Now Wait For Last Year, by Philip K. Dick

Fascism should more appropriately called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.
– Mussolini

Now Wait For Last Year was first published in 1966, and the original manuscript was written about 1962, putting it in the middle of his early-1960’s run of compelling SF novels. It has a strong autobiographical component, especially as it concerns a ruined marriage and experiments with novel drugs. PKD’s wife at the time of writing, Anne, normally read all of his manuscripts – but this one was kept hidden from her.


Chris Foss cover for Panther.

NWFLY has been reviewed several times across the different, mainly older, SF sites. I especially recommend the podcast on SFFaudio (.mp3), which I used when writing this article. Broadly speaking, the reception has been mixed for this novel, but it was included in the Library of America collection.

The Death of a Marriage

Dick tells the story of Eric Sweetscent, an upper-class doctor who works in the same company as his wife Kathy. Kathy has more ambition than Eric, resulting in a higher paycheck but an insurmountable bitterness between the two. Driven, attractive but very self-centered, Kathy has grown to dominate Eric in their private life. Early in the novel, Eric tries to reverse this situation with a thin ruse in front of a colleague:

He [Jonas] broke off, seeing that both the Sweetscents had a grim, taciturn cast about them. “I interrupted?”

“Company business takes priority,” Eric said, “over the creature pleasures.” He was glad of the intervention by even this junior member of the organization’s blood hierarchy. “Please scram out of here, Kathy,” he said to his wife, and did not trouble himself to make his tone jovial. “We’ll talk at dinner. I’ve got too much to do to spend my time haggling over whether a robant bill collect is capable of telling lies or not.” He escorted his wife to the office door; she moved passively, without resistance.

The unbalanced relationship is a theme that also occurred in The Zap Gun (where the capable Maren is unceremoniously dumped by Lars for a young stranger) and A Scanner Darkly (where Bob Arctor is strung along by Donna until he gets trapped by a corporate hospital). In this book, Eric internalizes his struggle, and his philosophical asides provide some of Dick’s best writing.

We live with illusion daily, he reflected. When the first bard rattled off the first epic of a sometime battle, illusion entered our lives; the Illiad is as much a “fake” as those robant children trading postage stamps on the porch of the building. Humans have always strained to retain the past, to keep it convincing; there’s nothing wicked in that. Without it we have no continuity; we have only the moment. And, deprived of the past, the moment — the present — has little meaning, if any.

Maybe, he pondered as he ascended the stairs, that’s my problem with Kathy. I can’t remember our combined past: can’t recall the days when we voluntarily lived with each other. . . now it’s become an involuntary arrangement, deprived of God knows how from the past.

And neither of us understands it. Neither of us can puzzle out its meaning or its motivating mechanism. With a better memory we could turn it back into something we could fathom.

Kathy, on the other hand, responds to the crisis through impulsive actions. After Eric is promoted outed of the company — he becomes the personal doctor of the secretary general of the UN — she goes to a run-down neighborhood to experiment with a new drug. This causes her life to quickly spiral, effectively becoming the primary medium by which the drug, a military research product, drives the story.

The Mole and the Boss

The political plot of NWFLY is one of the strongest of all PKD novels, probably because it springs out of the author’s keen interest in World War II. Eric and Kathy’s future Earth is ruled by the UN secretary general, a dictator* named Gino Molinari (nicknamed The Mole), who has made an alliance with a alien race called the ‘Star Men. The ‘Star Men have a sprawling empire, and are locked into a massive interstellar war with a bug-like race called the reegs. Molinari’s treaty was arranged for Earth to stay out of combat but support the ‘Star Men with its factories, but the ‘Star Men are pressuring for one and a half million laborers to replenish its own thinning workforce.

