The Zap Gun – Philip K Dick (1965)
THE ULTIMATE WEAPON
The terrifying arms race roared on. Daily, East and West produced more dreadful weaponry. And, daily, yesterday’s weapons were turned into toys, souvenirs, egg beaters, furniture… and never, never used as weapons. Which was just as well, since they wouldn’t have worked.
It may have looked crazy, but it kept the 21st Century world peaceful and its population securely under the domination of the monstrous, ubiquitous security agencies.
But then, the Sirius Slavers arrived from outer space. Whole cities began to disappear. The world was defenceless – and the race for an Ultimate Weapon for survival was on, for real this time. The outcome meant life or death for Earth. And it lay in the hands of two misfit weapons ‘fashion designers’, a demented comic book artist and a highly unlikely toymaker from the wrong side of time…
Blurb from the 1978 Granada Panther paperback edition
It is 2004. Lars Powderdry is a fashion weapons designer. His company supplies the Wes-bloc military with blueprints for new weapons obtained from information gained while Lars in a drug-induced mediumistic trance. His opposite number in a future USSR known as Peep-East is Lilo Topchev, and she provides the competition in this psychic arms race which ironically, kept the world at peace for decades.
Obsolete weapons are plowshared. Six members of the public are chosen at random by a super-computer and spend the rest of their lives on a generous salary deciding what peaceful use the components of the superseded weaponry could be put to.
The greatest irony (and there are many subtle ironies) is that the arms race is a fraud, a standard Dickian ‘fake’ The powers-that-be of both sides know that the weapons are useless, but the psychological effect of the system keeps the world at peace.
‘(Lars) waited to hear the truth.
Maren said ‘Over and over again that little inner voice is squeaking, Why must the pursaps believe what isn’t so? Why can’t they be told, and being told, accept?’ Her voice was compassionate, now. For her, quite unusually so. ‘You just can’t grasp the incredible truth. They can’t.’
Lars, like many of Dick’s male leads suffers from insecurities and questions the validity of the system. Maren Faine, his secretary at the Paris branch of ‘Mr Lars Incorporated’ is, as a contrast, a realist and despite the fact of her being his lover and employee seems far more in control of Powderdry than he is of her. This is emphasised by an illegal implant she carries which gives her limited telepathic powers, thus allowing her access to Lars’ thoughts. Thus, she can even get into his head while he can’t get into hers. It’s maybe a metaphor for understanding between men and women and emphasises her emasculating nature, something common to many of Dick’s women.
Similarly, the Ol’ Orville device, plowshared from the guidance system of an earlier ‘Mr Lars Incorporated’ weapon design, seems to know more about Lars’ psyche than Lars himself, as does Mr Kaminsky, the Peep-East agent from whom Lars attempts to procure a photograph of Lilo Topchev.
Everyone, it seems, has opinions about Lars Powderdry.
The book has many of the Hallmark Dickisms; the sheer weirdness of names, fashions and settings; the ironies and the fakes; beautiful, inscrutable and psychotic women; philosophical and classical references and the deliberate, one presumes, inconsistencies as when Surley G Febbs assembles one of Lars’ ‘useless’ weapons and disintegrates his co-conspirators, but it lacks the power and depth of his better work.
Dick seems to be retreading old ground here, and many scenes seem rushed and incomplete. Some characters work better than others. Vincent Klug and Surley Febbs seem to leap fully-formed from the page while other male characters seem mere ciphers.
There is also a pervasive paranoia which runs through the novel, centring on Lars himself. Those surrounding him either know or can guess what he is thinking.
Surveillance – which ultimately is the downfall of Surley G Febbs – is as abundant in Wes-bloc as it is in Peep-east, where Lars is spied on and lied to when he eventually meets Lilo.
Dick does however manage to throw his particular revelatory light on the insanity and absurdity of the Cold War and perhaps makes us question, particularly today how much the media and the government control what we choose to think of as reality.
For me this is a weak Dick novel, a work in progress, giving the impression of something which he made up as he went along with no thought of what the ending might be.