(Uncredited cover for the 1964 edition)
Although I’ve read a great majority of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories, I’ve only reviewed one of Philip K. Dick’s novels in the lifetime of this blog, The Man Who Japed (1956). Despite not reaching the near perfection which characterizes his best works, The Penultimate Truth (1964) is worth the read. The work’s premise is pure PKD. As with his best, an uncanny sci-fi infused surrealism seeps from the pages…. However, the work is plagued by ramshackle editing, the unfortunate tendency to use words like “homeostatic” and “tropism” ever few pages, and an ungainly plethora of named characters who have little to no import in the novel creates unnecessary confusion.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Most of the inhabitants of Earth, due to worries about an approaching nuclear war with the Soviets, retreated to massive underground facilities (Tom Mix Tanks). The war lasted two years and a quick peace was declared after multiple nuclear weapons were detonated. Germany takes the reigns as the world power in the post-War era. Those who remained on the surface, members of the military and the like, perpetrated a massive hoax — they piped broadcasts from a mechanical simulacra of the president Yancy Talbot, to those below ground claiming that the war was still raging above ground. The few on the surface (sterile due to the effects of the nuclear weapons) create massive demesnes for themselves with the aide of robots created by those below ground. A few escaped members of the Tom Mix Tanks create communities in the ruins of American cities.
The hoax perpetuated with a faked documentary created by postwar Germany suggests that the British were responsible for World War II (!) and that Germany actually assisted in its own downfall by allowing the landing of American and British soldiers on D-Day. The real threat was never Germany but rather the Soviet Union. This reconceptualization of the War perpetuates the tremendous fear of nuclear war and keeps the average man in his underground Tom Mix Tanks busy in mindless manufacturing of war robots (who in reality build the palatial complexes of lonely men lording over the verdant swathes of the surface).
The narrative, at points bogged down with uncountable secondary tertiary and quaternary characters, follows two trajectories. The most interesting, and unfortunately the shorter strand, concerns Nicholas St. James, the President of one of the thousands of Tom Mix Tanks. His tank is unable to reach their quota of leadies (robots) due to the death of their chief mechanic. The mechanic’s body is frozen right after death and Nicholas is practically forced to tunnel to the surface and attempt to find an artificial pancreas rumored to exist in old medical stores so the man can reanimate. Little does Nicholas know that the surface is habitable and inhabited or that the most powerful man in the world, Stanton Bose, has a monopoly on artificial organs in order to replace his own.
The second strand follows Joseph Adams, a Yance man, who lives on the surface writing speeches for the Talbot Yance simulacra president. Adams becomes embroiled in a ridiculously complicated (verging on incoherent) scheme involving time travel and fake artifacts perpetrated by Bose to ruin a housing developer, Runcible. Soon Adams’ best friend is murdered and William Foote starts his investigation. Both narratives intertwine in a less than satisfying manner.
The Penultimate Truth reminded me of PKD’s earlier masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle (1962). Both concern the re-writing of history. In this case, more literally re-writing by means of a faked documentary which becomes one of the main tools to keep the masses below ground slaving away in their tanks. History as a means of control — an unnervingly prescient concept.
I’ve always found PKD’s surreal moments the most unique in science fiction. He takes everyday objects, events, and manipulates them slightly (for example, in Ubik coins with presidents who haven’t been elected yet appear in pockets and in Time Out of Joint the disappearance of a snack machine is a key sign that, yes, time is out of joint).
Another recurrent trope are unusual machines used to control others (or yourself). Such machines fill his works — a machine to transform sheet music into animals in ‘The Preserving Machine’ (1953), mood organs and Mercer empathy boxes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Civil War simulacra in We Can Build You (1972), Der Alte the President simulacra in The Simulacra (1964), etc. The Penultimate Truth starts off with a PKD special — a speech writing machine! Enter a word, a concept, and out comes a phrase or sentence. Unfortunately, Joseph Adams’ particular machine is unable to help him write his speech — out spews empty archaic phrases. A useless relic of a past world… Even a mechanical creation designed for conjuring a speech from inputed concepts is UNABLE to assist in the perpetuation of a hoax of such magnitude.
The Penultimate Truth is filled with all the themes, tropes, and sci-fi surrealism that make Philip K. Dick one of my favorite science fiction authors. However, I found large portions of the work unnecessarily muddled (I still don’t understand the character of David Lantano and his constantly oscillating — due to time travel — body). I recommend approaching the work as a series of fascinating scenes and ideas rather than a plot driven whodunit (as various back-flaps proclaim it to be).
Recommended for PKD completists and fans of his most popular(ist) works — Man in a High Castle, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
(Franco Grignani’s cover for the 1970 edition)
(Frank Stoovelaar’s cover for the 1971 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)
(Peter Goodfellow’s cover for the 1978 edition)
(Richard Corben’s cover for the 1980 edition)
(Tim White’s cover for the 1984 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1989 edition)
(Chris Moore’s cover for the 1992 edition)
(Chris Moore’s cover for the 1998 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 2004 edition)
(Chris Moore’s cover for the 2005 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 2012 edition)
For more book reviews consult the INDEX