Tuesday, August 10, 2010

SF Masterworks #57: Philip K. Dick, The Simulacra

Philip K. Dick is perhaps the most visionary American SF writer of the 20th century.  From the late 1950s until his death in 1982, Dick wrote over forty novels, several of which dealt with issues of authority, identity, deception, and the mutability of perceived reality.  In previous novels discussed here, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and The Man in the High Castle (1962), Dick developed these themes in stories that were often fast-paced, frentic, and seemingly on the verge of dissolving into a textual mess.  In his 1964 novel, The Simulacra, Dick has written perhaps one of his stranger, more frayed narratives.

The Simulacra is set in the mid-21st century.  The United States and the former West Germany have merged to form the United States of Europe and America.  The government has dissolved into a sort of byzantine council, with a First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who is actually a line of actresses (currently at number four) who portray the feminine half of the United States.  An android simulacra has become Der Alte, or the "old man" that presides/reigns in public with Nicole.  Psychotherapy has been banned, except for one psychologist, Dr. Egon Superb, who is permitted to practice his banned profession on a patient who is convinced that he has lethal body odor.  There is a neofascist who wants to takeover the USEA and he uses his mysterious position within the ruling USEA council to further his plot.

Confused yet?  There is so much happening in The Simulacra that it would be difficult to keep track of everything easily.  In fact, it appears that the main idea behind this novel is to point out that beyond the surface level of paranoia and deception lurks deeper levels of mendacity, treachery, and equivocation.  Compounding these levels of duplicity at the highest levels of the USEA government is a complex social structure divided into the "Ges" and "Bes"; those who know many of the secrets surrounding Nicole and her cabal and those who do not.  It is in this morass of dissimulation and prevarication that the stories of Kate (the fourth Nicole), Egon Superb, Bertold Goltz, and Richard Kongrosian unfold.

At first, these subplots bear little relation to one another.  Nicole/Kate's need to maintain the deception that she has inherited from her previous Nicole imitators is a matter of state security:  if the veil of who really runs the USEA were to be revealed, the entire socio-political structure would be in grave danger.  Yet more and more people, the "Ges," have to be in the know in order to maintain the deception.  This leads to cynical exchanges, such as this one between two "Bes" who wonder about "Nicole":

'Loony Luke,' Ian said, 'have you ever met Nicole?' It was a sudden thought on his part, an intuition.

'Sure,' Luke said steadily.  'Years ago.  I had some hand puppets; my dad and I travelled around putting on puppet shows.  We finally played the White House.'

'What happened there?' Ian asked.

Luke, after a pause, said, 'She - didn't care for us.  Said something about our puppets being indecent.'

And you hate her, Ian realized.  You never forgave her.

'Were they?' he asked Luke.

'No," Luke answered.  'True, one act was a strip show; we had follies girl puppets.  But nobody ever objected before.  My dad took it hard but it didn't bother me.'  His face was impassive.

Al said, 'Was Nicole the First Lady that far back?'

'Oh yes,' Luke said.  'She's been in office for seventy-three years; didn't you know that?'

'It isn't possible,' both Al and Ian said, almost together.

'Sure it is,' Luke said.  'She's a really old woman, now.  Must be.  A grandmother.  But she still looks good, I guess.  You'll know when you see her.'

Stunned, Ian said, 'On TV - '

'Oh yeah,' Luke agreed.  'On TV she looks around twenty.  But go to the history books...except of course they're banned to everyone except Ges.  I mean the real history texts; not the ones they give you for studying for those relpol tests.  Once you look it up you can figure it out for yourself.  The facts are all there.  Buried down somewhere.'

The facts, Ian realized, mean nothing when you can see with your own eyes she's as young-looking as ever.  And we see that every day.

Luke you're lying, he thought.  We know it; we all know it. (p. 117)
 Notice the self-deception contained within the passage.  Even when the evidence should be obvious that there are cover-ups, several people in this society willingly deceive themselves rather than question the discrepancies within their government.  Although it is difficult to judge with certainty due to Dick's opaque writing, it appears that in scenes such as this that Dick is criticizing the often sheep-like acceptance that citizens have for governments that are corrupt and deceptive.  This is further evidenced in the Goltz subthread, where he tries to engineer a neofascist coup d'etat of the government, a government in which he is a secret member.  Surrounding this is the enigmatic relationship of Dr. Egon Superb and the mentally ill Richard Kongrosian.  Kongrosian is convinced that he has lethal body odor and it is through Superb's efforts to restore a sense of rationality to a world that apparent has become more and more full of maladjusted people that provides yet another level of irrationality to a story that is already full of the strange and twisted.

Although there are some connections between these subplots, Dick purposely does not create a tight interweaving.  Instead, each is left with frayed edges of uncertainty about what is really occurring behind the scenes.  It is these mostly-unwitnessed elements that provide The Simulacra within its inconclusive and yet fittingly strange conclusion.

Is The Simulacra worthy of being considered a "Masterwork?"  Not really.  It is a minor, flawed piece that contains several of Dick's weaknesses as a writer and not enough of his strengths.  Although The Simulacra is purposely left disjointed, even in that disjointedness there is a sloppiness in character, plot, and thematic execution that is not as prevalent in his more famous stories.  Here, the point of there being deceptions behind deceits is constructed well, but behind that lurks the sense that there is a pointlessness to the novel that detracts from some of its fine qualities.  Unlike the three novels of his mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Simulacra lacks the thematic unity necessary to make this hodgepodge of paranoiac scenes more than just a scattershot of ideas that fail to coalesce into something more than the sum of its part.  The Simulacra is interesting only in seeing how some of the ideas here were developed with greater success in several of Dick's other novels from the 1960s.  It is not a quality work on its own and thus should not be recommended for reading unless the reader already has some understanding of Dick's other novels.


  1. I completely agree it's not a masterwork. It's inclusions such as this that show there's too many PKD books in the masterworks series. No one author (even one of PKD's statute) deserves fifteen entries. This is one of those that should have been dropped.

  2. I haven't read this particular book, but I agree with the "too much Dick can be a bad thing" (*blush*) sentiment. I mean, there are obvious gaps in this series (Zelazny, Delany, Heinlein, to name just a few off the top of my head), and yes, I do realize it is probably a matter of copyrights. But in the end, that is not really the readers' concern, is it?