The 22nd century, in this short and strange novel, is a bit of a dystopian place. The government and all scientific advancement is in the hands of mutants with superior mental powers. So-called New Men and Unusuals, with big, veined, wobbling heads. Through qualification exams they bar regular people from positions of power and the situation has worsened so much that there is a genuine underground revolution brewing. Revolution’s leader and champion, the space traveller Thors Provoni, is on the run somewhere in the fringes of the galaxy. But after 10 years Thors returns to Earth, bringing with him a ninety-ton telepathic slime mold that intends to take over the world.
Unfortunately, the mold thing only gets relevant late in the book, and I misunderstood the premise that attracted me to read this in the first place. The main story is about a drugs-popping menial labourer named Nick Appleton who is pulled into the rebellion, and another guy with whom he comes in conflict with, named Willis Gram. For Gram, Dick has a character type that he loves to put in his novels: a loud-mouthed, hard-nosed, tyrannical asshole who is always bossing around underlings, smoking cigars in his bathrobe, while making calls and reading the papers at ADD speed. They’re frequently a source of dark comedy. Martian Time-Slip (1964) had Arnie Kott, this one has Willis Gram.
The revolution story is never dull but it lacks something special, something to make it stand out among Dick’s work. He fills it up with his usual tropes which he already used to greater effect in other novels. One odd development is that both Nick and Willis develop a crush on a manic pixie teenage girl of the revolution that they want to protect, and it is a bit gross because the two men are at least double her age. Dick however is very aware of the trope of a young woman injecting vitality into the life of an older male and he has the young woman literally spell it out (“To you, I am life”). As a plot device it feels a lazy choice and it doesn’t sit well with me.
Willis Gram is deliciously revolting as the evil tyrant, and the New Men are weird and ridiculous, but I guess the question is whether you’d like to be ruled by gross, revolting mutant humans or whether you’d like to hand over the governance of Earth to an impervious alien who may decide to do God-knows-what. There is just no winning for a regular Joe. These are the options for the revolution. There is a subplot about Willis Gram fighting a divorce with his ex-wife, and talking about impossible choices between alternatives that are both awful, and that’s just the plot of the whole novel in small. It’s an interesting setup for a novel, but a shame that Dick uses women and the relations they have with men only as plot devices and metaphors for the insanity of the world. It may have something to do with his five marriages.
This is a middle-of-the-road, second-tier Dick novel, but it isn’t bad and there is some comedy and if you are a fan of his work I am sure it will give you enough. I had to adjust my own mismatched expectations but after some reflection I started to like the central dilemma that the story set up. The greatest annoyance is the main character Nick Appleton, who is just good for nothing and keeps pursuing this underage girl. It is not an attractive storyline and it runs in thick veins through the book, pulling the whole thing down. Which is a shame, because the New Men and extraterrestrial mold were interesting enough.