Thursday, 30 June 2005
Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth (1964)
Review number: 1300
There are several Philip K. Dick novels which revolve around conspiracies, about a small minority deceiving the vast majority for some sinister purpose. Of these novels, The Penultimate Truth is the darkest, because of the nature of the deception: the majority live hard lives in underground caverns or "tanks", enduring their situation for the sake of the war that's been raging on Earth's surface for years. Except that it hasn't: the few who remain on the surface live in luxury, spending their time creating fictional evidence of the conflict to keep those below in subjugation.
The idea of a fake war and control of people through control of the media was not of course entirely new even in the mid sixties - the manufactured belligerence between the nations of the world is a major theme of 1984. But there it is news reports of distant conflict that are fakes. Here it is those who think they are almost in the thick of the fighting who are being conned. Of course, such a huge lie cannot continue to be elaborated indefinitely, and the novel takes the natural subject of how the truth begins to come out.
One of the main points Dick wants to make is that deception is a part of any political system (with the arguable exception of anarchy). One of his characters, Lantano (who heads the opposition to corrupt world leader Brose), says: "As a component in his make up every world leader has had some fictional aspect." And this is backed up not only by the Roman examples quoted by Lantano but by the way that the reader becomes aware that Lantano himself is not entirely what he seems. This point about the facades inherent in politics is even more relevant now, in these times when spin and image seem more important than content. As another character says, "The biggest lie is yet to come."
Although Dick was obviously not the first to suspect the honesty of politicians (there are plenty of literary examples as far back as Aristophanes' satirical pillorying of Athenian leader Cleon), The Penultimate Truth was written at a time when people tended to accept what they were told by authority figures more willingly than we do today. After all, the worst of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal were still in the future in 1964. More importantly, the scale of the lie in this novel was unprecedented, and so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, its suggestion that the picture painted by the West's leaders of the Cold War contained lies must have been an inflammatory one. Of course, it didn't make a massive impact, probably because of Dick's position as a science fiction author, the genre being far more of a ghetto than it is today. (It would be quite reasonable to claim that Dick was, and to an extent remains, the most underrated author of the twentieth century.) The Penultimate Truth is not his best or subtlest novel, but it is his most directly and obviously satirical.