“Then how come,” Blair said, “you’re squatting here in these ruins instead of lounging at a swimming pool in one of those conapt constellations?”
The man grunted, gestured. “I just–like to be free.”
Back in 2016, I took part in a Philip K. Dick reading challenge with a few fellow bloggers. I read and reviewed one PKD novel each month, while working through the mammoth, monster-of-a-tome that is The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011), 75 pages at a time. That was the year my blog became more than just the occasional post about cherry blossoms or Halloween reads. So, I have the novels of PKD to thank for leading me–kind of–to where I am today, typing these words.
‘World War III is raging – or so the millions of people crammed in their underground tanks believe. For fifteen years, subterranean humanity has been fed on daily broadcasts of a never-ending nuclear destruction, sustained by a belief in the all powerful Protector. But up on Earth’s surface, a different kind of reality reigns. East and West are at peace. Across the planet, an elite corps of expert hoaxers preserve the lie.’
After an atomic war, a great proportion of the world’s population has moved underground. They live in huge antiseptic tanks known as “ant tanks” deep below the surface. These “tankers” spend their working hours building battle robots called “leadies” which continue to fight the war. That’s right, the war is believed to be still raging over fifteen years later. With the surface of the Earth irradiated and in ruins, no human would survive there very long.
Following a medical emergency in one of the tanks, Nicholas St. James is chosen to go to the surface and locate an artificial pancreas. (Don’t ask!) On reaching the surface, he is almost killed by a pair of leadies patrolling the area. Fortunately, they are destroyed by a mysterious good samaritan allowing Nicholas to meet up with a group of survivors living on the surface. To reveal too much more would spoil the story, so I will end my summary here.
This was my first shot of “PKD” in a while, but was quite disappointing. I found The Penultimate Truth to be a complex and confusing story. A number of characters are introduced from the start and I sometimes lost track of who was who, as well as who was where. The different plot threads got tangled up in my head and there were times when I had to re-read earlier parts of the book. The premise of the story is good, and there are some interesting parallels with the “fake news” of today, but the execution felt lacking. A lot of the writing was clunky with some of the sentences going on and on and on too long. Here are a couple of examples for your reading pleasure:
‘For some reason–but here he did not care to probe his own mind too deeply–he was lonelier with Colleen Hackett than without her, and anyhow late on Sunday night he fixed a dreadful drink; it was always too sweet, as if by mistake one of his leadies had dug up a bottle of Tokay and he had used it, not dry vermouth, in the martinis.’
‘And, he thought, we’re still here and it isn’t good but it beats that; he watched the screen fixedly, saw a flock of leadies melt–hence the name–and, to his horror, still try to run while melting.’
There is one really great scene in here that involves a small robotic assassin and its sleeping target. It happens in Chapter 18. I was gripped by PKD’s writing during this scene and have just re-read it to remind myself that he can write when he wants to.
At this stage in his career he was churning out stories for (not very much) money. I read somewhere that he had four(!) books published in 1964, the year this was released. So you can understand my criticism of clunky writing. This was possibly his first draft and shows its lack of refinement. I think this would have worked better as a short story. (This book is only 190 pages, but it dragged!)
If I were to recommend a Philip K. Dick book to a new reader, I would suggest Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man in the High Castle, or A Maze of Death.
Thanks for reading!