The Penultimate Truth – Philip K Dick (1964)
“World War III is raging – or so the millions of people crammed in their underground tanks believe. For fifteen years, subterranean humanity has been fed on daily broadcasts of a never-ending nuclear destruction, sustained by a belief in the all powerful Protector. But up on Earth’s surface, a different kind of reality reigns. East and West are at peace. And across the planet, an elite corps of expert hoaxers preserve the lie.”
Blurb from the 2005 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition.
Dick is in the midst of his most prolific and creative writing period and ‘The Penultimate Truth’ once again resurrects Dick’s favourite theme; that of perceived reality.
Seventeen years ago the world was at war, Wes-Dem and Peop-Pac were on the verge of nuclear war so their governments independently constructed underground ‘ant tank’ cities in which the vast bulk of the population could live safely until the war was over.
In the Tom Mix Ant tank, like all the other tanks all over the world, the inhabitants have been working to produce ‘leadies’ (basic robots) for the war effort.
Every so often the residents of the Tom Mix gather together to catch a broadcast from the Wes-Dem President, Talbot Yancy, who gives shining speeches urging the tankers to keep their spirits up and work on.
The leader of the Tom Mix, Maury Souza, has a fatal pancreas-related condition and so Nicholas St James is enrolled in a bold scheme to visit the disease-riddled, war-torn surface in order to obtain an ‘artiforg’ pancreas.
The surface is far from war-torn, since the war actually ended fifteen years ago. Society is being controlled by the corpulent Stanton brose; a physical fake in that apart from his brain, all his other organs are artiforg replacements. Brose is the de facto leader of the world. Talbot Yancy (another fake) is nothing but a simulacrum, programmed by a computer to deliver speeches written by Joseph Adams, who in turn has his speeches written by a computer of his own.
Joseph feels that the people living underground should be told the truth, but does nothing.
Meanwhile, Brose hatches a plot to discredit his enemy, Louis Runcible a man who has a vested interest in seeing the population return to the surface, since his company builds housing for those people who have escaped to the surface and can not be allowed to return.
Brose plans to use a time-travel device to send back some forged alien skeletons and weapons (more fakes) to be buried at the site of Lou’s next development. He knows that Lou will attempt to hide the artefacts when they are uncovered, since his site will be declared an archaeological site and his development plans will be ruined. Brose then planned to have Lou exposed and imprisoned.
However, Brose’s spy, Bob Hig, who was to have stopped the digging when the artefacts were uncovered, is shot, leaving the robot digger to churn up the planted ‘finds’, oblivious.
Subsequently, two of the people who knew of the plan are murdered.
Meanwhile, David Lantano, another Yance Man, as the people in the inner circle of power are called, has found Nicholas St James and is putting him up in his demesne, set in a thousand acres of land, but still with a high level of radiation.
It’s a very strangely structured novel, which has that van Vogtian feel of having been made up as Dick went along with elements thrown in along the way, but it’s no les satisfying for that.
It certainly, on many levels, raises questions on the nature of belief, or reality, such as the idea of entire populations convinced of a particular ‘truth’ quite easily. In this case, both superpowers convince their populations of the truth by a series of fake documentaries. The governments of the two powers have rewritten the history of World War II and beyond, and despite some glaring errors and anachronisms, it is believed by the majority of the population and enshrined as Truth, just as our Holy Books are today.
There are some wonderful Dickian set-pieces here and there, such as the 2004 Eisenwerke Gestalt-macher Machine, which is specifically designed to murder and leave incriminating clues. Ironically, the machine is a victim of the German ethic of efficiency and leaves so many clues to the identity of the killer that it makes it obvious that the victim was murdered by the machine… or has the man who programmed the machine foreseen its failure and thus incriminated himself in order that he will not be suspected, because the machine was programmed to frame him for the murder?
This is a haunting book, which creeps back to remind you of connections between characters and themes.
The are echoes of ‘The House That Stood Still’ in Lantano’s seeming immortality and Native American heritage.
Talbot Yancy, like Der Alte in ‘The Simulacra’ is a puppet president, operated from behind the scenes by a team of men in suits; and given their orders by a corpulent tyrant, pieced together from artificial organs. It would seem, however, that the design of Talbot Yancy was based on an actor from the fake documentary; an actor who happened to be David Lantano.
Ultimately, then, Lantano effectively is Talbot Yancy, and is waiting for his chance to replace the robot president with himself.
Oddly, there are no major female roles.