Molinari does whatever he can to keep the ‘Star Men at bay, mainly by collapsing – and temporarily dying – at the meeting table. His desperate management of a regrettable alliance, as well as his Italian name, recall the predicament of Benito Mussolini after he signed The Pact of Steel with Hitler in 1939. Just as the Nazis kept Mussolini in power as a third wheel against the West, the ‘Star Men tolerate Molinari’s antics as the dictator of Earth. Mussolini signed the treaty with the understanding that there would be no war for three years, and Italy was not involved in the invasion of Poland only months later. Though he brags about killing people as “his job,” Molinari goes to extreme measures to avoid a fatal commitment of his planet to the war.

This is in contrast to the business magnate Virgil Ackermann, Eric and Kathy’s boss in the beginning of NWFLY. Ackermann has used artificial organs to prolong his life far beyond its natural boundaries, and demands expensive gifts from his own employees. These gifts populate his “babyland,” a recreation of his childhood hometown of Washington DC, circa 1935, built on Mars. Kathy is in charge of procuring antiques for “Wash-35,” as it’s called, and Eric is the chief doctor who periodically replaces Ackermann’s organs.

Ackermann has made his fortune by manufacturing fake luxury goods, exploiting an alien species that mimic inanimate objects. Before converting all of its operations to the war effort, the company – Tijuana Fur & Dye – produced imitation fur coats this way. This, along with Wash-35, establishes the theme of fakery discussed in the monologue of Eric’s I quoted. At first, we see the faulty production of Lazy Brown Dogs (imitations of rocket ship guidance systems), but soon we learn of another industrialized weapon actually worth being afraid of — the drug JJ-180.


Bruce Pennington cover for Meulenhoff.

The Weapon of Choice

That evening as Bruce Himmel tromped up the rickety wooden stairs to Chris Plout’s conapt in the dismal Mexican section of Tijuana, a female voice said from the darkness behind him, “Hello, Brucie. It looks as if this is an all-TF&D night; Simon Ild is here, too.”

In the early chapters of NWFLY, we see several characters prop up the employer at their own expense, including Kathy and Bruce. Its therefore no surprise that these people are also the early customers of JJ-180, a drug produced by military-industrial research.

JJ-180 is a substance that might only properly belong in a PKD novel. Users are allowed to travel through time, at least temporarily, and retain information but not material things.** This effect can be exploited, but is experienced by different people in different ways; Kathy travels back in time but Eric goes into the future. This allows Eric to witness a future Earth shared with the enemy reegs, and attempt to act accordingly.

JJ-180 is engineered to be addictive after a single dose. This, of course, is a popular myth about many drugs in our world (cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, etc.) that is made true in NWFLY. The withdrawal symptoms are very severe, ruining Kathy in short order and driving her to get Eric to help in whatever way she can. Created as a weapon, the negative effects of JJ-180 were tested in captured reegs in hidden experiments, and found their way into the population. It’s an echo of the history of drugs fueling wartime activities, either as weapons themselves or as combat aides, with little regard for their proliferation on the home front.

Substance D made A Scanner Darkly into PKD’s legendary “drug” novel, in which the apparent free choices made by counterculture personae where in realty feeding a large medical-commercial complex. The law enforcement was there to grease the wheels. Likewise, Kathy, Bruce and company unwittingly subsidize the machinery of TF&D, not just with their paychecks but also their lives. The aggression with which PKD dives into the larger picture of drug use makes PKD a premier writer on this important topic.

The Collected Ironies of Philip K. Dick

Twice in NWFLY, PKD builds surprising sympathy for characters who do monstrous things. Kathy intentionally makes Eric an addict of JJ-180 by dropping a capsule of the drug into his coffee, an act of concentrated evil I hadn’t seen in literature since Block’s Grifter’s Game. This entraps him, but she explains that her actions came directly from her desperate condition:

Her voice went flat and drab. “I did it because I thought you were going to have me arrested; you said you were and I believed you. So it’s your own fault. I’m sorry. . . I wish I hadn’t, but anyhow now you have a motive for curing me; you’ve got to find a solution. I just couldn’t depend on your sheer goodwill; we’ve had too much trouble between us. Isn’t that so?”

He managed to say, “I’ve heard that about addicts in general, they like to hook other people.”

“Do you forgive me?” she asked, also rising.

