24 March 2008

Solar Lottery: PKD's first novel

Solar Lottery
Philip K. Dick

I'd had a copy of Dick's sublime Divine Invasion on one of my "to read" piles for a while, so when I instead read Counter-Clock World by pulling it off the shelf literally at random, I thought to myself that maybe it was time for a systematic study of the work of Philip K. Dick. That's right. A project.

So I went online and printed out what looked like a pretty thorough bibliography. The first on the list, published in 1955, was Solar Lottery, the book here being discussed. I had a mass market copy which I had read in college; I knew I had done this because I remembered the image on the cover, not because I had any recall of the book itself, which I did not. Instead of reading the yellowing pages of the fifteen-year-old mass market, I passed it on via the Books to Prisoners project and finally visited the new Champaign Library. (It is gorgeous, by the way. From the outside the architecture is interesting enough, but it is the interior, with its intriguing use of materials, space, light and shadow, which is so striking.)

So here's the plot: It is the year 2203 and a man named Ted Bentley has just lost his job working in the Hill system, apparently a feudal corporatocracy. He moves to Batavia (which, strangely, had I not seen a documentary on Krakatoa just previous to beginning this book would not have heard of or known was the contemporary city of Jakarta) in order to take a personal oath of fealty to one Reese Verrick, the Quizmaster. Or at least, he was the Quizmaster before the start of the novel. When the reader first meets him, he has been replaced a a result of a twitch in "the bottle," and has been replaced by Leon Cartwright who is, scandalously, a "Prestonite." For one thing this means that he still wears outdated double-breasted suits and for another drives an "ancient '82 Cheverolet." He is also an "unk" or "unclassified," an outcaste from the ubiquitous Classification System that assigns human beings worth based on their intellectual (i.e., abstract and theoretical) strengths.

We learn that in the past economic production had outstripped consumption, and so quizzes and lotteries were designed whose express purpose was the unloading of all this surplus stuff. Eventually stuff was supplanted by the random assignation of of power and prestige, through the use of a complex game rooted in the quantum indeterminacy of an atom's decay. This complex game is what they refer to as "the bottle." Through the implementation of game theory or Minimax across the entire human culture, humanity lost faith in natural law, cause and effect, and reliance on pure probability became the norm. Other details of Dick's vision of s 2203 that stood out include women going bare-breated in public as a matter of course and Christianity's status as a sort of fringe remnant. Against this backdrop is set the messianic quest of one John Preston, an astronomer turned "unk," whose discovery of a legendary 10th planet called "Flame Disc" started the Prestonite movement, of which the new Quizmaster is a member.

A Challenge Convention is held, the purpose of which is to elect an assassin as a corrective for the excesses of "the bottle." Reese Verrick, the old Quizmaster, is not quite ready to give up power based on the whim of an atomic nucleus. Using the same science that brought the nutritious mutant alga called Protine to the masses, Verrick has had his perfect assassin genetically engineered. The game includes the rule that whomever assassinates the Quizmaster becomes the Quizmaster, unless the assassin is under a personal oath of fealty to another, as the assassin, Keith Pellig, is to Reese Verrick. This is why Verrick personally offers $1,000,000 in gold to the assassin responsible for the death of Cartwright. No need leaving everything up to chance, after all, even when the world is left entirely up to chance.

Here's where Bentley comes back into the story. He discovers (through a terrifying prank played on him by one of his associates) just what Pellig truly is--an empty shell through which a team of controllers operates. Bentley is one of these controllers, switching into and out of control of Pellig randomly to thwart any attempt at a coherent strategy on the part of the "teeps" (telepaths) who defend the Quizmaster.
"You see...Pellig is Heisenberg's random particle. The teeps can trace his path; directly to Cartwright. But not his velocity. Where Keith Pellig will be along that path at a given moment nobody knows." (p. 79)

This is used to interesting effect in the story. For example, we see Pellig, with one controller in charge, being quite nice to a young woman on a train, only to change instantly and without warning into a completely different person as a new controller clicks into place. We also see the effects of that click on Bentley:
"While he was reflecting, the mechanism switched. Silently, instantly, he was back at the Farben labs.

It was a shock. He closed his eyes and hung on tight to the circular metal band that enclosed his body, a combination support and focus." (p. 106)

We also see the effects that it has on the teeps assigned to protect the Quizmaster. Each teep monitoring Pellig is driven insane whenever a controller switch takes place during their watch. While their eyes tell them that Pellig is standing directly in front of them, their telepathic minds tell them that Pellig's consciousness has simply evaporated, and most simply crack under this sort of dissonant assault.

Pellig isn't your run of the mill genetically engineered multiple-consciousness-housing assassin, either. He also turns out to be an interplanetary rocket designed to pursue Cartright all the way to the moon. Bentley, who is operating Pellig at the time of his transformation to spaceship, discovers that the switch into and out of Pellig is not random but is instead under the direction of Moore the associate behind the aforementioned practical joke. You see Pellig isn't just your run of the mill genetically engineered multiple-consciousness-housing spaceship assassin, either--he is also a bomb designed to kill Cartwright at the same time that it switches Bentley into the operator slot, taking out two birds with one android.

Bentley breaks his oath of fealty when he discovers the plot to send him to his death unwittingly (something that can only be done with unk serfs) and runs to Cartwright for protection. The rest of the novel involves the legal proceedings between Verrick, Bentley, and Cartwright over the breaches in fealty; the final resolution of the question of who is to be Quizmaster; and the haunting final message of Preston to those seeking Flame Disc.

It was definitely a weird book. The story and subplots don't ever really gel, a quality I've noted in many of Dick's novels which stands in stark contrast to the precision and directness of many of his short stories. Right out of the gate, though, many of Dick's perennial themes can be seen--free will and determinism, simulation and simulacra, the ubiquity and centrality of advertising and spectacle, totalitarianism in all its guises, and the quest for transcendence. There is also, as someone pointed out on Amazon, the fact that the protagonist in this novel, unlike those in most of the novels of his contemporaries, are regular folks. They aren't the raygun toting Duck Dogers types or Starship Troopers but bureaucratic functionaries, middle managers, and down on their luck cultural creatives.

My chronological reading of all PKD's SF novels is off to a good start and will only be sidetracked by my classroom readings and all the other books in my "to read" piles, not to mention all the books on our shelves and at our local libraries. What could possibly happen to derail this project?

One down, 35 or so to go!

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