With the production of an anthology television series based his short stories, as well as an ongoing series based on his The Man in the High Castle, we might expect to see a continuing growth in the number of people wanting to read Philip K. Dick for the first time. Naturally, his short stories are a great place to dive in, but these days literature is most successfully sold as novels; novels are what people want. So, what is the best novel to use when reading Philip K. Dick for the first time?
PKD’s 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer is a good choice. It follows a single character through the whole story (many novels of his feature abruptly shifting points-of-view), is clearly tied to author’s life in many ways, and features a lot of his humor. GPH is still very much a science fiction novel, and contains many of PKD’s favorite SF elements: robots, aliens, paranoia and a government that obsessively spies on its citizens.
Joe Fernwright is a pot-healer, a craftsman whose expertise and equipment enable him to repair broken pottery. He heals pots so well that he unfailingly brings them to a state as if they had never been broken. Although he is uniquely gifted, he became a pot-healer because his father was one, and currently there are no more broken pots for him to repair. As a consequence, he spends years on the government dole and obtains a meager intellectual stimulation from a silly word-game (The Game) shared over the phone lines with other bored individuals. PKD appears to have described Twitter rather eloquently, 37 years before it was launched.
In Joe’s world, information is no longer readily available in books or hard media, but as query results accessible by interacting with a computer service over the phone lines. These services are either expensive, or free but very tightly limited to a daily ration, and Joe makes some half-hearted attempts to hack the system:
Joe said, “Where did this book come from?”
“You have used up your allotted quantity of information,” the voice said. And clicked off.
Joe waited exactly three minutes and then redialed the number.
“Good evening. What info do you require, sir or madam?”
“The book on Sirius five,” Joe said. “Which is alleged to tell everything that has been–”
“Oh, it’s you again. Well, your trick won’t work anymore; we store voice patterns now.” It rang off.
GPH features a famous PKD trope – robots and other automatons with personalities to accompany their commissioned functions. Sometime after the snippy government search engine described above, Joe encounters a capable but particular robot assistant named Willis:
“A three-room apartment is ready for you and Miss Yojez,” Willis said. “Your personal living quarters.”
“What?” Joe said.
“A three-room apartment –”
“You mean we have an actual apartment? Not just a room?”
“A three-room apartment,” Willis repeated, with robotic patience.
“Take us there,” Joe said.
“No,” Willis said. “You have to say, ‘Willis, take us there.'”
“Willis, take us there.”
“Yes, Mr. Fernwright.” The robot led them across the foyer to the elevators.
In several of his stories, PKD described not only robots in the time frame of the human characters, but the evolution of the design of robots through several stages. “Second Variety,” a novella about the latter stages of a nuclear war, features different generations of robots with personalities designed to fool their human enemies. The Penultimate Truth features succeeding generations of robots and automated killing machines to fight battles between their Yance-men controllers.
Willis is benign in comparison, but represents part of a robot-evolution tale that could be unique to GPH: perhaps the robots and search engines were originally designed for maximum efficiency, but took on more human-like characteristics as millions of human/machine interactions influenced succeeding design cycles.
At the same time, with automation taking over much of the labor market, the lives of ordinary, working-class humans grew more routine and less important. Joe’s pot-healing skills have not declined, but grew less and less important over the years. Because information is controlled and self-expression is constantly monitored, people’s lives are restricted into a pattern of shoddy routine, despite being filled with leisure time. Joe’s frustration mount to the point where he cannot continue The Game anymore:
“It’s just that it was an easy one,” Joe said lamely. But he could see that his colleague in Moscow was not convinced. “Okay,” he continued, “I’m depressed. I can’t stand this much longer. Do you know what I mean? You do know.” He waited. A faceless moment poured past in which neither of them spoke. “I’m ringing off,” Joe said, and began to hang up.
“Wait,” Gauk said rapidly. “One more.”
Joe said, “No.” He hung up, sat emptily staring.
