Philip K. Dick’s 11th science fictopm novel, The Penultimate Truth, was originally released in 1964 as a Belmont paperback (no. 92-603, for all you collectors out there) with a staggering cover price of… 50 cents. Written during one of Dick’s most furiously prolific periods, it was the first of four novels that he saw published that year alone!
One of his more cynical depictions of a duplicitous U.S. government, the story involves yet another one of the author’s post-atomic holocaust futures. Here, it is the year 2025, and the bulk of mankind lives underground in protective “cubbies,” while a pitched atomic war is fought on the surface by the “leadies” (robots) of the opposing sides. What is actually happening, however (and this is not a spoiler; it is revealed in the novel’s opening chapters), is that the war has been over for a full 13 years, and the government in charge — via Agency-written and -produced fake news bulletins and televised talks from a programmed “president” — is doing its darnedest to keep the populace underground and literally in the dark; a captive labor force for its own devices!
Against this backdrop, Dick introduces us to a large cast of underground “tankers” and Agency men (the book features 47 named characters, as well as several unnamed), and concentrates on two converging story lines. In one, Nicholas St. James (president of the Tom Mix “ant tank,” one of 160,000 such underground dwellings, each containing 1,500 living souls) tunnels to the surface for the first time in 15 years, to procure an artificial pancreas (an “artiforg”) for his dying head mechanic. In the other, Joseph Adams, a writer for the Agency, becomes involved in a complicated scheme hatched by the 82-year-old world despot, Stanton Brose, to ruin a Donald Trump-like housing developer. This scheme becomes even more complex when its principals start getting killed off, leading to a mind-boggling mélange of time travel, superweapons, satellite spying and double crosses. Thank goodness that Webster Foote and his independent intelligence corporation are on the case to make sense of things!
As you may have discerned, this is a fairly complex tale from Philip K. Dick, its primary theme of a conniving U.S. government similar to the one in his novel The Simulacra (also from 1964). Both Nicholas’ journey of discovery and the Agency scheme are fascinating in their own way, and Dick, as usual, exhibits a good deal of empathy for his characters. Despite British critic David Pringle’s assertion in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction that the book is “let down by a hasty prose style,” and Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin saying, in Divine Invasions, that the book is “blunted by its clunking style,” I found the novel to be very well written, with some almost poetic passages and clever dialogue (although it is true that some of Dick’s more complex sentences, filled with multiple semicolons and em dashes, might have been rendered more readable by a good copy editor). The book is endlessly imaginative and, if not as “trippy” as some of his other outings, still fairly mind-blowing. It is filled with all kinds of interesting touches (such as that German-made Gestalt-macher assassination device) and some amusing bits of humor (Foote’s employees are naturally called Footemen); in all, another well-crafted winner from this important author.
That said, I must also add that The Penultimate Truth is not a perfect book. For the life of me, I still cannot quite figure out the full background story of Agency man David Lantano; very confusing! Dick is also guilty of a few errors in his writing, such as when he says “he dabbled at his mouth” with a handkerchief (instead of “dabbed”), and when Nicholas is given a sum of 40 “Wes-Dem fifty notes,” for a total of 20,000 dollars (shouldn’t that be 2,000 dollars?). The author also makes up his own words here and there, such as “vulturely”; not — as Seinfeld would say — that there’s anything wrong with that! Still, these are quibbles. The Penultimate Truth is a fun and mordant vision of the future that should hugely entertain all readers. As for that unusual title, it only begins to make sense in the book’s last couple of pages, and is most certainly worth the wait…