The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsThe Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsThe Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick

By the time 1956 rolled around, future cult author Philip K. Dick had already seen 80 of his short stories published, as well as his first novel, 1955’s Solar Lottery. But 1956 would turn out to be an important year for the seemingly indefatigable writer. His second and third novels, The World Jones Made and The Man Who Japed, would both be released by Ace Books during that 12-month period, and right before 1957 began, his fourth novel would see the light of day; the novel known today as The Cosmic Puppets. The book is an important one in Dick’s legendary oeuvre for two reasons: It is his only out-and-out fantasy novel, and his first full-length work to deal with one of his favorite subjects: the slippery, elusive, untrustworthy nature of so-called reality, and what actually lies behind that curtain.

The Cosmic Puppets made its first appearance in the short-lived pulp magazine Satellite Science Fiction, which started up in December 1956 and folded in April 1959. So yes, Dick’s novel was in that inaugural issue, which sold for 35 cents. It copped the front-cover treatment, featuring beautiful artwork by Kelly Freas, and ran under the title A Glass of Darkness. The following year, the novel made its first book appearance in one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-249, for all you collectors out there), back to back with Andre Norton’s Sargasso of Space. Dick had actually written the novel in 1953, when he was not quite 25 years old, and for the retitled Ace edition, expanded it slightly. As was the case with all of Dick’s genre fare, the novel would see numerous publications over the subsequent years. The one I was fortunate enough to nab is the 1983 Berkley paperback, with a memorable cover illustration by David Heffernan. The 2012 edition from Mariner Books might be its most recent English-language incarnation. The Cosmic Puppets is one of Dick’s least-discussed books, and the fact that it is his only adult genre novel not to have been previously reviewed here on FanLit might be indicative of its relative obscurity. Still, the book does have much to offer to fantasy buffs, and is of course required reading for all Dick completists.

Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle tells us that Phil’s book is “very early and minor Dick, but readable,” and I suppose that the charge of it being a “minor” work is a valid one … but only when compared to such later Dick masterpieces as The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965, and my personal favorite Dick novel), Dr. Bloodmoney (also from 1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969, and my second-favorite Dick novel). But minor or not, it cannot be denied that The Cosmic Puppets gives the reader one helluva setup! Thus, we are introduced to 27-year-old Ted Barton, who, while on vacation with his wife Peggy and on a whim, decides to revisit his old hometown of Millgate, in southern Virginia, from which he and his family had moved when he was 9. But as they drive over the dilapidated highway and enter the town, Ted realizes that something is very wrong. None of the stores, buildings, streets or landmarks is the same as it was 18 years earlier, and a look at the old town newspapers of his youth reveals that Ted Barton had died of scarlet fever when he was a child! Totally flummoxed now, Barton drops his wife off in a neighboring town, rents a room in a Millgate boarding house, and decides to investigate.

The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsBefore a single day has passed, Ted learns from his landlady’s 10-year-old son, Peter Trilling, that the youth can “stop time,” and that there is a barrier of some sort surrounding the valley. Later, we see that Peter can also communicate with rats, snakes and spiders, as well as create living, 3”-tall “golems” out of clay! Barton is stunned to see, during his first night in town, the ghostly, glowing figures of people who are able to walk through solid walls; the so-called “Wanderers,” who the Millgate residents seem to take for granted. The town’s physician, Dr. Meade, who has lived in the area all his life, finds nothing unusual about these Wanderers, while his 13-year-old daughter, Mary, we soon learn, can hold running conversations with bees and moths! On his second day in Millgate, while sitting on a ridge overlooking the valley, Barton sees, via a special glass filter that Peter gives him, the miles-high figures of two titanic beings! After a failed attempt to leave the town’s environs, a despondent and thoroughly confused Barton meets, in one of the local bars, a drunk named William Christopher (presumably not the same William Christopher who would go on to star on the television show M*A*S*H 16 years later!), who is able to verify the memories that Ted has of the Millgate that was; seemingly, the only one in town who can confirm the old reality. And so, together, the two men attempt to bring Millgate back to the way it used to be, using a gadget invented by Christopher, but even more importantly, the power of their minds and memories. But sadly enough, the two well-meaning men know not what kinds of forces they are dealing with here … forces that are every bit as “cosmic” as the book’s revised title suggests…

