Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jan 22 11:02:49 EST 1992

Raymond's Reviews #163

%T A Reasonable World
%A Damon Knight
%D November 1991
%O paperback, US$3.99
%P 272
%G ISBN 0-812-50978-1

In a recent review, I observed that peace is too difficult a craft for most pacifists. Similarly, too many utopian speculations stack the deck by simply wishing away critical problems or spuriously defining them as non-problems --- one is left with a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the world is simply made nice forever by authorial magic.

That Damon Knight has always had a weakness in this direction is clear to anyone who's read his classic Rule Golden; nevertheless, it is sad to see how disconnected and contentless his lust for the universal happy ending has made A Reasonable World.

Want to build a utopia? That's easy. First, assume a benign alien symbiont that thwarts attempts at aggression by painlessly killing bad people the moment they form such intentions. Next, assume that a loophole in the laws of thermodynanics gives you free energy sources. Next, introduce cheap teleportation to solve the transport problem. Finally, construct a saintly character who persuades a growing number of people that we can in fact live by the pure communist ideal "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" and thus don't need money any more, or even an economy more organized than "everybody makes what they like and gives it free to anyone who asks".

This world doesn't make sense even on its own terms. Just to pick on the economics for starters, money doesn't only function as a carrier of value, but also as demand information; it's possible to organize for large-scale enterprises without the former, but the latter is indispensable (this is why planned economies lead to waste and disaster, because they suppress demand information). In conditions where there is any scarcity of any resource, some form of supply allocation by demand (hance, market-clearing; hence, requirement for a unit of account) is as inevitable as sunrise.

But what's worse is that Knight not only assumes in all these instant solutions to old problems, but assumes that none of them will ever be abused to create new ones.

Where was Damon Knight the trenchant critic while Damon Knight the author was writing this gooey, wretched sludge? The real hell of it is that Knight is a fine writer in most ways, one of those like Hemingway or Heinlein who makes storytelling look easy and conceals a great deal of art behind an artless and simple surface. This book reads as though he's gotten terminally lazy.

Damon Knight earns this month's thumbs-down for Worst Waste of Paper by a Major Talent. Let's hope this turkey has no sequels.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jan 22 11:02:49 EST 1992

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>