Monday, July 5, 2010

SF Masterworks #32: Philip K Dick, Dr Bloodmoney

Philip K Dick provides an afterword for this edition of Dr. Bloodmoney where he shares his amusement at some of the predictions he got wrong. Key amongst these assumptions was the immediacy of the end of the world which Dick felt was almost inevitable at the time and was expecting at any moment. Sixty-six years on, the world still hasn't ended so I am able to bring you my thoughts on this particular Masterwork.

The novel is divided chronologically in the first half, between Emergency Day when the bombs fell and its aftermath seven years later. This is more effective because both periods are treated as present rather than using flashbacks and the reader is expected to follow the shifts through the text rather than having a device like dated chapter headings. The earlier period is dropped as events in the later parts of the novel take over. The reader follows a number of characters through both time periods as their lives are changed forever and through the human drama of a rural community. Typically we never really get an outside explanation of why the bombs fell and how the end of the world as we know it came about, all we ever know is that the paranoid Bruno Bluthgeld believes that it's all his fault.

On E-Day, Hoppy Harrington is starting his job at the TV repair shop to the annoyance of salesman Stuart McConchie, Dr Stockstill is trying to help Bluthgeld with his paranoia and Mr & Mrs Dangerfield are about to be launched into space to orbit the earth. Seven years later, the same people are largely doing the same things: Hoppy is still repairing things, Stuart is still a salesman, Dr Stockstill wants to help people and Walt Dangerfield is alone in space broadcasting to the word, the last person keeping them all connected.

It’s a typical PK Dick book. Huge global catastrophic events form a backdrop to small human dramas; Bonny Keller's string of affairs, little Edie's relationship with her brother (a little unusual since he lives inside her), Hoppy's meglomania. Meanwhile, references to what happened are vague and uninformative, with only the various characters viewpoints being offered as explanation. Some refer simply to the disaster, others mention bombs, the sky is a little darker and both people and animals are mutated but there is no omnipotent narrator detailing whether it was in fact a war, who started it, what the extent of the damage is. There are brief references to other countries, Japan at one point it's suggested may be further along in rebuilding than America, but the nearest thing to global information is Dangerfield in his satellite.

Dr. Bloodmoney, written in the early sixties, is at once very dated and still futuristic. The technology is old but although in some ways it plays a significant role, it's not invasive in this essentially human story. At the same time it's still possible to imagine a series of events that would lead us back to smaller, more rural communities, reducing the populations of cities to the levels of villages and small town. Maybe we no longer believe nuclear war would leave us this way, but something could and it's never explicitly nuclear in Dr. Bloodmoney.

Female characters play a smaller role than they might now, the two significant adult women being the continually unfaithful Mrs Keller and the intimidating Mrs Raub, not exactly positive role models. Dick was already pushing the boundaries for the era though with Stuart as a sympathetic black male lead and additionally Edie, being a child, is not constrained by gender roles and so provides a strong positive female character. Although clearly informed by events at the time, the space race and the Cold War, those sensibilities are not explicit, so while Dr Bluthgeld may represent the enemy and evil it is not such a specific enemy as Russia, rather a more general representation or madness and evil in humanity. The result is that the book feels charmingly dated but the reading experience is largely unaffected by that.

It's a quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes chilling read and in spite of the circumstances overall it presents an optimistic view of humanity. The general feeling is that most people will try to rebuild communities and carry on with their lives. Of course, there is always the risk of a perfectly good horse getting eaten by the war vets who live under the ferry jetty. When Stuart returns to his horse drawn car after a trip to buy parts and discovers just the inedible bits left, his sorrow over the loss is contrary to what we have seen of him so far and while the scene is delivered with humour it's also quite touching.

One of my favourite passages begins with an example of Dick's dry humour and although it has no real relevance to the plot, it humanises a side character and provides some insight into what these characters are experiencing:

'”Listen my friend”, the Veteran said, “I got a pet rat lives under the pilings with me? He's smart; he can play the flute. I'm not putting you under an illusion, it's true. I made him a little wooden flute and he plays it, through his nose... it's practically an Asiatic nose-flute like they have in India. Well, I did have him, but the other day he got run over”.'

The image of a rat playing a nose flute will stay with me and make me smile for some time.

Dick talks in the afterward about the characters representing the best and worst of us all and it is possible at times to relate to all of them, even little Edie with her brother inside her, in spite of the strangeness of her situation her relationship with him is utterly typical of siblings, the petulance of their bickering comfortingly familiar:

'Ominously, Bill said,”if you don't, I'm going to go to sleep for a whole year.” He was silent, then. “Got to sleep, then,” Edie said. “I don't care. I have a lot of other people to talk to and you don't.” “I'll die, then, and you won't be able to stand that, because you'll have to carry a dead thing around forever inside you,”.'

When we finally see a little honesty in Bonny Keller's internal dialogue we find something that makes her suddenly more human:

'The world is so innocent,she thought to herself. Even yet after all that has happened to us. Gill wants to cure me of me – restlessness. Stuart McConchie can't imagine what I could wish for that I don't have right here. But maybe they're right and I'm wrong. Maybe i've made my life unduly complicated...maybe there's a machine in Berkeley that will save me too.'

Having read the author's comments, I shall leave you finally with some of his own final thoughts about this still extremely enjoyable and poignant book.

“I am proud of the people in this novel. And as I say, I would like to number myself as one of them. I once pushed a broom on the sidewalk of Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and I felt the joy and sense of busy activity and industry that Stuart feels, the excitement, the sense of the future. And, as the novel depicts, despite the war – the war that did not in fact happen – it is a good future. I would have enjoyed being there with them in their microcosm, their postwar West Marin world."

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