I just finished reading my eighth novel by Philip K. Dick, Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970). I read the 2003 Vintage Books edition. I really felt this novel was going to be somewhere in the 4 – 5 star range as far as my rating goes. It surprises me (maybe not that much) that it is going to get a solid three star rating. I think there are two “halves” of the book, the first half is exciting, wild, and unique. It is typical of what I have come to expect from PKD’s writing. The second half had parts that tanked and the ending was miserable. This is unsurprising as well, because PKD’s endings are always poorly done.
The year is 2208 and, as usual, everything is falling apart. In this novel, PKD disassembles the lives of every character and the political/social structure of the planet. The two main characters that get tore up by PKD are Nick Appleton and Willis Gram. Nick Appleton is one of the Old Men – normal, unenhanced,citizens. Willis Gram is the telepathic Council Chairman of Earth – he is basically the President of the planet. The catalysts that start the whole mess are that Nick’s son allegedly fails a government test and Thors Provoni is allegedly returning to Earth after a ten-year absence in order to overthrow the current political schema. (Willis Gram has been Chairman for over two decades.)
The best thing about PKD’s writing is how it makes the pages turn. Readers starting a PKD need to wear their seatbelt and watch for wind sheer from the pages turning. This novel begins by presenting a multilayered madness of future awesome. That sounds neat, but actually does not say much, so let me say this: events occur and PKD does not build up to big events or let the reader acclimate to the setting. There is a lot going on, on a variety of plot levels, and you do not need to worry about all the details. Standard, masterful PKD writing.
In my opinion, there is a lot more emotion in this novel than in early PKD novels. Emotion from PKD himself, but also in the characters – as motive or as part of their personality. For example, Willis Gram is one of the most temperamental characters I’ve met in awhile. Gram is positioned as the antagonist of the novel, but hardly the villain. PKD rarely has heroes and villains. Anyway, Gram is full of emotion – he is impulsive, stubborn, and resentful. His largest challenge is trying to separate his personal life (and its difficulties) from his role in the public sphere as Chairman. [Here’s a really good essay to be written by a college student: the concept of holistic characters in PKD novels.]
When we meet Nick (protagonist), he is disheartened, confused, and unsettled by the status of the government and its social policies. Most of his actions in this novel are driven by his emotions, particularly after he meets Charlotte Boyer. Nick’s world goes to pieces in this novel, sometimes because of his own choices, but many times because of his bad luck and coincidence. Nick, several times, traces back the pattern of events to find out the catalyst. Oftentimes, it is some minor choice or event that sends his life down a wild trajectory towards mayhem. My main issue with Nick is that toward the end of the novel, this emotional and busy man seems to be burned out. His character becomes quite a bit duller and matter-of-fact. So much so that I think it is one of the reasons that the ending is so poor.
Beyond that, there is a large measure of emotion from PKD. Maybe it is my imagination, but it really seems to be there throughout the novel. The author seems angrier and more sorrowful than usual. There is a seething undercurrent in many of the characters and scenes. Nothing I can necessarily put my finger on – but a definite recurring tone throughout the novel. Maybe an example is in how Nick deals with his wife. Or perhaps how Nick feels the emotion jealousy, truly, for the first time. Gram, too, has to deal with his own wife, and it involves the same anger and frustration that Nick feels.
Chapters 14 and 15 are particularly well-written. PKD loves aggravating his characters. The chapters also include a very good sample of how Gram is temperamental and the extreme emotion in the novel:
“What a renegade. What a dispiteous, low-class, self-serving, power-hungry, ambitious, unprincipled renegade. He ought to go down in the history books with that statement about him. . . . . Add to that mentally-disturbed, fanatically radical, a creature – note that: a creature, not a man – who believes any means whatsoever is justified by the end. And what is the end in this case? A destruction of a system by which authority is put and kept in the hands of those physically constructed so as to have the ability to rule.” – Willis Gram discussing Thors Provoni, pg. 94
No, Gram is not friendly with Provoni. Rarely do I come across a character so vehemently obvious in their distaste. And yeah, if I didn’t tell you who was speaking and who they were speaking about – I think there are actually several viable choices for this quote. I think I could be convinced that that quote was spoken by Nick about Gram.
Thors Provoni, isolated as he is from Earth and humanity, seems very worn out. He is sorrowful and depressed – even though he still is carrying on his “mission.” Physically and psychologically, Provoni is quite beaten down and sad. Chapter Eighteen is the most thoughtful writing of the novel. Parts of this chapter even caused me a sniffle – definitely a bit sad (the pets thing).
Overall, this is typical PKD. Everything is crumbling, the government cannot be trusted, and people’s choices are what spin the globe. There is a bit more emotion and depth to the characters in this novel, but PKD still stinks at writing endings. I have to mention that throughout the novel, I felt that the character Thors Provoni was actually PKD. So, three stars for a rating and recommended mainly to PKD fans and people who like tortured characters.