Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) has become the most important author in the history of the science fiction genre; aside from his wide influence within literature, his ideas permeate all sorts of SF games, TV shows and movies. PKD is also a perennial favorite of mine, and I’ve been reading through his novels, after having finished his large number of collected short fiction. The more I read, the more it seems we’re living in his imagined future – but this is far from an original observation.
There are several options when seeking an introduction to PKD – my two favorites are this website extensively describing his short stories, and the various podcast episodes posted on sffaudio. The sffaudio discussion of The Penultimate Truth (1964) identifies three 1950’s short stories as being the “DNA” of the novel:
- “The Defenders” (1953)
- “The Mold of Yancy” (1955)
- “The Unreconstructed M” (1957)
I suggest adding “The Chromium Fence” (1954) to the above list, for a reason explained later. I highly recommend reading these stories prior to taking on The Penultimate Truth, because the ideas packed into TPT will be easier to process. In fact, I had read the novel some years ago, and could not recall anything about its contents before starting it again (this time after reading through the short fiction). It turns out that TPT is a pretty strong, thematically rich novel that belongs in the “better half” of PKD’s output.
Summarizing the plot of PKD novels are an interesting exercise: there appears to be a confusing jumble of events at first, but the underlying story usually turns out to be simple. It is often like watching a David Lynch movie, in that the weirdness of what you witness disguises an often very straightforward sequence of events. Here, I stick to describing only the opening premise and how the ideas from the short fiction (listed above) find their way into the novel.
TPT starts with a crisis in a small, post-holocaust subterranean community. The people of the “tank” are collectively responsible for manufacturing a quota of robot soldiers, but their last remaining technical expert is in a coma. The local “president” of the tank is coerced into venturing onto the Earth’s surface in search of an artificial pancreas to save the engineer, and therefore, his pocket society.
Meanwhile, the residents of the planet’s surface have recreated a feudal society in zones where the post-war radiation levels have fallen to tolerable levels. The leaders are “yance-men,” whose job is to write speeches for the artificial leader of the tank-dwellers, named Yancey. Some yance-men are interested in liberating all of the tank-dwellers, but the rest are determined to keep most of them underground with fake quotas and artificial Yancey speeches.
PKD modeled Yancey on the artificially folksy demeanor of Dwight Eisenhower, but we’ve been treated to this kind of false familiarity from the political class ever since. The evolution of Yancey’s messages, and how they carefully maintained the power relationship between the true centers of power and the proles, is touched on in TPT but is the focus of “The Mold of Yancey.”
Similarly, TPT uses the soldier robots to embody the ideas of war and automation, but in a less complex way than his story “The Defenders.” The tank-dwellers are ruled by automation in that they must meet their production quotas or suffer dire, and even existential, consequences. Their skill levels have also decayed to the point where the colony has lost its last engineer. However, as explained here, the robots in TPT remain the vassals of the yance-men and lack the capability to evolve beyond following their directives.
“The Unreconstructed M” describes a murder committed by a machine that attempts to disguise itself after the fact. While the story explores the implications of having this powerful technology on corporations and the people who own them, TPT uses the automated assassin as more of a means to advanced the plot. Still, it’s interesting to see how PKD is less interested in the destructive potential of this robot, and more in the levels of fakery and concealment.
Finally, the odd story “The Chromium Fence” illustrates the troubles one ordinary person has when attempting to live his life without taking sides in a political clash. This is what happens to the tank-dweller who surfaces and is confronted with the politics and fakery of the yance-men’s world. When the outside world was represented through the Yancey broadcasts, he was able to stay out of this conflict (while believing he was on one side of another war, of course), but when he interacts with humans he is pressured to stray from his original mission.
PKD did not repeat his short stories in his novels, instead combining his ideas with a greater plot, in an effort to reach a broader market. TPT is mostly successful, but the depth of the excellent stories can hint at what could be missing to some degree. It remains a very enjoyable book and resides on the tier of “very good” among the PKD canon. 7/10.