Fueled by prescription amphetamines, and in a burst of creative effort rarely seen before or since in the sci-fi field, cult author Philip K. Dick, in the period 1963 – ‘64, wrote no less than six full-length novels. His 13th since 1955, The Simulacra, was originally released as an Ace paperback in 1964 with a cover price of 40 cents. The book, written in Dick’s best middle-period style, gives us a pretty whacky look at life in the mid-21st century. Scottish critic David Pringle, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, aptly describes the work as “an overpopulated novel which flies off wildly in too many directions,” and indeed, readers may need a flowchart to keep track with this one. According to my careful count, the book features no less than 56 named characters (not to mention several unnamed), and the manner in which Dick interweaves their stories in an ingenious manner is one of the book’s main strengths.
In the crazy world that Dick depicts in The Simulacra, the U.S. and Germany have merged to become the U.S.E.A.; the country is in awestruck love of First Lady Nicole Thibodeaux, who has somehow remained ageless for her 73 years in office (a character most likely based on then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy); giant drug and simulacra (think: robots identical to humans) cartels hold almost limitless power; northern California has turned into a “chupper” — (think: radiation mutant) filled rain forest as a result of atomic war; and the government is able to make use of the von Lessinger principle to travel backward and forward in time.
Against this backdrop, Dick introduces us to some of his sympathetic “little people” with big problems. Dr. Egon Superb, the world’s last practicing therapist, wonders why he alone has been allowed to continue, when all other practitioners have been outlawed. Brothers Vince and Chic Strikerock, employed at rival simulacrum companies, become caught up in a love triangle and government plots. Richard Kongrosian, a psychokinetic pianist on the verge of psychotic collapse, worries about his turning invisible, as well as his “phobic body odor.” Nat Flieger, a record company exec, travels to northern California to record Kongrosian and observes the chupper community there. Bertold Goltz, street agitator and time-traveling radical, attempts to bring the government down. Ian Duncan and Al Miller, with their classical-music jug-band act, finagle a way to perform before the First Lady in the White House. And, in a sadly underdeveloped subplot, Nazi bigwig Hermann Goering is brought forward 100 years in an attempt to alter history…
Somehow, Dick manages to keep all these story lines percolating and interweaving, throwing out interesting bits of speculation and background color along the way, such as insect-like advertisements that burrow into cars and homes to spread their annoying messages, and a machine to which penitent folks offer confessions (the “confessionator”) that is more like a lie detector than anything else. The author’s pet themes of deceitful governments, the real truth behind the apparent truth (“What’s unreal and what’s real?” Ian asks succinctly at one point, neatly summarizing just about the entire Dick oeuvre!), and the dubious merits of drugs are given major play here, and some of the author’s pet passions, such as classical music (Dick, it should be remembered, managed a record store and programmed a classical music program for the radio in the early ’50s) and cigars (a good dozen or so cigars are referred to by name throughout the novel), are strongly represented.
Good as it is, The Simulacra is not a perfect work. Ultimately, the plottings of Goltz and of National Police head Wilder Pembroke are convoluted to the point of being impossible to fathom, several characters just kind of peter out (such as Israeli P.M. Emil Stark and “conapt” resident Edgar Stone), and the novel doesn’t so much wrap up neatly as abruptly come to an end. Dick could easily have kept the multiple plot threads weaving for another few hundred pages here, had he so chosen, or written a nice sequel (a common temptation for most sci-fi authors, and one to which Dick never succumbed). Still, the book is compulsively readable, often very funny, endlessly imaginative and, in all, a real hoot. It has also managed to provide me with a line that may become my new catchphrase: “How are you going to work… that into your Weltanschauung?”
Philip K. Dick is one of those authors who I often enjoy reading for his peculiar ideas, cool technologies, bizarre plots, and neurotic characters. But every time I read one of his stories, I need a break from him — there’s a feeling of frantic paranoia permeating his work that makes me feel like I just need to chill out for a while. If you’ve seen the movie The Adjustment Bureau, which was based on one of his stories, you’ll know what I mean. In that story, the main character discovers that the reality he thought he knew was totally wrong. Instead, there is something big going on behind the scenes and his life is being manipulated by The Unseen People Who Are Really In Charge (TUPWARIC).
This theme is common in PKD’s stories, and The Simulacra is another example. The government of the United States of Europe and America, which appears to be a matriarchy, is a sham — the President is really a simulacrum. When TUPWARIC gives the contract for building the next simulacrum to a different simulacrum company, and Hermann Goering is fetched from the past with a time-travel device, problems ensue and the USEA government is in danger of being taken over by fascists.
Quirky characters include the First Lady who never seems to age, the telekinetic piano player who thinks that a commercial has given him phobic body odor and that he’s becoming invisible, the psychotherapist who has lost his job because a pharmaceutical cartel has managed to have the practice of psychotherapy banned, a couple of brothers who work for simulacra companies and are fighting over an ex-wife, and a couple of guys in a jug band who want to play for the First Lady. Then there’s the reclusive group of Neanderthals, descendents of radiation-exposed humans, who live in Northern California and seem to be waiting for something important to happen…
The Simulacra juggles a huge set of characters and several subplots which at first seem unrelated but which Dick successfully brings together into a coherent whole by the end of the novel, which is not necessarily a guarantee with PKD. The whole thing is chaotic, zany, creative, funny, and contains Dick’s usual undercurrent of frenzied paranoia. With so much weird stuff going on, I thought that a plot disaster was imminent, but Dick pulls it off. The Simulacra ends at the climax, though, and a sequel would probably have been well-received.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of The Simulacra, which was read by “Golden Voice” and “Voice of the Century” Dick Hill. Mr. Hill, who is always superb, handled all of those characters and that madcap plot with ease. And you should hear him play a jug.