Philip K Dick
The Penultimate Truth
Triad Panther 1978 (1964)
Written at the height of the Cold War, not long after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, The Penultimate Truth is, in part, a reflection of general anxieties (in the West, at least) about the likelihood of nuclear war and whether human life would survive the devastating aftermath. The majority of the world’s population live underground, in fear of the continuing armageddon they are told is still raging above-ground and of the threat of radiation for anyone who emerges on the Earth’s surface. A Big Brother figure, Talbot Yancy, exhorts the multitudes to build more specialist robots to continue the fight above ground, though these are in truth designed to end up furnishing the requirements of an oligarchy which maintains the myth of a continuing war.
Many of Philip K Dick’s thematic obsessions emerge in this novel (itself an enlargement of short stories written several years previously). These themes include the notion that authenticity may be an illusion, that what we perceive of as true is merely a simulacrum hiding something other. The key figure in the novel is a surviving Native American called Lantano. As with many of Dick’s choices of character names the etymology and, thus, meaning is significant. The Ancient Greek lanthano means “to escape notice, to lie hidden”, and in the novel Lantano’s real identity and abilities indeed lie hidden for some time. In addition, the soft malleable metal lanthanum, which also derives from the same Greek root, not also provides chemical compounds which act as catalysts (exactly Dave Lantano’s function) but also changes its structure according to temperature, and this change in appearance and properties is also matched by the mechanism that Dick describes which efficiently assassinates another key character. Nothing is as it at first seems.
The same applies to Talbot Yancy. This seems to be a compound of the name of British writer Talbot Mundy, an early 20th century writer (whose stories combined mystical ideas with adventure yarns and reportedly influenced a generation of sf writers) and the surname Yancy, supposedly from an Amerindian word meaning Englishman which gave rise to the name Yankee.
These several layers of allusion add even more to the mix from which the reader has to extract the quintessential meanings of The Penultimate Truth. Typically, this Dick novel is difficult to engage with at first–he delights in puns and specially-created neologisms, literary references, a cast of assorted flawed characters and deliberate disorientations. The sci-fi machines that he envisaged in 1964 for his near-future scenarios (a key date in the story is 1982, ironically the year of Dick’s death) are implausible in the extreme (robots with AI, time-travel machines, personal flying machines that operate with no obvious fuel-limitations) but are merely hooks on which to hang his philosophical musings. If resolution is often far from sure by the end of his novels, the fact that our preconceptions have been challenged is reward enough; if characterisation is often minimal and unconvincing it matters more that individuals function as Everyman figures in a morality play and make the reader contemplate real moral dilemmas.
The penultimate truth? That’s for the reader to ponder; this reader is still pondering it.
June 2012 review revised and edited June 2014