You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Solar LotterySolar Lottery by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have decided that 2011 will be the Year of Philip K. Dick. (Early 2010 was the Year of J G. Ballard) I have laid in a supply of novels, non-fiction writings, a biography, a french intellectual's analysis of the work, and four, over-priced volumes of his letters. I am set to go.

I like to start at the beginning. Volume One of the Collected Short Stories proves a chore to get through, but Vol. 1 of letters contain a the truest voice of Dick anyone is likely to find. Solar Lottery is the first novel, published in 1955, by which time he as already cranking out short stores for a variety of sf pulp magazines. (I suspect I will fall back on the phrase "cranking out" fairly often when writing about Dick;'s output, but I do jot mean it deargatorialy. Dick wrote fast. He also rewrote fast, and as someone who has done only journalism I am appalled at how many times a 5000 word short story, for which he is maybe getting paid a dime a word, goes back and forth between the editor and author. But he was lucking to have Anthony Boucher as an early editor. I don't think Boucher's influence on the shape of the early stories has been fully investigated.

Solar Lottery takes place in what will become the prototypical Dicksian wold -- an illogical totalitiarn state, where the population scrambles to maintain their "ratings" by working in the HIlls, which seem to be form of international conglomerates spaced around the earth, the capital of which is now Batavia, Indonesia. The whole society is controlled by the twitches what is called "The Bottle," a lottery device for which the populace hangs on to their P-cards that promise them a one in six million chance to become quizmaster, an enviable top spot that also involves an army of telepaths to protect the winner from constant, and legally sanctioned assassination attempts. As the song says, "Paranoia runs deep,." Everyone with any sense wears good luck charms.

Our hero, Ted Benteley, has been laid off from his Hill. He is an 8 -8 classified Biochemist and flies to Batavia in an attempt to get a job with the current quizmaster, Reese Verrick. What he doesn't know is that he is joining the team of a man who has just been replaced, after ten years, by a twitch of the bottle that has transferred the role to Leon Cartwritght, an unclassified leader of a the Prestonites, a scraggly religious cult based on the teachings of one John Preston, who disappeared over a century before into the world beyond the nine planet system in search of the flaming disk.

But wait, I am falling into the thankless task of attempting to summarize a Philip K. Dick novel. The pleasures of the novel, which he wrote when he was twenty-five years old, lies in Dick's ability to immerse you in this future world, where, as a reader, it is best to not ask any questions and just enjoy the ride. Events race along, but overall they make sense and follow the logic of 23rd century Earth. Dick seldom defines much of his invented nomenclature, but most is easy to follow. "Teeps" are the telepathic corpsmen protecting the quizmaster, When Varrick looses that role, he's been  "quacked." "Unks" are the unclassified masses. The bubble-like resort on the moon is protected from the atmosphere-free exterior by "exit sphincters." And as in all the Dick novels I ever read, he proves to be quite the tit man. Standard female 23rd century dress tends to leave the breasts exposed, and Dick seldom fails to comment on those of each major female character.

The most obvious "first-novel" elements in The Solar Lottery come towards the end, when Benteley does some of the type of soul seaching that was in the Berkeley air at the time Dick wrote it. For example:

"I played the game for years," Cartwright said. "Most people go on playing the game all their lives. Then I began to realize the rules were set up so I couldn't win. Who wants to play that kind of game? We're betting against the house, and the house always wins."

"That's true," Bentely agreed. After a time he said, "There's no point in playing a rigged game. But what's your answer?"

"You do what I did. You draw up new rules and play by them. Rules in which all the players have the same odds."

Good luck with that.

Dick will write better novels in the decades that follow, as he becomes more cynical but unfortunately also more delusional and paranoid. There is quite a cult surrounding Dick, which I am by no means a part of. I have not read enough of the work to know how I feel about it. That's the purpose of the current project.

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