The Simulacra – Philip K Dick (1964)
‘Earth in the twenty-first century was a shifting, shadowy and dangerous world. Most people were content merely to survive, and to grab what little pleasure they could. But there were others who cunningly played the game of world mastery. Among them were the outstandingly beautiful woman who had ruled the White House for nearly a century, the world’s last practising psychiatrist, a psychokinetic pianist, the time traveller, the ‘chuppers’, and the simulacra…’
Blurb from the 1977 Magnum Paperback edition
In 2041 The United States of Europe and America (USEA) is ruled by der Alte, and his ageless consort and First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux. Despite her youthful looks, Nicole has been First Lady for about seventy-five years, although her ‘der Alte’s inevitably die and are replaced.
Elsewhere, the inhabitants of the Abraham Lincoln Apartment Building organise residents’ talent shows, competing for the honour of performing before Nicole herself at the White House. A regular performer is Richard Kongrosian, an exceptional pianist who, being a psychokinetic, has the ability to play the piano without using his hands. Nat Flieger, and two companions from the EME recording company, are on their way to see him. Kongrosian however, is psychotic and is beginning to believe that he is turning invisible.
Ian Duncan, of the AL building, decides to team up once more with his old friend Al Miller, and resurrect their musical jug act, in which they play a classical repertoire by blowing into whisky jugs.
By the use of a mechanical telepathic creature, the papoolah, the duo win the AL talent course and are invited to perform before Nicole at the White House.
Elsewhere, Bertold Goltz, leader of the political group, The Sons of Job, is employing Time Travel equipment to infiltrate the White House.
It’s a novel, much like many of other Dick’s novels, which examines large-scale lies and deception. In fact, deception of the public has become institutionalised since the populace is divided into Ge’s (Geheimnistrager – the bearers of the secret) i.e. the esoteric elite and Be’s (Befehaltrager – the carry-outers of orders) i.e the exoteric majority.
Dick’s trademark fakes are in evidence throughout the novel, since Rudi Kalbfleisch, the current der Alte, is in fact a simulacrum, manufactured by the huge corporation Karp und Sohnen Werke. Now the der Alte’s popularity is waning, a new simulacrum is being planned, a replacement der Alte with the name of Dieter Hogben.
The papoolah, once an indigenous Martian creature, is now extinct. Ironically a fully functioning replica (which includes its talent for telepathic persuasion) is employed by Al Miller to help sell interplanetary ‘jalopies’ from Loony Luke’s Jalopy Jungle. The papoolah inserts images of a homely pastoral Mars in the heads of families, encouraging them to buy a jalopy and emigrate.
The novel is not short of Dick’s trademark manipulative women, such as Julie Strikerock who, for reasons not explained, abandons her husband Vince and moves in unannounced with his unsuspecting brother Chic. Nicole herself is a strong, arrogant woman, treating with disdain the public who worship her through the medium of TV.
Nicole herself, is not, as the public assume, an ageless and seemingly immortal First Lady, but a fiction since Nicole has been nothing but a series of actresses – each one replaced when they get too old – advocating the policies of a shadowy committee who run the USEA. The administration is also being controlled to a certain extent by the interests of big business. In this case there are Karp und Sohnen Werke, the simulacra manufacturers, who are threatening to expose the simulacra der Alte to the public now that their contract has been cancelled in favour of small simulacra firm, Frauenzimmer Associates. There is also the huge pharmaceuticals company AG Chemie, who seem to be behind the McPhearson bill which makes it illegal for psychiatrists to operate, forcing people to find remedies in their drugs.
The novel suffers from attempting to fit such a large cast of characters into such a short piece, which, had Dick had the time or inclination to do so, would have worked far better as a longer, more structured work. Dr Egon Superb, for instance, provides a tenuous link between some of the characters. On the orders of Wilder Pembroke, Chief of National Police, he is the only psychiatrist in the USEA allowed to continue practising and is instructed that he must not refuse any patients since he will shortly take on one patient who he will not be able to help. Subsequently he takes on some of the main characters as patients, although this idea is neither fully developed nor utilised.
Bertold Goltz, in an odd VanVogt-ian twist, turns out to be the head of the committee running the USEA through Nicole and the simulacra presidents.
Also, for reasons which are not fully explained, Nicole has Hermann Goering transmitted through time to the present, although this particular thread seems irrelevant to the story as a whole.
Then there are the Chuppers; a community of Neanderthals born to humans as the result of mutation, and awaiting their chance to claim the Earth once Man has destroyed himself.
Thus, the meek will inherit the Earth.
It is not the easiest of Dick’s books and reads very much like a first draft, but is nonetheless interesting because of Dick’s talent for making truly absurd premises (such as Loony Luke’s Jalopy Jungle) oddly credible.