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

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Robots make great workers
I never care for books that claim to be as pertinent today as the day the day they were written, or to contain a story that could be ripped from today's headlines. Copies of The Penultimate Truth(1964) do not make those claims, but as we watch the various "Occupy" movements take place, I couldn't help but think that PKD's novel described a society badly in need of an Occupy Earth movement.

As is so often the case with PKD novels, there has been an atomic war. I think he places this one in the 1980's, and he still imagines such a conflict would involve Western democracies and Soviet controlled countries. As bombs drop, much of the fighting is carried on by "leadies," robots manufactured to be soldiers. With spreading radiation, millions of earthlings are moved underground into what are unflatteringly known as Ant Tanks. Now safe from the radiation and destruction, the tankers' sole function is to manufacture an unending supply of leadies for the war effort.

Severeraldecades pass, the war goes on, and tankers receive nightly news reports of just how bad the situation continues to be. There is just one catch. A treaty ended the war years ago. As radiation hot zones continue to decrease, the ruling elite that has remained topside has decided that life without hundreds of millions of the common sort is not so bad. Let them stay in their ant tanks, producing leadies that go not into the war effort but become the worker bees for that 1% that now live in lavish mansions on thousand acre demesnes. The only real work done by humans is the effort to maintain the illusion that life topside is hell and that the tankers are best off where they are. 

But the strains are beginning to show. Radiation has sterilized most of the human race, and the advertising men, government officials, and police agencies that rule the globe are paranoid, bored, and slipping into senility. Down below, tankers realize that certain things just don't add up. When the chief engineer of the Tom Mix Tank dies of pancreatic cancer, his tank colony is terrified that they will not be able to meet their leadie production quotas. The engineer is flash frozen and the president of the group is sent tunneling to the surface, despite all the dangers, in search of an artiforg pancreas that will save the day.

The Penultimate Truth is one of PKD's more tightly constructed and coherent narratives. There are plots and counterplots and mysteries; and the characters have coherent motivations. Perhaps readers will miss the wild ride of something like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch but coming after the grab bag of The Simulacra and the perverse incoherence of Lie's, Inc I found it a satisfying read.There is a lot of talk as characters explain the situation to one another, and tortuous internal monologues are not uncommon. But this keeps the novel to the 200 page sweet spot, and what action set pieces take place are well told. An assassination scene is one of PKD's most creepily effective episodes. You may want to toss any old portable TV sets you still have lying around after you read it.

One highlight of twisted thinking among the elite topsiders is that if the hoi polloi come streaming back to the surface, another war will be inevitable. Since when did commoners start wars? I think they are mistaking war for some serious ass kicking. If I remember my history correctly, wars are started by those very people who are currently running the PKD's future earth like a well-oiled but fatally flawed machine.

1 comment:

  1. Is there a sociopathic brown-haired girl? She usually makes an appearance in every one of his novels...