Withdrawal from JJ-180 also takes its toll on Kathy’s ability to be attractive and in control, when at the company. She quickly degenerates and is hospitalized, but multiple characters seem to comment on her compromised appearance instead of her dire health. It’s possible that this is out of ignorance of the serious nature of JJ-180, but my impression was that Kathy quickly found herself abandoned without her relationship to Eric, toxic as it is.

The other example is The Mole, whose public appearance of robust health is a lie and whose politics include executing his enemies and experimenting on the reegs. We’re told he is a combination of Lincoln and Mussolini, taking brutal actions out of love for his people. It’s a spell cast by many charismatic dictators, especially in the time of World War II. Nonetheless, we see Molinari suffer various illnesses by a supernatural empathy with the medical conditions of others around him. His kidney failure is actually the kidney failure of someone else, whom he probably never met. He willingly goes through this, collapsing at a meeting table with the ‘Star Men at one point, to stall the pull of interstellar war.

When he prods us into the inner lives of Kathy and The Mole, PKD is showing how it is possible to have some empathy for characters who do gravely evil things. This is mainly done by showing Eric how they didn’t see any other course of action. Kathy is in the throes of addiction, and Molinari is stuck between the ‘Star Men and ambitious bureaucrats beneath him. When Eric finally understands what the reegs have done to the humans on Earth, we are prepared to rationalize such an outcome. It is a clever way to portray a perspective on war that I haven’t seen much of in (American) SF.

The are other ironies in NWFLY that are more familiar to PKD readers. In contrast to some of the rather flatly portrayed human characters, several robots (“robants”) are given entertaining personalities. There is persistent and officious bill collector in the beginning, an opportunistic cab driver who takes Eric on an illegal trip to Detroit, and an anxious cab driver who gets pulled into Kathy’s drug-induced voyage into the past. As in Galactic Pot-Healer and other stories, these personalities match the job given the machines, and serve as contrast to the cases where people are ground into lifeless characters by an occupations that stifle them.

A second “familiar” irony is the portrayal of the different women encountered by Eric. Although he is dominated by Kathy in his marriage, he remains attracted to her. He is also sexually tempted by Ackerman’s wife, who is younger than his boss but older than he is. On the other hand, when Eric interacts with two teenagers (one the mistress of The Mole, and the other a date set up by a crony), they offer him some much-needed straightforward wisdom instead of sex:

“If you’re an org-trans surgeon,” Patricia Garry said as she got cups from the cupboard over the sink, “why aren’t you at the military satellites or at the front hospitals?”

He felt his world sink from beneath him. “I don’t know,” he said.

The stereotypical roles of women in NWFLY are reversed – the older women are reckless and self-centered, and even naïve. Meanwhile the young women – girls, actually –  serve to straighten the behavior of Eric and Molinari, having been pulled into psychological maturity by the ongoing war.

Mixing drugs, relationships and interstellar war, NWFLY might remind some of The Zap Gun, PKD’s other attempt to combine these themes into a novel. He is far more successful here. This is an intricate plot with surprising characters and plenty of SF jokes sprinkled in, all contained in a tight narrative that makes sense. There are some moments where the writing gets pulpy, but these are interspersed with some very strong passages. I also didn’t think the effort spent on describing Tijuana was especially fruitful; perhaps it was a poor fit in a tale containing so many other elements. The time-travel “breaks” all sorts of rules that many SF fans take too seriously, but it brings an epic scope to the novel and allows us to witness the aftermath of multiple possible wars. It’s the reconciliation after the dust settles that gives the events, and the lives of the characters, their purpose. If it’s not one of his very best, NWFLY can be considered another near-masterpiece that merits more attention. 8/10.

* The Mole’s official title is the UN Secretary General. Contrary to present times, the Secretary-General was thought to be a position of power and prestige when Dick wrote NWFLY (the regime of U Thant)How many of us can even name the UN Secretary-General today?
** However, Kathy brings along a flying taxi cab, and its robant driver, to the America of 1939. This is probably Dick breaking rules in order to make a few good jokes.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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13 Responses to Now Wait For Last Year, by Philip K. Dick

  1. fredfitch says:

    Haven’t read this one.

