I recently bought Damon Knight's A for Anything (1959) because I liked the cover and it was fifty cents, completely forgetting that I read another book by Knight back in 2005 and loved it. Since Knight is such a strong writer, it should come as no surprise that I loved this nicely covered book as well. Sci-fi authors are lucky that they had such talented cover artists, or I don't even know how I'd decide what to read...
In A for Anything, it is 1971 (the not-so-distant future!) and a scientist invents a machine (a "Gismo") that can make an exact replica of anything else, including itself (and, eventually, people). The scientist is excited and sees this as the answer to all of humanity's problems -- why if no one had to work, go hungry, or want for anything, then what could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters the government tries to seize the invention before it causes the downfall of capitalism. On to their plan, the scientist mails out 100 pairs of Gismos to random addresses and then heads to his idyllic retreat with his family to await the utopia. It soon becomes apparent that his good-intentioned idea has resulted in anarchy, violence, and a huge power struggle between those who have the Gismos and those who don't.
Jump ahead to 2049:
Over half the population has been killed in a series of large-scale wars and small-scale battles for position. No scientific progress has been made since 1970. Huge swaths of the country have reverted to nature. And the country is divided up among a set of noble families who own slaves (which they call Slobs) and live lives of medieval decadence under the ever-present shadow of potential treason and overthrow by a rival family.
Our protagonist, who we never really like all that much, is Dick Jones, a young man who is next-in-line as the leader of a settlement in the Poconos. Just before he is about to fly to Colorado for his four years of military service at the Eagles, the gigantic court of a very big boss, he gets in an argument with his cousin that ends in a duel. But leaving his small pond in the Poconos for the oceanic grandeur of a Colorado mountaintop knocks Jones down a peg. In fact, much of the book is about Jones learning to navigate the complex levels of power that make up life in Eagles. As one might expect, this uneven society can't last forever, and when it finally explodes, Jones is right at the center of it.
I found tons of parallels between this book and Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano -- a distopic society based on the saving grace of technology, the philosophical exploration of worker and owner (or slob and ruler), and the climax and ending of each book (which I won't give away here) are remarkably similar. Someone else should read this too, so we can talk about it!
[Very green back cover available here.]