Book Review: The Penultimate Truth, Philip K. Dick (1964)

(Uncredited cover for the 1964 edition)

4/5 (Good)

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.

Final Thoughts

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 CastleUbikA Scanner DarklyDo 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 

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Penultimate Truth, Philip K. Dick (1964)

  1. It’s interesting to compare the story elements that the varying covers advertise: Global geopolitical strife (1971); large scale underground living (several); cerebral-psychological invasion (1970 psychedelic!,1989 with PDK himself!); cosmic revelation (1975, 2012); man vs machine (1980) and some I’m not sure what (1978, 2004). Do these variations reflect what the publishers felt would sell at the time, e.g., 1980’s Star Wars-esque look?

    RE: the story- I haven’t read it yet, but, as most PKD fans admit, his technique was often flawed. This is sometimes accredited to the requirements of the the so-called “pulp” style of his 1950s-early 60s era.

    It is his ideas which transcend these limitations, and which have resulted in his current canonization as well as the on-going mining of his material for movies.
    PKD Forever!

    p.s., slight but cool irony-the 1964 edition, which notes that the year is 1982, has a graphic slightly reminiscent of the Blade Runner logo (1982).

    • You have a really good point. I did select covers from many different countries to give a nice range (but they often recycle cover art from England and the US)… The selection isn’t the best quality in my opinion — the Chris Moore 2005 edition is probably the best.

      But yes, his ideas do transcend his occasional prose hiccups (and inability to write a variety of characters or include women in anything but a minor role).

      His obsession with questioning reality, the unusual dangers of machines, repressed societies, etc all ring with the modern audience. However, if I remember correctly, NONE of the film adaptations deal with the Cold War aspects of his works….

  2. I want to say this one was a fix-up of at least two earlier short stories that were in ’50s digest magazines, hence why it gets muddled in places. (The bulk of it clearly came out of “The Defenders,” with the underground tanks and Cold War apocalypse parts, but I don’t know what the others would be since I didn’t recognize the rest of it.) I liked this one, even if it wasn’t his greatest… even a middling PKD is a fantastic read.

    • “even a middling PKD is a fantastic read” — I couldn’t agree more. Definitely felt like a fix-up…. All the concepts are fascinating I just found that it didn’t mesh as well as some of his best works which are more singular (and potent) in vision. But all the re-writing history, underground life, simulacra, strange machines, surreal moments, make me LOVE virtually every PKD work I’ve read.

      • Yeah, the characters were all changed up. The hoax documentary, German-assisted victory thing wasn’t part of it, and from what I recall the two have completely different endings. (I thought “Defenders” was too feel-good tacky, more characteristic to 1950s Galaxy than to PKD.)

        PKD did a lot of those fixup novels, taking elements from his better stories and merging them to make a novel. Penultimate Truth is one of those where I know I’ve seen the parts of the novel before in different stories, but I can’t remember what the original shorts were. Like how Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch had a huge chunk of “Days of Perky Pat” (again, clearly, from the Perky Pat layouts) and several other stories, but I can’t remember which exact ones.

        At any rate, it’s interesting to see what stories PKD thought were worth keeping, which elements he pulled from them and which he dropped, and how he blended multiple shorts into one novel. Stigmata moved the setting from post-apocalyptic Earth to a colony world, and Penultimate Truth became more complex with its Yance-man bureaucrats and fake history.

  3. Really cool blog you’ve got going, I’ve read a few PKD books; man in the high castle, androids dream, Palmer Eldritch, and Ubik. Androids dream is my favorite, I think.

  4. Yep, I’ve heard that’s good. I have this book listing 100 great sci-fi novels, PKD had the most with like six novels total, and martian was the highest.

  5. Having just completed the read of this novel two weeks ago, I offer a few belated words… So much of Sci-Fi seems centered around plot inventions, inversions, contaminations between technology and society, political structures, nefarious criminal minds (brains?!), et al, that we often forget, when reviewing or considering a particular book, that the quality of writing is ULTIMATELY the most critical aspect of the read. After all, the writing is the vehicle between author and reader – a bridge. With this PKD book, and indeed, most of his work, the writing is a pleasure! Especially on the heels of some second rate author, I find that PKD offers his readers not only surreal and penetrating imagery, but also delicious writing! Of course, there are places where that gives away to his stitching the story together and innumerable back-and-forth dialogues that seem only focused on propelling the story; however, I suggest that each reader keep a notebook for jotting down particularly rich passages… and then, having finished the read, go back and read only the treasures… a deciphering game if you will.
    I give this book 4.25. ciao!

  6. Larry Sutin quotes Tom Disch in his formative biography,”Divine Invasions”,that “The Penultimate Truth” has themes comparible to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”,and it does seem to live and breath in the novel.Both were humanistic authors often concerned with the courage of ordinary people to survive in repressive regimes,and of course the deception of governments.

    It seems that Dick will have to be compared to Orwell when speaking of him as a major twentieth century author.

    • He is definitely a highly original and fantastic voice. I would argue that strange surrealism is hart to match… This wasn’t my favorite of his works (I adore The Martian Time-Slip) but worth the read.

      • “Martian Time-Slip” was written two years earlier than this this book,and was supposed to be the template for a new “series” of novels,but unfortunetly took two years to be published.Dick said that “the novels that were to “have followed “Time-Slip” were no longer there”,and used a different slide rule after this,with “The Penultimate Truth” being the product of this strain,with probably a little ship-shod editing by paperback publisher Belmont,but probably better than Ace,who obviously wouldn’t publish it.In between these two books though,Dick wrote the fantastical “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,and another great book,”Dr Bloodmoney”,written immediately after “Time-Slip” and published by Ace.

        With “The Penultimate Truth”,he seems to be returning to the theme of deceptive governments played out in “Time Out of Joint”,and would still give it a 4.5 rating.

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