Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The World You Know is a Lie

I know I said I'd try to keep these book reviews relevant - wait, this is Philip K. Dick we're talking about. He just gets more relevant every day!

The Penultimate Truth, a ripe slice of Cold War sci-fi, is nonetheless instantly comparable to our present world. In the novel, the masses of humanity - or 99% if you will - work night and day deep below the surface in "ant tanks," cranking out the products and robot servants enjoyed by the world-controlling Yance Men, so named because they've all entered into a conspiracy around fictional figurehead to the down below dupes named Yancy.

With me so far? Okay, so the ant tankers are told by regular broadcasts from their fearless leader Yancy that the world above is a radioactive hellscape populated by dueling killbots from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The reality of course is that Yancy is just a simulacra - Dick's particular word for robot - programmed by a small cabal of technocrats who aren't at war at all and instead enjoy idle lives on vast "demesnes" full of their formerly-killbot servants attending to their every whim.

A 1% oligarchy ruling the world from the lap of luxury while everyone else toils away in the pit of misery? You don't get more contemporary than that! But there's more - The Penultimate Truth, like so many of Dick's novels, is built around a very Gnostic conception of reality. The Yance Men have made a flawed world for the masses, a fallen world literally without light - when ant tanker Nicholas St. James appears on the surface, even the overcast sky is blinding.

The oligarchy has good reason for maintaining this charade, they think. If all those people were suddenly told the world was a-okay, they'd come streaming to the surface and eventually force the humble Yance Men into another world war. How or why is never exactly explained but is taken as gospel truth by one of the few sympathetic Yance Men, Joe Adams. Though it's much more likely Adams just tells himself as much to evade feelings of guilt at aiding and obeying the unofficial ruler of the Yance Men, Stanton Bose

Bose is really the demiurge of this world - a wretched amalgamation of Baron Harkonnen and Rupert Murdoch. Mean and petty but in a cunningly brilliant way. And a stinking heap of aging flesh kept ambulatory by greedily gobbling up the finite artificial organs ("artiforgs," a classic Dick convention) left over from the war that did happen but ended amicably years ago. He rules the world through lies and viciousness, lies his fellow Yance Men are complicit in.

That might be the greatest part of this book - its subtle indictment of the seemingly benevolent oligarch. Someone like, say, Warren Buffet who bemoans the system but won't do more than write a pissy article to try and change things. Joe Adams is one of those prescient parodies, going down into the ant tank with St. James because he's too much of a coward to face his fellow Yance Men - then turning right back around and fleeing to the surface to continue conspiring against the toiling masses whom he legitimately fears.

Because that's the real fear of all ruling classes across time - not that the peasants will start another war with the opposite tribe but that they will instead recognize who has really been screwing them this whole time and take revenge.

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