Tuesday, January 28, 2020

the last book I read

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick.

I dunno, you wait ages for a planet-scouring apocalypse and then two come along in successive book reviews. No mystery about the cause of this one, though, it's your standard nuclear armageddon doomsday scenario.

Let's wind back to 1981 first though (it's worth pointing out, just for context, that this was still 16 years in the future when the book was published in 1965, rather than 39 years in the past as it is now). America is still broadly recognisable, despite an incident nine years earlier (i.e. in 1972, if you're keeping up) where an accident during some nuclear weapons testing resulted in parts of Earth being irradiated. The man behind the nuclear weapons scheme is the enigmatic Dr. Bluthgeld, who we meet near the beginning of the book attending a therapy session with analyst Dr. Stockstill at his surgery in Berkeley, California. Bluthgeld has some guilt to work through, as you can imagine, and a fair bit of delusional paranoia, too; he imagines everyone knows who he is and is out to get him.

Meanwhile Stuart McConchie and his colleague Hoppy Harrington are just trying to earn a living repairing bits of electronics. Stuart is just a guy, but Hoppy is a bit more remarkable - born with no arms or legs, he has a series of mechanical attachments which permit him to get around and do stuff, but is also starting to develop some telekinetic ability, although (understandably) he's keeping this to himself at the moment. Hoppy's phocomelia was as a result of the thalidomide crisis, but the 1972 radiation incident resulted in a sharp increase in odd mutations and defects, and while there are no Chrysalids-style purges, affected people are viewed with some suspicion - people with Hoppy's condition are widely referred to as "phoces", presumably pronounced like "folks", which you'd think would cause some confusion.

Human endeavour presses on regardless of the odd setback, though, and this day in 1981 is special as it sees the launch of Walt and Lydia Dangerfield in a rocket bound for Mars. The watching millions don't get much opportunity to bask in the metaphorical glow of pride at humankind's ingenuity, though, as no sooner has the rocket reached orbit than nuclear conflict breaks out on Earth and people are basking (briefly) in the literal glow of actual fiery nuclear armageddon. But what caused it? Some confusion related to the Dangerfields' launch? Something to do with Bluthgeld himself?

Jump forward seven years and humanity is hanging in there; in California the somewhat reduced number of people have banded into little self-sufficient communities, one of which is lucky enough to have Hoppy Harrington as their all-round handyman and guy who knows how stuff works. Meanwhile Walt Dangerfield, stocked with all the food and water he could ever need, floats around in constant Earth orbit occasionally broadcasting to whoever's left down on Earth. Lydia Dangerfield, having witnessed full-scale nuclear conflict play out in widescreen technicolour below her, decided that rather than orbit the Earth for several years awaiting the inevitable, she'd just cut straight to the inevitable, and topped herself.

The community of which Hoppy is a part also includes Bonny Keller, Bonny's daughter Edie, and Bonny's ex-colleague Jack Tree, who is actually an incognito Bruno Bluthgeld. It also includes Edie's brother Bill, who everyone assumes is just Edie's imaginary friend, but is actually a sentient fetus in fetu embedded inside Edie and capable of some form of telepathy, including communication with dead people. It is Bill who first realises that Hoppy is up to something that he hasn't told the rest of the community about, and that moreover his telekinetic powers have increased greatly, something that becomes apparent when, after some further nuclear detonations which may or may not have been telepathically induced by Dr. Bluthgeld, Hoppy takes it upon himself to kill Bluthgeld telepathically. Hoppy is also, for reasons best known to himself, interfering with Walt Dangerfield's periodic transmissions and substituting his own fake ones in their place.

Eventually, just as the rest of the community comes to the realisation that Hoppy has become too powerful for them ever to be able to overpower him, Bill (with help from Edie) engineers a final Scanners-style mutant Vulcan mind-meld showdown to save humanity.

What are we to make of all this? Well, as with much of Dick's output, it's not entirely clear. Nuclear war is bad? Well, I think we can probably all agree on that. People are people, and will find a way to get along even in the most unpromising of circumstances? Yeah, sure, why not. The disabled are inherently twisted and evil? Well, steady on.

Dr. Bloodmoney occupies a slot, chronologically, in Dick's oeuvre between the fairly sober realism of The Man In The High Castle and the wild reality-warping mindfuckery of Ubik. And it's somewhere between the two stylistically and thematically, as well - the two sections are in different timelines but within those timelines stuff happens in a fairly normal orderly way. There is some doubt over how much influence Dr. Bluthgeld has over the various nuclear outbursts - we are invited to infer that it's only his paranoia that makes him think he's directly responsible for the main 1981 one, but he does seem to be directly responsible (by what means it's never made clear) for the later, smaller one, at least until Hoppy rubs him out. Hoppy's own motivations are never entirely clear, either, particularly in terms of what motivates him to fuck around with Walt Dangerfield's audio feed. We are invited to infer he's just a megalomaniac and resents the affection the general public holds Dangerfield in.

As I said earlier, that's (purely by chance) two broadly post-apocalyptic novels in a row. Apart from The Pesthouse, other novels on this list which could be described in the same way include The Road, Riddley Walker, O-Zone, and perhaps Barefoot In The Head, Cell, I Am Legend, The Memoirs Of A Survivor and Cat's CradleOn The Beach covers some overlapping themes but is technically immediately pre-apocalypse, while Orphans Of The Sky shares some themes of paranoia about genetic mutation. And the noble sacrifice at the end where an apparently innocuous character takes it upon themselves to sneak under the radar and eliminate a much more formidable opponent while their guard is down is quite reminiscent of the ending of The Midwich Cuckoos. And, of course, the thing with a vestigial conjoined twin with magical telepathic powers is reminiscent of Kuato from Total Recall, which in turn was based on the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which was written by, you've guessed it, one Philip K Dick. What can I say, I guess the guy just liked conjoined telepathic mutants. And who doesn't?

I think this, the third Dick I've read after The Man In The High Castle and Ubik, is probably not quite as good as either of the other two, but there's still plenty to like here, even if it's not completely clear what Dick's point was. It should be said that much of the language used to describe disabled people, Hoppy in particular, by both the narrator and the characters, would qualify as "problematic" to modern sensibilities.

The other obvious thing to say about Dr. Bloodmoney is that it shares some similarities in both title and theme with the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove - even down to its sub-title (How We Got Along After The Bomb). The novel was written before the film came out, but published after, so the plot similarities (which are minimal beyond the general theme of nuclear warfare and the enigmatic eponymous character) are coincidental, the choice of title less so. I acquired my copy for the princely sum of one pound in the unlikely location of the RSPB shop at the Newport Wetlands nature reserve, which is well worth a visit for many reasons, not just cheap second-hand books.

No comments: