Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Penultimate Truth

The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was amazing

Philip K. Dick's 1964 The Penultimate Truth is one of those wonderful PKD novels in which different introspective characters' differing realities are peeled back layer by layer, such that beneath every strange truth there turns out to be at least yet another revelation waiting. Penultimate, after all, means not ultimate or final but next to last...

The Third World War had begun with skirmishes on Mars, but once the fighting shifted to Earth in 2010, the world's population--both Wes-Dem and Peop-Pac, presumably with the previously non-aligned states now subsumed between them--retreated down into "antiseptic subsurface subsurface communal living tank[s]" (page 29), commonly called "ant tanks." Now, in 2025, the population of the Western Hemisphere is still tucked into their 160,000 shelters (page 19) quaintly named after old 1940s movie stars, like the Tom Mix tank, whose 1,500 citizens have elected Nicholas St. James as their president, or the Judy Garland to the north; it is the same in the Sino-Soviet bloc. After all, the news reports sent down from the Wes-Dem Estes Park government through the coaxial cable, along with the solemn video addresses of Talbot Yancy, the Protector, the West's "spir-pol-mil leader, brave enough to live in [his] surface fortress in the Rockies" (page 17), confirm that only the fighting robots called "leadies can live on a radioactive surface among a multiform culture of bacteria and...nerve gas" (page 20). Yes, for even if a tanker did not emerge in a radioactive hotspot or encounter a place still contaminated with "the hideous U.S. nerve gas weapon" that destroys the body's cholinesterase (page 25), they fear strange diseases like the Bag Plague or the Stink of Shrink, the latter of which is said to make one's "head diminish in size, features included, to the circumference of a marble" (pages 10-11).

The thing is, though... Well, some people do live on the surface, do they not? "Yance-man" Joe Adams, introduced in Chapter 1, for example, maintains "an Ozymandiasian structure built from concrete chunks that once in another age had formed and entrance ramp to the Bayshore Freeway" (page 5), a fog-shrouded cliffside villa from which he rules his demesne. He has his "marble-top desk which had been salvaged from a bombed-out house in the Russian Hill section of the former city of San Francisco," his pre-war liquor "dug up" by his retinue of obsequious leadies, his $15,000 "rhetorizer" for helping write the speeches a Yance-man must, his occasional girlfriend who somehow makes him "lonelier with [her] than without her" (page 5)...and his doubts and his guilt and his ennui.

Every morning Adams commutes via "flapple"--not an ornithopter but simply a high-speed aircraft with Dickian name--"from his own demesne on the Pacific where he [is] dominus" to his office in New York City (page 30). Although, yes, on the daily journey across the continent he sees "of course the still hot-spots, which [lie] like ringworm circles every so often" (page 32), he also sees the reconditioned areas, along with "green countryside, the fields, the meadows, the open world of North American forests with occasional clusters of buildings, [and] demesnes at odd, unexpected locations" (pages 29-30). World War III has not been proceeding for fifteen nerve-gas- and ICBM-haunted years; out of self-preservation, the leaders of both sides ended the fighting after "two years in which vile destruction had occurred" (page 46)...but the populace was never told. Workers in the ant tanks, urged on by the speeches of what Yance-men call "the sim," the robotic simulacrum of the "dignified, gray-haired father-figure" (page 52) of the nonexistent Talbot Yancy, labor anxiously to meet their manufacturing quotas of leadies that are destined not for battle anymore but merely for service as household retainers in the villas of the Yance-men above, "to wait on [them], to follow [them], to dig for [them], build, scrape, and bow..." (page 55).

As if this is not enough, however, underlying the present's Big Lie, almost as preparation, are the 25-hour-long serials of Documentary A and Documentary B, produced in the "innocent, halcyon days" of 1982 by "[t]he West German film maker Gottlieb Fischer, inheritor of UFA, the old Reichs film trust which in the 1930s had been so deeply interwoven with Dr. Goebbels' office" (page 59). With misleadingly decontextualized juxtapositions--"[t]he British blockade of 1919 and the concentration camps of starving, dying skeletons in striped clothes in the year 1943" (page 60), as if one had caused the other, for example--and falsified reenactments like the supposedly secretly filmed clip of President Roosevelt, "[a] Communist agent. Under Party discipline...selling out the U.S. to his boss Josef Stalin" by agreeing to delay the Second Front until the Soviets had gobbled up all of eastern Europe (pages 63-64), Gottlieb, "that really superb, unique fabricator of the convincing visual had gotten things rolling not with a whimper but with a goddam terrible, awesome bang" (page 59). Documentary A excused Hitler as "pure and simply a genius" with "eccentricities" that "you have to forgive," since he alone understood that "the authentic evil-doer [was] Josef Stalin, with his megalomaniacal plans for world conquest..." (page 61), while Documentary B, made for the Eastern Bloc, asserted "[t]hat the USSR and Japan [were] attempting to save civilization" and that "England and the U.S [were] secret allies of the Nazis, of Hitler," "against the new rising nations of the East" (page 65).

There is lie upon lie upon lie, from self-justifying Documentary A and Documentary B, through World War III's conclusion that led not to worldwide relief but to continued worldwide enslavement under the blandly reassuring Yancies managed by now-cooperating West and East, and even to the subtle intrigues of the Yance-men jockeying for position and prestige. And there are puzzles aplenty for the reader, too. Who, or perhaps what, is the Talbot Yancy figure that suddenly materializes to save Nicholas St. James when he burrows desperately to the surface in search of an artificial pancreas to save the chief engineer of the Tom Mix? What is the true goal of General Brose, the "corrupted, decaying" leader of the Wes-Dem Yance-men, with his ancient, obese body kept alive with hoarded prewar artificial organs (page 33)? What in the world--this world of disguised assassination machines, prewar secret-weapon time-scoops, and special-effects propaganda churned out by former enemies determined to keep their respective populations down, literally--can, or will, Joe Adams do to assuage his conscience, or protect his life? Only the multilayered, ironic 5-star read that is Philip K. Dick's The Penultimate Truth can show us.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Penultimate Truth.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

November 6, 2020 – Started Reading
November 15, 2020 – Shelved
November 15, 2020 – Finished Reading

No comments have been added yet.