In his biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, author Lawrence Sutin opines that The Cosmic Puppets is “blandly written and woodenly plotted,” but this reader can’t help but feel that Sutin was being overly harsh. Rather, I would say that Dick’s fourth novel is simply written, with a plot that fascinates but that does not bear to close an inspection. And indeed, what with its easily readable style, relatively short length, and large-print format (at least, my Berkley edition features that large-print format), most readers will likely find themselves tearing through this book in two or three breathless sittings. But if the novel is easily read, it is not quite so simple a matter to wrap one’s head around it, even after one turns the final page. I find myself a bit hamstrung here, not wanting to give too much away, especially for potential readers who have yet to experience this particular Dick outing, but let’s just say that it is fairly obvious that the young Phil had been reading up on Zoroastrian cosmology before setting out to write his book. As mentioned, this is very much a straightforward fantasy, as opposed to the author’s more familiar sci-fi efforts, and any number of bizarre things transpire that never could transpire in a universe ruled strictly by the dictates of science.

Typical for Dick, an empathy for the little-guy character trapped in an impossibly outre situation is very evident here; the author’s unfailing support for this type of character from book to book is perhaps the main reason why this reader esteems him so very highly. This empathy, and the early exploration of the “what is reality?” theme, are pretty much the only hallmarks of the later Dick sci-fi novels (around 35 of them) to be found here. Later Dickian tropes such as prescription and recreational drugs, androids, mental illness, cigars, and classical music are not to be found here, although the theme of divorce is briefly touched on. Curiously, the prospect of a divorce does not seem to faze Barton by the novel’s end, after the experiences he has here. (Dick, it will be remembered, had already gone through the first of his four marital breakups by the time he wrote this book.)

The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsThe Cosmic Puppets offers the reader several memorable sequences. Among them: Barton and Christopher successfully bringing back to reality a Millgate park, using the combined force of their mental energies, and the remarkable scene in which a massed army of rats, spiders, copperheads and golems attacks the Wanderers. And during that latter sequence, Dick goes into full H. P. Lovecraft mode, giving us a monstrous entity (again, I’m trying to be coy here and avoid spoilers) described in wonderfully pulpish prose. And so, we are told:

…Like a cosmic slug it left a trail of slime and offal as it went. It fed constantly. It was bloating itself on the things it caught. Its tentacles swept up Wanderers, golems, rats, and snakes indiscriminately. [Barton] could see a rubbish-heap of cadavers littered through its jelly, in all stages of decomposition. It swept up and absorbed everything, all life, whatever it touched. It turned life into a barren path of filth and ruin and death…

Conversely, Dick gives us any number of charming scenes, such as the ones in which Mary converses with the messenger bees; scenes that Andre Norton might have smiled upon with approbation, just as Clifford D. Simak might have approved of the book’s rustic setting and homespun characters. And speaking of those characters, I should perhaps add that those secondary players – the former electrician turned barfly Christopher, the conflicted Dr. Meade, the intimidating proposition that is Peter, the sweet yet powerful Mary – are all fairly fascinating, each of them with a secret up his or her sleeve. In all, The Cosmic Puppets leaves the reader with a haunting after effect that lingers for days. For such a “blandly written” book, it is one that, surprisingly enough, stays with you, and makes you think.

Unfortunately, the more one thinks about the book, the more one realizes how many conundrums remain unresolved. How are those Wanderers able to converse with the bees and moths, for example? Oh, I could pose several more questions, but doing so would regrettably reveal the answer to the central mystery at the book’s heart, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it. I suppose the bottom line here is that The Cosmic Puppets is not nearly as fine a work as Dick’s next novel, 1957’s Eye in the Sky, which also dealt with the theme of reality’s changeable nature, but it remains both highly entertaining and thought provoking … and that’s not too shabby, for what is supposedly a “minor” work…

Originally published in 1956. Following an inexplicable urge, Ted Barton returns to his idyllic Virginia hometown for a vacation, but when he gets there, he is shocked to discover that the town has utterly changed. The stores and houses are all different and he doesn’t recognize anybody. The mystery deepens when he checks the town’s historical records . . . and reads that he died nearly twenty years earlier. As he attempts to uncover the secrets of the town, Barton is drawn deeper into the puzzle, and into a supernatural battle that could decide the fate of the universe.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....