The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1964. I have not read a PKD novel since August 2016 and I really feel bad about that. This novel made me feel better about my reading; PKD is a heckuva writer. The only really bad thing about this novel was that my copy is the 1998 Harper/Voyager edition. The cover is awful; allegedly by artist Chris Moore. The female on the cover looks android-ish; strange skull shape and her neck seems too long. But the issue is that there are no female main characters, only very minor ones, so why is there a weird girl on the cover?
Anyway, the main characteristic of this novel is that it is the most like the “typical” and “usual” style of novels that one reads. I mean, structurally and style-wise. It is somehow the most normal of the PKD novels. There is a linear storyline and the plot, though futuristic, is not bizarre. The ending is actually one of PKD’s better ones! Sometimes I cannot recommend a PKD novel to a fellow reader because his novels do not appeal to all readers, even if I think they are interesting or exceptional. This novel, a dystopian imagining, should appeal widely. Still, it feels PKD was really holding the reins tightly on this one.
Not to say that there are not key PKD elements to this novel. This entire novel is about one’s possible worst fears regarding governmental control. So, it belongs in that category of 1984, We, and other works that highlight extreme totalitarian governments. In this story, however, the “government” (and I use that term quite loosely) is a gigantic facade that the masses wholeheartedly believe is working for their best interests. Perhaps it was originally, because this novel depicts a future that takes place during/after World War III.
The War is between West-Dem and Pac-Peop. Human soldiers are not involved in the actual combat. Instead, leadies, which are intensely powerful robots that can survive nearly anything, fight the battles. The entire planet is enveloped in warfare. Extreme hazardous conditions result from the war and humans are forced into “ant tanks” in order to be protected. These ant tanks are deep underground. The inhabitants spend their lives on rations and they are employed in repairing leadies and sending the parts back into the war effort. Above ground remain the few necessary figures – the government and other such ranking groups.
But the war ends and nobody tells the majority of human population that is underground. Instead, the simulacrum of a world still at war is fed to the masses. Thoroughly misinformed about the state of their country, the war, the planet, the people in the tanks are held as prisoners not by force, really, but by fear and lies.
Now, this sounds fairly interesting, but probably not too unique. There are plenty of novels that have similar totalitarian dystopian visions. However, what is great about this novel is that PKD does not let us have one truth, two truths, three truths. And, really, at the end of the novel we may only have reached the “penultimate truth.” What is truth?
For decades truth has been manufactured – and it is always manufactured – by the group in power. So, layers and layers of lies/truths are the reality and are there no good men left to save us all? No matter how the storyline plays out, there is a deep feeling that in this novel PKD truly loses his faith in humanity. I have now read twelve PKD novels. Some are more frivolous, some are more bitter. Some are soul-searching. But this one, I am starting to believe, is the turning point. From early PKD with some hope to latter PKD, who is without hope for humanity.
None of the characters in this novel are good. They are not wholly altruistic, moral, self-sacrificing men. In fact, in several places, they are despicable and conniving and utterly self-serving. They display cowardice, greed, violence, and deceit. PKD even manages to squeeze in a little moralizing here: in a cruel, totalitarian simulacra, does traditional morality get displaced? Are some actions, normally taboo and immoral, now considered necessary?
This is a very good novel. It is creepy and frightening in many ways. The characters are a little difficult to follow every so often, but its easy reading and not slow and sluggish. It is also accessible to most readers, I would think. However, most of us spoiled-rotten readers do not turn to PKD for worlds that “make sense” are “typical” and stories which have a “beginning, middle, end.” We read PKD when we want to be put in a super-fast rocket as everything is turned upside-down and inside-out. The bizarre and wacky that PKD usually paints his dystopian stories in is missing. And I missed it.