    Sounds like this might be just the time to peruse it.

    I’ll have it on my kindle soon as I get to the subway wifi.

    Wonder what PKD would have thought of that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I think he’d like to have seen the day his books showed up in the age of homeopapes. I’m glad this one found its way into the Library of America volumes, since on its own it isn’t the most well-known PKD novel. I don’t think it ever got a signature book cover, either.


      • fredfitch says:

        I rebel against the notion of ‘well-known’ PKD novels. Usually that just means “Novel that had a movie made of it which in no way resembles the book.” Or else it means a novel the literary big-wigs deigned to notice.

        I started off with well-known PKD novels, and was underwhelmed. I began reading PKD novels I found used copies of in dingy little strip-mall book-swap stores, and I started to get it.

        I like him best when he’s pulpy. When I know the mainstream critics would be sneering a bit, if they paid it any mind at all. That’s where a lot of his sharpest insights are found. Well-hidden beneath the surface of trashy entertainments. Where he takes basic ideas that have been used a thousand times in the genre before, and finds a whole new dimension in them.

        There are some good ones in that LOA collection. None of my favorites. I have a copy of Valis (hardcover), but Glimmung only knows when I’ll get to it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        I haven’t read all of PKD’s novels, but so far the ones I would consider “missing” from the LoA collection are Time Out of Joint, The Simulacra and Galactic Pot-Healer. Those three, plus a bunch of his short stories, would make a great addition to the three volumes.

        You could also make a good case for Confessions of a Crap Artist – his lit-fic efforts are worth looking into.


      • fredfitch says:

        I have not read The Simulacra, but the other two would be on my list as well. Time of out Joint was one of the very first PKD’s I read. It’s a very complete work, with exceptionally well-drawn characters. All kinds of neat little details, like they see a picture of a young Marilyn Monroe in a magazine and are like “wow, who’s that?” My first memories of that type of suburban neighborhood date from just a few years after it was published, and he’s got the atmosphere just right, and yet of course not quite.

        I wonder if it’s underrated precisely because it’s more polished and coherent than he usually is. But it’s got that unique sense of alienation. The producers of The Truman Show owe his estate some money, but I like that too. (I sometimes think the only good PKD adaptations are the unacknowledged ones.)

        Galactic Pot Healer is a small masterpiece, with one of his most poignant love stories (and that is saying something.) But probably too pulpy and SF for the mainstream.

        I must say, he’s one of those writers I’d rather read in paperback than in an ebook, or some deluxe hardcover.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. fredfitch says:

    Just finished it.

    One of the PKDs I don’t like much (this includes several considered classics). He lived a lot in his head, and this is one of those books that suffers from that. TalkTalkTalk. Endless explanations of what’s happening, or has happened, or is going to happen, or is happening in another timeline. It’s got beautiful moments (some of which you quoted from above), but overall, one of the worst-written books of his I’ve come across.

    Part of the problem is that there’s too many ideas in it, and not enough time to properly develop any of them. Most writers have a hard time coming up with ideas–his problem is that he can’t stop doing it. They come to him faster than he can write them down. His best works tend to concentrate on just one or two.

    The relationships aren’t well-developed, though you could see how they might be, if he were more focused. Probably he was struggling with some kind of addiction when he wrote it Or its aftermath.

    Kathy seems more like a commentary on the Wife From Hell than an actual person. (I’m not surprised Thompson wouldn’t let his wife read this one.)

    If you want to see really focused human evil in a genre novel (as opposed to the State of the Union address), try Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith–their antagonists (or in some cases, protagonists) can make the very worst PKD characters seem quite innocent. They both also have a fascination with failed destructive relationships. But they don’t tend to get bogged down in detail the way PKD so often does. His great weakness as a writer (that some consider a virtue, because it’s apparently ‘postmodern’–feh).

    Last one of his I read was “We Can Build You” and that’s a flawed work, with a story that just sort of peters out–and I’d still rank it well over this, because it’s more rooted, more human. Even the replicants are more human. The use of history in that book is also better.

