The Zap Gun is a 1967 novel by Philip K. Dick that was first serialized as Project Plowshare, a more directly descriptive title. It has a fairly bad reputation as a mess of a novel, but a recent sffaudio episode made helpful clarifications and pointed out some compelling details. Thus I finally took on The Zap Gun after leaving it sitting in my collection for many years.
Often, the physical typesetting and formatting of a book dramatically impacts my enjoyment of the content. This is especially true if I’m reading “kitchen-sink”-style science fiction, where a surfeit of tropes and plot turns can blend together into meaningless clutter. My strong dislike for Charles Harness’ The Paradox Men (2/10) and John Brunner’s Meeting at Infinity (2/10) was partly fueled by my use of compressed and typo-littered Ace editions.
Fortunately, my copy of The Zap Gun was a very nice Bluejay trade paperback, lending me more patience for navigating a difficult first half (even for PKD) and at least appreciate why the novel has its fans. In fact, TZG was republished in a Gregg Press hardback edition before PKD’s post-Bladerunner revival. However, the cover art is not particularly indicative of the content or spirit of TZG. My preference is for the (uncredited) cover of the Dell paperback, which gives the reader a better hint as to what he/she is getting into…
It is no spoiler to describe TZG as a farcical satire, blending the PKD themes of paranoia, rampant consumerism and the creation of bizarre weapons. The 19th-Century-style subtitle of TZG clearly indicates PKD’s intention to create a Swiftian satire of contemporary events, but certain editions left it out. There must be particular Cold War personalities that are represented as characters in here, but eventually PKD seems to fall into his more natural pattern of describing the actions and thinking of more or less ordinary people. The ambitious newly-minted “cog” (short for cognosenti, maybe) and the sad toy salesman were typical PKD characters, but I didn’t see either of them as stand-ins for recognizable historical figures. I wouldn’t describe it as a successful roman a clef, at least in the sense suggested by the subtitle.
While I didn’t buy TGZ as the next Gulliver’s Travels, I did find plenty of interesting elements in it:
- The serial title Project Plowshare refers to the “turn swords into plowshares” phrase from the Book of Isaiah. The most interesting of these is “Ol’ Orville,” the telepathic advice-giving guidance system that directs the actions of the main character.
- The main character is named Lars Powderdry, named after the Oliver Cromwell saying “… and keep your powder dry,” referring to peacetime readiness for war. Rather than embodying the sober logic that governments like to project, Powderdry lives his life impulsively and designs his weapons in drug-induced dream-states. This is an example of how PKD attributes technically talented people with a supernatural characteristics.
- TZG features two interesting female characters: Maren and Lilo. Maren is Lars’ longtime girlfriend and director of the Paris branch of his company. She is the most competent character in the book, but Lars leaves her for Lilo. Lilo is the teenage weapon designer of the USSR (or “Peep-East” in the book), whose methods mirror Lars. Lars is convinced they are bonded by more than mere talent, and feels that a relationship with Lilo will impart some meaning to his own abilities.
I may have described about half of the plot of the book: there are also aliens, etymology small-talk, bad drug experiences and other things stuffed into TZG. These ideas have served PKD well in his short fiction and many other novels, but they don’t seem to gel in this one. My guess at the emotional theme of TZG is a slow-burning frustration with how little recognition PKD was getting from his talent, and how that unease affected his relationships (ending one and starting another). There are several positive elements to TZG, but many will find it frustrating, as well. 5/10.
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