02 June 2008

Vulcan's Hammer: Interesting idea, too bad the novel kind of sucks.

Vulcan's Hammer
Philip K. Dick


Imagine. You write science fiction for a living. In the last seven years you've written at least one novel per year, along with dozens of short stories, and a good half of this output has described life in a dystopian future. In these visions of dark possibility, you've examined a handful of different ideologies around which we may organize a "perfect society"---whether randomness, relativism, "moral reclamation," or anti-space colonization prejudice---and found each wanting. So why not phase out the human element altogether and instead envision a planetary government run by a single omniscient machine, one free of our primate psychological hangups and irrational biases? What would that look like? Would it work?

Dick called this government Unity, this godlike machine Vulcan 3, and, in the format of a political thriller of sorts, he explored those questions. Alas, while there is a good deal of potential in the concept of a technocratic utopia gone bad (as evinced by scores of films about machines supplanting and/or annihilating humanity), there is little good about Vulcan's Hammer as a novel. It suffers from dull characters and a hackneyed, careening plot that would have left the rails if it hadn't been for that pat, sentimental conclusion at the end of the line.

There has been a third world war, and in its wake humanity has created a "one-world government" controlled by an artificial intelligence of almost unimaginable power. Unity is total in its scope: it educates the kids, employs many of the adults, levies taxes, and enforces its laws under pain of death by "pencil beam." Yet even in this paranoid panopticon, a movement of dissenters called the Healers has arisen, guided by a man called Father Fields. The novel begins when a young Unity agent is murdered while staking out a rally of Healers. The North American Director of Unity, William Barris, is perturbed by the absolute lack of response to the Healers on the part of Vulcan 3, but when his request for more information is refused on the grounds of a piddling technicality, his perturbation turns to mutiny and he travels to Geneva, to Unity headquarters, to meet with Managing Director Jason Dill face-to-face and find out why Vulcan 3 hasn't formulated policy regarding the Healers.

We discover that Dill has been secretly consulting with the predecessor to Vulcan 3, the aptly named Vulcan 2, and that the earlier model has warned Dill of a possible bug in the Unity system. Vulcan 3, it turns out, is so complex that for all intents and purposes it is not only intelligent but also alive; Vulcan 2 realized that if its successor were ever to learn about the Healers then it would do what any living thing does when threatened---defend itself. And with a near-infinite amount of resources, Vulcan's ability to wage war would be, like all other aspects of Unity civilization, total.

Dill's efforts to censor Vulcan 3's information intake fail, however, because Vulcan 3 realizes that there is something missing from all the data that Dill does feed it; its conspicuous absence is the very sign of its existence. Because his human attendant Dill won't do what is needed, Vulcan 3 devises flying robots ("hammers") equipped with pencil beams to be his eyes and talons. Vulcan 3 arouses the Unity organization to the presence of "enemies," in the form of Barris and Dill. The plot lurches from the heated trial of Dill before all the Unity Directors to the meeting with Father Fields where we discover that it was Vulcan 2, and not Fields, who was the mind behind the Healers to the scene wherein it is revealed that the wife of the murdered young Unity agent from the beginning is actually Fields' daughter, and, finally, to Barris' bombing of the central Vulcan 3 CPU. In the end, you can almost see the sunset they're staring off into as Barris, Fields, and Fields' daughters contemplate their rebuilding of a new Unity and a new world.

As my daughter would say, "Yawn."

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