Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review: "Now Wait For Last Year" by Philip K. Dick

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -  Philip K. Dick
It’s hard to relate how strange it feels to be immersed in a Philip K. Dick novel. In both subject matter and style, he’s a very eccentric writer. At his best, his books are journeys into paranoiac alternate realities, containing one plausible mind-bending idea after another, but you still have to forgive him a lot – his awkward turns of phrases, the continually jumping from one topic to another, his obsessions with overbearing, bitchy women, etc. In addition, he fancies himself an experimentalist. This means that many of the bizarre and silly things that occur in his books are often the result of him “playing” with form rather that extensions of his sometimes poor writing.

But I’m selling him short. Now Wait For Last Year is a good novel. It tells the tale of Eric Sweetscent, an artiforg (artificial organ) surgeon working for Gino Molinari, the leader of the Earth, who has allied with the wrong group of aliens in a struggle for control of the galaxy. Most of the book centers upon Molinari’s efforts to keep these alien “allies” from overrunning the earth forces by sacrificing his health. But, this being Dick, it also deals with misadventures with JJ-180, an instantly addictive drug that causes you to slip backwards or forwards in time. These two threads twist around each other in bizarre ways as Dick creates a multi-layered reality that leaves you standing on unsteady ground, never knowing who – or what – to trust.

Dick loved chaos, and was one of the first proponents that the future will basically be an extension of the present with all of its political quagmires, shoddy craftsmanship, and corrupted power structures – but with cooler technology. He also insisted that the fake had as much validity as the real. In other words, he felt that the social fantasies that we make up in our heads end up replacing our reality, leading to some serious disconnects when we do abut up against “reality.”  He combines these ideas together in a heady brew that – like his best novels – lead you to false conclusions and uncertainty so that you acutely experience the same feelings as the protagonist as he struggles with political, emotional, and temporal problems. For this reason, I don't want to give too much away about the plot since to do so would rob you of this experience.

Having said that, I was surprised at how powerful and deep Now Wait for Last Year is – it carries real psychological heft. Dick’s novels at times go too far, leaving you with shallow characters and tinny prose, but not here. For instance, the mutually destructive relationship between Sweetscent and his wife Kathy is compelling because you can tell that Dick has lived it (he was married five times in his short life). Similarly, the oppressive nature of the book's military situation drives its characters towards the darkness: when Sweetscent meets up with Molinari for the first time, they bond over their “yearning for death. [They] could envision it as a release—the only dependable release that existed…” p. 56

I loved the trip of Now Wait For Next Year, but it’s hard for me to recommend to people because it was such a bizarre experience. If you’re interested in Dick, you might do best to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Martian Time-Slip first. Or you can wait for the movie!

Cross posted on Thought Ambience.

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