Science fiction. 191 p. (short, eh. Read it in a few days.)
The Penultimate Truth is one of those older science fiction books that explored ideas when they were still new and fresh. But those same ideas have been known and well integrated into our society by now. The book is about a group of people living underground, in an atomic shelter, after World War III broke out. They are ruled over by a leadership class, but they start to wonder whether the outside world is safe by now. They start to wonder whether they are living a lie. We’ve read stories like this before.
A modern variation of this story is the successful Hugh Howey’s Wool series. So, you could see The Penultimate Truth as a spiritual ancestor of Wool. The great difference is that Philip K. Dick’s book was written during the Cold War and the Worry about the Bomb. So, the book was much more relevant for that era than today, and because the story was so inspired by real events, it also feels rich and real. This is once again science fiction as a valuable instrument of society to explore the anxieties of the time.
Philip K. Dick is really one of my favorite SF writers because he is so focused on how people deceive themselves and get all confused and screwed up, and it makes his characters so unique and alive. In Dick’s world, the paranoia and confusion usually turns out to be justified, and going in, you never know how the book will twist and turn. An essential element in the story, in many of Dick’s stories, is the government. Here it is presented as invisible, on the surface of the planet, but at the same time present on large video screens underground in a big brother like fashion, with the president being a stiff man behind a large desk. The feelers of distrust and paranoia start tingling.
The year is 2025, and the world is still divided in a Western part and a Soviet part, but the Western world has become a similarly militarized dystopia. At least, this is the story that the burrowed people are told. The book doesn’t hide the secrets for long, because we follow another character on the real surface and already know what the actual world is like. Lots of echoes of 1984 here, including lots of abbreviated words as newspeak. It feels like a new version of 1984, updated to include Cold War emotions, and churned in the soup of Dick’s paranoia. It is not bad, but it is too derivative and familiar to be a really good and revolutionary story.
The central handwringing theme of the book is that a world founded on a delusion can still be a world at peace, and that must have spoken strongly to the terrified Americans of the 60s, afraid for nuclear war. What is preferable? Peace, or truth and instability? Not only this, but Dick poses that after the masses were all locked away underground, the US and Soviet elite were finally free to shake hands and stop fighting. A bit unbelievable perhaps… but it calls to people to stop urging their leaders to start wars. Dick even makes the new Western government the bad guys for the underground masses.
The book is really much better suited for the 60s with all its daring reversals of good and bad and how people saw this during the cold war. It’s a bit outdated. It is also a bit messy in its storytelling and I’ve read that it is actually a fix-up of two earlier texts. The biggest problem is how unfocused the story is. I would have liked a clear main character with an involving point of view to stick with. All in all, not Dick’s best work, but still worth reading.