automatic weapon

June 7, 2019

I’d never heard an automatic weapon in real life before. It was somehow too loud for my ears to register, not so much a sound as the air ripping around me, a shudder I could feel in my bones and in the liquid of my eyes. I looked up from my phone and stared.

The gunmen didn’t look human. They wore horror movie masks, and smoke flowed around them as they swung their aim across the crowd.

Scott Westerfeld

Genre fiction says: ‘Forget the gas bill. Forget the office politics. Pretend you’re a spy. Pretend you’re a courtesan. Pretend you’re the owner of a crumbling gothic mansion on this worryingly foggy promontory.’ Literary fiction says: ‘Bad luck. You’re stuck with who you are, just as these people are stuck with who they are. But use your imagination and you’ll see that even the most narrow, humdrum lives are infinite in scope if you examine them with enough care.’

Obviously, we all know men of 50 who have never paused to consider their own mortality, but I’ll wager that very few of them are reading Middlemarch.

I don’t mean that literary fiction is better than genre fiction, though I do prefer curling up with with an author such as A.M. Homes rather than Helen Fielding.  Nor do I mean that the distinction is a rigid one. On the contrary, some of the best novels – Jane Eyre, The Woman in White – have a foot in both camps. I mean only that novels can perform two functions and most perform only one.

Mark Haddon
B is for Bestseller




The Penultimate Truth by Philip K Dick – published 1964

According to Thomas M. Disch the moral of the novel is clear: ‘Government is a conspiracy against the people, and it is maintained by the illusion of a permanent crisis that exists, for the most part, as a media event.’

It is thirteen years after world war three has ended, but most of the population lives below ground and is unaware of the cessation of hostilities. Above ground survivors of this short war have become a political elite who conspire by media manipulation to fool those below ground into believing that the war is still ongoing and very destructive. In return they build themselves large estates, “demesnes”, huge luxurious villas set in private parks; in one stroke they have created Lebensraum exclusively for themselves, where they live in splendid, sterile isolation.

To reinforce their Big Lie the surface dwellers have created a “Protector” Talbot Yancy (shades of 1984 and Big Brother) who in reality is little more than a simulacra (possibly?) in the form of a manikin linked to a computer. Yancy is fed speeches to broadcast to those underground by script writers working for Stanton Brose, Minister of the Interior, the world’s most powerful man, who is very old and, internally, a mass of plastic artificial organs that have been used to replace his clapped-out originals.

So, the people below ground: “had been born onto the surface of a world and now that surface with its air and sunlight and hills, its oceans, its streams, its colours and textures, it’s very smells, had been swiped from them and they were left with tin-can submarine — figuratively — dwelling boxes in which they were squeezed, under a false light, to breathe repurified stale air, to listen to wired obligatory music and sit day long at workbenches making leadies.”

Leadies are robot warriors supposedly fighting the war above ground. In fact, they form automated retinues for the surface elite.

Dick published an earlier short story titled The Defenders covering similar ground:

“Now the surface was a lethal desert of slag and rolling clouds. Endless clouds drifted back and forth, blotting out the red Sun. Occasionally something metallic stirred, moving through the remains of a city, threading its way across the tortured terrain of the countryside. A leady, a surface robot, immune to radiation, constructed with feverish haste in the last months before the cold war became literally hot.
Leadys, crawling along the ground, moving over the oceans or through the skies in slender, blackened craft, creatures that could exist where no life could remain, metal and plastic figures that waged a war Man had conceived, but which he could not fight himself. Human beings had invented war, invented and manufactured the weapons, even invented the players, the fighters, the actors of the war. But they themselves could not venture forth, could not wage it themselves. In all the world — in Russia, in Europe, America, Africa — no living human being remained. They were under the surface, in the deep shelters that had been carefully planned and built, even as the first bombs began to fall.”

Dick’s short story The Mold of Yancy published in 1955, shows us, his readers, Yancy (for the first time) as a virtual person broadcasting messages to the people. Dick was never one to waste an idea be it good or bad.

And his short story The Unreconstructed M published 1957 covers attempts to falsify evidence – and falsification of history and evidence is an integral part of The Penultimate Truth.

Dick wrote (in his notes to The Golden Man): “Fakery is a topic which absolutely fascinates me; I am convinced that anything can be faked, or anyhow evidence pointing to any given thing. Spurious clues can lead us to believe anything they want us to believe. There is really no theoretical upper limit to this. Once you have mentally opened the door to reception of the notion of fake, you are ready to think yourself into another kind of reality entirely.”

Dick’s characters in this novel are a tad wooden.  In essence, at times, they feel like philosophical zombies.  The story to begin has promise,  but then becomes increasingly complex and confused.  It is extremely derivative, both of Dick’s own earlier work and the work of others, Orwell for example, although in fairness Dick’s novel is one ultimately of hope. And its title – The Penultimate Truth. Is that a reference to the last couple of sentences in the novel? Or does it mean that whatever ‘Truth’ we accept, there will always be a final truth behind it?

Still, a reasonable read for a wet afternoon despite all that.