These patterns are driving Joe to exasperation to the point of suicide. Fortunately, he is contacted by a mysterious alien being called the Glimmung, who recruits him to the far-off Plowman’s Planet in a quest to raise an underwater cathedral. On the spaceship to the distant star, Joe meets Mali, a near-human who happens to be the woman of his dreams (figuratively). Joe, Mali and several other beings recruited to Plowman’s Planet have expertise applicable to the Glimmung’s mission, but several also have recent pasts filled with depression and anxiety. Despite its impressive presence as a benevolent version of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu (i.e., an immortal shape-changing monster that lives beneath the ocean), it is clear that the Glimmung is fallible and in need of help from Joe and the others. Beyond payment or the opportunity for new social contacts, the Glimmung’s bizarre mission has offered these individuals a renewed purpose.
That’s a rapid summation of the plot of GPH – at least the first half. The second half of the book is shared between the evolving relationship between Joe and Mali – where Joe struggles to decide whether Mali is really his destined partner or the next woman after his recent divorce – and the great, mostly unseen struggle to raise the cathedral. Joe, Mali and Willis have discussions about the mythological underpinnings of the Glimmung’s mission, which show PKD’s penchant for thematic word games (and his enthusiasm for German culture):
The robot said, “Down there in the Aquatic Sub-World, you will be in a place that Amalita has forgotten.”
“Who is ‘Amalita’?” Joe asked.
Mali said, “The god for whom the cathedral was built. The god who was worshipped in Heldscalla. When the cathedral is restored, the Glimmung can call upon Amalita, as in earlier times, before the Catastrophe in which the cathedral sank. The defeat of Amalita by Borel — a temporary defeat, but a major one. I am reminded of a Terran poem by Bert Brecht called ‘A Drowned Girl’. Let’s see; if memory serves …
PKD seems to be encouraging us to play The Game a bit here. Amalita is a form of the name Amalia, whose root word is Latin for work. Borel might refer to the French mathematician Emile Borel, who among many other things is known for coming up with the “infinite monkey theorem.” This statement claims that given an infinite length of time, a monkey randomly typing will come up with any known work of literature, including the totality of Shakespeare’s plays. The idea of his life-defining work matching the output of a sequence of random accidents embodies the kind of fruitless existence that could very well have haunted PKD (and therefore his pot-healer).
The Glimmung’s activities are challenged by many adversaries: the Black Glimmung, the dominant race of beings on Plowman’s Planet – the calends – who give Joe access to a book foretelling the Glimmung’s failure, and the collective traits of doubt and helplessness that seem to plague Joe and the other recruits. However, the first real enemy to the mission arrives before Joe arrives on Plowman’s Planet, in the form of classic labor agitation. A few of the recruits voice their doubts about the aims of the Glimmung, seemingly borne from the paranoia matriculated in their home worlds. We can see how the tenets of socialism – so tethered to union politics – comes into conflict with the quasi-religious promise of redemption and meaning:
“What we’ll have to do,” Miss Yojez said, “is to organize ourselves here, and then, when we reach Plowman’s Planet, we’ll probably be staying at one of the major hotels, and once there we can contact some or all of the others he’s recruited and then possibly we can form a union effective.”
A heavy-set red-faced man said, “But isn’t Glimmung a –” He gestured. “A supernatural being? A deity?”
“There are no deities,” a timid little fellow on the left side of the compartment said. “I used to put strong faith in them at an earlier age in my life, but after keen and very recurrent disappointment and frustration and disillusionment. I gave up.”
Throughout the second half of GPH, PKD unambiguously repudiates this union thinking, and not for the first time. In his underrated 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip (my favorite PKD book), he painted union leadership as the corrupt, racist core of a self-serving institution. I have not seen much discussion on PKD’s treatment of labor politics, but GPH demonstrates his interest with the role of unions in the modern person’s struggle to find identity through his or her work.
GPH is an accessible, focused novel that incorporates some of PKD’s most prevalent themes and techniques. Joe and Mali Yojez are made into two richly described characters, forming the moral centers of this fictional universe without losing their status as plausible, everyday individuals. The heavy themes are addressed with a steady amount of curiosity and humor; GPH is one of the funniest of PKD’s books. There are plenty of other entertaining details beyond the scope of my review to discover (talking bivalves, reference to Faust, the lure of the calends’ book of propaganda, etc.). It is in the better half of PKD’s body of work, and can be considered a decent litmus test for those interested in reading this fascinating author for the first time. 8/10.