This is my first post in the Vintage SciFi Not-a-challenge, but also the first post in an exciting new series here at Two Dudes. We’ve had Moldy Fantasy for awhile now, so now it is time for the SF counterpart to emerge: Yo’ Grandpa’s SciFi (pronounced Sah-Fah). And who better to kick off YGSF than, not just any Grandmaster, but with the very namesake of the Grandmaster Award, Damon Knight? I’ve never read Knight before this, so was fortunate to find this small, battered paperback at one or another of the book sales I haunt. Analogue Men, sometimes published as Hell’s Pavement, appears to be his first novel, though he had been writing short stories and criticism for many years before.
I’m not sure what to make of this novel. The basic concept is the “analogue,” a machine that convinces brains to cook up hallucinatory reasons for controlling behavior. Ostensibly used to prevent criminal antics, it is inevitably abused, leading to whole societies full of Norman Bates, forever hectored by imaginary spinsters. The first bit of the book feels rather like a poor man’s Space Merchants. Later it turns into Bizarro Hogwarts, then something really crazy, and finally a strangely unsatisfying conclusion, with stops at Thrilling Adventure along the way. It is mostly satirical, I think, though some of the targets of that satire have drifted into obscurity. At the same time, the book maintains its Golden Age sensibilities, especially for language and gender.
The story concerns itself primarily with the battle for Free Will, as one might expect when mind control is the bugaboo. (Speaking of mind control, is it just me, or is this a plot device that went out of fashion about the same time as psionics? I can’t think of recent books about it.) We follow a young, confused male as he journeys through the world, trying to make sense of the fact that his analogue appears to be broken. He finds himself free of the compulsions that those around him seem plagued by and, eventually exhausted by trying to fit in, ends up crashing through neighboring kingdoms, going to school, and having adventures. For whatever reason, the plot contrives to keep him sidelined during the most exciting bits of the conclusion, leaving the reader to wonder what sort of fun stuff is going on off stage.
Some things I liked about the book: once it gets rolling, there are some gripping action sequences and engaging world building. I’m not sure that the societies Knight proposes are natural progressions from the analogue, but they are at least interesting to read about. My favorite is the giant blank area that used to be the states of Washington and Oregon, because if there is to be one part of the nation that must transcend consciousness and turn their realm into really odd hippie heaven, it would be the Pacific Northwest. I also appreciate that Knight seems to be pushing the envelope with some risque stuff, though to modern eyes it seems more like sweaty-palmed teenage boy salaciousness. I’m giving him points for what I presume the intent to be, rather than the result.
Some things I didn’t like as much: I already mentioned the end, which felt off. The book has unquestionably aged, though most works from the era have. More than anything else though, there is a sense that things don’t totally hold together. I can’t quite put my finger on why not, but Analogue is a bit like a Jell-O that didn’t firm up. I looked at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction to see what might be going on, and uncovered its accusation that the novel format is not Knight’s strength. He is justifiably a Grandmaster, but much of what he did for SF was as a short story writer, a critic, and an editor, says the Encyclopedia; Anlogue bears this out.
Even with those complaints, it was an interesting read. I won’t call it essential, but it was fun, hasn’t been visited too many times by the Suck Fairy or the Sexism Fairy (no small accomplishment), and has some bits that are memorable. If the author were to dig a little deeper into the story, open up the world a bit more, and let his characters take a bigger role in the goings on, we might have an exciting story on our hands.
Rating: England 1982. This was a particularly frustrating World Cup for the birthplace of football, as they bowed out weakly in the second round after dominating their opening matches.