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Truth and fiction and Philip K Dick

15th October 2012 - 12 Midnight Gavin Read


Philip K Dick is rightly celebrated as one of the great science fiction writers, whose books have been adapted for classic films such as Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. The Penultimate Truth is one of his lesser known works, but, as Gavin Read from our Charing Cross Road branch discovered, Dick's take on the well-worn trope of the dystopian conspiracy toys with reality in a manner reminiscent of Jose Luis Borges.



The Penultimate TruthSo I just read The Penultimate Truth by Philip K Dick.

It's the future anon, and squillions of people live in little sardine-tin bunkers under the ground. Thinking that World War Three has been ravaging and irradiating the Earth's surface for the last fifteen years, they build robots to carry on the Good Fight, sending them up to the surface to wage war against those of the enemy. But the world is really at peace, and has been for a long time; the privileged few live on huge garden estates across the planet's surface with massive retinues of robots (those very same) to serve their whims. The entire economy of the surface is dependent upon the writing of speeches and staging of footage to broadcast to the subterranean, reinforcing the ploy; notifying them of the latest victories and losses, and making sure their workshops keep manufacturing.

I read my first Dick novel only last year -- debuting with the fantastically grottily neurotic VALIS - before blazing through The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, Time Out of Joint and (yikes, I've read more than I realised) The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The Penultimate Truth was not on my immediate list - but there I was, squatting before D in the SF section, cycling through blurbs, when I read its premise of a superlative hoax. Sold!

The total conspiracy is a mainstay of dystopian fiction, and a plot restaged across a million episodes of a jillion TV sci-fis (98% of which I watched as a teenager). It's a bit 1984 with the one-way politick to the populus and there's some other stuff I can't place floating around in there too. I don't know what came first and, generation that I am, I prefer not to know, smooshing it rather into one colourful phenomenological bag of brainsick. Such mellifluous ignorance reminds me of a Debbie Harry quote that stuck from the inlay of my Blondie Greatest Hits album (now playing) - "We had tried to tap into the universal unconscious...The Beatles tapped into that. That's why the music's so appealing to everybody. It's the same as classical music."

Nat TateBut I love a hoax. Not the threatening, hollow candid camera type -- nor really the Nat Tate type (an establishment-sort-of-fooling artist invented by William Boyd). Think F for Fake, Orson Welles' faux-documentary that unravels itself. It's more the meta-hoax, the idea of a total hoax, and its proximity to meta-fiction. Borges wrote dense, magical short stories heavily referencing fabricated sources, and I love that. Lem wrote reviews and introductions to nonexistent books. The idea of what is real and what is fiction is blurred, swapped around, fired into space.


The frivolity of a hoax the size of The Penultimate Truth is stupendous. It's Borgesian trickery on a Borgesian scale - like his 'Library of Babel', an unending collection that holds every possible combination of every written character. Colossal in scale, it's a flaccid, baroque venture, a mad dream. It's Fitzcarraldo in the jungle; it's Paul Otlet's punchcard internet that got wet.


And it's guilt. The war is over, and we are sorry. And it's media, and politics; we can't trust a thing. And for every increasingly shiny film adaptation, draped in contemporaneous futurism, the trick that Dick is period fiction's missed; it's the Cold War, it's psychedelic mysticism, it's the Space Race and Mad Men and tapebank computers and big plastic phones, and you can't ever take that away. Imagine how dubious you'd be about an adaptation of Great Expectations set on the Martian surface.


Unless, I guess, if it was written by Philip K Dick....



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