Cult author Philip K. Dick’s 20th published science fiction novel, The Zap Gun, was first released in book form (Pyramid paperback R-1569, with a cover price of 50 cents) in 1967, after having been serialized in the November 1965 and January 1966 issues of Worlds of Tomorrow magazine under the title “Project Plowshare.” Phil’s previously published book had been The Unteleported Man, later expanded as the largely incomprehensible Lies, Inc., but The Zap Gun is a completely understandable, reader-friendly novel that, as it turns out, is quite a winning satire on the arms race that was indeed so frightening back then.
In Phil’s book, it is the year 2004 (OK, maybe he should have made it 2104!), and the two major world powers have reached a detente of sorts in this game of armament one-upmanship. Rather than actually creating weapons, the two sides (Wes-bloc and Peep-East) now simply fake it, using “weapons fashion designers” to create convincing designs of the real thing, and then showing realistic but ersatz videos to their populations. Society, hence, is divided between the “pursaps” (the pure saps making up the bulk of society) and the “cogs” (the governmental cognoscenti who are in on the deception). But when the insect-like slavers from the Sirius system arrive and start dropping satellites into Earth orbit, things really DO get serious, and Lars Powderdry and the beautiful Lilo Topchev (the West’s and the East’s top “wep-fash” designers) must join forces to somehow construct a REAL weapon to save all of humankind….
Although Phil originally wrote The Zap Gun on commission for a Pyramid editor who wanted a novel written for that preset title, the result is anything but standard space opera fare (indeed, the alien invasion plot is dealt with so offhandedly, at the end, as to be almost an afterthought), and all of Dick’s regular obsessions are on full display. As in The Penultimate Truth (written at the same time as this novel) and The Simulacra, a duplicitous government manages to hoodwink the mass of mankind. Dick’s fascination with drugs is evident here, too, and both Lars and Lilo not only depend on cerebral stimulants to effect the trance state that leads to their weapons visions, but also discuss LSD, peyote, mescaline and “magic mushrooms” with great apparent knowledge. The novel features several suicidal characters (seems like every Dick book I read has some such poor soul), one of whom actually succeeds in the sad act, and another who chooses to stick around in a wonderfully life-affirming scene. For some strange reason, the localities of Cheyenne, Wyoming and St. George, Utah are highlighted yet again, as they had been in The Penultimate Truth and Now Wait For Last Year. As in Now Wait For Last Year and Lies, Inc., female public toplessness is seen to be the fashion in The Zap Gun, but whereas in those earlier books a woman’s nipples were covered with a sentient Martian life form and flashlight/music-making pasties, respectively, HERE, they are merely described as being “silver-tipped.” (These futuristic innovations don’t seem half bad to me!) As in so many of Phil’s other novels, several of the characters throw out German words and expressions, smoke cigars and talk about opera. And again, we have a character who is hoping to obtain a divorce from his mate; well, technically, Powderdry is here attempting to ditch his mistress.
As I said, lots of Dick’s pet topics get another workout in this consistently amusing tale. And the book really is often very funny; indeed, Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin has called the novel’s Surley G. Febbs “the funniest character Phil created.” The author throws in a few surprising plot twists toward his finale, amuses us with some bizarre character names (such as Lucky Bagman, Oral Giocomini, Vincent Klug and General Nitz), keeps the pace of the story moving nicely, and even presents a time travel angle in a manner that for once didn’t give this reader a headache. SF critic David Pringle has called the novel “one of Dick’s most clotted narratives,” but I still found it highly readable, and a lot of fun. (I’m not even sure I know precisely what he means by a “clotted narrative”!) Oh… I guarantee that you will chuckle when you read about Febbs’ organization, with its catchy acronym BOCFDUTCRBASEBFIN…