The Penultimate Truth

I’ve read a lot of Philip K. Dick. That includes most of his science fiction except the VALIS books.

However, I didn’t write any notes on most of that reading.

Still, since Dick seems to interest several readers, I’ll put up what reviews I have while I work on new posts — some of which have been written, but they’ll be put up as part of a long series.

Raw Feed (1989): The Penultimate Truth, Philip K. Dick, 1964.Penultimate Truth

The influence of A. E. van Vogt on Dick’s plotting is quite obvious here. Virtually every chapter wrings a new wrinkle on the plot. However, the plot of this novel is its weakest point.

Not only do we never have the origin of David Lantano’s time oscillating explained, but we only get a vague reference to him taking a few “starring roles” in history prior to the war. Why didn’t he make alteration in events so the war would be avoided if he was so powerful? For that matter why didn’t he exhibit his allegedly humanitarian side then? Why did he wait 15 years to make his move?

Thematically the book never really comes to making a statement.

At one point, when explaining the rationale for keeping the general populace underground, it is said it will spur their leaders on to war if they know the U.S.S.R. is relatively untouched (and did spur the military to war 15 years ago).

Yet, Dick celebrates, in Nicholas St. James especially, the liberation (as he always does) of the deceived and victimized population.

Dick also does not tell us if Lantano or Joseph Adams and Louis Runcible win the final political struggle. Nor does Dick make a statement as to whether he feels Lantano’s deceitful, high-handed, ruthless, murderous ways are justified. At points he seems a deliberate Christ figure; at other times, he is as evil as world-dictator Stanton Brose.

Dick asks the question if there are truly virtuous leaders or if it is only a choice between evil, ambitious men. St. James is shown as a virtuous political leader who sacrifices much and courageously tries to help his followers and fulfill what he sees as his obligation when he fearfully goes above ground to get Maruy Souza — another of the repairmen/small businessmen Dick likes and admires so much. Knowing something of Dick’s personal beliefs, I suspect the latter, but that is not a thematic statement of the novel.

The book’s central neat idea — robot’s faking a nuclear blasted landscape to keep the humans underground — was good, but its effect was diminished since I knew the plot of Dick’s “The Defenders” which this novel used in part.

There was a great deal I liked in this book. I liked Dick’s characteristically skillful, utterly real dialogue and his little characters so unlike so many other characters in sf.

I liked the black humor of some of the book particularly the writing machine using the word “funny” in connection with “genocide”.

I liked the plot twist of having David Lantano travel in time due to Brose’s bizarre plotting against Louis Runcible, housing builder.

I liked the character of Joseph Adams. He realizes the immorality of what he’s doing, feels guilty, yet can’t stop because, above all, he loves and is fascinated by the process of crafting political lies.

I liked the conspiratorial bit with the fake documentary films. As Disch says in his afterword, it must have been a powerful, comforting, ultimately paranoid idea for the people of 1964 to believe the Cold War was all a put on. Dick never does explain why the military establishment of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. want Gottlieb Fischer to produce these films. Presumably to insure their career survival, but I don’t believe this is explicitly stated. If that is true, it contradicts the notion of mass opinion pushing the nations to war.

I also liked Stanton Brose, as with so many other Dick characters (the protagonist of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly immediately comes to mind), forgetting the details of his own deceit.

Dick seems to have a peculiar fascination with German culture. He loves some of its contributions, particularly the music. Yet this book has insidious German manufactured killer robots and Gottlieb Fischer, deceiver extraordinaire, is a German, and Dick does not favorably describe (however briefly) Germany’s power in his 1982.

I liked Dick’s comment, when Lantano says Brose framed himself to prove his innocence, the things have gotten to a point where the truth is told knowing it will thought to be a lie.  Once again Dick gives us a policeman, Webster Foote (technically a private detective). A policeman is the ideal character for Dick: a sorter of fact, fantasy, reality, illusion, and the interface between political morality (power) and private conscience.  Dick uses Foote like that.

In the Mold of 1964:  An Afterword“, Thomas M. Disch — Disch sees the main value of the novel as capturing the spirit of 1964: Cold War and assassinations. Disch correctly points out the novel’s plot flaws and their cause in Dick’s quick writing. He also intriguingly sees Joseph Adams as Dick’s alter ego: a man fascinated by spinning political deceptions. Disch also makes the humorous observation that Adams reports to the Agency whose address is the same as Dick’s literary agent. I think Disch makes too much of the class struggle element in the novel. I think it is slight though the novel does mention Disraeli and Well’s submerged nation. I think Disch is incorrect in saying some passages have no point. Disch does mention Dick’s short stories that form the genesis of the novel.


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