Dr Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After The Bomb – Philip K Dick (1965)
‘1981. A peaceful summer’s morning – until a mad physicist triggers off the bomb…
In the nuclear aftermath strange mutants evolve in a fragmented world. Only Dangerfield, the lost astronaut, endlessly orbiting the earth with a million miles of tape, can see and hear the consequences.
And then one of the mutants decides to destroy the last link with the Old World. ‘
Blurb to the 1997 Arrow edition.
Once more Dick manages to flout the conventions of Science Fiction while exploiting its clichés in an original and personal way. This is an ensemble cast novel set in a 1981 (seen from the perspective of 1965) in which a group of disparate people are brought together following a world-wide nuclear bombing.
The Dr Bloodmoney of the title is Bruno Bluthgeld (Bloodmoney), an atomic scientist responsible for a nuclear disaster in 1972 which dumped large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and created a generation of ‘funny people’.
Stuart McConchie is a black TV salesman, insecure and reliant on others to make his decisions for him.
On the day that Stuart – while sweeping the street outside the TV shop – sees Bluthgeld going into the offices of the psychiatrist, Dr Stockstill, the bombs start falling and a world-wide nuclear war begins.
Walt Dangerfield, on his way to Mars with his wife, is trapped in Earth orbit, and eventually finds himself, following his wife’s suicide, as a kind of cosmic DJ transmitting cheesy music and messages to the scattered post-apocalyptic communities that later develop.
Initially the novel jumps back and forth in time between pre- and post-bombing before leaping ahead seven years to the community which has grown up around the Keller house in West Marin, California.
In typical Dick style the post-nuclear world is unrealistic. It could be described, in a phrase coined by Brian Aldiss, as a ‘cosy catastrophe’. The survivors have settled into a rural lifestyle where horses are strapped to the front of cars while others drive wood-burning trucks. Cats, dogs and rats have developed a level of sapience. Some dogs, at least, can talk.
Hoppy Harrington is a ‘phoce’, predating Bluthgeld’s accident, he was a victim of thalidomide, but finds that the loss of his limbs is balanced by a gift of psionic powers and a talent for mechanics. Hoppy, who previously belonged to an underclass of mutants, now commands real status as a ‘Handyman’, riding about in a cart equipped with ingenious robotic manipulation devices which have become Cyborg extensions of his body.
Of all of them Hoppy is the one best suited to survive in this new environment. He has grown stronger and his Cyborg attachments and telekinetic powers are well able to protect him from any danger.. and he has plans.
But along with his fearlessness Hoppy develops a certain megalomania, evinced by his attempted humiliation of Bonny Keller’s daughter, Edie.
Dr Bluthgeld, still fearful of pursuit by his communist enemies is living in the community under the name of Jack Tree, his real identity known only to his friend Bonny Keller and Doctor Stockstill.
Dick’s subtle ironies are sometimes hard to spot, but then there’s always so much going on in a good PK Dick novel. This isn’t one of Dick’s best, but there’s some complex characterisations, the usual ambivalent reality angle and some amusing, ironic and surreal moments.
Doctor Stockstill, the psychiatrist whom Bluthgeld visits is forced to analyse his own feelings toward the man whom many consider to be a mass-murderer, and in rejecting Bluthgeld’s paranoid fantasies of a communist enemy determined to kill him, finds himself unable to believe in a real enemy when the bombs begin falling.
Dangerfield’s ship has become a kind of telephone exchange through which information bounced between the settlements, while Dangerfield himself is reduced to providing readings from ‘Of Human Bondage’ to the people below and playing requests such as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the WWII songs of the Andrews Sisters.
In a sense, it’s as if the survivors had moved into the aftermath of World War II, as the community seems to have adopted that very homely and nostalgic neighbourliness.
It’s a novel about people, about American society and a society that doesn’t seem to change even though the infrastructure of their civilisation has disappeared.
One could look at this book as a portrait of a community unbound by moral restraint. Thus they feel free to execute Mr Austurias, a former colleague of Bluthgeld’s, for ‘lying’ in that they believed his reasons for joining the community were to seek out – and presumably kill – Bluthgeld (or, as they know him, ‘Jack Tree’).
Before the disaster, Hoppy Harrington uses alcohol to induce visions of what he calls ‘the after-life’, which turns out to be the life after (the bombings).
The life-after is, as we have mentioned, is somewhat idyllic and pastoral, at least for the residents of West Marin, but this could be due in part to the psychic efforts of Bluthgeld himself. In his psychosis during the attack, Bluthgeld attempts to heal the world, to make right the damage the bombs have done.
Given that other characters show evidence of freakish mental talents, it’s possible that Bluthgeld actually could have reduced the damage the bombs were meant to have done. Later, Bluthgeld, forced back into a psychotic attack by the arrival of Stuart McConchie, is thought to have caused further explosions, witnessed by Edie, and by Walt Dangerfield, orbiting high above the planet.
These explosions of course, could have been easily produced by Hoppy Harrington, as an excuse for him to kill Bluthgeld – which he subsequently does – and proclaim himself a hero.
Bonny Keller, the wife of George Keller and mother of Edie and her internal twin brother, uses her post-disaster freedom-from-restraint to indulge in a series of extra-marital affairs, eventually abandoning any responsibility for her husband and children, and indeed for Bluthgeld, whose identity she had long-protected.
Stuart McConchie, the lone black character (and surprisingly well-portrayed for its time) is one of the few people to profit positively from E-Day (as the day of the attack is called).
Initially insecure, with tendency to follow sheepishly where others lead, he finds a new confidence in his skills as a salesman and uses uncharacteristic initiative in travelling from the ruined city (where has found work with a vermin-trap manufacturer) to West Marin, with a proposition for hand-rolled-cigarette manufacturer, Andrew Gill.
Dick achieves much of the surreality of his settings by juxtaposition of the fantastic with the bland and mundane. The local diner for instance, ‘Fred’s Fine Foods’, is the venue for the pre-disaster Hoppy Harrington to experience his visions of the afterlife, and there’s the legless veteran’s tale of his pet mutant rat who used to play the nose-flute.
It isn’t a brilliant novel, but it shows Dick attempting more experimentation in structure and in characterisation, while at the same time exploring his old favourite themes of reality and madness.