Dr. Bloodmoney, Or How We Got Along After the Bomb is the full title of this novel. (Although the full title of my edition seems to be Dr Bloodmoney One of the Most Original Practitioners Writing Any Kind Of Fiction Sunday Times.) An obvious nod to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which came out in the year after which Dick wrote his novel. But the novel has nothing to do with Kubrick’s film, except for the fact that it has to do with bombs: it is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the bombs have already fallen a few years previously. 1965 also gave us Dr. Zhivago, 1961 Dr. No and 1967 Dr. Doolittle, but the book didn’t have anything to do with them either. The title was a suggestion by Dick’s editor to boost sales. Dr. Bloodmoney is also not a comedy; it is in fact one of Dick’s more haunting books.
The story starts in the US in the 1970s with a bunch of characters just going about their lives, and we meet them on the day that an astronaut is about to fly off to Mars. Next thing we know, it’s seven years later and the bombs have dropped. The same cast of characters now lives totally different lives in a post-apocalyptic world, having a little barter economy going. Please take a moment, dear reader, to look at your coworkers and neighbours and try to imagine how you would all get along after the bomb. The astronaut is also still alive but for seven years his pod has been circling planet Earth, and he reads books over the radio for the surviving pockets of humanity on the ground.
For Dick, it is not as if a normal world ever existed. Setting a story in a strange world like a post-apocalyptic one full of mutants, is just a way to bring out the absurdity in life that has actually always been present, even in normal times. Life is stranger than fiction and therefore Dick doesn’t always have his stories make complete sense. It’s more like looking at the normal world through a drug-addled haze. The characters see strange stuff around them and we follow their trains of thought down strange and funny roads. We see them come to badly-argumented, paranoid conclusions and losing their minds. The characters aren’t fundamentally different in the time before the bombs fell or after. His psychedelic futures just bring it to the surface. It also means that his SF isn’t meant to be prophetic.
Dr. Bloodmoney is an uncomfortable, distressing, slightly nauseating experience to read, and this is because our main characters are all troubled and live in a broken world. To wit, here are some main characters: an armless, legless invalid, Hoppy Harrington (yes he’s named Hoppy and he’s got no arms and legs, but he becomes a well fleshed-out character, sorry for the pun. This wouldn’t be possible in today’s climate.), who rides around in an electric cart and has psychic powers. A German atomic scientist, Dr. Bluthgeld (which is pseudo-German for blood money) who is a paranoid schizophrenic (because we can’t have a Dick book without at least one schizophrenic), and Edie, a mutated teenage girl with a twin brother Bill growing inside her chest. It’s speculated that Edie and Bill are an inverse representation of Philip K. Dick himself, since he had a twin sister who died at childbirth. The voice of Bill might be Dick. And we have the astronaut going crazy in his Earth orbit. What a horror show.
Dr. Bloodmoney has a larger cast of characters than usual for Dick’s books, and much of the story meanders from one character interaction to another, through scenes of people trying to get by in the post-bomb world, and talking about their activities and making comments about mutated animals. It all feels a bit aimless. It’s an approach to storytelling that Dick employed before, in The Man in the High Castle (1962) for example, which is a variation on this story where the reader is just following along with the characters as they go about their lives in a strange world. We could rename that one to How We Got Along After the Japanese Invasion. There is an important theme and that is about the relative power that people hold, and how the post-apocalyptic world upended the balance. Some characters start out small and weak before the bombs fell, and gain more and more power as the book progresses, while others get weaker and weaker.
It is one of Dick’s better novels, mainly because the ensemble cast is memorable and the world he builds up is nicely self-contained and fleshed out. These things help to leave an impression on your mind. At the same time, I missed some of the stranger ideas that we find in books like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I like my PKD as crazy as possible. As far as sci-fi ideas go, it lacks some excitement. And because of its aimlessness I didn’t feel compelled reading it; I had to push through. But the cast and setting have something memorable about them, and I liked it more and more towards the end.