Wednesday, December 19, 2012

100 Books #122 - Philip K. Dick's THE PENULTIMATE TRUTH

Holy Mother Lug Nuts, how did this one escape my notice for so long? And I such a Dickhead that I've even enjoyed Clans of the Alphane Moon? But so it goes: of the handful of Philip K. Dick novels that are/were still on the eternal to-be-read pile, The Penultimate Truth was one for a long, long time. I guess this was partly because I'd assumed I'd read all of his A material and most of his B and all that was left was, well, not either of these.

Shows what I know. Thank goodness for my pal EssJay (who else?), who broadcast her great love for this all-but-forgotten work earlier this year. In her opinion, it should have been a bestseller.

And speaking of EssJay and Philip K. Dick, if you happen to be someone who hasn't read any of my all-time hero's work and are wondering where to start, she went so far as to make a PKD newbie decision tree. And really, even if you're not a newbie, you should go admire. You might even find it useful in helping a friend figure out if PKD is right for them!

Of course, I'm one of those fantatics who thinks PKD is right for everybody, so, well, caveat lector for the rest of this blog post. Because it's not just going to be about this book. No.

Several years ago, I had a dream, a dream so marvelous that I actually cried on waking up and realizing it had all been a dream (even though my dream self had spent a lot of the dream questioning how it could possibly be real). In it, I had found in my father's garage of all places, a big wooden crate brimful of those trade paperback editions of PKD's novels that Del Rey was releasing in the 90s. Among all the beloved familiar titles were some I'd never heard of before. As in they didn't exist. At least not in our world. I'm talking dozens of new-to-me, new-to-everyone, full-on PKD novels. I couldn't decide what to read first. I couldn't carry them all. I couldn't figure out how they'd gotten there, because my dad doesn't do science fiction, nor did my grandfather (most of whose crap is what posthumously clutters that garage). And there was no one with which to share my discovery, my joy, and obviously it was meant to be that way.

Then I woke up. To sadness. So much sadness.

Anyway, I bring this up because I realized, as I was raving to EssJay about it, that The Penultimate Truth feels like one of those books from my dream. How is this book not more famous? It's kind of the bridge book between his conventional* science fiction and his batshit looney tunes theo-philosophical druggie cuckoo stuff. Read closely. You can almost watch the artistically refined madness taking hold of him, in, for instance, the plot the Yancemen (think of them as the 1%, who managed to provoke World War III and then duped the entire surviving population of both sides into evacuating into vast underground "ant tanks" to live and work at an ever-accelerating pace building more weaponry because the Yancemen have also duped everyone else into believing that the War Never Ended) cook up against one of their number, to get him out of the way forever, according to their law: said plot involving fabricating ancient artifacts and alien skulls, salting a building site with them, and letting him get busted for not reporting a discovery that would put a halt to his building project. Dude. The Yancemen are pretty close to all-powerful. They could pretty much just disappear this Runcible guy. But no.


And yet agonizing, too. The Penultimate Truth is also one of the most conscience-burdened of PKD's novels, if not the most, more so even than Dr. Bloodmoney, for Bloodmoney is just concerned with the agenbite of one man's inwit. This one features a whole society of Yancemen whose sole and circular pursuit in life is keeping 99%** of humanity from discovering their hoax -- and working at an ever more frenzied pace to build the robotic "leadies" the tankers believe are going to the war effort but are really going to fill the entourages and private armies of the Yancemen. And most of these Yancemen are at least a little uneasy about their part in this monstrous deception, although none of them seem to have the courage to do anything to address the wrongs from which they benefit. Pangs of conscience never overcome complacency -- or fear, with fear being perhaps the stronger obstacle/opponent, fear of reprisals from betrayed fellow Yancemen and fear of "another war" if the 99% ever emerge from the ant tanks and learn the terrible truth -- in PKD.

Or almost never. Because someone is acting in sneaky ways for the benefit of the 99%, adding delicious mystery, and another layer of paranoia, to the plot.

"Not much of a way... of inheriting the Earth. Maybe we haven't been meek enough." That one little line of dialogue neatly sums up the whole book. It could be spoken among either the Yancemen or the tankers. You'll have to read the book to find out who says it. And you'll remember that I quoted it here, and you'll feel what EssJay calls the "Dick Click" -- that frisson of understanding you get when all the weird crap PKD has been throwing at you finally starts to make a kind of sense, though I think the real Dick Click in this novel is a few chapters after this exchange.

At any rate, for this PKD fan who is also a big fan of hoaxes and hoaxers, this book was pretty much a pipeful of crack. As my bit about my PKD book dream I mentioned a few paragraphs ago might indicate, I'm kind of trying to ration what new-to-me PKD remains. After this, though, my resolve is kind of crumbling.

*Well, conventional for him, anyway.

**Dick never uses these figures, but the dystopia he has created for The Penultimate Truth so perfectly fits our current situation and rhetoric that it's impossible not to use them, just as its impossible not to think of the robotic "leadies" the tankers keep building as our modern drone weaponry, at least in part. PKD was a freaking precog, yo.


  1. [does told ya so dance]

    But seriously, I don't know why this one is dismissed so frequently as one of his lesser works.

    If I were deejaying, I'd refer to this as one of his "deep cuts." Yeah, it doesn't get all the airtime of your VALISes and your DADoESes, but it's like that hidden gem that real fans will appreciate when it comes on.

    I need to go to bed, that didn't make much sense.

    1. That is an analogy that PKD, or his Nicholas Brady persona at least, would really, really dig!

    2. So, having received a few clickthroughs from this today (thank you, btw), I felt the need to re-read what you had to say about this one (which really should be READ BY EVERYONE).

      I love nothing more than when you and I are in complete agreement on a book, and this was such a good example.

      I was planning on re-reading this one, but recently came into possession of In Milton Lumky Territory and feel like reading some of his non-sf next.

  2. It's nice to find a blog post about this novel, which I consider to be one of the best of all time by ANY author. We can take satisfaction from the fact that it's part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks collection.


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