You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Since January, I have read a novel a month by one of the winners of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I thought I was about time to read a novel by the man himself. (Knight won the award in 1994. He was a founder of the SFWA and the award was named for him after his death in 2002.) Although several of the Grand Masters I have read I have been reading for the first time this year, Knight is perhaps the one I knew the least about. I would be hard pressed to name any of his books. Even though I worked around used books for thirty years, I cannot picture any of his covers or remember that he ever merited a his own shelf. Somewhere along the way I picked up the fact that he wrote the short story "To Serve Man," which became a classic Twilight Zone episode. (Don't get on that ship! The book...the's a cookbook!) And so I picked up A for Anything with no expectations.

Perhaps I should not have read his first novel, although I am inclined to start at the first with an author. But I have to say this is the most peculiar book I have read in some time, and not in a particularly good way. Here's what happens in the first three chapters.

1) In a scene that could come from a 1950's sitcom, a retired bank president checks the morning mail and finds a package on the front porch. Inside is a Gismo, a machine that can, according to the accompany brochure, reproduce anything with no expenditure of energy. The man' wife and brother- and sister-in-law are all on hand. His son says, "Hey Dad, l know all about that electronics jazz." A simple experiment proves that machine works.

2) A undercover FBI agent comes to after a fight with the inventor of the gismo. He checks in with law enforcement officials and finds that the world as we know it is coming quickly to an end. One hundred gismos have been distributed at random. Since they can replicate themselves, that all it takes.

3) The inventor of the gismo, living on the lam in Southern California, meets up with a physicist friend who is excited about the invention. But within days, the first of the new warlords appears, his enslaved drivers shackled into a line up of cars. Things are looking bad.

For the next chapter we jump ahead a century or so and meet Dick Jones of Buckhill, an estate in the Poconos. Society is now composed of masters and slobs. People are squeamish about the term "slave." Buckhill functions as a well-furnished medieval duchy, only with lots of modern conveniences. Young Dick has reached his seniority and will soon be leaving for Eagles, a mountain stronghold in Colorado that is part military academy but exists, from what I gleaned from the book, as a finishing school where the scions of wealthy families learn to be truly horrible human beings. Once he arrives there he is immersed in intrigues and brutal initiation rites. We get glimpses of how savage life has become for those not lucky enough to be among the master class. There is some lightweight discussion of politics and sociology and an inevitable slave -- make that, slob -- rebellion.

But none of this is envisioned in a way that makes it particularly interesting, let alone coherent. Dick Jones is the most lackluster, idiotic protagonist I have encountered in some time, but I don't get the impression that Knight is purposively playing him for a fool. The book moves in such spurts that I never had a clear image of what mattered to any of these people. Knight's worldview is profoundly pessimistic, but the novel is not well-written enough to embody such darkness in a compelling fashion.

I assume that Knight developed into a much better writer. It also seems that he was known mostly for his short stories. A for Anything is not a gateway novel for anyone who anticipates getting deeply involved with this author.

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