    We usually agree, but not here. I found this a chore to get through, particularly at the end. He must have been in a very chaotic frame of mind. And depressed, but sadness, regret, are integral to most of his work. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it reads less like a narrative than a diagnosis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fredfitch says:

      Also, I think the idea with The Mole is that he’s Mussolini crossed with FDR (this is made clear near the end). He is compared with Lincoln in the book–and Jesus(!!!), but by unreliable observers. Eric is the one who sees the Roosevelt in him. The physical ailments, and the ruthless strategic sense are much more akin to FDR.

      And not at all to Mussolini, a rather pathetic futile person, for all the outward swank but that of course is one of the points being made.

      I despise post-modern writing. I hate it beyond all things. Fiction or non-fiction. I don’t think PKD ever intended to be post-modern, and I don’t think post-modernists understand him (or much of anything else). But at least he came by his altered states honestly. Pulp writers usually do. Because even in their wildest flights of fancy, they’re still very rooted in the need to keep cranking out that crap. And because they can’t get ruined by critics and academics, since they are never noticed by them until after they’re safely dead.

      Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        I thought, at the end, The Mole was merely Mussolini crossed with nobody. Different people saw “mixed with Lincoln” or “plus Roosevelt” (and there are reasons not to lionize FDR – the disgraceful refusal of Jewish refugees in 1939, making Hugo Black a supreme court justice and Japanese internment among them – but of course he’s remembered for the Victory and The New Deal), but through the viewpoints of characters justifying their own actions. They needed to see some good in him, in order to stick with him. The comparison to Jesus – I forget which character did that, exactly – emphasizes the phoniness of this rationalization.

        One of PKD’s longtime obsessions was the tendency for people to twist their thinking in order to keep backing the political horse they’ve chosen. His story “The Chromium Fence” is worth a look. I think Now Wait for Last Year shows how this would continue in a future without democracy.


      • fredfitch says:

        Regarding what you said about The Mole–yeah, I buy all of that.

        I just don’t see it in the book. The book is not sure if it likes The Mole or not. The book isn’t sure who to like, who to believe in. The book is politically incoherent. Is The Mole collaborating with the Star Men–or resisting them? History gives us a very solid answer about Mussolini–this novel doesn’t about The Mole, and it does compare him to both Lincoln and FDR.

        FDR was a very flawed man, but he was a necessary flawed man. That’s what we get from The Mole–love him, hate him, he’s so indispensable that they have to keep going to alternate time-lines to get more of him. And there’s no need to worry he’ll just never go away because all the alternates are aging (except that there’s another character who has lived for hundreds of years through advanced surgery).

        If that’s what you see in the book, I can see why you like it, but I see the book hedging its bets. Not sure what to believe.

        As to Japanese-American internment, let’s not pretend FDR did that alone. The whole country shares blame for that. East coast Japanese did not get sent away, for the most part, but my dad told me a story. There was a Japanese family who had a store in his neighborhood in New York–my Irish immigrant grandparents knew them. Their son was a scoutmaster for the boy scouts. He was ordered to resign, for no reason other than his race. He killed himself.

        FDR was no saint, and we shouldn’t remember him as one–but I sometimes wonder if he didn’t save some lives by getting those people out of sight, before they were lynched or burned out of their homes by angry mobs. Saints are pretty rare in this world. So are leaders.

        But I found it hard to accept The Mole as one. It’s an interesting idea, collaboration as resistance–but it lacks conviction. I think he really is FDR, not Mussolini–heavily disguised, because PKD knows that won’t be accepted. He grew up in that era. FDR was so damned important to people then.

        Again, interesting ideas, badly executed. You judge any book by how well it hits the targets it’s aiming for. In this case, I think it misses most of them.

        Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I’ll concede that the “sideways time travel” exploited by The Mole wasn’t very clear, and there are some missteps throughout. But I thought this book succeeded where The Zap Gun didn’t – it made a story that survived the jumble of unreliable characters and confusing drug states.

