The Penultimate Truth (1964) by Philip K. Dick

“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.

Publisher’s Synopsis

‘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.’

My Summary

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.

All my Philip K. Dick reviews.

Thanks for reading!

13 thoughts on “The Penultimate Truth (1964) by Philip K. Dick

  1. This sounds remarkably like the short story by J.G. Ballard. Of course, I might be mashing together several of Ballard’s stories, so….

    With your little reveal about reading PKD getting you into more serious blogging, do you have a “How I got into Blogging” kind of post anywhere? I’m always interested in the genesis of bloggers and what drove them to be the bloggers I know here and now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t have such a post yet but it could be one for the future. Thanks🙂 I haven’t read much by Ballard. I’ve got a BIG collection of his short stories but I’ve only dipped into it occasionally.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I dnf’d the Ballard collection at 55%. It was uniformly depressing. I might have had better luck with a story or two a month instead of one right after the other 😀

        I am liking that word “yet”! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know what you mean about Ballard. I’ve been having the same problem with short story collections, especially when they’re from the same author. Spacing them out over a longer period works better for me😎

          Liked by 1 person

  2. That productivity tops Sanderson!
    Back in the 90s I burned out of reading PKD as it felt repetitive. I just understood his topics and didn’t need more of it.
    Only with Man in the High Castle some years ago, I found back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He’s not the easiest writer to read. And you don’t read him for quality literature or great characters. But there’s something about his stories that I always enjoy. Certainly a man of ideas, rarely dull and often quite bonkers. Genius or madman? You have to decide yourself.😏

      Liked by 1 person

      • I remember reading something of his, but it was so long ago I don’t really recall the experience; I only know I thought the ideas were great, the execution less so. Good to see this confirmed! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to know the original story behind Blade Runner and ever since wanted to pick up more of this dude’s stuff, even if they are insane (like Morrison) at times! This one, however, sounds like something to visit when you’ll have read more from him or something though. 😮 Great honest review, sir.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read very little PKD so far. I’ve wanted to try Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for quite some time. I’ve also heard good things about The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Have you read that one?

    Liked by 1 person

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