Knight, Damon. A for Anything.

NY: Avon, 1980

Almost all science fiction novels are built, explicitly or implicitly, around the question, “What if.” What if we could fly to the Moon? What if there are other people out there? What if we could go back in time? Damon Knight, one of the most inventive authors of the second half of the 20th century, starts this one with “What if you could have any physical item you wanted just by flipping a switch?”

Imagine receiving a box in the mail containing a device made of two wooden bars fastened in a “T” with a hook dangling from each arm, and a small, completely unknown metal and glass object attached to each. And a couple of batteries and a switch, and that’s it. Hang something from one hook, press the switch, and an identical copy appears on the other arm. Anything, inanimate or alive. We would live in Eden, right? No starvation, no need for war, no unhealthy competition, right? Also, as people quickly realize, no way to reckon relative wealth. When you can have all the food you want — or all the diamonds, or rifles — the only thing left to demonstrate relative status is personal service and control of those who provide it. And that means slavery.

Dick Jones is the teenage scion of a family in the Poconos that controls the surrounding countryside a few generations following the introduction of the Gizmo. He lives in a world of physical comfort and plenty, at least for those who run things by controlling the Gizmos, a world with fifty slaves for every free man, a world in which personal honor and position mean everything. Sent off to Colorado for four years of military training and social polishing under the authority of The Boss, he discovers a very different world among those who compete for real power, and also among those at the very bottom of the social ladder.

I first read this book in high school in 1959 in its original incarnation as The People Maker (actually, it had appeared in shorter form in F&SF two years earlier) and its philosophical proddings made me think about a lot of new things. In fact, it stuck with me so thoroughly, I finally had to chase down a copy so I could renew my acquaintance with it. I don’t know if Knight’s predicted results from such an invention are the only option, frankly, but it’s still a first-rate intellectual adventure.

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