      Eric is continually finding excuses for his inactions, or actions supporting The Mole and Kathy, so he’s particularly receptive to the excuses other characters give for themselves. It turns him into what some call “an emotional sponge.”

      Who knows, maybe I’ve read enough PKD to embrace the details. His artifrogs, Lazy Brown Dogs and robant cab drivers are silly details when taken individually, but together they add up a future built by a consumer culture and government meddling. Plus, a future driven by drugs is a future I tend to pay attention to, in science fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        I have so few memories of The Zap Gun (still racking my brain to remember if there was a gun that zapped things in it) that I am more than willing to concede this is better. But this left a more unpleasant taste in my mouth. It just felt like characters in search of an author, you know? Never finding him. Because he was writing this on auto-pilot.

        The time travel aspect didn’t confuse me. I understood the idea–the pill impacts different people differently. But there is an inherent problem to it all, in that you start wondering if any of these realities–including the one we start out with–mean anything. How many people are popping these things? It would have required a much sharper version of PKD than we get here to make sense of all that.

        I think Norman Spinrad did a much better (and shorter) version of a future dominated by drugs in “No Direction Home” the title story in one of his anthologies. And for that matter, PKD himself did a better job with “A Scanner Darkly.” Indicating he knew he’d gotten a piece of something here, but hadn’t really closed with the material. Maybe because he was too close to it at the time.

        The PKD I like doesn’t go this far down the rabbit hole, to the point where you wonder if you’ve actually been told a story at all. And since he did not list this among his favorites, the ones he might be remembered for (after WWIII, cheerful cus, wasn’t he?), I have to think he knew he’d muffed it.

        I don’t dismiss any of it, everything discussed here is of value–but that’s the problem–it’s being discussed. Ad nauseum. At his best, he shows at least as much as he tells. To paraphrase Churchill, too much jaw jaw gets in the way of the war war. I’m not feeling any of it.

        I told you that for me, the relationships in his stories matter more than the ideas, which probably makes me unusual among his readers. Westlake said he got out of science fiction, because it was too much about ideas, not enough about people. Not always the case, by any means, but there is that constant threat–more often than not, Westlake is right. It’s harder to write about people in SF. Though when somebody pulls it off, and has great ideas too, the results can be mind-blowing.

        Here, PKD is trying to give us people we can care about, but seriously–how can we? Only one I liked at all was Phyllis. With her enormous grey eyes, perfect little white breasts, and a clear sense of what she wants. And she just disappears from the book. Because her creator is wandering in his mind. She’s too focused for a book that isn’t.

        This is satire, like much of what he wrote, but satire does, eventually, have to get to the point. I’d compare this to Westlake’s “I Gave At the Office”, which is a satire of media culture, corporate culture, and there are some beautiful moments in that as well, some very clever devices, but you can’t connect to it, because the protagonist is another sponge. (I’d still rank it over this.)

        One more thing–I’ve never read a PKD biography, but according to Wikipedia, he was married to Anne Rubenstein when he was writing this–she’s considered by many to be the wife that really helped him create a lot of his best work, his best critic, his muse. (You know, a man who gets married that often probably needs to be, even if he does feel trapped by it sometimes.)

        I would suspect she’s Phyllis Ackerman. Who comes off better than anyone else in the book, as I said. Why didn’t he want her to read it? Probably because he knew it wasn’t up to snuff, and it was too defeatist, even for him. He had to get it out, but he didn’t kid himself–he missed the mark. (Of course, she could just go buy a copy after it was published.) Maybe because he knew the marriage was in trouble, and it’s not exactly the kind of novel a wife wants to read from her husband (really, she would be the Eric, and he would be the Kathy.)

        The details are lovely.

        But they’re not stitched together well enough.

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        (I should mention that when he listed what he thought were his best books, he left out some of my faves, like “Our Friends From Frolix 8” so I shouldn’t be using this one’s omission from the list as an argument. For all we know, he had a hard time remembering all the books he’d written. Who doesn’t?)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Sour Lemon Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark) | gaping blackbird

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