“The book was “Of Human Bondage.” Forty parts had been read already, and it was getting really interesting. Everyone was attending this particular reading. No doubt of it: the man in the satellite had picked a terrific one this time.” – “Dr. Bloodmoney” – Philip K. Dick
The “man in the satellite” is Walt Dangerfield, an astronaut left orbiting Earth after the failure of a Mars-colonizing mission – and after the atomic apocalypse (brought to you by a dumb war between the U.S., Russia, China, and Cuba, of course.) Floating in his tin can far above the world, Walt starts a podcast, inspiring the survivors below by reading from Somerset W. Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” It’s not what *I* would have picked to unite the planet in the joy of literature, but the earthbound human audiences seem to appreciate the message.
1965’s “Dr. Bloodmoney” (subtitled “Or How We Got Along After the Bomb” in a mercenary nod to Stanley Kubrick) is one of Philip K. Dick’s best books, an apocalyptic tale that mixes prescience and obsolescence in charming ways. That’s per usual. In PKD’s universe, quantum-cognitive inorganic A. I. bumps elbows with Camel-smoking gumshoes who wolf-whistle at passing dames.
Also as per usual, PKD packs a deceptively short book with more characters, incidents and forward-thinking concepts than most swollen sagas. Forget about Walter Dangerfield up in the sky, and forget about the spacey sci-fi covers. “Dr. Bloodmoney” is about what happens down here on the decimated, post-WWIII America, where we meet, among many others:
Dr. Bluthgeld, (the titular doc), a paranoid, solipsistic genius who will remind most people of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Dr. Stockstill, the ineffectual psycho-therapist trying to cure Bluthgeld’s paranoid delusions and Dangerfield’s space-cabin fever.
Hoppy Harrington, a psychokinetic phocomelos (that’s TWO interesting Greek-named concepts in one.)
Bonny Keller, a sexually-liberated heroine that is (gasp!) neither praised nor punished for her promiscuity.
Edie Keller, a girl who’s in telepathic communication with an imaginary friend… except the imaginary friend is actually her brother, Bill Keller, an unborn twin “fetus in fetu” that can transmigrate and communicate with the dead!
And Stuart McConchie, an opportunist salesman who sells traps for the talking mutant animals that boldly invade a devastated America.
(That list alone should evoke conceptual dizziness – but Philip K. Dick makes it all work.)
Stuart McConchie was particularly interesting to me: He is an African-American character. Why is that interesting? Well, I just finished reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, a 2014 novel that features an awkwardly-conceived African-American character. In THAT novel, Stephen King felt the need to go out of his way to explain that his Near-Magical Negro was “articulate” and “law-abiding” and “a college-bound scholar.”
IT’S 2014!!! Did anyone need those defensive caveats?
“Dr. Bloodmoney” was written in 1963, (the same year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington). There was lot of room for a guy like PKD, who was born in the frikkin’ 1920s, to make all sorts of awkward racist comments. And yet he mostly doesn’t. How did he accomplish that? By writing Stuart not like a “black guy” but like a HUMAN BEING. I mean, Stuart is a cynical, opportunist douche – and it has absolutely nothing to do with his “race”! He’s a douche because HE is a douche!
Now THAT’S futuristic thinking. It’s sad that 2014 still hasn’t caught up with 1963.
Of course, it’s part of the novel’s point that racial prejudices – along with most of America’s other hang-ups and obsessions – would become pretty darned ridiculous after a nuclear holocaust. It turns out there’s a good reason why the survivors of WWIII might cling to the nostalgia of the go-nowhere drama between Philip Carey and Mildred Rogers.
“The problems that seemed vital to us back in the old days! Like, ‘inability to escape from an unhappy human relationship’! Bah! Now we prize ANY human relationship. We have learned a great deal.”
RATING : I find it pointless to rate individual Philip K. Dick novels. He’s a “body of work” kind of guy. They all tend to be “GOOD ENOUGH” to “GREAT!” building up to a cumulative “MASTERPIECE!!!”