According to Philip K. Dick authority Lawrence Sutin, in his well-researched biography Divine Invasions, by 1959, although Dick had already had some 85 short stories as well as half a dozen novels published, his interest in creating more sci-fi had reached a low point. The future Hugo winner was at this point hoping to become more of a mainstream author, having by this time already written nine such novels, none of which had been published … yet. Still, with bills to pay, a wife (his third of an eventual five) to support, and his first child on the way, economic necessities did, it seem, perforce drive him back, unenthusiastically, to the sci-fi realm. Two of the results from this period are Dr. Futurity and Vulcan’s Hammer, both of which Dick expanded from earlier novelettes. The book in question, Vulcan’s Hammer, originally appeared in the shorter form in a 1956 issue of the 35-cent Future Science Fiction magazine; its first appearance as a short novel came in ’60, as one half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-457, for all you collectors out there), backed by John Brunner’s The Skynappers. And although Dick’s enthusiasm for his sci-fi work may have reached its nadir here, before zooming off into a decade of prodigious output and greatness, his novel in question, as it turns out, is not an uninteresting one; this author, it seems, could not write an uninteresting book if he tried.
In Vulcan’s Hammer, the year is 2029 — a safe 70 years after the time of its creation. The first Atomic War had ended in 1992, and the following year, the 70 nations of the world had decided that mankind could not be trusted to run its own affairs. Thus, the supercomputer known as Vulcan 3 had been put in charge, to dispassionately and unemotionally handle all of Earth’s needs. The members of the Unity party, based in Geneva, kept a tight control of humankind and carried out Vulcan 3’s dictates, and all had been going well for 30+ years. But by 2029, an opposition group calling itself the Healers Movement has come into existence, its goal being to destroy the hidden fortress of Vulcan 3 and return mankind’s destiny to humans. We witness events through the eyes of William Barris, a North America-based Unity director; get to know his boss, Unity leader Jason Dill; encounter the creator of the Healers Movement, Father Fields; and meet the widow of a slain Unity functionary, Rachel Pitt. Eventually, as the old Vulcan 2 computer is destroyed, more and more Unity members are slain, and mysterious flying superweapons begin appearing, it grows apparent that a third player — aside from the Unity and Healers groups — has entered the fray. But who … or what?
Writing in his book The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle calls Vulcan’s Hammer a “very minor work,” and indeed, Sutin goes so far as to call it and Dr. Futurity “Phil’s two worst-ever SF novels.” I would agree that Vulcan’s Hammer is certainly not, by any stretch, one of its author’s stronger works, but still found it an enjoyable enough quick read, and it is surely a more satisfying experience than Dick’s expanded Lies, Inc. (1984), which gets my vote for Dick’s worst novel ever. Vulcan’s Hammer, short as it is at 139 pages (I refer here to that 1960, 35-cent Ace double, which I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on, thanks to NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand), is nevertheless complexly plotted, and the inner motivations of the major characters are at least partly suspect throughout. Thus, a Unity man could secretly be a Healer spy and vice versa. The book unveils numerous surprises and twists as it proceeds, and pleasingly dishes out futuristic bits of business (such as robot taxis; a housing development in the non-nuclear-irradiated Sahara; skin-absorbing tranquilizers; newspaper-vending robots) to help sell its central conceit.
Vulcan’s Hammer is atypical in the Dickian oeuvre in that it is completely devoid of humor. Also missing are the pet concerns that would crop up in so many of the author’s later works, such as recreational drugs, opera and classical music, cigars, the German language, cars, divorce, and of course, the slippery nature of so-called “reality.” Still, as to that last item, things aren’t quite what they seem in the world ruled by Vulcan 3, and the Unity organization’s headman, Jason Dill, surely does have some secrets to hide. As I say, the book is intelligent and gripping, with nary a wasted word. Indeed, the book’s ending, in which the fortress of Vulcan 3 is breached, really is a tad rushed, and Dick seems to be grasping in his effort to convey a pitched, three-way battle. Sutin uncharitably calls this denouement “a scene that defines anticlimax.”
There are, truth to tell, some other minor problems with Vulcan’s Hammer. Some parts of the book feel a bit dated (such as the use of punch cards to feed the supercomputer with information and queries, as well as that reference to the Russian city of Stalingrad, which, in reality, has been called Volgograd since 1961). Dick is also guilty of an occasional mistake with his wording here and there, such as when he writes “Heads turned questionably toward the back,” instead of “questioningly.” And his descriptions of the Vulcan 3 itself, its underground bunker and its precise locale, are fuzzy and vague, requiring the reader to exert his/her imaginative faculties to the utmost.
As you can tell, Vulcan’s Hammer (the title becomes doubly significant as the novel proceeds) is something of a mixed bag. But as it turns out, even a minor, phoned-in Dick novel can be a fun and diverting experience for the reader. The book gets a mild recommendation from me, although it is of course a must-read for all of Dick’s many completists…