Dr. Bloodmoney: Or How We Got Along After the Bomb

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsDr. Bloodmoney: Or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick

Based on the overwhelming success of The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick set about writing another alternate history/future. Choosing the Cold War as its crux, he imagined a US wherein the post-WWII threat of nuclear catastrophe manifests itself. Dr. Bloodmoney: Or How We Got Along After the Bomb is the (conveniently sub-titled) result.

With only a few main elements in common with that first big success, most of the characteristics of Dr. Bloodmoney set it apart. The Man in the High Castle was realistic save the alternate history aspect, but Dr. Bloodmoney finds Dick slowly blending in more and more of his typical motifs — precogs, schizophrenia, and telekinesis — and building toward a surreal conclusion. Though falling short of the earlier novel’s standard, Dr. Bloodmoney is still one of the better books in Dick’s convoluted oeuvre and worth a read.

Told in two time frames, Dr. Bloodmoney opens innocently enough. Stuart McConchie stands on the street, sweeping the walk in front of the shop where he sells TVs. Observing the life around him, all seems normal in the San Francisco of 1992. Slowly and confidently, more characters in the city are introduced, including Hoppy Harrington, an armless, legless man who possesses unnatural skills with technology, as well as the eponymous Dr. Bluthgeld, an atomic physicist who believes he’s suffering from schizophrenia. Timeline and viewpoint rumbling like an earthquake for a chapter — a great literary touch from Dick — the bombs fall and the narrative jumps ahead seven years to life after the nuclear disaster.

Another important character is Dangerfield. Intending to start a new life on Mars, the bombs fall just as his spaceship enters Earth’s stratosphere. With the station that was to redirect him to Mars destroyed, he is stuck inside a rocket orbiting Earth. In the seven years that pass, Dangerfield becomes a well-known personality, however. His radio broadcasts of music and books are much appreciated by the scrounging and desperate quarter of the population who survive. His mental health failing throughout the book, the culmination of Dangerfield’s story proves integral to the main storyline, as well as being one of Dick’s more affecting personalizations.

Thematically, the novel touches upon a variety of subjects, including discrimination. Stuart being black and Hoppy handicapped, each man faces a variety of ridicule both before and after the bombs. Though one can never be certain with Dick, it is possible the book is also a statement on post-WWII allied behavior. Intentional or not, hints that victory over Hitler gave the US and Russian governments an opportunity to gobble up power before things settled are less than subtle. (The title is another hint.) Conspiracy theories seem to always be hanging around in the background of Dick’s stories, but this suggestion may have proven itself true, as the US has since wittingly involved itself in a series of international fiascoes and successes, depending on perspective.

One of the reasons The Man in the High Castle is considered Dick’s greatest work is due to its consistent development. The realist albeit alternate history idea presented at the opening is adhered to throughout the novel and form is never broken to introduce new or paranormal elements. Dr. Bloodmoney cannot say the same. Like the graph of human population through time, the novel’s tone begins flat, moves steadily forward along realist terms, and escalates smoothly but sharply at the finish into a strange, wholly surreal conclusion. While feeling natural due to the manner in which Dick develops the story, the tone of the finale nevertheless does not match the realist nature of the novel’s opening and body. What begins as a character-driven examination of post-nuclear apocalypse America becomes a weird, supernatural story that may or may not confuse matters, depending on expectation.

In the end, Dr. Bloodmoney is one of Dick’s better efforts despite its realist foundation giving way to the supernatural at the end. The story is at least developed smoothly, characterization likewise. The novel’s plot also moves effectively, a handful of concepts pertinent to the human condition drawn in simultaneously. With its mix of characterization, realism, alternate history, and the supernatural, those new to the author will find worse starting points to Dick’s works, while fans will not be disappointed.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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  1. I remember thinking this was a weird book, even by PKD standards, while I was reading it. I did think he was deliberately making a political statement about how the power got carved up after the end of WWII.I thought there was a lot going on about leadership and power.

    I agree with you that this doesn’t reach the mastery of Man in the High Castle, but it was still a fascinating read. Thanks for reminding me of it!

  2. Paul Connelly /

    I think of Dr. Bloodmoney as the final member of a quartet of related “political” novels by PKD, beginning with The Man in the High Castle and also including The Simulacra and The Penultimate Truth. In each he is excoriating the way that amoral or even outright psychopathic individuals can embed themselves at highest levels of the power structure, and, while justifying their actions as realpolitik or on the basis of superior (always classified) sources of information, can bring disaster down on everyone’s heads. He counters this with portrayals of the ordinary schmucks who enable this, or wander through life blissfully ignorant of it, or put themselves in moral (if not physical) opposition to it. The conspiracy theory aspect naturally follows from the (to my mind, correct) assignment of guilt to specific individuals in power rather than to impersonal forces of history, whole nations/populaces, or other such collective entities. And he recognizes that at a certain level, the powerful have more in common with each other and find it easier to deal with each other, even when they’re enemies, than they find it to deal with the schmucks on their own side.

    • I have not read the latter two Dick novels, but your idea is intriguing and much more informed than I am. One of the reasons it’s intriguing is that I’ve most often read of The Simulacra being part of another series, namely that with VALIS, Transmigration of Timothy Archer, etc. But maybe I’m remembering incorrectly…

      • Paul Connelly /

        You may be thinking of The Divine Invasion. The Simulacra is very concerned with information access, to the point that society has two informal but widely recognized castes, the people who know the privileged information about how everything works, and the dumb bunnies who just accept whatever misinformation is shoveled out to them–even knowing that it’s mostly fake. It seems more prescient now than it did in the 20th century, although all the zany touches and wild political conspiracies (the military vs. Karp u. Sohnen Werke and the secret police vs. the Sons of Job vs. the Jackie Kennedy-esque First Lady, etc.) make it seem way over the top plot-wise, like PKD was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.

        The Penultimate Truth is more controlled and narrower in scope. Again, the President is a simulacrum, and the power players on the US side are war with each other, even as they cut a deal with their Soviet counterparts to keep the populace bottled up in underground “ant tanks” while fake news is piped down to them about a nuclear war that ended long ago, backed up by faked documentaries about the historical background leading up to the conflict.

        In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s assassination, some of the plot elements related to nuclear war and conspiracies among the elite would naturally have occurred to PKD, but he combined those with a focus on fake news and fake history as weapons of the overlords, along with a portrayal of the necessary moment of not just anger, but moral revulsion, when s good person finally recognizes what is being perpetrated.

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