely frivolous) luxuries, but tolerate many curtailments of their own freedoms, in hopes of forestalling the slave revolt they fear will some day occur.Knight does an excellent job of maintaining interest in his unpalatable future society. There is a wonderfully believable scene where members of the Eagles ruling class amuse themselves by debating the ethics of their system of slavery. The proponents of freedom do not fare particularly well in the argument; they are simply not equipped to pierce the logical flaws in the rationalizations for slavery that they have been trained to cling to. Wondering whether there is any hope for this society to change for the better, and whether Jones will ultimately decide he wants it to, makes this an engaging read to the last page.
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Copyright © 2002 Aaron Hughes
A For Anything by Damon Knight
Fawcett Gold Medal Book - 1972
paperback - 192 pages