tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
[personal profile] tispity
The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

They were selfish; they had made the world into their deer park at the expense of the millions of tankers below; it was wrong and they knew it and they felt guilt - not quite enough to cause them to knock off Brose and let the tankers up, but enough guilt to make their late evenings a thrashing agony of loneliness, and their nights impossible.

I haven't read too much sci-fi yet this year, so this one was a very gripping move towards rectifying that omission. Although I was only a little girl in 80s it was impossible not be aware of the cold war, the threat of nuclear destruction and, of course, all those safety and information films - not to mention Raymond Brigg's classic, traumatic cartoon When the Wind Blows - about how to survive in the worst-case scenario. Those kinds of films occupy a place at the chilling heart of this novel which deals with, among many difficult moral issues, the incredible power of war-time propaganda documentaries. Dick offers us two protagonists: Nicholas St James is the president of Tom Mix 'ant tank', a subterranean habitation and factory where people live to avoid the irradiated surface of the planet, and make "leadies" the war robots that are representing both factions in the global war that rages above. The "tankers" learn of the progress of the war and are encouraged not to lose hope by regular TV broadcasts from one Talbot Yancy. They fear emerging on the surface because of the violence, radiation and rumours of a host of bio-diseases but when the head engineer of the tank becomes in desperate need of an artificial pancreas, Nicholas is coerced into making the journey. The other side of the story follows Joseph Adams, a speech-writer for Yancy's organisation, living a life of extreme luxury on the surface and helping to conceal from victims like Nicholas the fact that the war ended thirteen years ago, struggling all the while to suppress his conscience as he does so.

These lies are revealed in the opening chapters of the novel so it's not a massive spoiler to give that much away here. The bulk of the novel explores the implications of this situation asking some fundamental questions: how do we live with guilt, and above all, what is reality and how can we recognise it? With trust no one as its central refrain, the novel becomes a gripping, if highly complex murder mystery as the Yance men on the surface grapple for power and the cracks in their fabric of lies become ever more apparent. I felt the ending was rather rushed (which I know is a common criticism of Dick) but this is a novel of ideas more than anything, so I never expected a neat solution. Rather, Dick prefers to turn a mirror towards the reader asking us what we'd do and whether we'd really act any more morally in the same situation. The depressing overall feeling I gain from reading this is that Dick really doesn't think we would. Still, this a real genre classic and ideologically, perhaps, more relevant today than ever.

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tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)

September 2010

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