Tricky Dick

By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 28, 2008

Well, then, what is death? Not just for individuals, but for civilizations? Manfred’s tomb world returns in Dick’s 1965 novel Doctor Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb. Here the desolation is external and not subjective. Among the survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear exchange is Hoppy, a Thalidomide victim. He may have vestigial limbs, but he’s discovered vast psychic powers that allowed him to turn the ruined planet into his plaything. Hoppy has company in Bill, a mutation spawned by radiation who lives in his twin sister’s abdomen. Bill can communicate with the dead, and he has . . . other powers. Bloodmoney is actually less like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, whose similar subtitle you’ll have noted (Dick wanted to title the book In Earth’s Diurnal Course or A Terran Odyssey), than like Walter M. Miller’s post-apocalyptic 1960 classic A Canticle for Liebowitz, with Dick’s particular grotesquerie adding disturbing dissonance to the somber allegory.

The paradox of time persists as a theme in 1966’s Now Wait for Next Year. It’s 2055, and Terra has engaged in a dubious interstellar war. (When the book came out, the US was just getting stuck in the Vietnam quagmire.) Benevolent despot Gino Molinari, the “Mole,” a combination of “Mussolini and Lincoln,” rules the planet, but the job has taken its toll: the guy’s in worse shape than Dick Cheney, and he requires a surgeon, Eric Sweetscent, by his side at all times ready to replace any organ as need be, even during a high-powered meeting with the head of Earth’s treacherous ally, the Lilistar system. He’s like the Fisher King or Jesus Christ in that his empathic suffering helps the planet survive — until spies get his estranged wife addicted to JJ-180, a drug that causes the user to travel through time. (“Somehow involved with your sense of what Kant called the ‘categories of perception,’ ” explains one user.) Is this the end of the Mole’s desperate, Machiavellian schemes? Or is it their culmination? Mind-boggling and rollicking in its inventiveness, Last Year also works as a kind of sci-fi Scenes from a Marriage. (Dick survived five of them.)

Never one to kick a productive habit, Dick also featured a time-traveling drug of sorts in his magisterial 1974 novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Jason Taverner is a big TV and recording star in the near future (1994) until he wakes up after a near-fatal encounter with an ex-mistress to a world where nobody knows who he is. Everything else seems the same; he just has no record of having existed, a problem in a police state where ID checks are on every block. Taverner comes to the attention of the cultivated and creepy Police General Felix Buckman, a fan of the John Dowland lute piece “Lacrimae,” whose lyrics suggest the book’s title. (The protagonist’s name is surely an allusion to yet another Renaissance English composer.) Buckman is unusually close to his twin sister (they have a child), who, being an anarchistic, polymorphously perverse pill-popping freak, is his antithesis. Could one of the pills she popped have something to do with Taverner’s fix and the overall threat it poses to the social order?

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